–by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Jan 12, 2017)
I go back to the first, cut an end free, and then duck it under the others, over, under, over, under. I’m separating a single wire in the scaffold that holds up the forest, but I find that it can’t be freed without unraveling the others. A dozen roots are exposed, and somehow you need to choose one and follow it without breaking it, so that you have one great, long continuous strand. It’s not easy.
I send the students off gathering, to read the land and see where it says roots. They go crashing off through the woods, their laughter flashing bright in the dim coolness. For a time they continue to call to each other, loudly cursing the flies biting under the edge of their untucked shirts.
They disperse so as not to concentrate the harvest in any one spot. The root mat is easily as big as the canopy above. Harvesting a few roots won’t cause real harm, but we’re careful to repair the damage we do. I remind them to fill in the furrows we’ve made, set the goldthread and the mosses back in place, and empty their water bottles over their wilting leaves when the harvest is done.
I stay at my patch, working my roots and listening to the chatter slowly subside. I hear an occasional grunt of frustration nearby. A splutter when soil flies up in someone’s face. I know what their hands are doing and sense where their minds are as well. Digging spruce roots takes you someplace else. The map in the ground asks you over and over, Which root to take? Which is the scenic route, which is the dead end? The fine root you’d chosen and so carefully excavated suddenly dives deep under a rock where you can’t follow. Do you abandon that path and choose another? The roots may spread out like a map, but a map only helps if you know where you want to go. Some roots branch. Some break. I look at the students’ faces, poised midway between childhood and adulthood. I think the tangle of choices speaks clearly to them. Which route to take? Isn’t that always the question?
Before long all the chatter ceases and a mossy hush befalls us. There is just the ssshhhh of wind in the spruce, and a calling winter wren. Time goes by. Way longer than the fifty-minute classes they’re used to. Still, no one speaks. I’m waiting for it, hoping. There is a certain energy in the air, a hum. And then I hear it, someone singing, low and contented. I feel the smile spread across my face and breathe a sigh of relief. It happens every time.
In the Apache language, the root word for land is the same as the word for mind. Gathering roots holds up a mirror between the map in the Earth and the map of our minds. This is what happens, I think, in the silence and the singing and with hands in the Earth. At a certain angle of that mirror, the routes converge and we find our way back home.
Recent research has shown that the smell of humus exerts a physiological effect on humans. Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child, between lovers. Held in loving arms, no wonder we sing in response.
I remember the first time I dug roots. I came looking for raw materials, for something I could transform into a basket, but it was me who was transformed. The crisscross patterns, the interweaving of colors –the basket was already in the ground, stronger and more beautiful than any I could make. Spruce and blueberries, deerflies and winter wren, the whole forest held in a wild native basket the size of a hill. Big enough to hold me too.
–Robin Wall Kimmerer from the her book Braiding Sweetgrass [Illustration offered as an anonymous gift :-)]