When I work outdoors all day, every day, as I do now, in the fall, getting ready for winter, tearing up the garden, digging potatoes, gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods, doing the last of the fall mowing, pruning apple trees, taking down the screens, putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things, as preparation for the coming cold… when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds, the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees… when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is, when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw, to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am all body and no mind…
when I am only here and now and nowhere else— then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind, the curse of thought, and I pause and wonder why I so seldom find this shining moment in the now. ~David Budbill “This Shining Moment in the Now” from While We’ve Still Got Feet.
I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work compared to my husband’s faithful daily labor in the garden and elsewhere on the farm. We both celebrate the good and wonderful gifts from the Lord, His sun, rain and soil. Although these weeks are a busy harvest time preserving as much as we can from the orchard and the garden, too much of my own waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.
I know that isn’t healthy. My body needs to lift and push and pull and dig and toss, so I head outside to do farm and garden chores. This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” — all the processing that happens mostly in my head.
I’m grateful for this tenuous balance in my life, knowing as I do that I was never cut out to be a good full time farmer. I sometimes feel that shining glow in the moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.
Thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord. I am learning to let those harvest moments shine.
Wet things smell stronger, and I suppose his main regret is that he can sniff just one at a time. In a frenzy of delight he runs way up the sandy road— scored by freshets after five days of rain. Every pebble gleams, every leaf.
When I whistle he halts abruptly and steps in a circle, swings his extravagant tail. Then he rolls and rubs his muzzle in a particular place, while the drizzle falls without cease, and Queen Anne’s lace and Goldenrod bend low.
The top of the logging road stands open and light. Another day, before hunting starts, we’ll see how far it goes, leaving word first at home. The footing is ambiguous.
Soaked and muddy, the dog drops, panting, and looks up with what amounts to a grin. It’s so good to be uphill with him, nicely winded, and looking down on the pond.
A sound commences in my left ear like the sound of the sea in a shell; a downward, vertiginous drag comes with it. Time to head home. I wait until we’re nearly out to the main road to put him back on the leash, and he —the designated optimist— imagines to the end that he is free. ~Jane Kenyon “After an Illness, Walking the Dog”
A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing. ~Mary Oliver, Dog Songs
As I’ve written elsewhere, I spend over an hour a day dealing with the excrement of my farm critters. This is therapeutic time for me as I have deep respect for the necessity to clean up and compost what is smelly/stinky/yucky and biblically objectionable. (Deuteronomy 23:12-14) None of us, including God, want to take a walk having to pick our way around poop.
As I’m busy picking up manure, I watch our dogs seek out the smelliest, most vile things they can find in the barn or field (preferably dead) and roll themselves around in it one after another until they are just as stinky as the stuff they found. They are clearly joyous about it, especially when they do it together. It is curious throw-back behavior that I’ve assumed, wearing my animal behaviorist hat, was about a wild predator covering up their scent in order to stalk and capture prey more effectively without being detected – except they are really truly so smelly that any prey could sense them coming from a mile away and would learn quickly that a moving creature that smells like poop or a dead carcass is bad news and to be avoided.
This is the main reason our farm dogs live full time outdoors. We prefer to avoid stinky dirty creatures too. So I’ve tried to understand this behavior for what adaptive purpose it may have.
What makes the most sense to me is the “pack mentality” that suggests that once one dog/wolf rolls in something objectionable, that the rest of the pack does too. This is a unifying theme for anxious individuals – they aren’t really on their own if they smell and blend in with the rest of the pack. So they spread the “wealth”, so to speak. Stink up one, stink up all. Like team spirit, it seems to improve morale – until it doesn’t anymore.
I’ve been feeling covered with stink myself. There are so many divisive opinions right now about a variety of current issues; vile nonsense has been flying right and left on social media as well as face to face. The theory is if all of us stink the same from rolling in piles of misinformation, we are then no longer alone.
