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Root Systems

His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place and take its place among them.

From “A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

Of the roots that cling to the earth underground, there is much to know—about the soil, water, and sunshine required for them to sprout and grow plants—so too, there is much to be observed of the roots that attach us to a place through the life we’ve lived there and the community still present. Literal roots anchor the fruit and vegetable plants that sustain us, just as figurative roots anchor us to a particular place. My family’s roots are planted in a place where for years, residents boasted of having the widest paved main street in the world—a claim that was never authenticated with any authority but was fun to repeat.


Widest Paved Main Street, Circa The 1950s

If you Google the definition for “roots” you will be confronted with a variety of interpretations and utilization beginning with the “part of a plant which attaches it to the ground…typically underground, conveying water and nourishment…” and another—that of: “family, ethnic, or cultural origins, especially as the reasons for one’s long-standing emotional attachment to a place or community.”

Of the roots that grow plants, pollination is necessary to reproduction and my father contributed to this with his small apiary under an addition built on stilts at the rear of our house. It was ideal in that it sheltered the hives when Mother Nature did her worst. Despite that the house is located on a busy city street, our backyard buzzed and swarmed just as it would have if situated in a more rural setting. Dad had attended a course at Stonewall Farm to learn the do’s and don’ts of beekeeping and before long, had his own bee condominiums. At first, he got stung repeatedly upon each encounter with his charges. In the beginning, the stings would swell to great proportions—I walked into the house one evening to see Dad’s top lip grotesquely misshaping his mouth as if he’d stuck a golf ball between the inside of his lip and his top row of teeth. In time and with practice, he learned how to move around his bees so as not to disturb them. In turn, the bees grew to know his ways until eventually, the stinging stopped—that is, with the exception of the Russian strain. The Russian bees were menacing immediately upon arrival. He told us they were, “crazy, mad bastards,” relentlessly and deliberately stinging the hand that fed them.

Dad’s Label

Dad and his bees produced high-quality honey that friends would seek out and pay for—creating a fund he then used to improve and replenish his hives. But “Ralph’s Bees” served more than just our family and friends. They were our neighborhood pollinators, the conveyors of Mother’s gold, as they buzzed from plant to plant within a two-mile radius of their backyard residence.

In his 2017 article, How Capitalism Saved the Bees, Shawn Regan explains how commercial beekeeping compensates when other animals fail at pollination;

The chief reason commercial beekeeping exists is to help plants have sex. Some crops, such as corn and wheat, can rely on the wind to transfer pollen from stamen to pistil. But others, including a variety of fruits and nuts, need assistance. And since farmers can’t always depend solely on bats, birds, and other wild pollinators to get the job done, they turn to honeybees for help with artificial insemination. Unleashed by the thousands, the bees improve the quality and quantity of the farms’ yields; in return, the plants provide nectar, which the bees use to produce honey.

Just as bees are an essential component to the facilitation of plant propagation, the place where we grow our roots and the people we grow them with, is essential to our emotional lives—even when we’re not fully aware until sprouting roots of our own.

Our family is rooted in our patriarch’s birthplace, a city where between 1848 and 1970 trains traversed that “widest” street. A place where traffic was drawn to a halt and my sister and I hoped for a sighting—though our parents invariably voiced annoyance at the interruption by the behemoth blocking our passage. Whenever we were lucky enough in our timing to arrive simultaneously with the train, we’d watch through car windows as the lights in our path turned red and the huge metal arms dropped down on either side of the tracks. We heard bells clang wildly as if there were some sort of emergency—a sound that only served to heighten our sense of excitement and curiosity. Tree and I looked forward to counting the boxcars—always aspiring to up our numbers—and listening for the train’s whistle, which would sound upon arrival at the station. Then, we’d watch—slightly crestfallen with that feeling one always has at the ending of something pleasurable—as the flashing red lights turned to green and the arms were raised. Resigned, we’d listen to the last moments of the clackety-clack on the tracks—escorted by the train whistle the conductor blew with perceived alacrity—as they receded, and we lost sight of the great silver beast.

