You Are My Sunshine

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

The Rain Comes Down

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.

You first.

His True Beauty

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

stained glass from Meyers Studio, Munich 1899

A farmer died yesterday yet his harvest will live on.

Arnie and his wife Gretchen hadn’t farmed in a few years, if you consider farming only as the raising of dairy heifers and the milking of cows. But farming is so much more if you consider their other harvest work: sharing the produce from a beautiful garden, his volunteering in the community bringing Meals on Wheels to the home bound, transporting people to church who would never make it otherwise, and an unfailing smile and greeting at church when paying special attention to anyone he had never seen before. He wanted them to know how welcome they were.

When he wasn’t running a dairy farm, Arnie harvested people. He exchanged his tractor for an SUV which made it easy to fold up and stow a wheelchair whenever needed. He traded in his hoe for a handshake, his farmer’s cap for a promise to show up to do whatever no one else would do.

He looked for those who were struggling to keep going, who had run out of fuel and were discouraged, their hope being battered by the storms of life. Arnie searched for the light hidden within and became a reigniting fire himself, even when his own illness overwhelmed him. He helped push back darkness with a sparkle and shine reflected from the Light he kept illuminated deep within himself.

His walk with God was a thing of true beauty, like multi-colored windows of faith that reflect our Savior. Arnie became a sanctuary bathed in the glow of a powerful inner light.

A farmer has gone home, but his harvest left behind is bountiful beyond imagining. It sparkles and shines; we’ll miss that welcoming smile until that day he greets us once again at heaven’s gates.

A Poem About Cheese

The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
~G.K.Chesterton

from Pleasant Valley Dairy

from Steensma Dairy on Ellie’s visit to Holland

Until now, that is…

It may be gouda for me to know
that cheddar is better – I’m totally nokkelost

Maasdam! It would take a swiss kick to the asiago
to dubliner my efforts to string the praises of gorgonzola

It could be a muenster of a havarti
to provolone the colby truth

Edam, what a mozzarella I’ve made for myself
ever since I got caught leyden and didn’t know jack

But it is all up to quark-y feta;  ask for parmesan
and it may gruyere on me, what a squeaker!

Ricotta go now
~a  farmer is waiting for me on the farmstead

from Appel Farms
from Steensma Dairy

thank you to our local cheese producers for their photos of their cheeses – Appel Farms
Pleasant Valley Dairy
Steensma Dairy

Grazing and Feasting

Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”

This is not a usual summer,
lacking boisterous gatherings of family and friends,
missing our endless July outdoor meals~
instead staying in place,
quietly feasting upon each gifted moment
while close-crop grazing
’til I’m full up and spilling over,
ready to someday again share all I have
until empty.


Using Both Hands

In the Pasture–Julien Dupre`

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….

portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Larsen

Earth Day Lamenting

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. 

Bird barf.  

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.

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.

How You Foretell the Weather is Changing

Rain always follows the cattle
sniffing the air and huddling
in fields with their heads to the lee.
You will know that the weather is changing
when your sheep leave the pasture
too slowly, and your dogs lie about
and look tired; when the cat
turns her back to the fire,
washing her face, and the pigs
wallow in litter; cocks will be crowing
at unusual hours, flapping their wings;
hens will chant; when your ducks
and your geese are too noisy,
and the pigeons are washing themselves;
when the peacocks squall loudly
from the tops of the trees,
when the guinea fowl grates;
when sparrows chirp loudly
and fuss in the roadway, and when swallows
fly low, skimming the earth;
when the carrion crow
croaks to himself, and wild fowl
dip and wash, and when moles
throw up hills with great fervor;
when toads creep out in numbers;
when frogs croak; when bats
enter the houses; when birds
begin to seek shelter,
and the robin approaches your house;
when the swan flies at the wind,
and your bees leave the hive;
when ants carry their eggs to and fro,
and flies bite, and the earthworm
is seen on the surface of things.

~Ted Kooser “How to Foretell a Change in the Weather” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985, 

I reckon the birds and mammals and insects and worms are much better at anticipating weather change than we humans are. It is programmed into their DNA in a way that we have lost in our evolved state. Instead we are glued to our cell phone weather apps, or the Weather Channel, watching the prediction change hour to hour as if it is the gospel truth. I’m here to remind us all it is called a “prediction” for good reason.

We forget about checking the sky for the direction the clouds are traveling, or even what clouds are up there. We forget about checking our own outdoor thermometers because we don’t own them any longer. We certainly forget about barometers – a little kitchen window gadget that my father thumped with his finger every morning of my childhood, so he could see what the atmospheric pressure was doing so he could anticipate how wet or wind-blown he would be that day.

In particular, we forget to watch the critters around us – how their behavior changes and how they are preparing themselves and their environment for whatever weather change to come. They feel it in their bones and their brains by whatever means God has given them.

Our Haflinger horses are already shedding off their winter coats yet there are still six weeks left of winter. What are they trying to say about the weather to come?

So, we humans are weather-challenged creatures but all the clues still exist if only we pay attention. My weather app says the northwest will have rain rain and more rain through the weekend with a possibility of snow late Sunday. The Weather Channel website says we’ll experience high potentially damaging winds, flooding and snow. Who to believe?

I think, all things being equal, I’ll choose to believe what is predicted for Denver this weekend: all sun and a high temperature of 71 degrees. I’m sure all the critters there will be out sunbathing. Wish I could too.

Freed into the Wider World

photo by Nate Gibson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still,
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
~Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.

I knew two things for sure:
I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun.
We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.

A real (sort of) starter farm.

Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.

I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.

Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.

My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever:  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods. 

That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.