Yet our destiny does not have to include believing, sharing and “flinging” the stuff that stinks to see who it will stick to.
Time for a bath. Time for soap and cleansing and some serious self-examination. Time to stop joyously rolling around in it. Time to bury the excrement so we’re not picking our way around the piles and can actually hold our heads up to see where we’re heading.
That’s true freedom.
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Last night I walked the woods lit by the final moon of the month. Days don’t count here beneath the centuries-old pines where my grandmother took her solace on hard farm days, passing up the washboard or jam-making for the eternal whooshing of the forest as much serenity as yearning. ~Dave Malone, “Walk in the Woods” from Tornado Drill
My grandparents owned the land, worked the land, bound to the earth by seasons of planting and harvest.
They watched the sky, the habits of birds, hues of sunset, the moods of moon and clouds, the disposition of air. They inhaled the coming season, let it brighten their blood for the work ahead.
Soil sifted through their fingers imbedded beneath their nails and this is what they knew; this rhythm circling the years. They never left their land; each in their own time settled deeper. ~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black.
My husband and I met in the late 70’s while we were both in graduate school in Seattle, living over 100 miles away from our grandparents’ farms farther north in Washington. We lived farther still from my grandparents’ wheat farm in Eastern Washington and his grandparents’ hog farm in Minnesota. One of our first conversations together, the one that told me I needed to get to know this man better, was about wanting to move back to work on the land. We were both descended from peasant immigrants from the British Isles, Holland and Germany – farming was in our DNA, the land remained under our fingernails even as we sat for endless hours studying in law school and medical school classes.
When we married and moved north after buying a small farm, we continued to work full time at desks in town. We’ve never had to depend on this farm for our livelihood, but we have fed our family from the land, bred and raised livestock, and harvested and preserved from a large garden and orchard. It has been a good balance thanks to career opportunities made possible by our education, something our grandparents would have marveled was even possible.
Like our grandparents, we watch in wonder at what the Creator brings to the rhythm of the land each day – the light of the dawn over the fields, the activity of the wild birds and animals in the woods, the life cycles of the farm critters we care for, the glow of the evening sun as night enfolds us when the moon ascends.
We are blessed by the land’s generosity when it is well cared for. Each new day promises another chance to treat it with the love it warrants.
Now forty-some years after that first conversation together about returning to farming, my husband and I hope we never have to leave the land. It brought us together, fed our family, remains imbedded under our fingernails and in our DNA.
Each in our own time, we will settle even deeper.
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In the afternoon of summer, sounds come through the window: a tractor muttering to itself as it
Pivots at the corner of the hay field, stalled for a moment as the green row feeds into the baler.
The wind slips a whisper behind an ear; the noise of the highway is like the dark green stem of a rose.
From the kitchen the blunt banging of cupboard doors and wooden chairs makes a lonely echo in the floor.
Somewhere, between the breeze and the faraway sound of a train, comes a line of birdsong, lightly threading the heavy cloth of dream. ~Joyce Sutphen, “Soundings” from Naming the Stars
As a young child, I remember waking from my summer afternoon naps to the sights and sounds of our rural community. I could hear tractors working fields in the distance, farm trucks rumbling by on the road, the cows and horses in the fields, a train whistle in the distance and the ever-present birdsong from dawn to dusk.
These were the sounds of contentment and productivity, both together. Surely this is how heaven must be: always a sense of something wonderful happening, always a reason to celebrate, always a profound sense of respite and sanctuary.
Even now, there is that moment of awakening of my heart and soul from a summer nap when I try to listen for the chorus of angels outside my open window.
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I’ve banked nothing, or everything. Every daythe 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 agoor 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
He <the professor> asked what I made of the other Oxford students so I told him: They were okay, but they were all very similar… they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies, and they thought they would always win. But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.
He asked me what could be done about it. I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year to do some dead-end job like working in a chicken processing plant or spreading muck with a tractor. It would do more good than a gap year in Peru.