Despite being rooted in the same place since childhood—a place where most of my female relatives had the single-minded goal of reproducing—I had not envisioned myself settling down into motherhood. Having a child is the ultimate game changer—an irreversible decision. Something twenty people can tell you about and still, you will not fully comprehend. An offshoot of your root system that you are now and forever responsible for and to—one you must nourish properly to avoid doing it damage. Everything you do and say from that moment forward deeply impacts someone else’s life, someone who relies on you for his survival. And while you’re still trying to understand the awesomeness of this responsibility, your offshoot arrives as a master pooing machine that needs to be fed every three hours so he can poo some more—a scatological wonder. This is the beginning of the years of sleeping with one part of your brain on high alert, something that persists for the remainder of your life. But these are also the easy days and once you settle into the routine of stuff going in one end and out of the other, this little person starts becoming himself—he begins a peregrination that will culminate in his own roots, an intricate system entirely separate from yours. Until then, he delights in nothing you can identify, tracks your movements with wide eyes and a series of eyebrow-raised, perplexed expressions until before long, he’s able to throw his hand up and you see his little fist punching aimlessly but deliberately at nothing with all his might. You marvel at his prodigious capacity to produce saliva as you lose count of the daily outfit changes required by the stuff that continues to come out of both ends of your adorable little offshoot. Still, one smile, one giggle, one contented head pressed up against your chest is all it takes to realize you wouldn’t return him from whence he came—even if it were possible—even on the worst days you spend together.

As you settle in, life is all pretty groovy until he starts to walk—particularly in the case of your second child, the one you dub “curtain climber” (not original, but accurate) and who at the ridiculously early age of 9 1/2 months, climbs out of his crib, falls to the floor, and begins to move around vertically on his two longest limbs. It’s too soon for you. It’s a home safety micro-disaster. He’s a danger to himself. Your groovy life becomes three vigilant—and seemingly interminable—years of attempting to see from both the front and back of your head in an effort to escort your offshoot safely into maturation.

Aaron 1982
Josh 1988

And then somehow, through years of cultivation, both offshoots survive the mini and near-macro disasters of childhood and manage to mature into full-grown plants. Because while you were busy feeding and watering, they’d been drifting on the current of a light breeze and without your notice had re-rooted in the soil of a new, autonomous garden—something insidious that transpired so fast you wonder how long you’d been unconscious. How on earth did you go from feeling your days were endless to being astonished and perplexed by how fast that same time passed? But then,

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

From “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon


Though John Lennon added a couple of words to this Allen Saunders quote when he re-used it in his song, it remains a universal reflection for parenthood. In one moment, you’re putting your arms out for your first little offshoot to precariously stumble into as he teeters on his newfound legs, his face a study in concentration, his determination palpable. You’re both so proud. And in the next, he’s five with an infant brother. Then—in what at the time feels like years but later seems an instant—you’re staring at both their backsides as the two walk out the front door and into their new lives that entirely separate from yours. You are forced to recognize that this is not some ill-intentioned conspiracy designed by the universe to hurt you, your sons have simply grown to adulthood—something you’ve meant to have happened and helped them do all along. Your job is complete. Through years of cultivation, while you were busy feeding, watering, and keeping them safe, your sons had stealthily become men.

by Sonja Martineau


Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. “A Native Hill.” The Hudson Review, vol. 21, no. 4, 1968, pp. 601–634. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3849275.

Tags: Honeybees, John Lennon, Keene NH, Root Systems, Trains, Wendell Berry

COMMENTS (1)
  • Lexi Palmer   /   April 9, 2019., 4:52 pmReply

    Sonja- I first want to say that I love the titles in your collection of essays. As always, the descriptive language throughout is awesome. A description I loved: "At first, he got stung repeatedly upon each encounter with his charges. In the beginning, the stings would swell to great proportions—I walked into the house one evening to see Dad’s top lip grotesquely misshaping his mouth as if he’d stuck a golf ball between the inside of his lip and the top row of his teeth." You also use humor in here super effectively. I had to stifle some laughs in this silent classroom. Your dad calling the bees "crazy, mad bastards"; describing a baby as "a master pooing machine." I can't pinpoint a place where your presence in the essay really arrives. I think your voice and present are there right from the beginning to the end. A sentence I loved: "An offshoot of your root system that you are now and forever responsible for and to—one you must nourish properly to avoid doing it damage."

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