There is a timeless metaphor in tending a garden and pulling weeds.
I have spent several hours in the past weeks in the rear yard/garden of this small cottage, barefoot, tugging up handfuls of new grass and tartly tasting clover. With the abundance of recent rain, this stretch of central California coastline shimmers lush and green, and half of our little town is buried under a song of rampantly creeping, yellow woodsorrel.
The little garden at rear has steadily become more than a patch of green carpet with yellow flowers, and lacking a goat or gentle herbivore to graze on it, or some chickens to scratch it down to the soil, I realized that it was time to take action. Under my bare feet, the earth is soft, wet, and yielding, and thus the work of weeding is easy. Soft, coastal sunshine bathes the late morning, and in the day’s warmth it feels as if spring has fully arrived even though the equinox is still ten days away. A honeyed sweetness has lingered in the air for weeks, drifting from all the tree blossoms in the neighborhood, and though lessened somewhat by the rain, everything from the plants to the house walls to the soil is dusted lightly in golden pine pollen.
Trousers rolled up above my ankles to keep them dry, the cuffs of my long sleeve shirt turned back to my elbows, I am almost too warm in the direct sun, tempted to go inside and change into shorts. What a welcome delight. As I slowly work my way across the weedy expanse outside our bedroom window, grasping and pulling clumps of grass or woodsorrel, tugging gently until their shallow, pale roots let go and come free of the damp soil, I am enjoying my task. Tight hamstrings are lengthening. Crouching down to squat and work, I feel the pelvis opening. And there is a good stretch in my low back.
I smile at having dirt under my fingernails and my feet are muddy. Good, this. It feels utterly delicious to be so embodied, rather than sitting with words, scribbling them on paper or pushing them around a computer screen. Too I am quietly reveling in the visual sense of accomplishment as I inch my way along; the pile of uprooted weeds, yellow flowers, and grass grows steadily higher, the patch of exposed earth simultaneously becoming wider. Honestly, this feels so much more tangible and productive than writing, I should have been a gardener, not a wordsmith.
This is what’s real, I think.
The wordless riot of green and yellow is connecting me with the elemental energies of spring, of working in the garden once more, where warmed by spring sunshine I’m feeling strangely grateful for these weeds. This wild exuberance of neighborly nature is weaving me into a deeper connection with this little house and patch of earth where I reside. And in a real way, the plants and soil are healing me.
“If you seek health, you must go to the earth, attentively, every day of your life.”
For years, I kept those printed words on a small piece of paper pinned to the corkboard above my desk. They are lifted from Warren Grossman’s lovely book, To Be Healed By The Earth (2007, Seven Stories Press), a deceptively simple work that I praise in the appendix A to my own recent book.
For a good part of the past month, I have been carrying these words in my heart, putting them into action as I struggle with an ongoing bout of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) and feeling poorly. My symptoms start with an unpleasant tingling, sort of like when your leg or foot goes to sleep; now imagine that through your whole body. If not halted or reversed with some sort of ‘grounding’, the wobbly discomfort/ irritation progresses to nausea, followed by headache, and exhaustion.
Despite that at our house we have have gotten rid of WiFi, that we’ve insulated against the ‘smart meter’ on the outside wall, and that my computer is connected to the modem with a shielded ethernet cable, my already small window of being able to work with electromagnetic devices is shrinking. It’s challenging to be a writer these days without a computer, never mind posting a weekly column/blog or communicating with the world by email. Yet I’ve had several days lately where after my computer time, I felt too poorly to do anything else except go walk barefoot somewhere in nature. It is difficult to simply not go back to bed (we have a special ‘earthing’ bedsheet, which helps).
I’ve never had much tolerance for cell phones, they’ve made me wobbly from the start. These days, I can barely even touch one to send a text; frankly, they’ve become anathema to my nervous system. I have equally low tolerance for the ‘electromagnetic smog’ that permeates our modern life, especially as WiFi proliferates rapidly in public places; I can’t really venture in to a Starbucks or any similar spot where people are working wirelessly. In fact, yesterday I got badly ‘zapped’ at Whole Foods Market and had to come home and ‘ground’ until I felt better, about half an hour against the tree by the front gate, but even afterwards I was utterly exhausted.
Pure essential oils, particularly those distilled from the wood of trees (cedar, cypress, etc.) and grounding root oils (vetiver, spikenard, etc.) have helped me moderately, but it is only the earth itself that truly restores: either by being immersed in a body of natural water such as a river or the ocean (much too cold this time of year, thank you), or via direct, barefoot connection with soil, rock or grass. Pressing my spine against an old tree helps too, and almost daily I bless the Grandmother Monterey cypress for being a powerfully healing force when I’ve gone wobbly again.
I have long felt that nature is the only real antidote for our wired, technological, electromagnetic existence, and lately I am putting that knowledge into practice to find some sort of balance each day. Honestly, it’s difficult not to feel that my hypersensitivity has reached a point where it is becoming a disability, but I am trying to discover the gift in it, and also looking for ways to get better.
In The Bones and Breath, at the end of each chapter I outline a key Soul Skill, along with an embodiment exercise to help anchor it in a somatic, tangible way. Soul Skill 7 is Disconnect to Reconnect, an encouragement to unplug from a wired life. While I originally offered it as a tool to help encourage people to slow down to soul speed, I admit that there is certainly a health benefit as well, and appropriately the exercise for that particular Soul Skill is to be barefoot on the earth. These past days, I’ve been practicing it in a different way, putting my own advice to work.
So here I am, ‘earthing’ and fully inhabiting my bodysoul, thanks to a conspiracy of wise weeds, springtime energies of new growth, and the electromagnetic disruption in my being. I am reconnecting with earth and place, trying to embrace a healthier way of being, going to the earth attentively each day. Healer, heal thyself.
Here, now. Tuck the uprooted earthworm or two back under a blanket of damp, dark soil. Savor the little tingle of joy at hearing a hawk’s cry overhead in the blue sky, and smile at the raucous chattering of two scrub jays on the rear wooden fence. Feel the sharp prick of the hidden blackberry vine who doesn’t wish to be uprooted, tasting the bright drops of blood on my thumb and forefinger. I am half listening to the muffled sounds of the neighborhood, the susurration of a spring breeze in newly leafing trees and tall evergreens. The blossoms are all gone from the ornamental cherry at the rear of the house, same with the two ornamental plums in front, only a few pink snowflakes left on the ground to betray their beauty ever existed.
Muddy feet in the tub, washing the yard work away and feeling a hundred times better than when I stepped outdoors an hour ago, I will stay off the computer for the rest of the day. (As with all my writing, I compose these journals longhand in a notebook with my trusty fountain pen, then type them in and make my edits, format for email, etc.) A last bit of dirt lingers under my fingernails, keeping things real, and reminding me that I need at least half an hour of ‘earthing’ each day (as if I could forget).
Back to the opening metaphor. Like weeds, what needs pulling in our lives? For our growth, wellbeing, and health, what are the habits, patterns, dependencies—addictions, even—that we need to let go of? Even if it is difficult (perhaps especially then)? What is getting in the way and taking over from what is really important and truly nourishes?
Now, shed your shoes, leave the computer and your phone, and go outside.