Prelude 2020: The Roots of Gratitude

Karen Larbi


The Roots of Gratitude

Karen Larbi responds to the events of 2020, inspired in part by Wordsworth’s epic poem The Prelude. Commissioned by The Willowherb Review and Aerial.

“By being rooted in gratitude I have been able to create deep roots for my faith so that it can keep growing and blooming anew. This piece explores gratitude through my connection to my local park and my windowsill where I’ve been propagating plants. The analogy between gratitude and rootedness feels ripe with meaning here: I have to constantly practise gratitude in order to push the roots of my faith further and further down into the soil, to enable me to re-gather my strength so that my faith in others, and by extension my faith in myself can flourish again.”

The Roots of Gratitude
Karen Larbi

It started by accident.

In late February, I was rushing to get to a Reiki session when my arm bumped against my chest of drawers, causing my Swedish Ivy plant to come crashing to the ground. I had just re-potted it that morning. As I gingerly picked it up from the carpet, my heart sank when I saw that the main stem was broken, almost completely detached from its roots.

This wasn’t just any plant; it was a plant with a rich ancestry, a descendent from the Swedish Ivy that sat in the hospital room where the co-founder of my recovery community took his last breaths almost 50 years ago. A friend had given it to me last year as a recently propagated cutting, and as a symbol of my healing journey, I often looked to it for insights and inspiration to keep me going during difficult times.

On its own, the Swedish Ivy is a prolific plant, with hanging branches and scalloped leaves. In all honesty, it was an accident waiting to happen. It was the first time I had repotted a plant, and afraid of damaging its delicate roots, I simply put it, soil and all, into a bigger pot and topped it up with more soil. Discussing it later with my friend before our Reiki session, she suggested that maybe the accident happened because the plant wanted me to spend more time with my hands in the soil. The emerging mystic within me lives for signs and symbols, so I made a mental note to be more hands on in the way I interact with my plants.

The next day, I powered up my laptop and typed “propagating Swedish Ivy” into the search bar of YouTube. I had recently come across plant propagation during my research into repotting plants, so I had faith that my precious plant could be saved. After watching a few videos, I took action. Hesitantly, I separated the main stem from the roots and snipped off two further cuttings. I searched my kitchen cupboards for a suitable vessel and chose a clear Irish coffee glass. I filled it with water and placed the cuttings inside. I put the glass on my chest of drawers, then shaking my head with a smile, relocated it to my windowsill. Finally, with a heart full of hope, I waited.

On a warm cloudy day four months later, the Irish coffee glass on my sunny windowsill was filled with long, intertwining roots; I turned 18 months sober. I owe my sobriety to daily prayers to Mother Earth, which have kept me serene after experiencing suicidal depression for over half my life. So, that day I took a walk to my local park.

From the outside, it looks like a playing field. However, I was thrilled to discover that the grassland is surrounded by relict ancient woodland full of ash, hornbeam and an abundance of oak trees. I hadn’t known this prior to the lockdown, despite living in the area for two years. Since my discovery, the  park has nourished me during the last few months of global turmoil.

As I walked through the woods on that midday afternoon, the warm sun shining through scattered clouds, I felt a deep sense of gratitude, the type that fills me with a profound sense of disbelief that this could be my life. Before my sobriety, I was filled with an ever-expanding sense of darkness and wouldn’t have noticed the trees or the sunlight on my skin. Since getting sober, my life has been filled with delicious moments like this that never become stale.

Inexplicably, I found myself drawn to a tree in front of me. I’m not good with names or species, but I just felt that it knew me and wanted me to know it, even if just for a moment. I reached out and lightly stroked the rough bark, first with one hand, then with both. Soon, I had both palms flat on the trunk of the tree as if caressing a loved one just returned from a long time away. The tree felt solid
and rooted, like it had been there for centuries, yet the connection between us was pure, liquid energy. I whispered prayers of deep gratitude, and then quickly burst into tears. Tears of gratitude for a life saved and the daily miracles that followed. My tears also came from a deep well of sorrow. The weight of being Black in an anti-Black world alongside the pandemic had taken an emotional and psychological toll, and yet I was deeply grateful for being able to catch glimpses of true freedom and liberation.

My reverie was broken when a jogger stopped beside me, saying something I didn’t quite catch. I turned to face him, my face glistening with tears, and concern spread across his face as he asked me if I was ok. I felt too embarrassed to say why I was crying, then the feeling turned into irritation at being questioned by a middle-aged white man. He awakened within me an old habit of deliberately making people feel uncomfortable to get them to leave me alone. I mentioned being upset about everything that was going on in the world. “That should do the trick,” I thought.

To my astonishment, he asked me if I had lost anyone.

“The entitlement!” I screamed internally.

I surprised myself by saying that I had.

He asked me how old they were. I thought of my friend Simon who had recently passed away as a result of COVID-19, a devastating and senseless loss for his family and all who love him.

“He was 59,” I replied, internally kicking myself for not telling the man to mind his own business.

“Gosh, only two years older than me!”

His words reached my ears, travelled into my heart, and almost immediately, I felt my heart soften, my irritation being replaced with compassion and connection.

Since the incident with my Swedish Ivy, my sunny windowsill has been the site of more propagations—specifically two types of Tradescantia. Beyond the immediate joy of seeing my cuttings grow roots, propagating plants feels imbued with meaning.

The last ten months have been full of setbacks, trauma, disappointments, feeling stuck, grief, upheaval, strangeness, and through it all, gratitude has rooted, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, like the plants on my windowsill. And like the trees in my local woodland, gratitude has grounded me, helping me to develop trust in myself and the interconnected web of life. If gratitude is the root of my faith, then humility is the soil from which gratitude and trust have been able to grow. I think about the humility I demonstrate in the daily commitment I make to drop my ego and hand my will and my life to power greater than myself. When I forget or am swept away by painful emotions, a walk to my local park or a glance at the plants on my windowsill set me right.

And that Swedish Ivy? One plant turned into three, and they’re thriving in pots of soil. With shiny green leaves, they’re growing faster than I could’ve imagined.

Postscript: Dedicated in loving memory to my friend Simon Deverson (1960 – 2020), who always reminded me of the power of gratitude in building bridges across difference, thus fortifying my faith in human nature.


Karen Larbi is a trainer, facilitator and consultant. She is the Founder of POC In Nature, an online platform dedicated to helping people of colour explore the healing power of Nature, environmental justice and land-honouring ancestral traditions. She is passionate about exploring the intersections of social justice, spirituality, resilience and ecology.

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