Welcome to the first issue of The Hearthling, a weekly newsletter exploring what a hearthling is and ways to be one. Please note that, in an unexpected reverse, hearthling rhymes with darthling and contrary to all prior expectations IS related to halflings. I’d also like to note my utter delight to be serendipitously launching this “first” issue on Earth Day — April 22, 2022
If you have not had a chance to read Issue #000, doing so might help you to understand more of today’s note. I usually do not include links in the text of the letter, as I find this very distracting and a source of tension in my life (will I remember to come back to the link? Or if I click it now will I remember to come back to where I started?). But in this one exceptional case, here is the link to Issue #000 if you would like to read that first.
Searching for a beginning
Sam Gamgee opened Galadriel’s box and found that it contained some dust and a nut. There were no instructions in the box. His friend suggested that he apply his skill (his art – the thing he knew how to do) to the best of his ability. And to do that he used his heart to make choices – what to do, where to do it, what to imagine, how to share.
Who’s to say what the power of Galadriel’s dust was? Maybe if someone else had used it with a different heart and a different imagination, something different would have occurred. Maybe if you sprinkle it into a guitar, beautiful music emerges. Maybe if you sprinkle it in a pan you get amazing chocolate soufflé. But Sam imagined the Shire as a garden, full of life and blooming.
My heart says that I have a box too. And in fact I DO have a box. It is white, about an inch high and 3 inches square. It’s the kind of box you might get at a jewelry store. A white box with no tissue, no dust, no silver nut. And no instructions.
What's in the box?
I first studied biology in the ninth grade. For you non-Americans, that’s around age 14. I remember Kings Playing Chess or Funny Games Soon Vanish (Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species). Today I could smell the room again, vividly, when I tried to remember the animals that we dissected: two different types of worm, a large frog or toad, a starfish, and a rat.
We cut into them, looked at the organs, measured stuff. We drew their insides and labelled the pieces in a notebook. I think the idea was to observe the differences between invertebrates and amphibians and fish and mammals based on first-hand experience with their guts and muscles.
For the rat unit we worked on our own. We each received a dead rat, cut it delicately open, looked at and drew pictures of all the tiny bits and then I’m guessing there was a test. It was a difficult class with difficult tests and we were told, for the rat unit, that we could earn extra credit for wearing the skin of our rat to school on our person. The pedagogical rationale for this was unclear. People used to skin things and you can too? Fur comes from dead things?
You didn’t have to craft something out of the skin to earn the extra credit. You could simply pin the skin to your shirt and get the points. But not this girl. I sewed that skin into a little cuff, face completely intact including nose, all whiskers, eye holes, ears. I scraped and cleaned and removed whatever attaches fur to a body and sewed on two buttons. Two – so it could fit different-sized wrists (thinking ahead for the future) and I wore it to school for my points and I’m sure some other nerd-related reasons.
Leave them on the edge of their seats
We don’t have a lot more time today friends. And there’s too much more to say to quickly come to a point. So, instead, a brief preview of what’s in store:
I have kept this bracelet for over 30 years. While the vast majority of my life’s jewelry has come and gone, the rat bracelet has stayed with me. Earlier this year, in my latest round of finding joy through tidying, I decided the bracelet needed to be buried. Or the bracelet told me that it was time for it to be buried. This little rat gave her short life so that I could learn something, the least I can do is let her skin turn back into life/dirt. Now I look at the bracelet every day: I can’t bury you until I write about you. What is there that I need to say?
While pondering this question I read in Sapiens about the intelligent rats who may inherit the earth. Then the author mentioned genetically enhanced super mice and voles being created in labs worldwide. At first I panicked, then I remembered how much I love Stuart Little. And then, just last night, I held a hamster in my hands, Sir Galahad in case you haven’t heard about him yet, and thought: he’s a pretty good guy. Maybe this intelligent rodents thing won’t be the worst outcome.
Then I started thinking about science and how we learn about the world– about the fact that the only field trip we took in my biology class was an hours-long bus drive away, as if there was no biology to see anywhere closer. I remembered that we never looked at a living rat in class, or went outside to feel the wind move through the leaves. Then I started thinking about thinking we know something because we know its Latin name and can draw its guts.
yes I said yes I will Yes
This is my box because this is the life I have lived. Sitting in the treehouse two weeks ago I certainly did not expect to start here. But here I am, with a boxful of ratskin bracelet, willing and strangely (strangely I’ll grant you) hopeful.
I’ll see you next week.