Blessings underfoot

White, shining white, they shone through the thick, dark earth. We thought we had discovered some unknown treasure that had never been heard of before. Earth pearls clustered in a heap, near the surface but well covered. It turned out to be better than that: eggs. What we had found can be seen in most gardens if you know where to look and are gentle. Eggs are definitely more interesting than inanimate stones. Then, after a moist, warm night, there they are in the morning - dozens of tiny snails, looking remarkably self-possessed and independent, working their way to the shelter of bushes and long grasses. The small wonder is that such earthy creatures emerge from this translucent white. Maybe it's their one bold gesture. The shells of the ones we know are subdued, though beautiful in a muted blending way. For such careful, cautious creatures to lay pearly eggs in brown earth is either careless or flamboyant. Fortunately, the earth looks after its own.

Earth: what tones and nuances of feeling the very word produces, and beneath all the images and facts is the persistent rhythm of growth. Thrumming across and beneath the surface of thought, it is there, an inevitable necessity. It's not just the obvious either, the admired and loved flowers, bushes, grasses, trees. These are the melody and symphony of earth, the most easily understood. Underneath the pulse is moving, shifting, nourishing, enriching. Some people have reservations about worms, slugs, snails, moles, toads, frogs - the minute creatures that thrive and strive within the generous mantle of this mutating soil. And who knows what lies deeper still? I find it enough to consider what I dig up a mere spadeswidth down. I was once told a trowelful of earth would provide a group of children with an absorbing session of investigation. And it has, on many occasions.

The other day I smelt a snail. It was oozing and bubbling out its slime, I think to clean out a crumb of earth. I tried to understand why some people find them objectionable. Sometimes dislike is connected with an unpleasant smell, so I sniffed and caught the delicate, unmistakable waft of damp earth. No more, just the clean, warm, growing smell that makes even the most reluctant gardener feel pleased to be down on her knees, rummaging and delving amongst the weeds or seedlings. It is such an encouraging smell and can only be paralleled by the feel and texture of damp loam or moist crumbling leaf mould. I can't begrudge the children mixing their silver sand with garden soil. It's inevitable, and the results are so much more worthwhile in both color and feel: like the difference between plasticine and real clay. Most children I know instinctively go for the clay, and it's not just the messiness of it. It contains an inherent life that you can feel at work, beneath your fingers. So it is that sand mixed with soil brings it alive. Who am I to discourage this?

It is a blessing, this earth: an unobtrusive gift of wonder in its miniscule variety; a kindness and gentleness that urges growing and movement; a sanctuary from the misapprehension of beauty. Look up, by all means, at the expanse and light of sky and mighty, stretching trees. But don't forget what you're standing on - and how vital are its roots.

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