From: Maya Salem <>

To: S <>

Subject: Talk earthy to me

Dear S,

Earth Day is around the corner. But what to get her?

My poetry professor says the world doesn’t want some grand gesture from us. The earth doesn’t want any big things. It wants something small. He references wampum, the result of an old indigenous tradition of Eastern Woodland tribes. It refers to the sanding of shells, a practice that has now been simplified by modern machinery, though the Indigenous mechanical engineers and artists perfected the craft years ago. In some tribes, artists would sit around and talk for hours as they drill a hole into a shell, turning a rock, over and over, into its flesh. Hours and hours of effort were put into this tiny gift from the earth. Through shaping, sanding and shining, a treasure would emerge from what was once a shell. 

I don’t know what to give the earth. 

Yesterday, I walked along some bluffs, trying to learn a poem, memorize it. I had spent the earlier part of my walk admiring the calm sky and rippling grass. I watched an egret hide among tall blades, stretching its head toward the morning sun. But now my eyes trained on my phone, my lips fumbling its shape around the vowels and consonants I repeated the words to myself. 

Though nobody was around, I hesitated. What if someone heard me? Who talks to themselves, let alone performs poems to themselves? I took a quick scan of my surroundings — only the sky, grass and egret watched on. I shook off this social conformity and kept going. I started to gather rhythm between the percussive constant of footfalls and wind whipping against the concave maze of my ears. My vowels lingered in the air longer before being absorbed by the leaves or taken away by the updraft climbing the cliff walls.

I began to perform for the beetles scuttling along the sandy dirt, for the little birds in mid flight, for the squirrel with its chest to the earth, soaking up its warmth. I repeated the poem, for my own sake, but I was aware of my audience, by breaths and pauses synchronized with the crash and lull of the waves below. 

My professor says the animals love this from us. They don’t like our plastic and our oils. They don’t want our destructive habits, deforestation or our grating industrial echo polluting the air. They sit and bask in our words: a different language, intentional and musical. I’d like to believe this is true. That the animals aren’t just tolerating my taking up air and space. That they are okay with my stumbling over words and sounds as I learn a poem. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, between our beach cleanups and carbon emission reductions, we give a little bit of ourselves to the earth? Chat up some burrowing gophers, sing and scat for the scrunching worms or recite poetry for the marching ants? 

Rather than get caught up in the disastrous news and climate change stress, we could hold on tight to these moments.

Next time you find yourself on a walk, legs tickled with growing grass, take out your earbuds and pause your podcast. Listen for the wind and the sea, and add your own verse to the song. Don’t worry about sounding silly; I’ll be doing it too.



A version of this article appeared on p. 16 of the April 20, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.