To a Heaven of Impermanence

In heaven it is always autumn.
~John Donne

The leaves are always near to falling there
but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven’s paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven’s calm, they take each other’s arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
    the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that’s said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
    shining brightly

as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we’re here, I think it must
    be heaven.
~Elizabeth Spires “In Heaven It Is Always Autumn” from Now the Green Blade Rises

I wander the autumn garden mystified at the passing of the weeks since the seed was first sown, weeds pulled, peapods picked. It could not possibly be done so soon–this patch of productivity and beauty, now wilted and brown, vines crushed to the ground, no longer fruitful.

The root cellar is filling up, the freezer is packed.  The work of putting away is almost done.

So why do I go back to the now barren soil we so carefully worked, numb in the knowledge I will pick no more this season, nor feel the burst of a cherry tomato exploding in my mouth or the green freshness of a bean or peapod straight off the vine?

Because for a few fertile weeks, only a few weeks, the garden was a bit of heaven on earth, impermanent but a real taste nonetheless.   We may have once mistaken our Lord for the gardener when He appeared to us radiant, suddenly unfamiliar, but it was He who offered us the care of the garden, to bring in the sheaves, to share the forever mercies in the form of daily bread grown right here and now.

When He says my name, then I will know Him. 
He will lead me farther than I have ever been.

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Yielding to Change

I went out to cut a last batch of zinnias this
morning from the back fencerow and got my shanks
chilled for sure: furrowy dark gray clouds with
separating fringes of blue sky-grass: and the dew

beaded up heavier than the left-overs of the rain:
in the zinnias, in each of two, a bumblebee 
stirring in slow motion. Trying to unwind
the webbed drug of cold, buzzing occasionally but

with a dry rattle: bees die with the burnt honey 
at their mouths, at least: the fact’s established:
it is not summer now and the simmering buzz is out of 
heat: the zucchini blossoms falling show squash

overgreen with stunted growth: the snapdragons have
suckered down into a blossom or so: we passed
into dark last week the even mark of day and night
and what we hoped would stay we yield to change.
~A.R. Ammons  “Equinox”

We yield now
to the heaviness of the change;
a slowing of our walk
and the darkening of our days.

It is time:
day and night compete,
and neither wins.

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The Fallen Works of Light

The summer ends, and it is time
To face another way. Our theme
Reversed, we harvest the last row
To store against the cold, undo
The garden that will be undone.
We grieve under the weakened sun
To see all earth’s green fountains dried,
And fallen all the works of light.
You do not speak, and I regret
This downfall of the good we sought
As though the fault were mine. I bring
The plow to turn the shattering
Leaves and bent stems into the dark,
From which they may return. At work,
I see you leaving our bright land,
The last cut flowers in your hand.
~Wendell Berry “The Summer Ends” from A Timbered Choir.

I want to memorize it all before it changes
as the light weakens from
the sun shifting from north to south,
balancing on the fulcrum of our country road at equinox.

The dying back of the garden leaves and vines reveals
what lies unharvested beneath,
so I gather in urgency, not wanting it to go to waste.

We part again from you, Summer –
your gifts seemed endless
until you ended –
a reminder that someday, so must I.

I sit silenced and brooding, waiting for what comes next.

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There Goes the Neighborhood

She lingered in that charming little garden to say hello to the gnomes,
such a glorious infestation!
How few wizards realize just how much we can learn
from the wise little gnomes-
or, to give them their correct names, the Gernumbli gardensi.
‘Ours do know a lot of excellent swear words,’ said Ron…
J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It is hard to say exactly when the first one moved in.  This farm was distinctly gnome-less when we bought it over thirty years ago, largely due to twenty-seven hungry barn cats residing here at the time in various stages of pregnancy, growth, development and aging.  It took awhile for the feline numbers to whittle down to an equilibrium that matched the rodent population.  In the mean time, our horse numbers increased from three to seven to over fifteen with a resultant exponential increase in barn chores.   One spring twenty years ago,  I was surprised to walk in the barn one morning to find numerous complex knots tied in the Haflingers’ manes.  Puzzling as I took precious time to undo them, literally adding hours to my chores, I knew I needed to find the cause or culprit.

It took some research to determine the probable origin of these tight tangles.  Based on everything I researched, they appeared to be the work of Gernumbli faenilesi, a usually transient species of gnome preferring to live in barns and haylofts in close proximity to heavy maned ponies.  In this case, as the tangles persisted for months, they clearly had moved in, lock, stock and barrel.   The complicated knots were their signature pride and joy, their artistic way of showing their devotion to a happy farm.

