Skip to main content
On Roots and Rivers featured img
Category: Worthy of Respect

On Roots and Rivers

January 27, 2023

If you look the right way you can see that the whole world is a garden.

Frances Hodges Burnett

We live, my husband and I, in a cozy neighborhood at the base of a mountain, in a valley encircled by even more mountains. We live near a lake, alongside a river, surrounded by majestic peaks and high valleys and rushing water and narrow canyons and wide alluvial plains along an ancient and extinct pleistocene lake bed that dried up more than ten thousand years ago now, that is if the geologists are to be believed. In the winter the nature that surrounds us creates a world that is still and white, covered over in snow and ice, the wind shaping patterns in the deep drifts along the ground, thin light edging the tops of the mountains in golds and pinks as the sun rises, later in the day than expected as it tips over the tops of the mountains. In the summer the river that cuts through the valley runs fast while the water flows, as water does, in a downward trajectory, snow melt running across the ground until it joins other snowmelt in ever larger rivulets and streams and creeks and branches and brooks and tributaries until it makes a river that cuts through and under and around roads and sidewalks and bridges, where it is channeled through culverts and ditches and drainages as it navigates its way through an obstacle of human habitation and habitat to the lake below. 

Our home was built where an orchard used to grow, the last in a series of homes that make up a singular block, and we have now lived here for twenty years, long enough that there are few that remember the old catalpa tree that used to grow at the end of the street where you turn to get to our house, the one that was removed over a decade ago, and even fewer still that recall the original orchard, who recognize what once was, except for those who garden, those who tend the yards, those who spend every spring in the fruitless fight to pull errant orchard grass out of flower beds and garden beds and from around the foundations of every structure and fenceline, because once that tenacious grass has sunk its roots into the dark and fertile soil there is no eradicating it, not even with the most dedicated application of sweat and effort and rough and cracked skin, the most diligent acquisition of blisters and sunburn and heatstroke and dirt smudged fingernails, no, it is there to stay, as are the remnants of the orchard itself, the old bits of wood fence I am still finding buried along the property line, and the broken trowel, and the old tennis balls that are barely recognizable as such under the weight of mold and mildew and time hanging heavy where they lay forgotten among the remnants of the roots of old trees, roots that spread through the rocky soil under our yard and home and neighborhood more than two decades after their trunks and branches and leaves have disappeared. 

I do not know how to tell you about the way I feel, surrounded by the mountains and the rivers and the lakes and the sky, the way I cherish the history that I feel in this place where my parents and grandparents and great grandparents walked and lived and farmed, some of the first people to settle in this space where I now live with my husband and my children, except to say that it is remarkable to me how nature holds space for each and every individual part of the world around us, even the contradictory ones, the hot nights and cold days, the floods and the droughts, the uneven roads and the dead ends and the lightning-shattered trees and the tiny white flowered moss that grows in the dead damp space beneath.

It is remarkable, the way everything seems connected, a system of interdependence where every moment is unique and magical and miraculous, moments that we could learn from as we sit in our silent rooms in our individual homes on our carefully delineated properties in our neighborhoods and suburbs and cities and nations, all carefully divided from one another by high fences and sturdy walls and imaginary lines while the remnants of old roots connect us underneath it all. 

I do not know how to tell the stories I want to tell, how to show the multitude of threads that are woven between us without referencing the orchard that once stood in this place, or the catalpa tree at the end of the block that is gone, but that I still expect to find every time I turn onto the street, or the memories of the older gentleman who once showed up at our door, years ago, when I was a young mother and walking every day around the block to drop my oldest daughter off at preschool, the daughter who is now almost ready to graduate from college, and all these years later I still remember his face when he held out the loaf of warm bread with an apology and a smile and a welcome. His house stood at the place where I crossed the road to cut through an empty lot in front of the school, but he did not know that and saw only that I was avoiding his house, and I did not see him working in his yard in the mornings, and he was afraid he had offended me, or scared me, and I had overlooked him standing there each day, and he came with banana bread as an offering. It was a delicious offering, a tasty token, a tribute to the ways I have since learned that we need to see one another, to observe, to take time to note and notice and mark our intersections and intertwinings and points of connection. It was a reminder to look up as I walk through neighborhoods and along rivers at the base of the mountains, as I wander through empty lots where there are fruit trees that still grow, the isolated remnants of an orchard that once was, tied into the roots that bind us all, clumps and clusters of trees that stand under the clear blue sky in the valley next to a river that flows into a lake—a witness to what is, what was, and what could be again.