I found in the woods in Maryland a wildflower, the bloodroot flower. It blooms very early in the spring, around the time of Lent and Easter, depending on when Easter falls. The reason why it’s called the bloodroot is because the root itself, if you press it, you break it, you’ll get a red dye that can be used as a dye. But the bloom itself only lasts a day. But it comes out of the sepulcher of the earth. And what it leaves is these heart-shaped leaves. And that is a microcosm of resurrection for me.
I have a wild imagination. You know, I mean, I’ve described the stakes in my vegetable garden in the wintertime as crosses on which bodies are draped, you know. I don’t mean that in a gory sense. The geese in the sky remind me of the crosses that pilgrims have carved into ancient Christian sites. I think there are signs of the cross all over creation. How do you account for that? Well, clearly, we’ve forgotten, we’ve forgotten paradise, we forget God. And that’s why I think we have scripture to remind us.
by Christopher Martin, guest contributor
The farm and now heritage center of Byron Herbert Reece, who lived and wrote in the Choestoe area of Union County, Georgia. (photo: UGArdener/Flickr, CC by-NC 2.0).
It’s about as simple as poems come:
Easter is on the field:
With bloom their tomb unsealed
To April air.
New as the dew shake cold,
Beside their anxious dams:
Easter is on the fold.
Its simplicity shouldn’t be confused with sentimentality, though. Today, little lambs, blossoming flowers, and the like are stock symbols of the season, largely taken for granted, appropriated by salesmen to be consumed by us. We buy stuffed toy lambs, chocolate lambs, Hallmark cards with pictures of lambs. It’s not my point to say whether this is right or wrong, but it is clearly sentimental.
Because Easter is a sentimental and therefore commercialized holiday, it’s all too easy to read Reece’s poem through pastel lenses, to imagine chicks and bunnies at the feet of the lambs, to imagine the lambs frolicking and stopping to sniff the blossoming flowers. But I don’t think it’s a sentimental poem at all.
Byron Herbert Reece wrote “Easter” in a setting far removed from the commercialized holiday we know today — sometime around the middle of the last century in a north Georgia valley bounded by mountains and crossed by the Nottely River, in a farming community called Choestoe. Reece himself was a small-scale farmer who worked a piece of bottomland alongside rhododendron-veiled Wolf Creek. As such, the flowers and lambs in his verses are not abstract ones. They weren’t conceived in the mind of an entrepreneur to be born in a Chinese factory; they are flowers and lambs from nowhere but the dew-wet hills of Georgia. The poet saw the blossoming of peach trees, service trees, and laurel. He watched the shivering newborn lambs owned by a Choestoe neighbor for reasons far beyond sentiment.
If “Easter” is not a sentimental poem, then, what is it? The next temptation, I think, is to read it as a symbolic poem, to see the blossoming flowers and the lambs as signs of new life with the obvious correlation to Christ’s resurrection. But I don’t think that’s quite right, either.
Reece was a practicing Christian, to be sure — even filling in for his preacher from time to time — but he was also too good of a poet to build a poem upon cliché, and the great cliché of Easter is that the vitality of spring represents the vitality of the risen Christ. To see the cycling of nature as nothing more than a religious symbol is to live on another plane. I think Reece understood, with Thoreau, that “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” And so Reece does something lovely with this poem: He turns the usual metaphor around.
“Flowers declare / With bloom their tomb unsealed / To April air,” he writes. The “tomb unsealed” is an allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection, of course, but it is the tomb, rather than the blossoming flowers, that serves as symbol here. In the same way, it is Easter itself that blesses the sheepfold, and not the other way around.
Flowers and lambs, then — and by extension all created things — have worth independent of doctrine. Doctrine, at its best — and in this case the doctrine of the resurrection — sheds light on the holiness of this world. Reece would’ve known that Mary Magdalene, the first to see the risen Christ, mistook him for a gardener. Resurrection abounds if we would but look.
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Christopher Calderhead, guest contributor
I live in a rented New York City apartment. The only outdoor space I have access to, besides the sidewalk, is the paved alley alongside my building. And, like many of my neighbors, I use this shared outdoor space for all sorts of activities that don’t fit in a small apartment. As I write, a teen-aged neighbor is practicing his Junior ROTC drill in the alley, and I can hear the thud and clank of his rifle stock as he learns to twirl it in tempo.
It is not an unpleasant place to live. But there is nothing green — no soil, no grass, no plants of any kind — except the street trees I can see from my front window.
This year when my friend Tamara invited me to share her backyard garden, I was delighted. She and her husband Karl have always been incredibly generous with their space. They love nothing more than hosting dinner for 25 on improvised tables and street-find chairs.
The garden is large by city standards. The vegetable patch is 8 feet wide and almost 25 feet deep, and there’s a patch of grass, to boot.
This year, we laid out the vegetable patch together. Neat, orderly rows were prepared for tomatoes, string beans, carrots, beets, and radishes, and every kind of leafy green we could think of. There’s also an herb patch with oregano, chives, rosemary, sage, and lavender. I lobbied for nasturtiums to fill the planters on the paved part of the yard.
And last Saturday, Tamara, Karl, and I were joined by another neighbor, Heather, and we did our first planting. The herbs and seeds for root vegetables went into the ground, as well as a selection of greens. We’re probably over-ambitious, and all of us are amateur gardeners, but it was good to be outdoors on a sunny afternoon bickering over mulch and debating the merits of the soil. The elderly Greek couple next door chatted with us over the chain-link fence while they tended their own patch, with its fig trees and grape arbor.
"Spiritual" is not a word I use very much these days. It’s too nebulous, and encourages sentimentality. But I am interested in the actions that bring us back into balance, that make us whole human beings. And planting the garden with friends does that in two ways.
The most important way for me is how it brings us into a deeper sense of community and friendship. The garden is something we will share — the work of setting out the plants and tending them, as well as the pleasures that will come in a few weeks as we begin to eat the fruits of our labors. And it’s been made possible by two people who are intent on living a shared life with their friends, an antidote to the competitive and atomized culture of this difficult city we live in.
And the second: it restores balance to my life. To be able to touch the soil. To walk barefoot outdoors. To look at the weather not just as the planet’s plot to make me lose my umbrella but as a living system that will nourish — and threaten — the small plants we’ve put in the ground.
Living a city life is compartmentalized and far from natural cycles. Having a garden redresses that balance.
Christopher Calderhead is an artist and writer living in Astoria, Queens. He is the editor of Letter Arts Review and teaches at Bronx Community College and the Pratt Institute.Comments