Still and calm, In purple robes of kings, The low-lying mountains sleep at the edge of the world. The forests cover them like mantles; Day and night Rise and fall over them like the wash of waves. Asleep, they reign. Silent, they say all. Hush me, O slumbering mountains – Send me dreams. ~Harriet Monroe “The Blue Ridge”
I live where the surrounding hills circle like wagons, strong shoulders promising protection, lying steadfast day after day, while the palette of sky changes with the season.
These are friends in whose shadows I sleep; they will be here long after I take my rest, but I will remember, even in my dreams, I will long remember how light emerges hopeful over the crest at the breaking of dawn.
This is the grip, like this: both hands. You can close your eyes if you like. When I say, “Now,” it’s time. Don’t wait or it’s all over. But not too soon, either—just right. Don’t worry. Let’s go. Both hands. ~William Stafford, “Survival Course” from Even in Quiet Places.
I know well the feeling of pulling against a momentum determined to break free of the strength I can muster to keep it under control. This is how my life, personally and professionally has often felt over the decades. It seems I am barely hanging on, at times losing my grip, my feet braced but slipping beneath me.
The full-uddered cow in the painting is compelled to join her herd in a pastoral scene just across the creek, but the milk maid must resist the cow’s escape. For the cow’s benefit and comfort, she must be milked. The cow has another agenda. She has snapped her rope tie, almost pulled up the stake, and in a show of strength and determination, the maid braces to pull a much larger animal around to retie her and restore things to how they were.
The action suggests the maid may succeed, but the cow’s attention is directed far afield. She doesn’t even feel the tug on her halter. We’re not fully convinced the cow won’t suddenly pull loose and break away from the maid’s grip, leaping the stream, tail raised straight in the air like a flag of freedom.
Right now, as spring advances rapidly with grass growing thick in the pastures, our horses smell that richness in the air. Sometimes this tug of war takes place when my plan is different than the horse’s. The fields are too wet for them to be out full time yet, so they must wait for the appropriate time to be released to freedom. The grass calls to them like a siren song as I feed them their portion of last summer’s uninviting hay. They can pull my shoulders almost out of joint when they are determined enough, they break through fences in their pursuit of green, they push through stall doors and lift gates off hinges. Right now I’m barely an adequate counterbalance to the pursuit of their desires and I struggle to remind them I’m on the other end of their lead rope.
Each day I find I try too hard to restore order in my life, on the farm, in the house, in my work, with my family. I want to pull that cow back around, get her tied up and relieved of her burden of milk so that it can nurture and replenish others. Sometimes I hang on, only to be pulled roughly along on the ground, scraped and yelling in the process.
Sometimes I just let go and have to try to catch that cow all over again.
Once in awhile I successfully get the cow turned around and actually milked without a spill.
I’ve held on with both hands. I’m clasping them together in prayer and petition that I won’t get pulled into the mud. I’ve got a grip. And maybe, just maybe, I will make cheese….
From the petal’s edge a line starts that being of steel infinitely fine, infinitely rigid penetrates the Milky Way without contact–lifting from it–neither hanging nor pushing–
The fragility of the flower unbruised penetrates space ~William Carlos Williams from Spring and All (1923)
Here is the fringey edge where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam. ~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm
It is common to look for love only inside the heart of things, watching it pulse as both showpiece and show off, reverberating from deep within, yet loud enough for all the world to bear witness.
But as I advance on life’s road, I find love lying waiting at the periphery of my heart, fragile and easily torn as a petal edge – clinging to the fringe of my life, holding on through storms and trials.
This love is ever-present, protects and cherishes, fed by fine little veins which branch out from the center to the tender margins of infinity.
It is on that delicate edge of forever I dwell, waiting to be fed and trembling with anticipation.
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds. It slips in clumps off the barn roof, wingless angels dropped by parachute. Inside, I hear the horses knocking aimlessly in their warm brown lockup, testing the four known sides of the box as the soul must, confined under the breastbone. Horses blowing their noses, coming awake, shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats. They do not know what has fallen out of the sky, colder than apple bloom, since last night’s hay and oats. They do not know how satisfactory they look, set loose in the April sun, nor what handsprings are turned under my ribs with winter gone. ~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990
This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.
