‘I Bequeath Myself to the Dirt …’

Whitman tomb, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey, November 2012.

“Forum,” KQED’s daily discussion show, is doing reruns this holiday week. And today one of the topics covered was titled “Would You Consider Becoming Compost?” The subject was a new California law that allows people to choose to compost their remains instead of embalming and burying or cremating them. One of the guests was from Recompose, a Seattle company that does “ecological death care,” aka human composting. One of the facts she shared is that the company’s process renders a body into about one cubic yard of soil — enough to comfortably fit in the bed of a pickup truck. That sounds like a lot of “material”; she explained that the volume is due to soil used in the composting process.

Composting sounds all right to me. And the show topic reminded me of one of my favorite pieces of poetry, a section from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It comes from the famous “I sound my barbaric yawp” passage:

I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Ah — what an optimistic vision of how we might persist on this Earth we love and link ourselves to the future and future-kind. I am not looking for an epitaph just yet, but those last three lines certainly ring in my mind.

Whitman touched more than once on the process that would allow him to “bequeath myself to the dirt.” In “This Compost,” he mused on how the earth disposes of “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations? Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” He marvels at the “chemistry” that purifies these leavings and turns them into new growth and life so that “when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease, though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.”

Given his declared enthusiasm for the soil and leaving himself to future generations, it’s kind of ironic that Whitman wound up building a tomb in a Camden, New Jersey, cemetery for his final resting place (his brother George, a Union officer in the Civil War, and other family members are also interred there).

If you want to visit, the Harleigh Cemetery in Camden is pretty easy to find. Failing to fetch him at first, check your map apps. He’s stopped right there, waiting for you.

Walt Whitman: Injunction

“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency, not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Walt Whitman, Preface, “Leaves of Grass” (1855)

Finding Your Own Work ‘Blank, Suspicious, Meagre’

“The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious;
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?”

Walt Whitman

I notice a week’s absence from this place. I notice it every night at about 11:45 when I realize I’ve got nothing new to post, or nothing that I want to hurry and post, and that I need to be up at 6 in the morning.

At work meantime–at one of the local public radio stations–I’ve been busy. And I suppose I have something to show for that. To wit:

–A blog post on the latest federal water allocations in the Central Valley. “Federal water allocations” sounds like a topic only a mother could love, but alas, it has no mother. The post is here, on KQED’s Climate Watch blog: California Water: A Mostly Adequate Year.

–Another blog post on a major development for California’s endangered coho salmon–a recovery plan from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The post is on KQED’s Quest Science blog: ‘Condor Time’ for California’s Coho.

–And then this: a radio appearance Friday during which I was “debriefed” on a new scientific review of plans to save fish by Stephanie Martin, our local news anchor for the day: New Chapter in Battle to Save Endangered Fish.

So what’s with the introductory quote? I’ve been a big fan of the poem in which those lines appear, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” ever since I first read it. I guess I take heart that someone like Walt Whitman experienced his moments of doubt even at the point he was at the peak of his creative powers. For me, I’m aware more and more of how much I do not get done, how far short my work sometimes falls of what it might be or at least what I wish it to be. This issue arises around all the fish and water topics I’ve taken an interest in. There’s an amazing amount to tell and little time to tell it well; I don’t have the feeling I’m getting it done. That’s largely a function of divided time and attention; my day-to-day work having to think of other things as an editor gets in the way. My conclusion, for now: Try to focus on what I really want to do and on how to make it happen.

Guest Observation: Walt Whitman

From “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (part 6):

“I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;

I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;

I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,

In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,

In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.

“I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution;

I too had receiv’d identity by my Body;

That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body.”


That’s it. Except to say this passage has always said something to me about the purely physical part of our identity, the part that engages on a level that we’re only dimly aware of, the part that finds joy in something like running or cycling or walking long walks. The cognitive linguistics course I’m taking this spring, one of the ideas it promotes is that the language we use–especially the metaphorical language we use, sometimes to describe complex and abstract thoughts, experiences, and objects–comes straight out of our physical experience on a very basic level–both what we see and feel in the world and how our brains process it. Those last three lines from Whitman seem to come from the same place: He recognized his identity not just as his mind and thoughts but as something arising from the fact of his physical being amidst all the beings and things in the world.


And one last thing: Happy birthday, Ann!

Poet Laureate of Decomposition

Happy birthday to the only poet (I’m confident) to have a garden fertilizer named after him. Yes, it’s Walt Whitman‘s day; born 1819; and some time long after, honored by a former UC Berkeley English lit student who started a designer dirt business called American Soil Products (now located up the road in Richmond). One of the company’s offerings is Walt Whitman Compost. Years ago, when I had occasion to write a Sunday business feature on American Soil for the late, lamented (by me) Hearst Examiner, I asked the owner how the compost got its name. Simple. A poem from “Leaves of Grass” called “This Compost.” Whitman contemplates how the earth has disposed of the dead, all “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations; Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” Then he continues:

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form'd part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch'd eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato's dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

Random Quotage

A friend has a column on Wired News today about giving spare change to a homeless guy and about the debate, within and without, that goes along with that act:

“Slipped a homeless guy a buck the other day. After he mumbled off down the street, my companion sniffed her disapproval: ‘It only encourages them, you know. And he’ll just use it for drugs or alcohol.’

