The air around you is filled with floating atoms, sliding down the Earth’s spacetime curve. Atoms first assembled in the cores of long-dead stars. Atoms within you, everywhere, disintegrating in radioactive decays. Beneath your feet, the floor – whose electrons refuse to let yours pass, thus making you able to stand and walk and run. Earth, your planet, a lump of matter made out of the three quantum fields known to mankind, held together by gravity, the so-called fourth force (even though it isn’t a force), floating within and through spacetime.
~ Christophe Galfard, The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond
How do you define “earth?” We humans use the word in a lot of expressions:
- what on earth
- where on earth
- down to earth
- back to earth
- the earth moved
- salt of the earth
- follow to the ends of the earth
- heaven on earth
- hell on earth
- earth mother
- God’s green earth
- move heaven and earth
- earth shattering
There are more, but you get the idea. What is this earth of which we speak and write? What is this earth that we live on? What is earth in poetry and in the other arts?
I’m thinking about earth as part of a practice, and the thoughts about it wandered with me on my walk this morning. There are several definitions of the word “earth.” The planet we call home. An underground lair of a fox or badger (British). Soil. The surface of this planet we live on. One of the four elements (the other three being air, fire, and water). The Oxford Dictionaries include “the substance of the human body” as a definition of earth (derived from “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the English Burial Service which was adapted from Biblical text, Genesis 3:19).
When it comes to learning, my mind has a tendency to want to be obtuse. Deliberately obtuse. I think it’s a form of rebellion. Against what, I’m not sure. I’m not even sure where it comes from, but can trace it back to as long as I can remember. Perhaps it’s a personality trait, a flaw in my character, a symbol of my intelligence or curiosity, or a function of some obscure part of my DNA. The origins or the reasons are not particularly important to me right now. It’s enough to recognize it as something my mind likes to do. That way, when my mind plays these games, I can say, “Ah ha! I see what you’re doing!”
So, as I walked and pondered earth with the “rules” of the practice/assignment in mind, I also mused on what earth is to me (aside from the obvious, that earth is home). When we lived in Georgia, earth was red clay, difficult to till and work with in the garden, easy to get stuck (and lose a shoe) in when it was wet. In Ohio, earth was black and rich in nutrients and earthworms where it hadn’t been over-farmed and overworked. Some of the fields in NE Ohio have the blackest soil I’ve ever seen, and the locals call it “muck,” a black peat that is great for growing celery (and radishes, cilantro, lettuces, and other greens). Muck fields, found in the Great Lakes regions and Florida, were once bogs or swamps or parts of lakes. In other parts of the country that I’ve visited, earth has been rocky, sometimes bare granite where soil refused to settle, or dry sand and pebbly rocks of desert.
Here on the Eastern Shore, earth is defined by where you are standing on it. The farm fields are dirt/soil. The beaches are sand. The marshes are mud, made up of earth and water. Sometimes the marshes are one or the other, earth in the form of mud at low tide, water when the tide rolls in. Earth here is covered by pine needles in the woods, thick, almost woven, grasses in the marshes, and water found in the forms we call the bay, the ocean, the rivers, the creeks, the streams, and the ditches that line the roadways.
Perhaps it’s all the meditation and yoga I’ve been practicing lately, but I found myself having trouble separating earth from all that is. What falls from the trees is earth. What comes up from the seeds, and is anchored in, is earth. Even the water has bits and pieces of earth in it (and not just at the bottom of it).
When I look at the ground as I walk around this small piece of earth here at the ranch, I see bones, leaves, pine needles, bits and pieces of branches and whole trees, antlers, bark, pine cones, sand, mud, grass, and the trash that continues to pop up as the seasons change. Plastic here, a rusted paint can there, cinder blocks, bricks, broken glass, Coors Light cans.
The rusted paint can in the woods is oxidizing, breaking down, becoming part of the earth on which it sits. I don’t know how long it’s been there in the woods, and I don’t know how long it will take before it becomes no longer something separate from the earth that holds it. Part of it can now be defined as earth, part of it is still “rusted paint can.”
Way back in June, I wrote a short poem about earth and the O horizon. It’s here if you’re interested in reading it. In case you’re not interested in reading it, the pertinent part is this small note about the O horizon:
The O horizon is the organic horizon that forms near the top of the soil in forests and other places where there is abundant plant material. It is a flourishing ecosystem where decomposition takes place, where worms, bacteria, and fungi break down leaves, pine needles, plants, bugs, and other detritus. In woodland areas, there are usually three O horizons. The first is that of pine needles, twigs, and leaves. The second is that of partially composted material. The third is a dark humus, not actually soil but rather a mature compost.
The O horizon fascinates me. It’s alive. It is its own little world where everything that was of the earth, comes back to earth (“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”).
All this pondering was a mind game of sorts, a way to avoid what I set out to do. I reined it in after a while, focused, and still found my rebellious mind protesting. “This is not my definition of earth” or “the definition of earth changes depending on where I am!” my mind thought, wanting to deflect and distract. I set it aside, took some pictures of earth, stayed within the rules, but not within rules. Because there are exceptions, aren’t there? To everything, I suppose.
Is that the mind deflecting and distracting again? Probably so.
Thank you for stopping by and wandering around with me. It is a warm and beautiful day and, as you might have noticed, the foliage around here is finally beginning to put on its fall colors. Our sunrises and sunsets have been taking on autumn’s colors, too. I’m going to head to the Point this evening to watch the sunset show (scheduled for 6:04 PM). Join me if you like.
Be good, be kind, be loving. Just Be. 🙂
A few of the 10,000 reasons to be happy: 406) Earth, however you define it. 407) Peering down into the O horizon on the forest floor. 408) Sassafras trees. 409) Taking the time to sit on the dock and watch the tide rush in. 410) Autumn sunrises and sunsets.