I have come here to harvest humus
from the rotten bottom of the compost
I left by the apple tree last fall.
Raking away the shrouding cover
of dry leaves reveals the dark heart
of newborn earth.
Leaning into the spade,
I slice through the soil
and lift it into the rusty wheelbarrow.
The apple tree stands by,
her wide boughs bespangled
with white blossoms:
she has thrown herself into spring,
pouring perfume over my head,
and over the greening land,
with no thought to the cost —
a bride beaming beneath her veil,
every night her wedding night.
The bumblebees seem bedazzled;
they float from bough to bough
in reverent attendance, kissing each
blossom once, twice, three times.
The swallows don’t care;
they kite and dive through the sweet air
like children playing chase.
The robins sing, the blackbirds scold,
and gangs of house sparrows
tumble through the yard
like they own the place.
The thieving squirrels race
up and down the old maple;
in August, they will strip the tree
of every unripe apple,
sour though they be.
But now I bend again to the spade:
the only way to move the Earth
is one shovelful at a time —
although it helps if you hum,
as the wise & patient bees know.
Soon enough, the barrow is full,
and I stagger to the garden
to spread blankets of good humus
over the sun-warmed beds.
The first stars are brightening,
each trailing an entourage of worlds —
most, dead wastelands,
and none with wonders to rival
this prodigal tree,
these ancient bees,
or even this pile
of rotting leaves.
Let the unsouled stars
wheel through the night sky.
The rest of us living things
ready to take up once again
the sweet work of living.
About the poem…
Does the world really need another poetic ode to spring? I wouldn’t be surprised if some ancient text by Sappho or Theocritus complained that the subject was really played out already. You think twice before starting on a project that has not only been done before, but done far better than you’ll ever achieve, a thousand times over.
And yet. Like all primal subjects (love and loss, birth and death) the annual miracle that nature enacts on the earth, the revival and renewal of the chain of life, demands we pause and pay attention. As I note in the poem, Earth may very well be the only place in the entire universe — certainly in our own neck of the galaxy, anyway — where this particular drama unfolds. By attending to its various acts, we hope to see with new eyes the miracle of even the most mundane acts of our own lives.
It seems worthy of yet another poem.
I conceived of this poem while actually doing the work described here, so it is “based on true events,” as they say. The poem originally contained a line cursing the squirrels for their annual robbery of “my” apples, but I cut it in a spirit of charity, and also poetic economy.