There’s a certain Slant of light On winter afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft of cathedral tunes. When it comes, the Landscape listens — Shadows hold their breath — When it goes, ’tis like the Distance On the look of Death. ~Emily Dickinson
How valuable it is in these short days, threading through empty maple branches, the lacy-needled sugar pines.
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.
We can make do with so little, just the hint of warmth, the slanted light... ~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from The More Difficult Beauty
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind — ~Emily Dickinson
I like the slants of light; I’m a collector. That’s a good one, I say… ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.
Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.
I scrambled among the bales without worry.
In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.
Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn Black chimney builds into the quiet sky Its curling pile to crumble silently. Far out to the westward on the edge of morn, The slender misty city towers up-borne Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue; And yonder on those northern hills, the hue Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.
And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain, Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze, Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team, With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam. ~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.
Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.
We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.
We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.
For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.
And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.
No fossil fuel necessary back then. No exhaust other than steaming nostrils and a pile of manure here or there.
We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.
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.
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.