"Watching Where I Step"
I don’t recall her voice on that first day, just the way she curved her arms, touched the floor with her hands, brought her hands to her eyes, and pulled her palms to her heart. Her eyes were closed. The room was quiet.
Before learning a single step, I — and every Bharath Natyam dance trainee for the past thousand years — learned this suite of motions. My new teacher did not explain the meaning of her graceful gestures, and my 6-year-old self didn’t ask. Instead I concentrated on absorbing the complicated steps of this classical Indian dance, an amalgam of athletic footwork and elegant storytelling.
After a few years, I did learn the the meaning, though I understood its larger implications only later. The motions convey a simple apology:
Forgive me, Mother Earth. I am about to step upon you.
* * *
On a perfect Iowa spring day, my husband and I took our toddler son to walk near Lake McBride. We followed just a bit behind, trying to allow him some space to explore. Every few steps he squatted on his little haunches and touched the ground.
I worried, of course, that he was over-tired and getting dirty, but soon realized he was merely enchanted by the grass, pushing it back and forth with his chubby fingers, grasping the soft bristles with delight.
Once an English major, always an English major, so my mind immediately conjured up Walt Whitman: “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.”
In Song of Myself, Whitman proposes a multiplicity of answers to the child’s question, grappling with the realization that the question is anything but simple. And the abundance of possibilities, the plethora of options, demonstrate the wonder with which Whitman regarded the world around him — the wonder now manifested in my toddler.
* * *
I grew up a homebody. However, my husband’s love of the outdoors drew me outside frequently during our early years of marriage. By the time our second child was born, being outside was part of our family routine, and our outdoor ambitions kept pace with the children’s growth. At first we played in our yard in suburban Indianapolis, chasing each other around the swing set we’d nailed together ourselves. Then we walked to ponds and fed the ducks and rolled down hills. Eventually we trekked the forest trails in Eagle Creek Park and ventured to nature reserves all over the Midwest.
I put aside my germaphobic tendencies, loaded up on Purell, and let my sons touch the ground and pick up sticks and trace the leaves and kiss the flowers and jump from rocks. I watched them shiver as they placed their fingers and feet in icy stream water (though I Purell-ed them immediately afterward).
National parks became our vacation destinations of choice — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, and many more until our final stop before empty nest-hood, Olympic National Park in Washington state. Perhaps because I never fully had my bearings on our journeys, the boys quickly learned to sense their coordinates, and they led us through the splitting trails and back again with ease.
As I look at a photo in my study, showing the boys, ages 3 and 5, joyfully clutching sticks, I remember their young voices declaring that they had transformed into trees. I remember the four of us, feeling love, awe, and connection to our surroundings. I remember Whitman, his hands lifted upward in reverence, standing in full consciousness of a living, breathing earth with a beating heart.
* * *
Hindus often recite a Sanskrit mantra before arising each morning:
Samudhra Vasane Devi, Parvatha Sthana Mandithe,
Vishnu Pathni Namasthubhyam, Pada Sparsam Kshamasva Mae.
O, Mother Earth,
draped by oceans, adorned with mountains and jungles . . . .
Forgive me for stepping upon you with my feet.
Like the suite of classical dance motions I learned long ago, these words embody a way of existing in the world — one with regard for the profound relevance of the earth in daily life, combined with the understanding that human actions can impact the earth negatively. Humanity and its home are interwoven intimately, influencing one another continually.
As an American-born child of Indian immigrants, I try to understand this lack of connection between people and planet, a connection that many ancient cultures honored deeply. In high school I read E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, https://amzn.to/2LuL5cR and had difficulty visualizing the world he presented — one in which every human being exists entirely in a personalized pod through which all interactions occur, in which every person believes that the technology supporting her pod comprises her entire environment. For the characters, the planet beyond the Machine does not exist.
Now I wonder at Forster’s prescience.
* * *
I remember the day my younger son explained that heavy metals are seeping into our soil and water at alarming rates. He sprang into action with a series of electronic waste drives and eventually diverted 30,000 pounds of such waste from landfills. Like so many of his generation, he has become an environmental steward. Perhaps this would have occurred even without our days of trekking and hiking and camping. I do believe, though, that those days made him feel a part of his planet and naturally inspired a desire in him to care for it.
As he leaves home, I consider how I, too, can transform my own reverence for the earth into action — perhaps through advocacy, and certainly through greater attention to my daily usage of resources. I also consider how to maintain my connection to the outdoors now that our treks and trips as a foursome will occur only infrequently.
To that end, I have composed my own morning mantra, one intended to evoke the motions and emotions of the dance suite and the Sanskrit words I learned long ago. It is a mantra that reaches beyond apology and into gratitude, that reminds me that I must be a defender and preserver of my home. I will imagine curving my arms, touching the floor with my hands, bringing my hands to my eyes, and pulling my palms to my heart. And I will whisper, I honor this ground beneath me — I protect this earth around me.
Notes: Indian classical dance begins with a gesture of respect and gratitude to the earth — it is one of many ancient traditions acknowledging and honoring the connectedness between humanity and earth. Referencing the works of Walt Whitman and E.M. Forster, this essay explores how we might regain this deep regard for where we step.