It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.
It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.
Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.
Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.
I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.
So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.
We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. ~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead
As humankind was created with the freedom to choose our own way, we tend to opt for the path of least resistance with the highest return.
Hey, after all, we’re human and that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it.
No road less traveled on for most of us–instead we blindly head down the superhighway of what’s best for #1, no matter what the means of transportation, what it costs to get there, how seedy the billboards or how many warning signs appear, or where the ultimate destination takes us.
History is full of the piled-high wrecking yards of demolition remnants from crashes along the way.
It’s enough to make a stone weep.
Certainly God wept.
And He wept even after creating man in His own image, emphatically declaring our creation good, even knowing how everything was going to turn out.
Despite the harm we continue to cause, despite our suffering too many crashes along the way, we are declared good only because His breath remains full within us while His tears never fail to wash us clean.
Lined with light the twigs are stubby arrows. A gilded trunk writhes Upward from the roots, from the pit of the black tentacles.
In the book of spring a bare-limbed torso is the first illustration.
Light teaches the tree to beget leaves, to embroider itself all over with green reality, until summer becomes its steady portrait and birds bring their lifetime to the boughs.
Then even the corpse light copies from below may shimmer, dreaming it feels the cheeks of blossom. ~May Swenson “April Light”
This April we are surrounded by corpse light: the threat of untimely death, so we distance ourselves one from the other, awaiting the “all clear” which may be a long time coming ~
We have already forgotten the unprecedented illumination that walked from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning to guarantee that we people, we who are no more than bare twigs and stubs, we who feel hardly alive, are now begotten green, ready to burst into blossom, our cheeks pink with life, promising future fruitfulness.
We have a water bucket graveyard on our farm. Buckets, tubs, barrels, you name it – if it once had water in it, it is no longer functional and therefore is not only merely dead, it is really most sincerely dead.
Over the decades, we have bought various styles of buckets and tubs with which to water our Haflinger horses. None have survived more than a few weeks, all thanks to one Haflinger in particular who sees anything rubber, plastic or steel-coated as his personal ninja playground.
We discovered early on that Haflingers do have a variety of creative techniques for attracting attention to themselves when someone walks in the barn, especially around feeding time. Over the years, we’ve had the gamut: the noisy neigher, the mane tosser, the foot stomper, the stall door striker, the play with your lips in the water and splash everything, and most irritating of all, the teeth raked across the woven wire front of the stall. A few Haflingers do wait patiently for their turn for attention, without fussing or furor, sometimes nickering a low “huhuhuhuhuh” of greeting. That is truly blissful in comparison.
We raised one filly whose chosen method of bringing attention to herself was to bump her belly up against her rubber water buckets that hang in the stall, making them bounce wildly about, spraying water everywhere, drenching her, and her stall in the process. She loved it. It was sport for her to see if she could tip the buckets to the point of emptying them and then knock them off their hooks so she could boot them around the stall, destroying a few in the process. Nothing made this mare happier. When she had occasion to share a big stall space with one of her half-siblings, she found that the bucket bouncing technique was very effective at keeping her brothers away, as they had no desire to be drenched and they didn’t find noisy bucket bumping very attractive. So her hay pile was hers alone–very clever thinking.
This is not unlike a wild chimpanzee that I knew at Gombe in Tanzania, named “Mike” by Jane Goodall, who found an ingenious way of rising to alpha male status by incorporating empty oil drums in his “displays” of aggression, pounding on them and rolling them down hills to take advantage of their noise and completely intimidating effect on the other male chimpanzees. Mike was on the small side, and a bit old to be alpha male, but assumed the position in spite of his limitations through use of his oil drum displays. So my noisy and water splashing mare, became alpha over her peers.
Our current bucket destroyer is intent on making the kill rather than making noise for attention. During this gelding’s fifteen years of life, I estimate he has gone through over a hundred buckets. Ironically some buckets bite him back, causing such significant lower lip tears that on two occasions a vet made an emergency call to perform a laceration repair (also known as plastic surgery in the barn aisle) so this Haflinger bears scars for his bad bucket habit. Unfortunately, expensive lip repairs have not discouraged him from ongoing bucket battles. His latest victim was found this morning, its steel handle broken, the bucket itself half-buried in a hole my gelding had dug in the dirt floor of the stall. He isn’t even waiting for me to issue last rites anymore; he’s taking care of that himself.
