The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost For none now live who remember it. ~J.R.R. Tolkien Galadriel’s prologue to The Fellowship of the Rings
There trudges one to a merry-making With a sturdy swing, On whom the rain comes down.
To fetch the saving medicament Is another bent, On whom the rain comes down.
One slowly drives his herd to the stall Ere ill befall, On whom the rain comes down.
This bears his missives of life and death With quickening breath, On whom the rain comes down.
One watches for signals of wreck or war From the hill afar, On whom the rain comes down.
No care if he gain a shelter or none, Unhired moves on, On whom the rain comes down.
And another knows nought of its chilling fall Upon him at all, On whom the rain comes down. ~Thomas Hardy “An Autumn Rain-scene”(1904)
The rain has returned, now six months into a changed world. The rain blows, raging against the windows and puddling in the low spots, sparing nothing and no one.
It drenches all and everyone – none of us immune from the cleansing: whether missing the joy of sweet fellowship, whether bearing urgent messages or administering badly needed medication, whether trudging through the day’s chores, whether unemployed and praying for work, whether bearing witness to ongoing divisive conflict and tragedy, or whether the rain falls chill upon those newly lying still and silent beneath the soil.
In our universal soaking, may we look at one another with a renewed compassion. Each one of us deserves a warm and comforting toweling off, being buffed and fluffed so we’re ready to face what comes next.
I’ve banked nothing, or everything. Every day the chores need doing again. Early in the morning, I clean the horse barn with a manure fork. Every morning, it feels as though it could be the day beforeor a year ago or a year before that. With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick to keep the manure from falling out, and every day I remember where I learned to do that and from whom. Time all but stops.
But then I dump the cart on the compost pile. I bring out the tractor and turn the pile, once every three or four days. The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap. It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward, decomposing us all in the process. ~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life
I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.
I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.
Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right? Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.
There is a lesson here in the manure pile. There must be a pony buried here somewhere. And there is.
We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.
We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.
So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.
At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.
There is a day that comes when you realize you can’t bake enough bread to make things turn out right, no matter how many times you read Little House on the Prairie to your children. There aren’t enough quart jars to fill with tomatoes or translucent slices of pear to keep you from feeling unproductive. There is no bonfire that burns orange enough in the chill October night to keep your mind from following the lonesome howls and yips of the coyotes concealed by darkness in the harvested cornfield just beyond the circle of your fire.
And when you step away from your family and fire, into the dark pasture and tip your head back, feel the whole black bowl of sky with its icy prickles of stars, its swath of Milky Way, settle over you, you know that no one and everyone is just this alone on the Earth though most keep themselves distracted enough not to notice. In your hollowness you open your arms to God because no one else is enough to fill them. Eternity passes between and no one knows this but you.
The hum of their conversation, the whole world, talking. When it is time, you turn, grasp the woodcart’s handle, pull it, bumping behind you across the frosty grass, up the hill to the house, where you step inside cubes of light, and begin to do ordinary things, hang up coats, open and close drawers, rinse hot chocolate from mugs. And you are still separate, but no longer grieving bread. ~Daye Phillippo “Bread” from The Exponent. Vol. 124 – No 75 (May 3, 2010)
Try as I might, there aren’t enough chores to do, nor meals to make, nor pictures to take or words to write to distract me from the emptiness that can hit in the middle of the night. We each try to find our own way to make the world feel right and good, to give us a sense of purpose for getting up each morning.
Yet life can be harsh. I hear regularly from my patients who fight a futile struggle with pointlessness. Hours, days and years are hollow without loving and meaningful relationships with each other, but especially with our Creator.
My work here is simple: to find meaning in routine and the rhythm of the seasons with a desire to leave behind something that will last longer than I will. In those moments of feeling hollowed-out, I am reminded that God-shaped hole is just as He created it. God knows exactly what I need— I rise like leavened bread becoming more than I could ever be without Him.
The ordinary in me is filled by the extraordinary.
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back. You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August, you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love, though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes, and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead, but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands as if they meant to spend a lifetime together.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed, at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump, how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards, until you learn about love, about sweet surrender, and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept. There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s, it will always whisper, you can’t have it all, but there is this. ~Barbara Ras from “You Can’t Have It All“ from Bite Every Sorrow
My pragmatic mother who gave up her teaching career for marriage and family reminded me regularly that I couldn’t have it all: there was no way a woman can have a husband and children and a farm and a garden and animals and a profession and travel and volunteer in the community and not make a mess of it all and herself.
