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  • Calista Ocean

Dirt, leaves, and tree bark

We must teach our children to smell the earth, to taste the rain, to touch the wind,to see things grow, to hear the sun rise and night fall. To care.

~ John Cleal, poet and painter

The wooden bench is dirty, but I don't mind. I came here to put my hands in the dirt. To touch the dead leaves and broken branches on the ground. I'm sitting near a shallow, slow-flowing stream that looks like it's a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes during the Summer, but it's not quite Spring. The weather is barely warm enough to be comfortable, but it feels perfect to me after a Winter that was marked by the chill of grief and flurries of uncertainty about the coming year.

I sit and do nothing. It's peaceful here, but not entirely quiet since others pass within a few feet of me on the trail every few minutes. Some smile at me as they walk by.

It's time to begin writing again. I kept thinking I'd write a piece about the transition to the new year, but each post I started to write felt forced and inauthentic. It felt like I was trying to bring closure to something, so that I could begin another thing. Perhaps it's the part of me that still likes things orderly, despite the fact that I love chaos.

I decide to skip the transition.

Rather than trying to describe where I've been and what it means, I get up off the bench and wander toward the stream. Squatting down, I put my hands on the ground, ruffling dry grass as if it was a lover's hair. A few ants scurry out from underneath leaves, almost invisible since they're the same color as the dirt. I roll my fingers back and forth, feeling loose particles move over the hard, compact earth beneath them.

Over my shoulder, I see a young girl with a blonde ponytail marching ahead of her parents. She's wearing a peach sweatshirt and flowered leggings. Her pace slows when she sees me. Her eyes widen. She looks at her parents and then back at me. Squatting in the dirt seems like such a natural thing to do, but the little girl looks pretty worried that I may be breaking some kind of a rule by stepping off the trail to touch the sticks and mud near the stream. I wave at her, and she timidly waves back and continues leading her parents around the next turn.

I move closer to the stream, sticking my fingers in the mud. Although squishy at the surface, it's also dense. I can only press in up to my first knuckle, and it's hard to scoop up even a small handful. I enjoy the coolness of it for a few seconds, and then rinse it off in the water.

I stand and take a few steps to stand in front of a tree. First, I run my fingers over the bark, feeling the unevenness of it. Then I lay my cheek up against it, noticing the contrast of the roughness against my soft skin. Finally, I press my nose close to one of the many cracks that create patterns up and down the trunk. I inhale. It smells like dust. I wish it smelled like vanilla. Some evergreens do. When was the last time I smelled one of those? It makes me a little sad that I can't remember.

White, fluffy seeds float through the air, looking like small insects. Some land on the water, making it look like a dark-colored quilt. Others group like cobwebs , wrapped around bare branches extending out over the stream. They look like filmy constellations of stars.

For a moment, I'm one of those seeds. Suspended there. Trembling in the breeze. Waiting for the wind to pick up and carry me away. To somewhere. Anywhere really.

But it doesn't. I'm here. Now. Feet on the ground. Sun on my skin. Ready to wander back down the path to see where it takes me next.


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