The hammock and the wren

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Summer begins at our house the day we put the hammock out. We tie one end to a tree in and fasten the other end to a post. Years ago a friend of mine planted May apple, maidenhair fern, and other natives in a back corner of her city yard and called it her “fairy garden.” Our hammock corner is a bit magical, in the way of hers.

A big ash tree provides shade, and an old, ailing Russian olive the limb from which we hang our wren house. I haven’t come across any fairies yet, but often see or hear a wren back there, a tiny bird with a shockingly loud, harsh call. (If you want to hear it, Google “house wren” and play the YouTube video.) If this one scolds you, you stay scolded.

Our hammock corner is actually one of the least fussed-over spots in our yard. Rogue shrubs and weeds make a run at growing there until I get up the gumption to go after them. Solomon’s seal, a lovely, arching native plant with subtle flowers, came up on its own under the hammock in precisely the place where it is least likely to get stomped on. Each year it sends up more stalks. This year I count twelve.

I have been reading about the history of the hammock—just the languid, nonessential type of thing a person might do while lying in a hammock. Originally, hammocks were practical, not recreational. Indigenous people in Central and South America slept in them. If you are off the ground in this part of the world you are somewhat protected from snakes and biting insects. And, of course, a hammock allows air to circulate around the body, a vital thing in a tropical climate. When nights are cool, people light a small fire on the ground under the hammock to keep warm. The smoke also helps keep insects at bay.

The word may have been derived from the hammok tree, whose fibers were used to make hammocks. Another source claimed the word came from a Haitian one meaning “fish net,” and that fishermen first conceived of the hammock, using their nets to snag fish by day, and then stringing the nets up and catching themselves in them at night.

Christopher Columbus apparently got hammocks in the Caribbean and brought them back to Spain with him. Europeans began to use use hammocks on ships in place of beds. They took up less room, and when a ship rides a swell or pitches around in a storm, the hammocks remain closer to level, and the sailors in them, rather than cast out on the deck.

Hammocks are associated with both the beginning and the end of life. In some places where it is very warm, like southern India, a double length of fabric is hung from the ceiling, and a child laid down to sleep in the fold. Conversely, hammocks are used in some places to carry the dead to a cemetery. And sailors who die at sea have been buried in their hammocks so they can sleep the Big Sleep.

Our nervous systems are continually jazzed up by the worries of modern life. I, myself, have been thinking about global warming pretty much every day for the past year. I tell our daughter that if you are going to work hard, you also have to play hard. You need that balance to sustain your energy. Similarly, I have discovered that if I am going to contemplate a threat like global warming, it helps to also cultivate whimsy. And that it is most important to cultivate whimsy precisely when it is hardest to.

To be effective we have to let our bodies rest deeply, and we must allow our minds to quiet. If you take only yourself and a pillow out to the hammock, and stretch out there, the posture itself will suggest to you: “Let it all go, you can worry about it tomorrow.” If you are like me, the family gardener, the yard Queen, as you admire your domain from the hammock you can’t help but notice tasks that need to be done. The trick is: Don’t get up and do them. Just lie there.

And take a lesson from the house wren. Surprisingly, given its size, there is a European fable where the wren is king of birds. The eagle and the wren were competing for this distinction, as the story goes. The one who flew highest would be king. The wren rested on the eagle’s back, and when the eagle tired, the wren popped out and flew above him. It is another fable where the creature that takes it easy is the one that wins in the end.