By Rev. Carol Bodeau
Walt Whitman is my favorite poet, and this morning, as I come in from picking sweet basil, from harvesting and culling the bed of dusky sage outside the kitchen, and from weeding the flower beds in front of the house, I keep hearing this phrase from his Leaves of Grass: “to the garden, the world.”
I have to look it up to remember where it is in the collection. Is it from “Song of Myself”? No, it is from number 17 in the collection of poems that rocked the cultural and poetic world in the late 19th century. Whitman was unabashedly human, outrageously sensual, and proudly American. So there are many things to remind me of him today: the garden, the heat and summer sun, the feeling of being strong and in a body, growing food. And also the fact that this week, the Fourth of July arrives with all its usual hoopla. I heard firecrackers from the neighbor’s farm this morning; they are probably testing supplies for tomorrow’s festivities. Out here in the country, folks take fireworks celebrations into their own hands.
Here’s the whole poem.
To the garden, the world, anew ascending,
Potent mates, daughters, sons, preluding,
The love, the life of their bodies, meaning and being,
Curious, here behold my resurrection, after slumber;
The revolving cycles, in their wide sweep, have brought me again,
Amorous, mature—all beautiful to me—all wondrous;
My limbs, and the quivering fire that ever plays through them, for reasons, most wondrous;
Existing, I peer and penetrate still,
Content with the present—content with the past,
By my side, or back of me, Eve following,
Or in front, and I following her just the same.
There are so many things I love about Whitman, and about this poem, that it would take weeks to begin to talk about them all. But the thing that strikes me most today is the mention of Eve in the ending of the poem.
How many of us have absorbed—consciously or unconsciously—the idea that the Earth is a place of suffering? The mythic Garden of Eden story as told in many religious traditions would have us believe that we left the Garden of Eden. More accurately, they insist that we were booted out for being too curious, too eager, too sensual. Whitman defies all that.
He asserts that we are still in the Garden, and suggests that Eve is just around the next bend in the path, behind a towering tree or waiting by the river, drawing us forward, or behind, to some great secret or mystery. He celebrates this fact with the same passion and enthusiasm that characterize his early work.
Today, this week, I choose to remember his joyful, exuberant sense of embodied pleasure in being alive. I want to notice and directly experience in my life, my community, and my land—both the earth herself, and the nation—the same sort of vibrant, coherent yet diverse vitality, the very diversity that Whitman forced his society to look at. He didn’t shy away from the ‘ugly’ or the uncomfortable; he embraced it all, and found in it what we might now call its ‘inherent worth and dignity.’
But Whitman saw that inner spark, that life force, with a vigor that I like.
I hope that this summer brings you a sense of vitality, a powerful joy in just being alive. And if you are struggling to find that joy, or finding your focus drawn to things that are troubling, or that take away your sense of curiosity and possibility, I encourage you with this: go to the garden, the world, and see it anew. Find the outrageous way that weeds with big blue flowers flourish on roadsides. Notice the insistent life of the insects, and the bats that hunt them. And embrace the surging, upwelling of energy and perpetual growth that is so obvious here, even in the heat, the humidity, and the storms of our little piece of the garden that is Tennessee.