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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
A hill, a farm, A forest, and a valley. Half a hill plowed, half woods. A forest valley and a valley field.
Sun passes over; Two solstices a year Cow in the pasture Sometimes deer
A farmhouse built of wood. A forest built on bones. The high field, hawks The low field, crows
Wren in the brambles Frogs in the creek Hot in summer Cold in snow
The woods fade and pass. The farm goes on. The farm quits and fails The woods creep down
Stocks fall you can’t sell corn Big frost and tree-mice starve Who wins who cares? The woods have time. The farmer has heirs. ~“Map” by Gary Snyder from Left Out in the Rain.
We have now passed from the season when our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold. In June, the cherry orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass. During the summer months, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM. So many hours of light to work with!
I yearn for the coming dark rainy days to hide inside with a book.
Instead the lawnmower and weed whacker call our names, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be prepared for winter. It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this. It’s just that nothing we do is enough. Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially. The fences always need fixing.
Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.
We spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be. We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful. Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe. We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 35 year old hand me down truck with almost 200,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year. Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents. We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup. The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything. We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses. Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.
And our house would always stay clean.
Dream on. Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes. I know ours is. Yet here we be and here we stay.
It’s home. We’ve raised three wonderful children here. We’ve bred and grown good horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields. We breathe clean air and hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven. Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm. I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality. Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older. Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.
We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between. This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.
Holy as a day is spent Holy is the dish and drain The soap and sink, and the cup and plate And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile Shower heads and good dry towels And frying eggs sound like psalms With bits of salt measured in my palm It’s all a part of a sacrament As holy as a day is spent Holy is the familiar room And quiet moments in the afternoon And folding sheets like folding hands To pray as only laundry can I’m letting go of all my fear Like autumn leaves made of earth and air For the summer came and the summer went As holy as a day is spent Holy is the place I stand To give whatever small good I can And the empty page, and the open book Redemption everywhere I look Unknowingly we slow our pace In the shade of unexpected grace And with grateful smiles and sad lament As holy as a day is spent And morning light sings ‘providence’ As holy as a day is spent ~Carrie Newcomer “Holy as a Day Is Spent “
If the New York Times says “Something Special is Happening in Rural America,” then of course, it must be true. But those of us out in the hinterlands have known the truth about the quieter life for decades. The pace is slower, the space is greater, the faces are friendlier.
It’s the small things that matter on a daily basis. Being in the center of things doesn’t matter.
Give me a home where the clouds and cows roam, where laundry is line-dried and there is no traffic noise.
What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs, And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. ~W.H. Davies “Leisure”
This would be a poor life indeed if we didn’t take time to stand and stare at all that is displayed before us – whether it is the golden cast at the beginning and endings of the days, the light dancing in streams and stars or simply staring at God’s creatures staring back at us.
People living in mighty cities may have more gratifying professional challenges, or greater earning potential, or experience the latest and greatest opportunities for entertainment. But they don’t have these sunrises and sunsets and hours of contentment as we watch time pass unclaimed and unencumbered.
Oh give me a home where the Haflingers roam, where the deer and the corgi dogs play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day…