for all his bounty to me
What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
For four months when I was twenty, I lived in a cabin in a tiny town up the mountain from Ashland, Oregon. Once a sawmill, the place had been converted into cabins and a library and a classroom that housed sixteen of us, all college students away from our home universities for the semester. We had no internet or telephone except for two dial-up computers and two landlines in a shed across the road. Instead, we hiked the mountain and plunked rocks into the pond and read on the front porch or tucked near the woodstove inside. Hollyhocks and ajuga grew around the porch, and we managed to sprout a flaxseed merely by failing to remove the towel from under the dish drainer for weeks on end. It was in that woodsmoke-fragrant cabin, with no microwave or dishwasher, that I met a beet.
Lots of people have bad beet memories: canned and soggy from their childhood. I had never had a beet, so I was indifferent.
My roommate was cooking in the kitchen, singing something jazzy in her soft, mousy voice and then suddenly, she yelped with glee. I hopped up from the chair in the front room and came into the kitchen to investigate. “Grace, look at this beet! Isn’t it beautiful?” She had just sliced through its crimson root. A deep pink juice covered the cutting board and her fingertips. I couldn’t believe such flamboyant color came from something as ugly and unassuming as a beet.
I don’t remember how she cooked it, but I do remember thinking the color alone was delicious, made mysterious because it had been kept in the secret heart of a beet.
I’ve made beets dozens of times since then, each time mostly for the surprising pleasure of slicing through the beet, watching its pink stain spread and dye everything it touches. I love that beets will be flushed red whether we cut into them or not, that they are content to keep their color hidden and equally happy to offer it for us to behold.
Beets remind me that this world is a great big gift.
When I think about evil for too long, I sometimes forget this. In a paper I wrote earlier this semester, I explained sin this way: “Sin is death. It is the opposite of life. Sin is not-flourishing, not-growing, not-thriving. Sin means that the world is on a trajectory toward decay, toward undoing, toward withering, toward erosion and disintegration and extinction.”
I meant that. In many ways, it’s true. The fruit on my counter will rot if I don’t eat it up. Wind and rain chip away at buildings and cliff faces alike. We barely make it to twenty before we notice that our backs and knees ache, that our metabolism takes its own sweet time, that our skin doesn’t hold its shape.
But last week, in the garden at dusk, I rescinded those sentences in my paper. A wall of cloud had piled up west of the house, making the air in the street dark, except that the very same cloudwall acted as a ceiling for the setting sun, which glinted off in great orange shouts. In the garden, the herbs were coming alive—sage, thyme, oregano, chives, rosemary, lovage. I didn’t plant a single one; they were all the work of a friend who lived in this house before us. Sure, I cut them back last fall, trying to keep the sage from getting too leggy and the oregano from overtaking everything. But they would’ve come back anyway, if a little less kempt.
Headed on a trajectory toward decay? Hardly! These plants are stunningly resilient. The rosemary, which dried up into a prickled comb over the winter and looked absolutely unsalvageable, has sprouted fragrant green needles. Out back, the old pea seeds I thought I’d give a chance are several inches tall and grasping for the first rung of twine on the trellis. Even the hydrangea—the hydrangea, which I bought on a whim after a particularly trying late-night trip to the grocery store, planted outside weeks before the last frost, and then dug up and brought back inside after its blossoms collapsed and its leaves froze hard—has a few glossy leaf-curls swelling from its stem.
A spring-young garden perfectly embodies what it is I love in Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson. I read the work of these writers because they get something that a lot of us don’t, including myself. Each of them sees the world for what it is: a gift from its Creator. And they love that world so deeply that it makes their hearts ache. Mary Oliver puts it this way in her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
…To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
If you think the world is your own creation, that the peas and rosemary are the work of your hands, then it’s idolatry. If you think the world is a given, that we can expect it to perform according to our demands of productivity, then that’s another kind of sin. The world is a given, but not in the sense that it can be taken for granted. It’s a given because it has been given to us to love and to cherish, to serve and to tend.
I want to remember this. May my first impulse always be gratitude.
Annie Dillard ends Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with a meditation on this gratitude. She writes, “I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest.”
Gratitude for the world involves awareness of our mortality and of the fleetingness of creation. But it doesn’t end there. Gratitude moves into marvelous abundance and creative activity and love and care.
Every morning, I step through the door and onto the damp soil and brush my hand over the bristles of thyme and pluck off a sprig of lemon balm and hold it to my nose and inhale its warm perfume and say, “Thank you, thank you.”