As Old As I Am

There’s a single tree at the fence line…

When I cross the unfertile pasture strewn
with rocks and the holes of gophers, badgers, coyotes,
and the rattlesnake den (a thousand killed
in a decade because they don’t mix well with dogs
and children) in an hour’s walking and reach
the tree, I find it oppressive. Likely it’s
as old as I am, withstanding its isolation,
all gnarled and twisted from its battle
with weather. I sit against it until we merge,
and when I return home in the cold, windy
twilight I feel I’ve been gone for years.

~Jim Harrison, from “Fence Line Tree” from Saving Daylight.

Our fence line apple tree is considerably older than I am, and not a far walk away from the house. I visit it nearly every day, to be reminded that there is a wonder in gnarled limbs and blatant asymmetry.

What strikes me is the consistent presence of this tree though so much changes around it: the seasons, the birds that nest in it, the animals that graze under it and the ever-changing palette above and beyond.

This tree stands bent and misshapen, though not nearly as fruitful as in its younger years, yet still a constant in my life and in generations to come.

May I be that constant for those around me, to be steady when all around me changes in swirls and storms. Perhaps being bent and wrinkled and knobby can also be beautiful.

Beyond Communion

I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion,
beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly
take corncobs, pulling away as I hold
until the mid-points snap.
They are careful of my fingers,
offering that animal-knowledge,
the respect which is due to strangers;
and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.

I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.

Married to Cinnamon and Sugar Happily Ever After

The kitchen is sweet with the smell of apples,
big yellow pie apples, light in the hand,
their skins freckled, the stems knobby
and thick with bark, as if the tree
could not bear to let the apple go.
Baskets of apples circle the back door,
fill the porch, cover the kitchen table.

My mother and my grandmother are
running the apple brigade. My mother,
always better with machines, is standing
at the apple peeler; my grandmother,
more at home with a paring knife,
faces her across the breadboard.
My mother takes an apple in her hand,

She pushes it neatly onto the sharp
prong and turns the handle that turns
the apple that swivels the blade pressed
tight against the apple’s side and peels
the skin away in long curling strips that
twist and fall to a bucket on the floor.
The apples, coming off the peeler,

Are winding staircases, little accordions,
slinky toys, jack-in-the-box fruit, until
my grandmother’s paring knife goes slicing
through the rings and they become apple
pies, apple cakes, apple crisp. Soon
they will be married to butter and live with
cinnamon and sugar, happily ever after.
~Joyce Sutphen, “Apple Season” from Coming Back to the Body.

I liked how the starry blue lid
of that saucepan lifted and puffed,
then settled back on a thin
hotpad of steam, and the way
her kitchen filled with the warm,
wet breath of apples, as if all
the apples were talking at once,
as if they’d come cold and sour
from chores in the orchard,
and were trying to shoulder in
close to the fire. She was too busy
to put in her two cents’ worth
talking to apples. Squeezing
her dentures with wrinkly lips,
she had to jingle and stack
the bright brass coins of the lids
and thoughtfully count out
the red rubber rings, then hold
each jar, to see if it was clean,
to a window that looked out
through her back yard into Iowa.
And with every third or fourth jar
she wiped steam from her glasses,
using the hem of her apron,
printed with tiny red sailboats
that dipped along with leaf-green
banners snapping, under puffs
of pale applesauce clouds
scented with cinnamon and cloves,
the only boats under sail
for at least two thousand miles.
~Ted Kooser “Applesauce”

Politics is applesauce.
~Will Rogers

Yesterday was applesauce-making day on our farm. The number of windfall apples lying on the ground is exponentially increasing, so I could put off the task no longer. The apple trees in our orchard are primarily antique varieties rarely grown any longer. I selected Spitzenburgs, a favorite apple of Thomas Jefferson, a Baldwin or two, some Pippins, a few Kings, and some Dutch Mignons, a russet apple undistinguished in appearance, not at all pretty, and easy to pass by for something more showy.

It took no time at all to fill several large boxes. Sadly, some apples were beyond hope; they lay rotting, half consumed by hornets, slugs, deer, raccoons and other critters so I let them be.

The task of washing, peeling and coring organic apples is time consuming. They require a fair amount of preparation: the bruised spots must be cut out, as well as the worm holes and tracks. The apples are cut to the core and sliced into the simmering pot to be stirred and slowly cooked down to sauce. Before long, before my eyes, together they become a pale yellow mash, blending their varied flavors together. However the smooth sweetness of this wonderful sauce is owed to the Dutch Mignon. It is a sublime sauce apple despite its humble unassuming appearance. Used alone, it would lack the “stand out” flavors of the other apple varieties, but as it cooks down, it becomes a foundation allowing the other apples to blend their unique qualities.

If I’m feeling really homespun, I marry the sublime with cinnamon and sugar, to create something happily ever after.

So it should be with the fellowship of diverse people and so should it be after a painful political season. We are bruised, wormy, but salvageable. We are far better together than we are separate. And through the process, with perhaps a sprinkle of cinnamon and sweetness, we are transformed into something far better than how we began.

