Smack on the corner of the busiest street in Asheville, North Carolina, scrunched between a rickety old neighborhood and the black snake of the freeway is a health food store. I know this because Asheville is one of my favorite towns in the world and when, in my travels, I can snatch a day or two in its tree-guarded streets, I do. There is a gracefully decrepit old bed and breakfast that makes a cozy base for my many rambles up ivy-tangled streets. By dawn and dusk light, I prowl old roads and woodsy dead ends, steeping myself in the cool, mountain quiet that comes so rarely in my busy days.
Several visits back, I got hungry one night after a long evening walk and forayed out in search of a homemade treat. The locals pointed me to a natural foods store for the best desserts around. I found the shop just before it closed, whizzed my car into a spot and was in a mighty hurry to snatch my snack. I walked through those doors, took one look, and stopped still. Weathered wood floors and bins piled with homegrown vegetables met my eyes. Bread in wicker baskets, and that fresh, growing smell of countless green things tumbled together greeted my nose. I walked slowly in, amidst flatbeds of seedlings and bins of grain hunkered next to stands of fresh, local fruit. I wanted to stop, right there in the entrance, to take all the toppling beauty in, for that store jolted my soul. Some sleeping part of my heart that once lived, and loved, much closer to earth and plant and sky came suddenly awake.
Though I am thoroughly ensconced in the suburbs at present, I did spend quite a few of my young years as a country kid. My grandmother had two-hundred acres of scrubby, cedar pocked land which I spent countless hours exploring. There was a stubborn orchard that bore bright, stunted apples, and a beleaguered garden in which we daily battled ferocious bugs to cull a few, ruby-sheened tomatoes. But all of it was my delight, all of it a new world for my taking and my just-wakened little soul was keenly aware of every whisper and scent of the earth as it sidled up to greet me. The musty damp of a barn corner, the heady green scent of fresh-mown grass, the scratch of cedar, the fragile perch of a butterfly in my hand. I couldn’t have said it out right, but some hushed corner of my heart knew that my outdoor world was rife with wonder, with growth that never ceased, colors that waxed and waned, scents that came to me as if from another world.
I hunger for that in my modern, streamlined life. Sometimes, amidst a day of car and concrete and computer, I yearn for earthiness with something akin to homesickness. One step though, in that Asheville store, and I was back in the tumbled, gorgeous world of my childhood, where every corner of creation whispered a secret I yearned to know. That night, I shook myself back to reality and unearthed a chocolate cake to rival few I’ve yet tasted, but I walked out slowly, sad to leave this small world of a place in which the wonder of my childhood greeted me at the door. The next day, on the way to the airport, I hurried in to grab a snack for the airplane ride home. I was looking for some vitamin or other when I suddenly turned round and saw… well. I saw something that grew a poem in my head right there. The sight I saw compounded all the old mystery I felt, all the remembered savor of earthy things into a few words of wonder. This is what came:
Grocery store corners and neat row
Lines and price-point signs
For cabbage, cakes, and bursting
Grapes in hurried hands of people
In a speed of modern harvest for
Their nightly feast, the slap-bang
Grab of sustenance before they
Sleep, I pitter past, list half done,
Check one item more,
I bend down, snatch my prize
Stand up and
One jar of red like cardinal’s wings
One sapphire stack of cornflower
Sheaves, and one jar labeled
Caldendula, mint, cranberries;
Holy basil, lemon thyme,
All glassed and jarred in grinning
Lines, three sudden shelves of rainbow
Jars, I’m Eve, flashed back into a
Garden world where leaves were healers,
Roots were keepers of the dim,
Sweet secret forces formed
To spark our blood
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she’s not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.