Whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
And the dirt
just to make clear
Where they come from.
Winter rain, falling for ten thousand years. I celebrate Groundhog Day on my hands and knees in the muddy sludge of the February garden, grubbing out the tangled roots of Michaelmas asters in the rain.
Although it is best not to dig in heavy rain, I have no choice. The asters must be lifted and divided before they leaf out so that they have time to become established in the summer garden. Already spring has begun to slit open the primeval eyelid leaves of the flowers; they reveal their first pale green retinas of light, winking against the dark soil of the garden.
I am a roots woman by nature and inclination, in accord with poet Pablo Neruda as he confides that, “When I lived amongst the roots / they pleased me more than flowers did,”—especially since in this season the connection between roots and shoots is so vivid. Nothing, however, has prepared me for the Medusa snarl of Michaelmas roots that I unearth from the wet February ground.
These roots are a startling sanguine red, pumping with life and blood-stained with the raw ichor of winter. I lift them with care and mild horror, inextricably bound up in their knot.
Buddhist teaching and practice seeks out the root causes of suffering and liberation, examining with unsentimental candor the essence of Mind and Nature. The method of investigation is radically simple: ehipassika or “see for yourself,” the Buddha taught.
In his own investigation Buddha took his place at the root, or foot, of a great tree, with the earth as his witness and solid ground as his home base. Settling himself on himself, Buddha sat down at the root of the world where the invisible life of practice meets the manifest nature of all that is.
Solid earth is alive with tangled roots. This underground world practices secretly, working within, responsible for the sustenance of all above-ground life. The roots of higher plants are actually classified as soil organisms. They both culture and compose the ground of life, a field far beyond form and emptiness.
Roots are muscular and impolite, breaking open seized ground. In active root systems new cells are produced just behind the growing tip of the root. As these cells elongate and grow, the root tip is pushed forward, developing a protective cap of cells. If this cap is ruptured by stiff ground the protoplasm of the root tip exudes a viscous slime to help lubricate the continuous path of the root.
The serpentine tangle of red-rooted asters in our winter garden reminds me of how much roots grow. A single rye plant, not unlike those planted for cover crop in the Green Gulch fields, has been measured with a fibrous root system exceeding 350 miles in aggregate length.
Alive or dead, roots function dynamically in the soil community, where the number of soil organisms in the rhizosphere of living roots is 100 times greater than in soil uninhabited by roots. Decomposing roots also provide massive amounts of organic matter to sustain the micro flora and fauna of every garden, for in one cup of fertile, root-cultured soil there are more microorganisms than there are human beings on planet earth.
Gardening and meditation practice is radical work, rooted in the invisible and summoning each practitioner to “see for yourself.” As you take up your work, leave your roots on, just to make clear where you come from. ▼
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