Reintegrating with Nature: (Sub)Urban Edition + A Key to Happiness

Heads up: this next installment, written entirely last night, is slightly convoluted because just now I’ve read another chapter of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, “Epiphany in the Beans,” and now I’m sure that it’s slightly different, but we’ll come to that at the end.

You don’t have to go clear across the country into the middle of nowhere to appreciate the natural world around you within which you are inextricably bound. You don’t need to climb the Sierras or worry over water in the desert (or both) to experience the awe of the natural world.

Take time every day or so, five or ten minutes here or there. Go out into your yard, to the park, walk around your neighborhood.

Notice something, literally anything noticeable to you: the flurry of color from a flower, for example. Get closer, bend down or squat, sit beside it. Really take it in. Examine the flower, what shape are the petals? How did the flower grow? What about the stem: does it have hairs? Spines? Is there any foliage on the stem itself? How does the plant sustain itself? Where did they get the energy to produce such a flower? Think of the roots beneath your feet: how deep must they go? Are they a perennial or an annual? What are their strategies for survival? Do they store water for months of drought, or do they expect an abundance enough that a system for storage is unnecessary? Who pollinates these types of flowers? Do they produce their floral show for ants, bees, flies, birds, bats, or maybe some less usual creature, a passer-by or passing breeze?

If it’s a tree that catches your eyes, what of its bark? The shape and arrangement of their leaves? How do the leaves attach to the tree? Or, put another way, how does the tree open themselves to push out a set of leaves? Do the leaves connect to temporary stems, or do they emerge directly from the wood of the tree? How do their ends grow, and do they keep growing all season? How do they flower? What seeds do they produce? How do they prepare for winter?

You could even do this sort of careful/close focus with grass, as there are wonders contained in even the grass. But I’d urge you, though, to replace whatever grass you can with native plant life. Grass creates an ecological dead zone. The life around you needs the dandelions and every other “weed” as a matter of survival.

But what actually is so undesirable about dandelions? They produce flowers more yellow than summer, from spring to frost; then after those flowers, they create a seed-ball like the thinest threads of ice collected into a three-dimensional snowflake.

I’m honestly asking: what is so hideous about dandelions? Forget whatever anyone said or thinks, what is unpleasant about a meadow (or a yard) full of them to you, really?

For myself, I think dandelions are gorgeous, the way they layer a yard in a spectacle of yellow and luminous puffs. Most of all, I admire them for their cleverness: when they realize their space is being savaged by a lawnmower, they’ll very suddenly hold themselves bent at the earth to avoid losing the flowers or seed-balls for which they’ve expended so much effort. Then, if they do get cut, the next set of blooms will grow much shorter in the first place, all the way down to ground-level. These are cunning flowers and gorgeous, as well as an essential source of early-spring nourishment after a long winter for the bees.

Bring the life back into your yard. Plant milkweed for the Monarchs to reproduce. Leave the leaves where they fall or the wind sweeps them: they are teeming with next year’s cultivators and pollinators. Plant ground covers, bushes big and small. But most importantly, plant shade trees if your yard is bereft of them. Not only will they help keep your house cool in the summer, they will provide a home to generations of life. Ditch the grass; plant native.

You’d be transfixed by a container garden, peas and squashes, tomatoes and peppers, all the herbs—if you were to allow yourself that space of wonder.

Wonder is both easy and impossible: we are made for awe, but we’ve been taught to eradicate wonder. We describe someone who freely feels awe as “child-like.” We shouldn’t run around feeling wonder all the time as adults! In fact this belief is ruinous. Allow yourself awe; it is your birthright.

What’s deeply troubling, however, is that not everyone has access to a park let alone even a tree-lined neighborhood, and fewer are those with a yard of their own. This is one component of what has come to be called Climate Justice: we have a responsibility to each other to ensure that all of us have access to the natural world. Neither a desire nor a mere need, connection within the natural world is a fundamental human necessity as essential as nourishment, water and oxygen—when after all, there is no food for humans to eat, no water for us to drink or air for us to breath outside of the systems of the natural world within which we are deeply woven, whether we recognize it or not. We can do better than ecologically sanitized urban spaces. Everyone deserves the shade of a tree and the wonder of its existence. Everyone deserves to feel themselves in their connected place within the natural world.

Now I’m going to start this next section by saying at the outset that while all of those questions I posed above—which I noticed this afternoon, maybe 16 hours later, all together read like meditation-prompts—are an important means of accessing a connection with one’s environment, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s epiphany has pierced to the heart of things, and shown me that while the inquisitive ecological approach I outlined above outlines my own basic approach to the other beings around me, I make an approach in this way as a means of maintaining the connection I’ve already built, unknowingly for most of my life.

I’m about to ruin the surprise of the epiphany so… I guess stop here if you don’t want it spoiled and come back after you’ve read the chapter.

In short, Kimmerer proposes that a person cannot be genuinely happy without a connection to a place and the life within it, which connection she realizes is nurtured through gardening, particularly vegetables and herbs.

Kimmerer’s ‘epiphany in the beans,’ in summary and at the risk of butchering it with summational language, is that the Earth loves us when we love the Earth; it is basic reciprocity: do ut des, ‘I give that you may give.’ She will feed you and teach you self-sufficiency, i.e. how to obtain one’s food—same as any ‘good mother’ (a phrase Kimmerer employs advisedly) does for her children—just as soon as we give her the gift of seeds and the gift of our efforts for the tenderlings sprouting from her surface. The Earth is Mother to all of us, and in the end happiness is the experience of the ultimate reciprocity, to be loved in return by the Earth to whom you have shown love, do ut des, a love shown by the garden’s bountiful harvest.

I am positively dizzy nodding my agreement. As it happens, one of my poems with these ideas at their center is already published here:

Another of the poems in that same collection is actually called do ut des.

But anyway, of course Kimmerer is right: I’ve always been more of a horticulturalist than a gardener, nurturing lilacs, hydrangeas, and Rose of Sharon from infancy into maturity, and putting in perennial beds wherever I can. It’s given me that same satisfaction, maybe on a more delayed scale than a single season’s produce, but for that the pleasure of the lilacs and hydrangeas and everything else is much more intoxicating. One of the lilacs I’d planted as a young teen only finally started to bloom two years ago, about two decades later. (But the flowers on that particular bush are divine!!!) I’ve grown plenty of vegetables in containers—beans, squashes and cucumbers, strawberries in hanging baskets, peas and tomatoes—but never yet have I had the pleasure of growing produce in actual earth. Soon maybe? And maybe then I’ll see that gardening for produce is even more connecting than gardening for beauty.

Anyway, start a garden this year! Plant beans in a container, or peas or tomatoes or whatever vegetables you actually enjoy in the summer. Hanging strawberries are surprisingly beautiful! A few cucumber plants will give you the raw material for quick sweet pickles! But most importantly, you’ll be entering into communion with the source of our greatest happiness. After all, humans will come and go from your life, but from birth to death the only constant love comes from the Earth.

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