All well and good, but the extra work was killing my fingers and thinning my horses’ hair.  I plotted ways to get them to cease and desist.

I set live traps of cheese and peanut butter cracker sandwiches, hoping to lure them into cages for a “catch and release”. Hoping to drive them away, I played polka music on the radio in the barn at night.  Hoping to be preemptive, I braided the manes up to be less tempting but even those got twisted and jumbled.  Just as I was becoming ever more desperate and about to round up more feral cats, the tangling stopped.

It appeared the gnomes had moved on to a more hospitable habitat.  Apparently I had succeeded in my gnome eradication plan. 

Or so I thought.

Not long after, I had the distinct feeling of being watched as I walked past some rose bushes in the yard.  I stopped to take a look, expecting to spy the shining eyes of one of the pesky raccoons that frequents our yard to steal from the cats’ food dish.  Instead, beneath the thorny foliage, I saw two round blue eyes peering at me serenely.   This little gal was not at all intimidated by me, and made no move to escape.   She was an ideal example of Gernumbli gardensi, a garden gnome known for their ability to keep varmints and vermin away from plants and flowers.  They also happen to actively feud with Gernumbli Faenilesi so that explained the sudden disappearance of my little knot-tying pests in the barn.

It wasn’t long before more Gardensi moved in, a gnomey infestation.  They tend to arrive in pairs and bunches, bringing their turtles and dogs with them, like to play music, smoke pipes, play on a teeter totter, work with garden tools, take naps on sun-warmed rocks and one even prefers a swing, day and night through all four seasons.  They are a bit of a rowdy bunch and always up for a party, but I enjoy their happy presence and jovial demeanor.   I haven’t yet heard any bad language as we have a “keep it clean” policy about bad words around here.  They seem quite hardy, stoically withstand extremes in weather, wear masks when asked and only seem fearful when hornets build a nest right in their lap.

As long as they continue to coexist peaceably with us and each other, keep the varmints and their knot tying cousins away,  and avoid bad habits and swear words, I’m quite happy they are here.  Actually, I’ve given them the run of the place.  I’ve been told to be cautious as there are now news reports of an even more invasive species of gnome, Gernumbli kitschsi, that could move in and take over if I’m not careful. In fact, several new little fellows moved into my hanging baskets and back into the barn this week – someone obviously had put the word out this is a great place to winter over. Now I need to watch for more mane tangles again.

A gnome explosion.

I shudder to think.  There goes the neighborhood.

photo by Tomomi Gibson

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When August Weather Breaks

My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can’t confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

~Philip Larkin “Mother, Summer, I”

August weather has broken to clouds,
sprinkles, nights with chill breezes,
and leaves landing on brown ground.

This summer ended up being simply too much –
an excess of everything meant to make us happy
yet overwhelming and exhausting.

From endless hours of daylight,
to high rising temperatures,
to palettes of exuberant clouds
to fruitfulness and abundant blooms.

While summer always fills a void left empty
after enduring the many cold bare dark days
of the rest of the year,
I depend on winter days returning all too soon.

I will welcome them back, realizing
how much I miss that longing
for the fullness of summer.

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Unlocked By Hollyhocks

Old-fashioned flowers! I love them all:
The morning-glories on the wall,
The pansies in their patch of shade,
The violets, stolen from a glade,
The bleeding hearts and columbine,
Have long been garden friends of mine;
But memory every summer flocks
About a clump of hollyhocks.


The mind’s bright chambers, life unlocks
Each summer with the hollyhocks.
~Edgar Guest from “Hollyhocks”

The endless well of summer
lies deep in the heart of old-fashioned flowers,
but no well is so deep as hollyhocks –
the veins of their petals
pumping color
as they sway on long-nubbined stems,
carefree in the breeze.

My mind is suddenly unlocked,
opened by a hollyhock key.

hollyhock

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Sunburst Petals

When I pray I go in, and close the door,
But what, really, do we mean by prayer?
Isn’t it anything done with full attention
Whether sinking into silent depths, or
Relishing a sun-ripe peach, or gazing
At the zinnias freshly picked this early
Morning, these multi-petaled shouts of joy,
Lemon yellow, orange, reds, a carnival of
Flame-filled light, the sweet green scent
Summer flowers.

~Sarah Rossiter “Zinnias”

My father’s mother grew a garden of zinnias
to divide the house from the woods:

pop art tops in every color—cream,
peach, royal purple, and even envy

—the sunburst petals

the heads little suns you watch die
on the stem if you want the bloom back.

