Touch the Earth

A yellow warbler Credit:

My husband and I hit the warbler jackpot one evening in mid-May. On a walk around Lake Harriet we saw six in the space of about 10 minutes: Wilson’s, black and white, blackburnian, yellow, chestnut-sided, and the redstart. We don’t usually see so many different ones in the city. They were headed north to nest, but had been delayed by the blustery weather.

Warblers are flitty, colorful little birds that can be hard to fix on, even with binoculars. On this particular evening they were feeding in the small trees and brush along the west side of the lake, and we could see them just fine with the naked eye. We watched them for a good long time and then walked the rest of the way around the lake hand in hand, talking and laughing. We were two lucky ducks, that was for certain.

Our daughter is grown, and my husband is retiring soon. People who are retired are supposed to travel, so we’ve been looking at trips we might take. You could go on a long one to see spectacular birds, or you could stay home and keep your eyes open for 20 years and luck out, like we had that night. In some ways I prefer the latter.

Our trip planning process is slowed by how different my husband and I are. If I could choose any location at all, it would be the wildest place around; my husband would pick the largest city. To address this difference, we have gone where there are museums and cathedrals, but also gardens and opportunities to take walks in the county.

While we will likely travel some in the coming years, I especially like to stay home in the summer, the gardening months. I would go so far as to say I love my humble yard. Now that it has warmed up, I have begun digging my beds, and I’ve been marveling at how healthy I feel after just a bit of standing and kneeling on the unpaved earth. I feel more settled with myself, more content, stronger. What is it we get from direct contact with grass and dirt? Some kind of infusion, it seems, something that makes our bodies happy.

To take this infusion in more directly, I’ve begun eating the yard. The plants that grow there, that is. First it was chives and dandelion greens in a salad and stir-fry. Dandelion greens, it turns out, are loaded with nutrients, and have anti-inflammatory properties. I’ve found stinging nettles, also nutritious, growing as weeds, and have carefully transplanted them to one fenced corner where no one will brush up against them. My next project is to learn how to cook and eat them without getting stung. Our French sorrel is up. Soon we will be tucking into our spring ritual dish: poached eggs on a French sorrel and cream sauce.

When I told my husband how great I felt after being in the yard, he mentioned a Greek god, Antaeus, whose father was Poseidon, god of the sea, and whose mother was Gaia, goddess of the earth. Antaeus was supernaturally strong, as long as some part of him was touching the ground. His home was a patch of desert. He challenged every man who happened by to a wrestling match, killed them, and collected their skulls, which he intended to use one day to build a temple to his father. (At this point my husband commented, “Mythology is rough.”)

One day Hercules came by. He was on a journey to a special garden to get a golden apple. Hercules encountered Antaeus, and they wrestled. He noticed that each time he threw Antaeus to the earth, he jumped back up, and was even stronger than he had been before. So Hercules held Antaeus up off the ground, watched his strength drain away, and then killed him.

The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, wrote a poem called “Antaeus” which is included in his collection, North:

When I lie on the ground

I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.

In fights I arrange a fall on the ring

To rub myself with sand.

 

That is operative

As an elixir. I cannot be weaned

Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins.

Down here in my cave

 

Girded with root and rock

I am cradled in the dark that wombed me

And nurtured in every artery

Like a small hillock.

 

Let each new hero come

Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:

He must wrestle with me before he pass

Into that realm of fame

 

Among sky-born and royal,

He may well throw me and renew my birth

But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,

My elevation, my fall.