The first time she came to my home, she brought with her – as a hostess gift – a vase of sticks. The sticks were a wonderful mix of lengths and thicknesses and colors. Some were frosted with grey lichen. Some were bent and twisted from wind and weather. Some were still green and supple with youth, others dark and aged and wizened. Each one was its own life history. Each one was chosen especially on its individual merits to create this unique bouquet.
I knew right then we were going to be great friends. And so we have become. And, for her last birthday, I gave her a basket filled with the long, ruddy-red and fawn-colored curls of bark that had fallen from my Crepe Myrtle trees, gathered one-by-one, according to shape and size, color variation and personality.
Another friend of mine, a neighbor who regularly walks her dogs past my house, recently brought me a large round flower basket full of “found things” that she’d gathered along that day’s walk. There were huge perfect pine cones – some still fragrant with their stems and needles attached. There were magnolia seed pods, deep brown and velvet black, dotted red with waiting life. There were large magnificent leaves.
And yet another friend brings me stones. Some from as far away as Europe and Alaska, some found as nearby as a curbside. Often they are from river beds where she kayaks. And many are in the shape of hearts (to add to my own growing collection).
My former dog Sophie used to bring me sticks as gifts, too – a ritual that meant a great deal to her, perhaps because of her long-ago but still remembered wolf lineage, where the gift-giving of sticks is regularly practiced and highly prized. Cat Tuppence has for years gathered and shared acorns with me, choosing them one at a time, always preferring them over humanly crafted toys and treasures.
I suspect that many of us have friends who give us plants – often cuttings and bulbs from their own gardens – all valued as expressions of nature’s beauty and friendship. And most of us surely appreciate the grand burst of stars overhead on a clear summer night. Or the sun melting down into fantastic autumn colors. Or moons rising in winter to fill the sky with intrigue. We stand in awe of vast oceans that undulate with energy and life, and mountains that loom, and giant forests that leave us silent. The Earth and our universe inspire and center us with their grandeur.
But I also suspect that – especially in winter – we too often just step over the artful twigs at our very feet, the smooth and dearly shaped pebbles, the fallen flower petals with rusted colors, the ant hills that are as stunning as glaciers with their hidden below-ground secrets, the scrambling spiders weaving silken homes, the once thriving birds nests still bedded with feathers and chips of blue egg shells, the spent leaves that have given their lives to feed wondrous trees with sunlight and have shaded their roots for nearly a year. We rake up the past, the ground-covering leaves and seedpods, the pinestraw and moss, the seemingly insignificant lives recently gone or still being lived – and we pile them at the curb to be carried away from our sight – never missing their beauty … completely missing their beauty.
And yet, there are those of us who do unabashedly cull through the small bits and pieces of the debris and detritus of the earth. We scavenge the ground, pull from the wreckage around the base of trees, we pick stuff up out of the mud and from under rain puddles – simply because we find the purity and loveliness in it all. I suspect we see the best part of it with the best part of ourselves.
Henry David Thoreau observed that “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” I suspect that if we could all see with such eyes, we might do better at keeping it that way – sacred and valued, a gift of beauty beyond reason. It could be an epiphany of awareness to the truth and sanctity of the Earth. And it is hard to harm that which we call sacred and beautiful.
With such a point of view, we might even be compelled to sometimes gather small bits of it into baskets or vases. Perhaps as a gift for a dear friend … or for making a new one. A gift of sticks and epiphany.