“I had looked him squarely in his gimlet eye. I could smell his breath. Safe to say she was right.

” ‘Who the hell cares what he uses it for?’ I said. ‘If it kills the pain for a few hours, I’m happy to help. …’ ”

In any case, it’s not an only-in-San Francisco story. I go back and forth on this whole thing myself. But I always have Walt Whitman’s take in the back of my mind:

“Love the earth and sun and animals,

Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,

Stand up for the stupid and crazy,

Devote your income and labor to others …

And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Today’s Best Names

Ida Mae Astute: Photographer. Came across her name on a photo credit while I was reading up on what has become of Bob Woodruff, the erstwhile ABC News anchor who was nearly killed in January by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Lastings Milledge: New York Mets phenom (if phenom is still a phenomenon — maybe we’re past that) called up to replace Xavier Nady, the former Cal star who went on the disabled list after surgery for appendicitis. (Word from the Baseball Politeness Cops at the New York Daily News is that the kid has something of an attitude.)

Walt Whitman: OK, no color in the name beyond the man who bore it. But there’s plenty there, and besides, it’s his birthday.

Re: September 11th

A day late: From a brilliant abridgment of Walt Whitman’s "Song of Myself" that Scott Simon read on NPR the weekend after September 11, 2001:

"I understand the large hearts of heroes,

The courage of present times and all times;

How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm;

How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,

And chalk’d in large letters, on a board, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you:

How he follow’d with them, and tack’d with them—and would not give it up;

How he saved the drifting company at last:

How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when boated from the side of their prepared graves;

How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men:

All this I swallow—it tastes good—I like it well—it becomes mine;

I am the man—I suffer’d—I was there. …

I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken;

Tumbling walls buried me in their debris;

Heat and smoke I inspired—I heard the yelling shouts of my comrades;

I heard the distant click of their picks and shovels;

They have clear’d the beams away—they tenderly lift me forth. 

I lie in the night air in my red shirt—the pervading hush is for my sake;

Painless after all I lie, exhausted but not so unhappy;

White and beautiful are the faces around me—the heads are bared of their fire-caps;

The kneeling crowd fades with the light of the torches. …

I take part—I see and hear the whole;

The cries, curses, roar—the plaudits …

Workmen searching after damages, making indispensable repairs … the rent roof—the fan-shaped explosion;

The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air. …

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;

Missing me one place, search another;

I stop somewhere, waiting for you."


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Whitman’s War, Our War

As I was saying — May 31 is Walt Whitman’s birthday. I’ve always been struck by his Civil War poems, their brevity and power, the immediacy of them, the empathy in them, the unflinching way he conveyed the suffering he saw and the suffering he took in. For instance, this scene from “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown“:

“We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building;

’Tis a large old church at the crossing roads—’tis now an impromptu hospital;

—Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made:

Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,

And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and clouds of smoke;

By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some in the pews laid down;

At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily;)

Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene, fain to absorb it all;

Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead;

Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood;

The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers—the yard outside also fill’d;

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating;

An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls;

The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches. …”

Whitman was writing for an audience for whom this kind of loss was familiar. When the Civil War ended, every American knew someone who had been killed or wounded (rough arithmetic: 4 percent of the male population counted in the 1860 census died as a result of the war; that’s one in 25 men in the entire country; that ratio in today’s U.S. population would equal 6 million deaths). When Whitman wrote about the horror and tragedy of a field hospital, he was describing a scene that involved his readers in a very personal way.

The Whitman war poem — especially his picture of the field hospital — came to mind in part because, in the midst of my Memorial Day reading, I just happened across a piece from an American military doctor working in a combat hospital in Iraq. It’s immediate and moving in its own way:

“They wheeled the soldier into the ER on a NATO gurney shortly after the chopper touched down. One look at the PJs’ [pararescuemen’s] faces told me that the situation was grim. Their young faces were drawn and tight, and they moved with a sense of directed urgency. They did not even need to speak because the look in their eyes was pleading with us – hurry. And hurry we did.”

The piece isn’t Whitman. For one thing, a lot of the it’s given over to marked pro-war rhetoric and a sort of “Top Gun” meets “ER” attitude that seems a little foreign to the humanity of the situation. And the author is writing about a scene that most of us aren’t personally connected to and probably don’t want to think too much about. That in itself makes it worth the time to read and ponder.

‘Birthday, Walt

It’s Walt Whitman‘s birthday. Born on Long Island, citizen of New York and Brooklyn, people’s poet, war poet, entombed in Camden, N.J. Someday when we’re back east and doing one of our trips up or down the Delaware River (Washington Crossing, Frenchtown, Water Gap), we’ll visit that cemetery. For now, just these few lines, a birthday remembrance.