My father would listen to her and say softly under his breath: “you do whatever you put your mind to…you know what you are here for.”
They were both right. The alluring abundance of this life has invited me to want to touch and feel and taste it all, not unlike another woman who was placed with purpose in the Garden to be side-by-side companion and co-worker. Yet she demonstrated what happens when you want more than you are given and yes, she made a mess of it.
Yet there is this: despite wanting it all and working hard for it all and believing I could do it all, I indeed missed the point altogether. It’s forgive and forget walking hand in hand for a lifetime. It’s all gift, not earned. It’s all grace, not deserved. It’s all August abundance, all year long, to sustain us through the drought and drab of winter.
Because I have come to the fence at night, the horses arrive also from their ancient stable. They let me stroke their long faces, and I note in the light of the now-merging moon
how they, a Morgan and a Quarter, have been by shake-guttered raindrops spotted around their rumps and thus made Appaloosas, the ancestral horses of this place.
Maybe because it is night, they are nervous, or maybe because they too sense what they have become, they seem to be waiting for me to say something
to whatever ancient spirits might still abide here, that they might awaken from this strange dream, in which there are fences and stables and a man who doesn’t know a single word they understand. ~Robert Wrigley “After a Rainstorm”from Beautiful Country
Haflinger horses must have a migration center in their brain that tells them that it is time to move on to other territory, a move based on quality of forage, the seasons, or maybe simply a sudden urge for a change in scenery. I imagine, over hundreds of years of living in the rather sparse Alpen meadows, they needed to move on to another feeding area enmasse on a pretty regular basis, or if the weather was starting to get crummy. Or perhaps the next valley over had a better view, who knows? Trouble is, my Haflingers seem to have the desire to “move to other pastures” even if the grass in their own territory is plentiful and the view is great. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of natural or man-made barrier that will discourage them.
I have a trio of geldings (the “Three Musketeers”) who are particularly afflicted with wanderlust. There is not a field yet that has held them when they decide together that it is time to move on. We are a hotwire and white tape fenced farm–something that has worked fairly well over the years, as it is inexpensive, easily repaired and best of all, easily moved if we need to change the fencing arrangement in our pasture rotation between five different 2 acre pastures. Previous generations of Haflingers have tested the hotwire and learned not to bother it again. No problem. But not the Three Musketeers.
They know when the wire is grounding out somewhere, so the current is low. They know when the weather is so dry that the conduction is poor through the wire. They know when I’ve absent mindedly left the fencer unplugged because I’ve had someone visit and we wanted to climb unshocked through the fences to walk from field to field. These three actually have little conferences out in the field together about this–I’ve seen them huddled together, discussing their strategy, and fifteen minutes later, I’ll look out my kitchen window and they are in another field altogether and the wire and tape is strewn everywhere and there’s not a mark on any of them. Even more mysteriously, often I can’t really tell where they made their escape as they leave no trace–I think one holds up the top wire with his teeth and the others carefully step over the bottom wire. I’m convinced they do this just to make me crazy.
Last night, when I brought them in from a totally different field from where they had started in the morning, they all smirked at me as they marched to their stalls as if to say, “guess what you have waiting for you out there.” It was too dark to survey the damage last night but I got up extra early to check it out this morning before I turned them out again.
Sure enough, in the back corner of the field they had been put in yesterday morning, (which has plenty of grass), the tape had been stretched, but not broken, and the wires popped off their insulators and dragging on the ground and in a huge tangled mass. I enjoyed 45 minutes of Pacific Northwest cloudy morning putting it all back together. Then I put them out in the field they had escaped to last night, thinking, “okay, if you like this field so well, this is where you’ll stay”.
Tonight, they were back in the first field where they started out yesterday morning. Just to make me crazy. They are thoroughly enjoying this sport. I’m ready to buy a grand poobah mega-wattage fry-their-whiskers fence charger.
But then, I’d be spoiling their fun and their travels. As long as they stay off the road, out of our garden, and out of my kitchen, they can have the run of the place. I too remember being afflicted with wanderlust, long long ago, and wanting to see the big wide world, no matter what obstacles had to be overcome or shocks I had to endure to get there. And I got there after all that trouble and effort and realized that home was really where I wanted to be. Now, prying me away from my little corner of the world gets more difficult every year. I hope my Haflinger trio will eventually decide that staying home is the best thing after all.
