By Marie Erb
I’ve planted a mini-forest in the small green allotment that is my suburban yard. This I have done with all of the properties I’ve owned. It is an intuitive reflex, this planting of trees and shrubs and flowering perennials. For me, a rolling lawn is a painful scab upon the earth that begs to be covered with diverse vegetation and I respond with shovel, burlapped root balls, and plenty of water.
Show me a lawn that exists free of human intervention! These monocultural carpets are not a natural phenomenon. I sometimes hear them cry out in pain, like those Chinese noblewomen who once had their feet forced into shoes that maimed.
My connection to wild places started in a time beyond my memory. As a toddler, I once disappeared into the trees. My family was visiting an old pre-civil war summer house in Virginia, that sat high on a hill surrounded by hickory and oak. There was a frantic, hours-long search and great relief when I was seen trundling confidently back toward the house, tracing my steps back down the red dirt road, smiling broadly as I offered up a large bouquet of slightly mangled daffodils. I had walked the half-mile to a clearing in the woods where my godmother had planted a field of bulbs, picked the flowers, and found my way back, unaware that it was strange for a three-year-old to be so confident and comfortable by herself, deep in the forest. This I learned later, and from others. It was like a message that came to me from outside of myself.
All experiences in nature ground me, even the ones involving angry ground bees or aggressive water snakes: they are a reminder that my feet are, literally and figuratively, sunk deep into the earth.
Nature is the ultimate cure for narcissism. Have you seen those comic signs along Colorado trailheads that show tourists getting rammed by bighorn sheep? They aren’t meant for me. I have never lost the muscle memory that says, Hey, probably not a good idea to get closer than 50 yards to any four-legged animal twice as heavy as I am and sporting horns.
Nature doesn’t give a damn about your ego, or your fancy camera, and if you don’t believe that, well, perhaps you will become a model for the next out-of-touch tourist, butted down and trampled by a 250-pound buck that doesn’t register your desire for a selfie.
As a child, I returned again and again to the creek by my house, sinking my bare feet deep in mud and sand, and forgot all of the troubles of the human world as I remembered my real home…the one that never asked anything of me save to have common sense.
The creek spoke to me through its sunlit waves, the fresh cucumber smell of a stand of cattails, the harsh cac-cac of a red winged blackbird. It absorbed my loneliness and transmuted it into joy, as I recognized my vibrating reflection in the surface of the gray-green water.
These rocky Maryland hills filled with low-growing wildflowers and fragrant wild strawberries, the marshes filled with low-growing grasses and occasional stands of bayberry and buttonbush—these places provide a therapeutic balm for what we call civilization. They remind me who I am, where I came from, and where I will return when this life is done with me. Listen, they say, Don’t get too comfortable in one of those boxy houses and office buildings or you’ll forget where your real home is. Open the windows, let in the air, bring in plants, or read outside in the shade of the trees that cradle you the way a mother holds a child to her breast.
To lose touch with these wild places and our place within them is to become afraid of death, and that seems to me the ultimate folly: It’s like being afraid of getting hungry or needing water. Today is a good day for all these things, for any of us who live in the present moment and know our place in the world.
Death-defying circus acts have always made me dizzy and seemed beside the point. Why recreate something that will happen eventually? Every day is a good day to die so why waste time worrying about it? It is worth the price of humility not to be concerned about these things. And how can you fret about the brevity of existence if you are entranced by the beauty of a passing butterfly?
There is something comforting about being reminded of one’s place in the natural scheme of things. The poet Mary Oliver is reminded of this on a day when she is distraught and demanding answers from the ocean. As she lists her grievances, the ocean tells her, “Excuse me, but I have work to do.”
The ocean will keep on moving with the moon despite our human problems. I count on it.
A lifelong writer, gardener and herbalist, Marie Erb is a classically trained plein air painter and portrait artist. Before the pandemic, she volunteered as a masterwork copyist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.