~Tyler Mills “Zinnias”

As an eight year old, I grew zinnias
from a tiny package of seeds tucked inside
a Christmas card by my third grade teacher
whose rapt attention turned to her backyard garden
when school doors closed in the summer.

She nurtured each of us students
like one of her cream-colored zinnia buds
arising boldly on a single sturdy stem,
growing tall almost before her eyes, yet still undefined.

Watered and fed, her warm light shining on our bright faces,
we opened expectantly under her steady gaze,
each one a sunburst bloom smiling back at her,
which kept her coming back, year after year,
to sow a few more celebratory seeds with her sprinkling of wisdom.

Thank you to Chris and Jan Lovegren for sharing their zinnias!

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The Redeemed World

You get down on your knees in the dark earth—alone
for hours in hot sun, yanking weed roots, staking trellises,
burning your shoulders, swatting gnats; you strain your muscled
midwestern neck and back, callous your pianist’s hands.

You cut roses back so they won’t fruit, rip out and replace
spent annuals. You fill your garden dense with roots and vines.
And when a humble sprout climbs like a worm up out of death,
you are there to bless it, in your green patch, all spring and summer long,

hose like a scepter, a reliquary vessel; you hum
through the dreamy wilderness—no one to judge, absolve,
or be absolved—purified by labor, confessed by its whisperings, connected to its innocence.

So when you heft a woody, brushy tangle, or stumble
inside grimy, spent by earth, I see all the sacraments in place—
and the redeemed world never smelled so sweet.

~Ken Weisner, “The Gardener” from Anything on Earth.

We are in full-garden produce preservation mode right now on the farm – these are the days when we pick the fruits of Dan’s labors – all the hours he spent this spring preparing the soil with rich compost, meticulously pulling out weeds by the roots, rototilling and cultivating, then staking/stringing/sowing the rows, then standing back to watch the sun and rain coax the seeds from the dark.

All this happens in a mere few weeks – we never tire of this illustration of redemption and renewal we’re shown year after year – how a mess of weeds and dirt can be cleared, refined and cleansed to once again become productive and fruitful, feeding those who hunger – both now and deep into winter and next spring.

It gives me hope; even when I myself am feeling full of weeds and despairingly dirty and overwhelmed, I can be renewed. It takes a persistent Gardener who is willing and eager to prune away what is useless, and sow anew what is needed for me to thrive and produce – His hands and knees are covered with my grime.

And the fruit that results! – so very sweet…

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Dazzled by Dahlias

August of another summer, and once again
I am drinking the sun…
All my life I have been able to feel happiness,

except whatever was not happiness,
which I also remember.
Each of us wears a shadow.
But just now it is summer again…

Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home.
And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.

~Mary Oliver from “The Pond” from Felicity

…what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled-
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing-
that the light is everything-that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

~Mary Oliver from “The Ponds” from House of Light

When I walk in my friend’s dahlia garden,
surrounded by vivid color,
I imagine the First Garden
must have been a bit like this.

I simply want to drink it all in,
to swim freely in the bright throes of summer,
forgetting that with blinding light
there will be shadow.

Like these blooms,
I too am imperfect,
not quite symmetrical,
starting to wither and curl at the edges.

But even so~
a stroll in a Garden
to be dazzled in the cool of the day
is what God prescribed then and now.

For a little while,
I am transported beyond this difficult world
with its constant reminders of my flaws,
and am assured of His Hand on me
and how much He loves me anyway.

Thank you to my friend Jean in Lynden who grows the most dazzling dahlias and allows me come take their portraits!

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Opening One at a Time

In noisy shades
of apricot and pink
the blossoms

of the gladiola open
all down the long aisle
of the stem

like a choral procession
or the woody
notes

of a flute
opening one stop
at a time.
~Linda Pastan “Gladiola”

Most flowers tempt our senses:
the vibrant colors to the eye,
the softness of the petals to the touch,
the delicate fragrances wafting to the nose –
even some have a piquant perfumed taste for the palate.

Yet how many blooms sound like an orchestra
tuning in the wind?

A long gladiola stalk rises boldly,
swaying in the breeze, each key
blossom unfolding one by one in flowing overture.

When each is done with its own ruffled note,
the next one opens to play its part.

The notes progress up the stem
until the final chord is held
~fermata-like~
until performances commence
again next summer.

I’ll be sure to reserve a front row seat.

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