How much better it is to carry wood to the fire than to moan about your life. How much better to throw the garbage onto the compost, or to pin the clean sheet on the line, With a gray-brown wooden clothes pin. ~Jane Kenyon “The Clothespin”
I get easily overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done: a full day of telehealth computer visits with patients from home but all the usual household and farm tasks waiting for me –grass to mow, flower beds to weed, garden to plant, fences to fix, manure to haul, animals to brush out — the list is endless and there are never enough hours in the day.
So of course, I moan and whine and write about it.
Or I can set to work, tackling one thing at a time. A simple task is accomplished, and then another, like hanging clothes on the line: this one is done, and now this one, pinned and hanging to freshen, renewed, in the spring breezes.
At the end of the day, I pull them down, bury my face in them and breathe deeply, knowing how much better I am than before I began.
I like to live in the sound of water, in the feel of mountain air. A sharp reminder hits me: this world still is alive; it stretches out there shivering toward its own creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing enters into the elaborate give-and-take, this bowing to sun and moon, day or night, winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil chaos that seems to be going somewhere. This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it. This motionless turmoil, this everything dance. ~William Stafford, “Time for Serenity, Anyone?” from Even in Quiet Places
We are, as breathed on dust, called into the service and company of another, called to do work other than our own. This creature, formed of dust, is entrusted with the garden, with all the animals, and with all living things. Our creatureliness binds us to the role of steward, friend, and companion of all other creatures who share our fragility. ~Walter Brueggemann from “Remember You Are Dust”
As a physician, I am reminded daily of the fragility of our bodies and minds, this breathed-on dust of us, especially now as a mere novel virus has immobilizes the world’s population.
As a farmer, I dwell compatibly with the dust I’m entrusted to steward. I carry it around under my fingernails, on my boots, my skin smudged in unexpected ways and places as I go about my chores and tasks. The dust of the barnyard wilderness clings to me, not wanting to let go of one of its own as I return indoors. Sunbeams in our house swirl with released dust motes given new life through solar energy, each mote a source of fragile strength, tranquil beauty, complex simplicity. Such joyful dust dance makes me reluctant to get out the dust rags and cleaning solutions.
As a child of the Creator, I am well aware of the cleansing needed in this grimy, desperately soiled world. The dustiest parts of me lie far deeper than my shedding skin — the breathed-on dust that innervates, circulates and motivates me.
God sent His Son to be the dust rag I sorely need; I cling to Him as He comes to clean house.
It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, gives him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Thanks in large part to how messily we humans live, this world is a grimy place.
As an act of worship, we work at cleaning up after ourselves. Hands that clean toilets, scrub floors, carry bedpans, pick up garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.
I spend time every day carrying buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life. It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.
I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am. I never want to forget to clean up after myself. I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail.
It is my privilege. It is His gift to me. It is Grace that comes alongside me, to keep pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary to do it myself.
He calls the honeybees his girls although he tells me they’re ungendered workers who never produce offspring. Some hour drops, the bees shut off. In the long, cool slant of sun, spent flowers fold into cups. He asks me if I’ve ever seen a Solitary Bee where it sleeps. I say I’ve not. The nearest bud’s a long-throated peach hollyhock. He cradles it in his palm, holds it up so I spy the intimacy of the sleeping bee. Little life safe in a petal, little girl, your few furious buzzings as you stir stay with me all winter, remind me of my work undone. ~Heid E. Erdrich, from “Intimate Detail” from The Mother’s Tongue
The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,— Nothing changed but the hives of bees. Before them, under the garden wall, Forward and back, Went drearily singing the chore-girl small, Draping each hive with a shred of black. Trembling, I listened: the summer sun Had the chill of snow; For I knew she was telling the bees of one Gone on the journey we all must go! ~John Greenleaf Whittier from “Telling the Bees”
An old Celtic tradition necessitates sharing any news from the household with the farm’s bee hives, whether cheery like a new birth or a wedding celebration or sad like a family death. This ensures the hives’ well-being and continued connection to home and community – the bees are kept in the loop, so to speak, so they stay at home, not swarm and move on to a more hospitable place.
Each little life safe at home, each little life with work undone.
Good news seems always easy to share; we tend to keep bad news to ourselves so this tradition helps remind us that what affects one of us, affects us all.
These days, with instant news at our fingertips at any moment, bad news is constantly bombarding us. Like the bees in the hives of the field, we want to flee from it and find a more hospitable home.
I hope the Beekeeper, our Creator, comes personally to each of us to say: “Here is what has happened. All will be well, dear one. We will navigate your little life together.”