Seize the Day Gently

Night and day
seize the day, also the night —
a handful of water to grasp.
The moon shines off the mountain
snow where grizzlies look for a place
for the winter’s sleep and birth.
I just ate the year’s last tomato
in the year’s fatal whirl.
This is mid-October, apple time.
I picked them for years.
One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.


Fifty years later we hold each other looking
out the windows at birds, making dinner,
a life to live day after day, a life of
dogs and children and the far wide country
out by rivers, rumpled by mountains.
So far the days keep coming.
Seize the day gently as if you loved her.

~Jim Harrison, from “Carpe Diem” from Dead Man’s Float.

Forty some years later, the days keep coming, a life to live day after day after day. I try not to take a single one for granted, each morning a gift to be seized gently and embraced with reverent gratitude.

Even knowing I am meant to cherish this gift, I squander it. I grumble, I grouse, I can be tough to live alongside. I know better than to give into an impulse toward discontent, yet still it happens. Something inside me whispers that things could be better than they are — more of this, less of that — I tend to dwell on whatever my heart yearns for rather than the riches right in front of me.

I’m not the first one to struggle with this nor will I be the last. It turned out rather badly when those before me gave into their discontent and took what was not theirs to have.

We are still living out the consequences of that fall from grace.

Yet, even in our state of disgrace, despite our grumbling and groaning, we have been seized – gently and without hesitation – and held closely by One who loves us at our most unloveable.

Though my troubles and yearnings may continue, I will be content in that embrace, knowing even if I loosen my grip, I will not be let go.

It Was Like That

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat
from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem
to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no
storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they
wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it
occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin,
like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were
about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.
~Marie Howe “Part of Eve’s Discussion” from The Good Thief. 

Sometimes my mind’s eye will assume what is about to happen before it does, and I can see it play out before it does – yet sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes I teeter on the cusp of a new thought, a revelation that will change things completely — yet it never forms beyond that initial seed.

Sometimes I believe I can do whatever is right in my own eyes because it feels right – yet I don’t consider what that means forever.

I reach for the fruit because I want it and I’m hungry and it is hanging there waiting for someone, anyone – yet if I hesitate for a moment and consider the worm hole before I take a bite, it just might spare the world so much sorrow and heartache.

The Autumn Sun

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—


this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.


And so, what else can you do
but let yourself be broken
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?

~Carolyn Locke “What Else?” from The Place We Become

So this is how our life goes:

we are sowed, set down roots, bud and grow and flower and bloom and fruit and flourish,

then dry and change and wither and empty and break away to be carried off beyond this air and water and soil.

We thrived where we were planted, did what we could with a little nurture, to transcend the here and now.

So may we plant the next generation in healthy soil.
May we weed and water and feed as needed.
May we never overshadow the sun but step aside so its light fully shines.

Springing

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts at night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.
~Robert Frost “A Prayer in Spring”

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

We are wisely warned what may happen in the next few months: a second or third wave of virus, more disruption, more closures, more deaths. There seems no end in sight on this long COVID road. Or perhaps the end is prematurely near for too many.

Thinking so far away to uncertain times ahead, we need to remember the future has always been uncertain; we just aren’t reminded so starkly. Instead we are reminded to dwell in the present here and now, appreciating these quiet moments at home for what they may bestow.

The earth is springing even while our hearts are weary of distancing and isolation. Each breath is filled with new fragrance, the greens startlingly verdant, each blossom heavy with promise.

There is reassurance in this renewal we witness yet again.

This, now, is love springing.
This is His love, reminding us He has not abandoned us.
This is love and nothing else can be as certain as that.

Springtime Passion

You come to fetch me from my work to-night 
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see 
If I can leave off burying the white 
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree. 
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite, 
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea);
And go along with you ere you lose sight 
Of what you came for and become like me, 
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth. 
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed 
On through the watching for that early birth 
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed, 
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes 
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
~Robert Frost “Putting in the Seed”

The garden is ready;
the soil turned over,
the compost mixed in,
rototilled to a fine crown.
Next will come the laying out of strings,
the trench hoed straight,
the seed laid one by one in the furrow
and covered gently with a light touch.

Then the sun warms
and showers moisten,
the seeds awaken to push upward,
bold and abrupt,
wanting to know the touch of sky and air
to leaf and leap
and bloom and bear.

Oh, how Love burns
in the Putting in the Seed.

The Soul Confined

 
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

photo of spring snow by Paul Dorpat

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.

A Scorched Land of Fierce Color

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

                        On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
~R.S. Thomas “The Coming”

“Let me go there”

And He did. Knowing what awaited Him.

As a result, we are forever changed.

Fifty weeks of dirt rows
Plain and unnoticed.
Could be corn, could be beans
Could be anything;
Drive-by fly-over dull.

Yet April ignites an explosion:
Dazzling retinal hues
Singed and scorched, crying
Grateful tears for such as this
Grounded rainbow on Earth

Transient, incandescent
Brilliance hoped for.
Remembered in dreams,
Promises realized,
Housed in crystal before shattering.