He laughed and thought this was tremendously witty. It wasn’t meant to be funny. ~James Rebanks from The Shepherd’s Life (how a sheep farmer succeeds at Oxford and then goes back to the farm)
For well over thirty years, my husband and I have spent about an hour a day shoveling manure out of numerous horse stalls and I’m a better person for it. The last few weeks of sub-freezing snow/icy weather while running low on trucked-in supplies of shavings and straw bedding has been a particular character-building experience. It feels like everything, myself included, is in a process of decomposition.
Wheeled to a mountainous pile in our barnyard, our daily collection of manure happily composts year round, becoming rich fertilizer in a matter of months through a crucible-like heating process of organic chemistry, bacteria and earthworms. Nothing mankind has achieved quite matches the drama of useless and basically disgusting stuff transforming into the essential elements needed for productive growth and survival. This is a metaphor I can <ahem> happily muck about in.
I’m in awe, every day, at being part of this process — in many ways a far more tangible improvement to the state of the world than anything else I manage to accomplish every day. The horses, major contributors that they are, act underwhelmed by my enthusiasm. I guess some miracles are relative, depending on one’s perspective, but if the horses understood that the grass they contentedly eat in the pasture, or the hay they munch on during the winter months, was grown thanks to their carefully recycled waste products, they might be more impressed.
Their nonchalance about the daily mucking routine is understandable. If they are outside, they probably don’t notice their beds are clean when they return to the stalls at night. If they are inside during the heavy rain days, they feel duty-bound to be in our faces as we move about their stall, toting a pitchfork and pushing a wheelbarrow. I’m a source of constant amusement as they nose my jacket pockets for treats that I never carry, as they beg for scratches on their unreachable itchy spots, and as they attempt to overturn an almost full load, just to see balls of manure roll to all corners of the stall like breaking a rack of billiard balls in a game of pool.
Good thing I’m a patient person always seeking an object lesson in whatever I see or do ~ mucking out stalls every day helps me tolerate the proverbial muck I encounter every day off the farm. And spending an hour a day getting dirty in the real stuff somehow makes the virtual manure less noxious.
Everyone should be spending time daily mucking out; I think the world would generally be a better place.
Wally, our former stallion, now gelded, discovered a way to make my life easier rather than complicating it. He hauled a rubber tub into his stall from his paddock, by tossing it into the air with his teeth and throwing it, and it finally settled against one wall. Then he began to consistently pile his manure, with precise aim, right in the tub. I didn’t ask him to do this. It had never occurred to me. I hadn’t even thought it was possible for a horse to house train himself. But there it is, proof that some horses prefer neat and tidy rather than the whirlwind eggbeater approach to manure distribution. After a day of his manure pile plopping, it is actually too heavy for me to pick up and dump into the wheelbarrow all in one tub load, but it takes 1/4 of the time to clean his stall than the others, and he spares all this bedding.
What a guy. He provides me unending inspiration in how to keep my own personal muck concentrated rather than spreading it about, contaminating the rest of the world.
Now, once I teach him to put the seat back down when he’s done, he’s welcome to move into the house…
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Something has descended like feathered prophecy. Someone has offered the world a bowl of frozen tears,
has traced the veins and edges of leaves with furred ink. The grass is stiff as the strings of a lute.
And, day by day, the tiny windows crack their cardboard frames seizing the frail light. The sun, moving through
these waxy squares, undiminished as a word passing from mind to speech. Every breath a birth,
a stir of floating limbs within me. I stay up late and waken early to feel beneath my feet the silence coming. ~Anya Silver “Advent, First Frost”
When I am weary, putting one foot in front of the other in the humble chores of the barn, feeling so cold at times, I no longer remember this was once sweaty summer work ~ now my hands ache in an arctic wind that shows no mercy.
Yet I know respite will come, refuge is near, salvation is imminent. Each breath I breathe a cloud of hope.
