This time of long, dark nights, when the garden rests and much of our world slumbers under a blanket of snow—this is the time for dreaming. The seed catalogues begin to fill the mailbox and thoughts turn to spring and all that lies sleeping under the good earth. Images of petals and leaves, roots and seeds fill my sleep. I have been happily planning my flower and vegetable gardens during these cold months, but recently, I think we all have seen that gardening is not the only way the earth gives.
I’ve found the threshold of a new year an opportune time to look back and reflect on the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful moments of the previous twelve months. Since a late-in-the-year quarantine necessitated a cancellation of my poultry poetry reading, it seemed sharing some thoughts on this might be a fitting way to step into 2021 together.
I conduct my post-year reflection in two ways, primarily: looking through past journal entries and revisiting my Instagram photostream. As I leaf through the pages of my journal and scroll through images, I am looking for emerging themes centering around what was life-giving and what was life-draining. I try to make more space for the former and eliminate the latter in the new year.
In my post-2020 reflection, one life-giving theme that stood out was spending more time outdoors. Like many others this past year, I have repeatedly turned to nature to fill many of the hollows left by the lonelier life of social distancing. Hiking, studying the night sky, and birdwatching filled more of my moments in 2020. I even took an online bird identification course and ventured a couple of weekend backpacking trips. New research that explores increased outdoor activity during the pandemic is beginning to document the benefits of time in nature, not only to humans, but to the earth itself. (Check out this University of Vermont study that looks at increased outdoor activities during the pandemic, another study tracking newbies to nature, and this study that cites some fascinating benefits earth science has noted during the past months.)
When I consider all the ways the earth has given to me, especially in the year of 2020, I am reminded of the Thanksgiving Address of the Onondaga Nation that Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. This address is taught to children in elementary school and is a long and winding oratory of gratitude for each element of the ecosystem. Here is a small excerpt:
We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love, and respect. Now our minds are one.
Kimmerer says, “Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority.” I think it would change the world in good ways. Maybe our pandemic time will awaken our sleeping gratitude to the earth. Maybe we have been in a winter of natural gratitude. Perhaps we are awakening to spring.
Here is a poem I wrote, pre-pandemic, after a hike that opened my eyes to the generosity of the earth.
to me of
birds and trees, of
by wind and stream and
offer you my throat—
the hollow at
the base of my neck—lips
parted to drink
your sky; face lifted
to that marbled spray
of sun on your
shoulder, your breath
is the black-throated blue?
hiding in the nodding
limbs of the hemlock? as
she shrugs off
the woolly adelgid?
i hold the fire of
sunset to my
breast; i walk slowly with
the flame still lit, the
waning moon a witness
in the day-blue sky.
but the woods are
quiet today, filled
with longing and the ache
of the invisible warbler’s song.
if the songbird does
to be seen, she will
i carry her song
inside me, as i
and you take
wing, fly away.
I am not much for New Year’s resolutions. But this year I am making plans to give back to the earth for all the faithful ways she has given to us. Plant a tree, create more bird habitats, landscape with pollinator-friendly plants, consider bee-keeping, cut down on waste and plastic use, recycle… There are countless ways to love the earth. This, too, is poetry.
In closing, I offer this lovely poem by Anne Haven McDonnell. Happy New Year.
She Told Me the Earth Loves Us
She said it softly, without a need
for conviction or romance.
After everything? I asked, ashamed.
That’s not the kind of love she meant.
She walked through a field of gray
beetle-pored pine, snags branching
like polished bone. I forget sometimes
how trees look at me with the generosity
of water. I forget all the other
breath I’m breathing in.
Today I learned that trees can’t sleep
with our lights on. That they knit
a forest in their language, their feelings.
This is not a metaphor.
Like seeing a face across a crowd,
we are learning all the old things,
newly shined and numbered.
I’m always looking
for a place to lie down
and cry. Green, mossed, shaded.
Or rock-quiet, empty. Somewhere
to hush and start over.
I put on my antlers in the sun.
I walk through the dark gates of the trees.
Grief waters my footsteps, leaving
a trail that glistens.
Discover more ways to give back to the earth at Poetic Earth Month
Photo by Greg Westfall, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Laura Boggess. “She Told Me the Earth Loves Us,” Copyright © 2020 by Anne Haven McDonnell. From All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (One World, 2020) edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. Used with the permission of the editors.
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