We humans aren’t much different in our destructive tendencies and our need for attracting attention. Some of us talk too much, even if we have nothing much to say, some of us strut our physical beauty and toss our hair, some of us are pushy to the point of obnoxiousness. Some of us are real bluffers, making a whole lot more noise and fuss than is warranted, but enjoying the chaos that ensues. Sometimes we even tear down what is important to our own survival and nurture (everyone needs water, right?) and leave a wake of destruction behind us – all done to make sure someone notices.
Well, now I notice each time I buy a new bucket and am reminded:
I need to quit stomping and knocking doors in my impatience, as well as quit hollering when a quiet greeting is far more welcome and appropriate. I need to quit soaking everyone else with my splashing drama – after all, it yields me nothing more than empty broken buckets that sometimes bite me back. Eventually, when I destroy every bucket in the place, I will get very thirsty and wish I hadn’t been so foolish and brash.
So if my horses are potentially trainable to have better manners, so am I.
And then I realize: over the years, my horses have been busy training me.
More often than not, I’m still groggy every morning when I step out the front door onto the porch to make my way down the gravel driveway to fetch the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM. More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.
The front porch cat (as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and an average of 3 additional stray cats), predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….um, body parts. Mousey body parts or birdie body parts. I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak, of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder. I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper. Yet I do and I have.
I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat. Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” – kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them. Nonsense. Ask the mouse or bird how they feel about becoming the blood sacrifice.
I believe the welcome mat is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans. Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…
So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff. Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals. Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction. These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its two stomachs for a number of hours.
It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the dozens to local schools) are great teaching material. It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good. There is fur and there are feathers. Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn. Ask the mouse or rabbit (or occasional kitten) how they feel about becoming owl litter. There should be a law.
Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing. The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak – like part of a cloth tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a Haflinger represents on earth.
At least we have figured out how to recycle all that poop back to the fields to feed the next generation of grass, which feeds the next generation of Haflingers, which becomes poop to feed the next generation of grass, and so on and so on and so on…
This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of grass/hay/silage to chew it again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure. If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously. So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen? Probably as many as purple cows. I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.
In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so figure the rest can rot.
Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 50 years. Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind and (sometimes) recycle what they don’t want or need.
I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing. I can go green, just might save on the grocery bill and my bathroom scale would thank me.
Tell the bees. They require news of the house; they must know, lest they sicken from the gap between their ignorance and our grief. Speak in a whisper. Tie a black swatch to a stick and attach the stick to their hive. From the fortress of casseroles and desserts built in the kitchen these past few weeks as though hunger were the enemy, remove a slice of cake and lay it where they can slowly draw it in, making a mournful sound.
And tell the fly that has knocked on the window all day. Tell the redbird that rammed the glass from outside and stands too dazed to go. Tell the grass, though it’s already guessed, and the ground clenched in furrows; tell the water you spill on the ground, then all the water will know. And the last shrunken pearl of snow in its hiding place.
Tell the blighted elms, and the young oaks we plant instead. The water bug, while it scribbles a hundred lines that dissolve behind it. The lichen, while it etches deeper its single rune. The boulders, letting their fissures widen, the pebbles, which have no more to lose, the hills—they will be slightly smaller, as always,
So many around the globe are grieving their losses, their reality forever changed by a virus. Yet the world churns on, oblivious to the sorrows of individuals.
The tradition of telling the bees is that it matters to the community of hives how people who care for them are faring: is there a wedding coming up? a baby due? an overwhelming illness? a death of a loved one? If a hive is kept in ignorance, the cloud of grief will sicken them or drive them away. Shared grief is a nurturing spirit that allows the community to thrive and move on in sweetness.
Nothing happens without an impact down the line; the butterfly effect is also the bee effect. We speak softly of our desolation and suffering so our tears water thirsty ground.
Let the bees know, let them hear; the bees will go about their work and they will turn our sorrow to honey.