Ten Declarations Concerning the Superiority of Roots
Declaration 1: The Baby Bunnies Under the Rosebush
Omaha, Nebraska, 1985: The large backyard of the house on Farnum Circle, our home of four years, West Virginia behind us, Louisiana and Illinois still to come, though we don’t know it yet. The magic hours of latest spring, heavenly light falling all around. Early dinner done, Dad home from work at the VA Hospital, and me, five years old, the oldest daughter, holding a spade to help him dig. Dad, a gardener in gardener’s gloves, prepping the ground to plant an American Beauty, blood-red, the front beds already too crowded with roses to fit another. Dad with the real shovel, then the dip in the dirt, and a gasp from beneath his mustache. “Kathy! Do you see these little guys?”
He brushes back the longish grass where he’d been about to dig in, like brushing the hair from a fevered face, and there: a heaving pile of baby bunnies, so many, I can’t even tell how many. He has upturned, but not fatally, a bunny nest.
The mom, he says, is out and gone, probably for food, leaving the baby bunnies in a warm, weird heap: fluffy fur from the parents, the babies still pretty naked, and leafy tufts and parchment-thin skin and ribs and pulsing hearts I can actually see underneath, a drum line of hearts among the newborn siblings, and my hand reaching without thinking and Dad saying, “Wait a sec, Kath-a-Roo. If you touch them, the mother-bunny won’t come back.”
Omaha, Nebraska, 1985. The point being: hidden things are better. Better than obvious ones.
Declaration 2: The French Philosopher and Christian Mystic Simone Weil Was a Genius
In his preface to Simone Weil’s book The Need for Roots, T.S. Eliot says, “We must simply expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.”
Simone Weil didn’t write a book called The Need for Branches. She worked on and off as an agricultural laborer; she knew from roots.
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” she says in her chapter on “Uprootedness.” “A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”
The uprooted, she argues, cannot resist attempting to uproot others, but whoever is rooted does not attempt to uproot anyone.
Declaration 3: The Baby Bunnies Under the Rosebush
Omaha, Nebraska, 1985: I go out to the yard the next day and look at the baby bunnies and think “Peter Rabbit” and think “Beatrix Potter” like the stories my mother reads us sometimes before bed. I look at the spot where the nest is and think, These, these are the Flopsy Bunnies. I want so badly to touch them, but I won’t, because to do so might make me like the villain in the books, murderous Mr. McGregor. That man was like a serial killer. No, I will not hurt the bunnies, down there where the roots of the rosebush were to go. I will let them stay rooted, covered up and growing.
Declaration 4: The Etymology of “Root” Is Itself a Study of Roots
Root (noun) meaning “underground part of a plant,” late Old English rot. The verb meaning “fixed or firmly attached by roots,” often figurative, is attested from the late 14th century.
Root (verb one) meaning “dig with the snout,” 1530s from Middle English wroten. The phrase root hog or die meaning “work or fail” is first attested from 1834, American English, in the works of Davey Crockett who noted it as being “an old saying.”
Root (verb two) meaning “cheer, support,” 1889, American English, probably from root (verb one) via the intermediate sense of “study, work hard” dating from 1856.
Declaration 5: A List of Things Roots and Branches Will Say to You, If You Listen
“You will miss me so badly when I am finally gone,” say the roots in a way that makes you know that they are right.
“Must I live my whole life through not knowing what to do?” Roots never ask that.
“There are so few mysteries,” say the roots. “Let’s let people have their secrets.”
“This is your chance! Don’t blow it!” say the branches, urging you to fleeting and embarrassing action.
“Also, your hair is shiny like molasses,” the branches say, full of false flattery.
The branches cry, “Cease your sport with us, infernal wind!”
But the roots say, quietly, “We won’t let you get hurt, not with any permanence.”
“I think this is going to be a long romance,” whisper the roots.
The roots tell you to think about your name when you heard it for the first time.
Declaration 6: The Baby Bunnies Under the Rosebush
Omaha, Nebraska, 1985: My little-middle sister, Elizabeth, nickname: Bethy-Rabbit. Mine? Kathy-Mouse. Lesson: it is better to be a little guy, better to be close to, in, or under the ground, where you cannot be easily found, or can be found, perhaps, only by the right kind of like-minded person, who will respect and protect you.
Declaration 7: A List of the Things Roots Will Do That Branches Won’t and Vice Versa
Branches stand up in public forums, make a spectacle of themselves, and ask questions longer than any possible answer.
Roots are master self-effacers in an era of celebrity. Branches post on Facebook, “Goodnight everyone. I promise to ‘like’ your statuses in my sleep.” Roots are not on Facebook.
Branches shake and drop snow in your coffee. A root would never do that.
Branches are frankly promiscuous, designed to give things away.
Roots are designed for keeping.
Roots stay around after the prairie gets burnt down and make the prairie come back.
Branches scratch at the windows like hideous receptionists wearing Lee Press-On Nails.
Roots are like dance charts, maps on the floor that show your feet where to go.
Branches, with their leaves and flowers, are merely using ostentation to mask feelings of discomfort. Roots, being hidden, don’t have to try to hide.
Branches come to an end, an absence of further continuation; roots go on forever and ever.
Declaration 8: The Baby Bunnies Under the Rosebush
Like all of Nebraska, the baby bunny nest is probably in part a dream. But I recall going back and back and back to their spot until they grew up and were gone. I recall them getting bigger, their eyes going from sealed shut to beady and open and looking at me, their noses twitching, cute, at first, then distant, already almost-taxidermied. I think of them and then think of my relationship with my dad as being like the bunnies, branching out too, eventually, and away from where it began, getting pulled apart, getting worse. But the possibility with roots is one of return, however unlikely.
Declaration 9: Roots and the Nature of Truth
Martin Heidegger, while a Nazi, was not wrong about everything. The Greek word for “truth,” he points out, ἀλήθεια, literally means not “coherence” or “correspondence to fact” but “unhiddenness.” Not “obviousness,” either, but “unhiddenness,” like a thing that was hidden but is no longer. Notice the loss implicit in this. Notice the lack. This is not to say that roots are “untruth,” or that branches are “dishonest,” but rather to ask: can’t there be some mystery? Can’t we have some roots?
Declaration 10: A List of Names for Roots and Branches
And this root is called “Glory heretofore unknown by man or beast.”
And this root is the old icebreaker question: would you rather be able to fly or to be invisible, and the answer is clearly invisible because then you can reappear.
This root is called “A tough, sad song.”
We call this root metaphysical, like a mandrake or a vegetable love.
Seamus Heaney says, “poets are finders and keepers,” and the same is true of roots, finding water every time.
But this branch is called “We don’t use that word here.”
And this branch is called “One listens to branches as one might listen to birdsongs: nice to hear but nothing to think about.”
We call this branch the three branches of government.
I call this branch the branch of a bank.
You call this branch self-forgetful toward the world.
You branch for this branch? No, you root for this branch. And that is why roots are better than branches.