I will remember what our good God has prepared for us in such a place as this, what He has done to come down to dwell with us, melting our frozen tears, aching in silence alongside us.
Good people all, this Christmas time, Consider well and bear in mind What our good God for us has done In sending his beloved son With Mary holy we should pray, To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn, There was a blessed Messiah born The night before that happy tide The noble Virgin and her guide Were long time seeking up and down To find a lodging in the town
But mark right well what came to pass From every door repelled, alas As was foretold, their refuge all Was but a humble ox’s stall Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angel did appear Which put the shepherds in great fear Arise and go, the angels said To Bethlehem, be not afraid For there you’ll find, this happy morn A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find And as God’s angel had foretold They did our Saviour Christ behold Within a manger he was laid And by his side a virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life Who came on earth to end all strife There were three wise men from afar Directed by a glorious star And on they wandered night and day
Until they came where Jesus lay And when they came unto that place Where our beloved Messiah lay They humbly cast them at his feet With gifts of gold and incense sweet. ~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century
On this first day of November it is cold as a cave, the sky the color of neutral third parties. I am cutting carrots for the chicken soup. Knife against carrot again and again sends a plop of pennies into the pan. These cents, when held to the gray light, hold no noble president, only stills of some kaleidoscope caught being pensive… and beautiful, in the eye of this beholder, who did not expect this moment of marvel while making an early supper for the hungry children. ~Cindy Gregg, “Monday” from Suddenly Autumn.
I wasn’t prepared for November to begin on this chilly Monday morning.
Throwing on my barn coat and boots, I pulled up some of the last carrots from the garden, cut them up, added some already harvested beans, peas and corn from the freezer, threw in some baby potatoes to make a crockpot of beef bone soup.
When we return home hungry from our community work tonight, we will be tired but well fed.
There is a moment of marvel in preparing a meal from one’s own garden bounty, remembering the small seeds put in the ground 6 months ago, and now washed and cut and simmering in a pot in our kitchen.
The start of November isn’t so chilly after all. We are warmed by the work done through the spring and summer, the sun and rain that grew these vegetables, and the Creator God who provides, even in the cold and dark months of the year.
We’ll make it through this first Monday of November, anticipating the marvels to come.
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Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’ The hard snow held me, save where now and then One foot went through. The view was all in lines Straight up and down of tall slim trees Too much alike to mark or name a place by So as to say for certain I was here Or somewhere else: I was just far from home. A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather— The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was a pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone, Without so much as wishing him good-night. He went behind it to make his last stand. It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, Or even last year’s or the year’s before. The wood was gray and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it though on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay. ~Robert Frost, “The Wood-pile” from North of Boston
My labor is usually done with fervor and purpose, but there are times when I do not experience the fruits of my labor. It is left to smolder slowly to decay rather than provide the intended warmth and nurture of a fresh hearthfire.
I might have chosen a different way to go if I had known.
Perhaps I will simply follow the birds instead…
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My father taught me how to eat breakfast those mornings when it was my turn to help him milk the cows. I loved rising up from
the darkness and coming quietly down the stairs while the others were still sleeping. I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon
from the drawer, and slip into the pantry where he was already eating spoonfuls of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries
from our own strawberry fields forever. Didn’t talk much—except to mention how good the strawberries tasted or the way
those clouds hung over the hay barn roof. Simple—that’s how we started up the day. ~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.
By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.
One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.
I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.
I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.
Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.
Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.
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My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old farm house on that land where several generations of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung
their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you know when your family has lived close to the earth: things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have
enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.
I may walk the streets of this century and make my living in an office but my blood is old farming blood and my true self is underground like a potato.
I have taken root in my grandfather’s fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees. ~Faith Shearin from “Fields”
It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.
A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.
My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!
Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme, Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine, Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain, For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well, For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel, There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee, There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me, Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again, Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock, I wish her safe landing, without any shock, If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea, I will always remember, your kindness to me, Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again
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