It’s been a rough week for democracy for United States. Lots to be angry at, resent, fear. I don’t know who to feel sadder for, the woman shot and killed breaching the House chamber or the Capital policeman battered with flagpoles and then clocked dead by a fire extinguisher, attendants who had to clean excrement off the marble floors or the guy trying to steal a portrait and tased himself in the balls and suffered a fatal heart attack.
Or all of us. My country sure is tasing itself with aplomb and verve. The world is astonished we don’t know it. So it goes where climate denialism is but a symptom of a collective reality disease.
Oh, and did I mention that 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year ever? Global temperature is up 1.25 degrees C over pre-industrial level, which mean in just a few years we’ve gone halfway to the dropping-dead threshold of 1.5 C. Some parts of the Arctic were 6 C higher than the baseline. Some 10 million acres of the Western United States burned and 30 Atlantic storms brewed and hurled against the Americas, both worst-ever phenomena of the lower porches of whatever we’re striding into.
And COVID’s everywhere, lurid where we breathe.
Arrgh. All of that is like some stratospheric seethe in the mind, a Twitter vortex speeding in cycles of boiling rage and icy fear. (Some of you, I know, are suffering from spillage from the real polar vortex right now—did I hear that temps in England went down to -9C Saturday night?).
You have to wonder how it keeps it all together. Maybe it doesn’t; and then what are we to do?
Did I mention this challenge is about gifts?
I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and The Teaching of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2015), and the best way to segue to my challenge is to turn it over to her in the chapter “The Gift of Strawberries.”
“In a way,” she writes,
I was raised by strawberries, fields of them. Not to exclude the maples, hemlocks, white pines, goldenrod, asters, violets and mosses of upstate New York, but it was the wild strawberries beneath the dewy leaves on an almost-summer morning, who gave me my sense of the world, my place in it.
… Even now, after more than fifty Strawberry Moons, finding a patch of wild strawberries still touches me with a sensation of surprise, a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude for the generosity and kindness that comes from an unexpected gift all wrapped in red and green. “Really? For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have.” After fifty years they still raise the question of how to respond to their generosity. Sometimes it feels like a silly question with a very simply answer: eat them.
But I know that someone else has wondered these same things. In our Creation stories the origin of strawberries is important. Skywoman’s beautiful daughter, whom she carried in her womb from Skyworld, grew on the good green earth, loving and loved by all other beings. But tragedy befell her when she died giving birth to her twins, Flint and Sapling. Heartbroken, Skywoman buried her beloved daughter in the earth. Her final gifts, our most revered plants, grew from her body. The strawberry arose from her heart. In Potawatomi, the strawberry is ode min, the heart berry. We recognize them as the leaders of the berries, the first to bear fruit. (22-23)
Did you ever come across something in this world which is both a surprise and a gift? I remember looking for wild strawberries at my father’s house in Pennsylvania those summers I worked on Columcille, helping him to build his New Age megalithic park. All the energy went toward raising those big stones, but the real sweetness of summer was in the wild strawberries. And though one summer we tended a massive garden inspired by Findhorn, ferrying bushels of squashes back to the house, there was still the magic of the given, the found. Tiny as it was, or because it was so.
More recently, often on my walks in this small Florida town, down by the lake which marks my turning point to the circuit back, I witness massive spirals of turkey buzzards and black vultures. They’re a cooperative species, with the vultures possessing far sight and the buzzards a keen sense of smell. No wonder their colony is so large. Some days I see hundreds of the spiraling in the air, deacons of some immense gospel service of a church two thousand feet in the sky. My head is hunched down as I walk, my thoughts intent on whatever (too often lost in the Trump Vortex): I glance up and … miracles! Exultation and rapture for the everyday eye.
All we have to do is notice. But to let Kimmerer continue:
Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call lit to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery — as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source. (23-4)
Freely given, freely received: between the two, something forms.
Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, and obligation of sorts to give, to receive, to reciprocate. … When the berry season was done, the plants would send out tender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season there were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon. No person taught us this – the strawberries showed us. Because they had given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opened between us. (25)
It’s something I learned in AA: A gift freely given cannot be kept unless it is given fully away. It’s why service is one of the pillars of recovery. Such service, I think, can also be given the world in a poem, as Emily Dickenson shows here. What is found is deeply a part of what is lost.
As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away, —
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.
A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun.,
Or Nature, spending with herself
The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone. —
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.
And thus, without a wing
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.
Going further, Kimmerer says once something has been given, it can never be sold.
As the scholar and writer Lewis Hyde notes, “It is the cardinal difference between a gift and a commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.”
Wild strawberries fit the definition of gift, but grocery store berries do not. As a gift-thinker, I would be deeply offended if I saw wild strawberries in the grocery store. I would want to kidnap them all. There were not meant to be sold, only to be given. Hyde reminds us that in a gift economy, only one’s freely given gifts cannot be made into someone else’s capital. (27)
From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a “bundle of rights,” whereas in a gift economy property has a “bundle of responsibilities” attached. (28)
It is one thing to be grateful for the gift; another, to act like it. Since the US election — a victory, in one sense, a terrible fall in another — I have taken to the woods in a suburban way, walking early mornings (a great gift from my former employer, eliminating my job from a business located 20 miles away). I feel like Mad Sweeney, the 8th century king who went mad from human noise and fled to the woods to roost in trees. Fitted with the feathered tuion of the ancient filid, he sang so beautifully of wild nature that monks of the 12th century had to write those poems down because gothic arches weren’t a strong enough margin for the old druid culture. After a few months of daily attention to the beauty and glory of trees, I feel a kinship now which has been there all along.
The gift I’m trying to give back. If you’ve read any of the Sweeney poems on my blog, you might sense a change of perspective underway from the climate fatalist of some months prior. I felt dead-ended: if the world is truly screwed because humans won’t or can’t change in time, then what else is there to do, to say? It does take the air out of adventure and discovery.
How much changed in me when I shifted my gaze from the ruined human terrain (suburbanized to death, at least), up to the trees. Kimmerer again:
… our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences. (30)
So my challenge has been to choose gratitude over despair. It’s a slower route and much less certain — thorny,, too — but time and patience in the work of gratitude results in deeper roots and a wider canopy than I could ever have found writing as a solitary monk by the ruined sea.
Saturday as I drove to the grocery store (with a scribbled list in pocket including corporate strawberries, genetically-altered for redness and something akin to sweetness), some of my beloved vultures were gathered next to dead tabby cat on the side of the road, flopping their wings and leaping about. So sad to see a feline picked off by cars, and the work of nature is so much harder to look at than when it soars: But those great wings are flown for this purpose, as I was grown to be witness and have a heart full enough to grieve and give thanks at the same time.
Kimmerer concludes her essay about the gift of strawberries with this gift of her own:
In those childhood fields, waiting for strawberries to ripen, I used to eat the sour white ones, sometimes out of hunger but mostly from impatience. I knew the long-term results of my short-term greed, but I took them anyway. Fortunately, our capacity for self-restraint grows and develops like the berries beneath the leaves, so I learned to wait. A little. I remember lying on my back in the fields watching the clouds go by and rolling over to check the berries every few minutes. When I was young, I thought change might happen that fast. Now I am old and I know that transformation is slow. The commodity economy has been here on Turtle Island for four hundred years, eating up the white strawberries and everything else. But people have grown weary of the sour taste in their mouths. A great longing is upon us, to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze. (31-2)
What gifts have come our way, I wonder. What gifts does gratitude return. For this challenge, let’s write about gifts and find out.
I mean, what else are we going to do these days? Seethe?
I’ll end with this poem from Wendell Berry:
Slowly, slowly they return
To the small woodland let alone;
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.
Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.
They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.
Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benediction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.
In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
Top walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!
1986, collected in A Timbered Choir