Deep Down Things - Selections

The Earth in Celebration and Dismay

Roots

We humans live a seesaw sort of life, going up only to come down again, going down in order to push back up.

I need to say something obvious about roots, namely that it’s the root that supports the plant. Without roots, there’d be no leaves, blossoms, or fruit. This is the natural way of growth. I think we humans are like that too though we may at times fail to recognize our connection with what’s under foot. What’s under foot is earth itself, and while we possess the gift of locomotion, as say a tree does not, we are no less tethered to earth than is any plant. I’m a Buddhist, and I’ve always felt that it was the way of a Buddhist to put down roots like those of a tree and to draw life into oneself in that way. I thought that what Buddhists call wisdom is knowing how to connect dirt with sky. Even the highest mountain rests on the lower plain.

There’s a story told about the Buddha that at the time of his enlightenment Mara, the Buddhist mythological embodiment of temptation, appeared with intent to undermine the Buddha’s resolve. Mara challenged the Buddha to name by what authority he claimed enlightenment. The Buddha didn’t name the authority o any god or prior teacher or mastery of any scripture; he simply touched a hand to the ground. That gesture has always seemed to me a peculiarly Buddhist expression of something deeply felt by nearly all we humans. We understand somehow that body and mind are born of earth, a maternal heritage that remains forever intact. And we know as well that when this mothering bond is broken, we wither and die like pulled weeds.

There’s nothing in Buddhist philosophy like that of the biblical tradition granting humans “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Nor is there anything in Buddhist teaching that puts the care of earth in human hands. What the teaching actually does is put we humans in the care of earthly hands. We are the offspring of dirt and air and water, and no prideful boast to the contrary alters that. In my mind’s eye I picture the Buddha sitting cross-legged on the ground. I like to think that earth somehow holds fast to him and secures him in the face of Mara’s attempt to shake him loose. I like to think that when the Buddha put his hand to the ground that, in that single gesture, he pointed to the birthplace of his and all our lives, and thus could not be dislodged by the cleverest effort to bring him to doubt.

Given any chance at all, most children like to play in the dirt, sensing somehow an unspoken intimacy with earth. They seek low places, insinuating themselves into the dark beneath the limbs of trees, mashing down little clearings in patches of spring weeds as places to sit, in general soiling their clothes, staining their elbows green, and getting their hair gummy with dust and grit. After a night of rainfall, they ruin school shoes and splash mud up the backs of trousers and skirts stomping in mud puddles. Their mothers are forever telling them to clean their fingernails. These children somehow remember dwelling in the ground from which their lives so recently sprang. They hear the call from underneath and, in their innocent play, enact the journey home.

My wife Karen spent her childhood in a crowded little trailer park in San Fernando Valley, California. It remains to this day as it was when Karen was a child: not much more than a patch of gravel and dirt with trailers spaced row on row. When Karen took me there, I saw with my own eyes that she had grown up in a parking lot, devoid of trees or lawn or much of anything that would soften the stark bareness of the place, the single exception being an unpaved drainage canal that ran parallel to the property, its banks grown over with straggly grass and dotted with a few scrubby trees. It’s here that Karen and the trailer-park children played. They were drawn to that patch of weeds and grass as though it were whipped cream on a pound cake. Not one of you reading this is likely to be surprised by that. That’s what children do—give him or her a choice and it’s a rare child that won’t go for even the most pathetic surviving strip of residual nature in preference to acres of other paved options.

So Karen and her friends hung out in the hours after school on the grassy bank of the drainage canal. It was there that they ate their popsicles and ice cream bars from the vendor. And when sitting became tiresome, they rescued old cardboard boxes from the dumpster and slid down the slick grassy bank of the canal in these makeshift sleds. When the city sprayed the grass with herbicide and the children were told to stay off it, they fretted until allowed back again. They couldn’t do otherwise. It was simply their nature to do as they did, an urging they responded to without exercising choice. Even the most withered and yellowed remnant of the natural world called them to return and that’s what they did. If you bother to notice at all, you’ll see that that’s what most kids do and what you probably did once yourself.

I know it’s what I did. In a patch of willows and cottonwoods on the banks of the Santa Ana River, a quarter mile from the farm where I lived as a small boy, lay the site of my own return to earth. On a warm day, the sun filtered down through the cottonwood canopy overhead onto a little clearing of sand swept clean by the river in seasons of high water. An undergrowth of willows encircled the clearing like the walls of a private room. I never brought anyone here. I was highly excitable as a boy and seldom still, yet there on the warm sand of my riverbank retreat I could sit in quiet reflection for periods stretching out to an hour or more. I seemed to tolerate my own company better there than I could anywhere else at the time. I once discovered the presence of a jack rabbit nearby, sitting perfectly still as I was, its large dark eyes seemingly focused on my own and, for the moment, the eyes of the rabbit were mirrors returning the reflection of my own face.

I was a precocious reader as a child, reading Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Emerson’s essays, Thoreau’s Walden, and later such books as Le Comte du Nouy’s Human Destiny with a surprising degree of youthful comprehension. My reading seemed to hold out a promise to me that, if I persisted, I would come to see my place and purpose in the world more clearly. I would turn the pages one after another, and the words I read held for me an appealing and yet frightening promise of heights as yet unvisited and I was left feeling elevated somehow, like a child hoisted unto his father’s shoulders to see the parade go by. Both my reading and my riverbank solitude seemed born of a longing I could not have described, the direction of which seemed both up and down. And so I sometimes lay as flat to the earth as I could and let my mind drift upward through the overhead canopy. Holding fast to earth seemed to me then and still seems now the best position from which to view the skies.

Wordsworth wrote, “The child is father to the man.” Doesn’t the child residing in the adult father’s mind retain some teasing recollection of that earlier relationship when he was mentor to the man he has become? When, of a weekend, this grown man has dug around in the garden a bit or raked up some fall leaves and gone to the shower with dirt caked under his nails, he might just remember one of the lessons he once gave himself. And throughout the following week the smell of wet leaves and turned earth may reach him up the forty-eight flights to his office complex calling him back to earth below.

Our highest aspirations, like the highest tips of the tallest trees, must of necessity remain rooted in the ground below. It’s natural to look upward as well as down, to reach for the heavens while depending on the earth. We humans live a seesaw sort of life, going up only to come down again, going down in order to push back up. It’s an intricate cooperation between rise and descend, and, while the going up is good and the heights are grand, it’s essential to come back to earth again, back to our roots.