One day in late August, I attempted to sit down in my yard on a blanket to eat a sandwich. My yard was ripe with mosquitoes and so I had lathered myself in homemade bug spray for this special event. I had a front row seat to a live nature show. You see, around July 4th, when the rain had finally curbed its assertive resolve to drown the Eastern Shore and the ground could once again bear the weight of my shoes, I planted flowers.
Now, I had originally intended to plant a wildflower mix, but I settled for a mix of 100% GMO free, open pollinated and chemical free sunflowers (Helianthus Annuus “Mammoth, Autumn Beauty” and “Velvet Queen”) and vibrant red zinnias (Zinnia elegans). I ambitiously bought enough seeds for about a quarter of an acre and had a friend with a tractor plant the seeds for me. I had open dirt to plant and “watching the grass grow” just seemed too boring of an option. Watching a field of sunflowers and zinnias grow is much more captivating.
With an old flannel blanket situated just right, I carefully laid down my tall clear glass of sun tea and began to look for just the right spot to sit. I was greeted by a nervous hummingbird hovering just in front of me, staring. I held very still and returned the gaze. He hovered for what seemed like an eternity (but was most likely about 10 seconds) and then flitted off. I waved and whispered goodbye as if he understood. I had a hummingbird feeder on the other side of my property and the sugar water had run out the day before. I took it as a sign to refill it pronto; message received Mr. Hummingbird.
I sat down cross legged and, now that I was at ground level, the stretching sunflowers at 6 feet tall made me feel negligible. The sunflowers at my level looked like a forest and, in the understory, the zinnias had started to show their colors. Vigorous red zinnias seemed even more stunning against the green backdrop of the sunflower field than they would have in an open field. The sunflowers, tall and thin, allowed just enough sun through for their neighbors below to thrive. It was a picturesque community relationship.
I began to unwrap the wax paper from my sandwich and thought about the ingredients that composed my lunch. It was a gluten free vegetarian wrap with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, pea shoots, sliced avocado, shredded carrots and dilled havarti with tangy mustard. Most of my sandwich was made possible by bees, butterflies and other pollinators. How fitting it was to watch the creators of my sandwich hard at work doing what they do best. Not only did I feel small next to the towering sunflowers, some of which had yet to bloom and were still rocketing even closer to the sun, but I also felt small next to the bees that were buzzing about from zinnia to zinnia. How diligent they were. Their work ethic – unmatched by any human.
As I listened to the low, steady humming and watched them perform a huge task in a tiny world sheltered by the stalks above, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt; remorse for the struggle their species tries to endure due to the thoughtless hands of the human world. Habitat loss, pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, climate change and disease combine to attack the health of bees. By the way, Maryland is the first state to ban the use of neonicotinoids, so I take some comfort in that.
My thoughts turned to Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle, a turtle so struck with his own importance that, at the expense of others, tries to rule over all he can see.
“I am king of the trees! I’m king of the birds! And I am king of the bees! I am king of the butterflies! King of the air! Ah me! What a wonderful throne! What a wonderful chair! I’m Yertle the turtle! Oh Marvelous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see!”
If you haven’t read the book, Yertle’s quest to rule ends poorly.
As humans try ever so presumptuously to control nature by carving our farmland into perfectly conforming tracts of land void of diversification and pungent with chemicals, nature retaliates. As hard as we try, we cannot rule nature and to try is to destroy that which we as humans need to thrive. Instead of encouraging a symbiotic relationship with nature, we seek to rule it and that is unwise.
At this time, humans are spending less and less time outdoors while more and more research is revealing the healing properties of time spent outside. Scientific studies are proving that “Nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative.” In her book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams explores and reveals our need for nature and provides the scientific evidence to back up her claim that now, more than ever, we must not turn our backs to the woods.
When I sat on my blanket and watched my nature show, I didn’t think of it as science in action. I saw stunning beauty in the butterfly, food makers in the bees, an artful display of flowers and, ultimately, a small peaceful community hidden from much of the world by magnificent sunflowers. This scene was art, it was action, it was complex and it was simple. It fed my mind and, ironically, my belly as I couldn’t have enjoyed that sandwich if it wasn’t for bees.
At a time when many have turned away from science, I suggest an alternate option: set yourself up for a wild experience. Grab a blanket and a sandwich and head out to the woods, find a quiet patch, sit down and just watch and listen and think. You might be surprised by what you witness or what comes to mind. You might examine your sandwich and appreciate it a little more.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau, after living on Walden Pond for over two years and being a keen observer of nature had it figured out in his book, Walden: “Why should we hurry with such waste of life? We are determined to be starved, before we are hungry.”
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. Their family lives with multiple food allergies and intolerances, including: gluten, tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.