This is the season for roots: plants digging their energy down deep into the soil, underground cellars stocked to sustain us through the cold months, the ghosts of our ancestors coming and asking us for remembrance and honour.
Last weekend, in the plants apprenticeship I’m currently involved in, we focused on roots, harvesting them to use as medicine and nourishment. Digging up roots takes gentleness and reverence – when you uproot a plant, you take responsibility for its life. It’s not something to do lightly.
As we dug up sarsaparilla, burdock, dandelion, plantain, false Solomon’s seal, and (very consciously and sparingly) blue cohosh, I marveled at the intricate shapes of roots, the tendrils and tubers and deep taproots. I meticulously and slowly pulled out one sarsaparilla root that was longer than me, eventually cutting it off from where it had branched from a thicker segment that connected it to a host of other plants of the same species. I never found the initial plant from which it grew. Someone else dug up a milkweed plant, and found that its root was unexpectedly connected to that of another milkweed plant, by a thick horizontal root, like a bridge.
What is going on down there, beneath the earth, beneath the surface of what we can see?
I imagined all the roots underground, intricately woven and plaited and intertwined together, like roads on a map connecting the underground landscape. Sarsaparilla, for one, grows from rhizomes into communities of plants. The roots are all connected underground. There sometimes isn’t any clear way to tell where one plant ends and the next one begins.
I have been feeling restless in recent years. This is what happens at midlife, I hear.
I ground other people in my life; I care and nurture and love; I honour my commitments, savour them even. But other parts of me have been unsettled, ungrounded, anxious, afraid that soon it will be too late – too late for what? There is the ongoing question of what is a true call for adventure, what is good risk-taking to push myself past the limits of who I have always believed myself to be, and what is, in some sense, running away. Running away mainly from myself, I suspect. Running that can sometimes be more about proving that I am accomplished and worthy, than about moving forward into possibility, at ease with who I am.
Right now, as I study plants, I am sometimes impatient with them, as with myself. A year or two ago, I focused on learning animal tracking: the movement, the adrenaline, the solving of puzzles. Plants just sit there. What am I to learn from them?
And so I make myself sit. And I ask the questions. I ask each plant: what can I learn from you? Yarrow: can you heal wounds of the heart as well as wounds of the flesh? Saint John’s wort: can you help me ease darkness of spirit in myself and others? Dandelion: what can you teach me about resilience?
And I ask the questions of all the plants and trees: what does it mean to put down roots, to be grounded? What does it mean for me to be grounded, like a tree, in a way that holds me deeply into the soil that I live in, connected underground, but also reaching up into the sky in a way that is particular only to myself?
As someone who was geographically and culturally transplanted at a young age, as many of us are in this world, I have been, after all these years, thinking a lot about what it means to put down roots. Thinking about what it means to be a non-native plant that naturalizes into a new environment, instead an invasive plant that displaces those who are already here.
I am playing with these metaphors, trying them out, recognizing that perhaps my role is to be a bridge for my children to find answers that are more satisfying than the questions that I am always asking myself.
But when I talk about being grounded, it is also much more personal. It is sometimes about the anxiety of what feels hidden, buried; about what lies underground and keeps me awake at night, about what I have not been wiling to bring to the light. There is something about really following those dark roots down into the soil and letting myself see them clearly that gives me the clarity of knowing who I am: who I am in relation to the people in my life, but not only in relation to them. Who I am in a way that is entire, that is inalienable, that is simply about being and not contingent on anything that I do or accomplish. That leaves room for longing and seeking, for learning and mastery, but is not dependent on them for a deeply-rooted sense of self.
I sat a couple of months ago in another wood and looked at the trees all around and the question that came up was this: “Can I say that a tree is not free simply because it is rooted in place?” And it seemed clear to me then, in an intuitive and not a rational way, that a tree is free.
And so I continue to sit with the question: what is it to be an individual in family and community; to be rooted, to be deeply connected, to be interdependent, while always having enough room to grow?