As a child, my father helped me dig a square of dense red clay, mark off rows where zinnias would grow, and radishes and tender spinach leaves. He’d stand with me each night as daylight drained away to talk about our crops leaning on his hoe as I would practice leaning so on mine.
Years later now in my big garden plot, the soggy remnant stems of plants flopped over several months ago, the ground is cold, the berries gone, the stakes like hungry sentries stand guarding empty graves. And still I hear his voice asking what I think would best be planted once the weather warms. ~Margaret Mullins “Lonely Harvest” from Family Constellations
We were both raised by serious vegetable gardeners; as kids we helped plant and weed and harvest from large garden plots because that was how families fed themselves fresh produce rather than from a can. Even frozen vegetables were not plentiful in the stores and too expensive, so grow-it-yourself was a necessity before it became a trending hashtag.
Now, with his parents’ past guidance in his ears, my husband works the soil to prepare it yet again for yielding: the over-wintered shells of squash, the limp left-over bean vines, the stumps of corn stalks. Dark composted manure is mixed in, rototilled and fluffed, grass and weed roots pulled out. Then he carefully marks off the grid of rows and the decisions made about what goes where this year; what did well in the past? what didn’t germinate and what didn’t produce?
Then he lays the seeds and pats the soil down over the top and we wait.
Our garden has been yielding now for two weeks – plentiful greens and radishes and now fresh strawberries with peas coming on strong. It will be a resource for our church community and our winter meals as well as a fresh bounty for our table over the next three months.
Planting a garden is our very tangible expression of hope in the future when the present feels overwhelmingly gloomy with despair. Yet a garden doesn’t happen without our planning, work and care making that first spinach leaf, that first pea pod, that first strawberry taste even sweeter.
“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” ~Voltaire’s last line from Candide
How much better it is to carry wood to the fire than to moan about your life. How much better to throw the garbage onto the compost, or to pin the clean sheet on the line, With a gray-brown wooden clothes pin. ~Jane Kenyon “The Clothespin”
I get easily overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done: a full day of telehealth computer visits with patients from home but all the usual household and farm tasks waiting for me –grass to mow, flower beds to weed, garden to plant, fences to fix, manure to haul, animals to brush out — the list is endless and there are never enough hours in the day.
So of course, I moan and whine and write about it.
Or I can set to work, tackling one thing at a time. A simple task is accomplished, and then another, like hanging clothes on the line: this one is done, and now this one, pinned and hanging to freshen, renewed, in the spring breezes.
At the end of the day, I pull them down, bury my face in them and breathe deeply, knowing how much better I am than before I began.
O wet red swathe of earth laid bare, O truth, O strength, O gleaming share, O patient eyes that watch the goal, O ploughman of the sinner’s soul. O Jesus, drive the coulter deep To plough my living man from sleep…
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn, And Thou wilt bring the young green corn, And when the field is fresh and fair Thy blessed feet shall glitter there, And we will walk the weeded field, And tell the golden harvest’s yield, The corn that makes the holy bread By which the soul of man is fed, The holy bread, the food unpriced, Thy everlasting mercy, Christ. ~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy
As my farmer husband applies our rich composted manure pile to the spring garden, turning over the soil, thousands of newly exposed red wiggler worms immediately dive for cover. Within seconds, the naked little creatures …worm their way back into the security of warm dirt, having been rudely interrupted from their routine. Gracious to a fault, they tolerate being rolled and raked and lifted and turned upside down, waving their little bodies expectantly in the cool air before slipping back down into the dark. There they will continue their work of digesting and aerating the tired soil of the garden, reproducing in their unique hermaphroditic way, leaving voluminous castings behind to further feed the seedlings to be planted.
Worms are unjustly denigrated by humans primarily because we don’t like to be surprised by them. We don’t like to see one in our food, (especially only part of one) and are particularly distressed to see them after we’ve digested our food. Once we get past that bit of squeamishness, we can greatly appreciate their role as the ultimate recyclers, leaving the earth a lot better off once they are finished with their work.
We humans actually suffer by comparison — to be called “a worm” is really not so bad but the worm might not think a comparison to humans is a great compliment.
My heart land is plowed, yielding to the plowshare digging deep with the pull of the harness, the steady teamster centers the coulter.
The furrow should be straight and narrow. I am tread upon yet still will bloom; I forgive the One who turns my world upside down.
The plowing under brings freshness to the surface, a new face upturns to the cleansing dew, as knots of worms stay busy making fertile our simple dust.
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.
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.
What I remember is the ebb and flow of sound That summer morning as the mower came and went And came again, crescendo and diminuendo, And always when the sound was loudest how it ceased A moment while he backed the horses for the turn, The rapid clatter giving place to the slow click And the mower’s voice. That was the sound I listened for, The voice did what the horses did. It shared the action As sympathetic magic does or incantation. The voice hauled and the horses hauled. The strength of one Was in the other and in the strength was impatience. Over and over as the mower made his rounds I heard his voice and only once or twice he backed And turned and went ahead and spoke no word at all. ~Robert Francis “The Sound I Listened For” from Collected Poems
In the rural countryside where we live, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past and experience working the land in a way that honors the traditions of our forebears.
A good teamster primarily works with his horses using his voice. No diesel engine means hearing bird calls from the surrounding fields and woods, along with the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day.
There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of motors are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing — time to stop and take a breather, time to start back up and do a few more rows, time to water, time for a meal, time for a nap, time for a rest in a shady spot.
This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before. This is gentle to our ears and our souls, measuring the ebb and flow of sound and silence.
The horse-drawn field mower is a sound I listen for, if not next door then in my dreams.
This time of year our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold. The cherry orchard blossoms have yielded fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass. By mid-June, 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!
Yet today I yearn for a dark rainy day to hide inside with a book even when the lawnmower and weed whacker call my name, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be weeded. 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 take over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially.
The fences always need fixing. The old hay barn is falling down and needing to be resurrected. The weather is becoming iffy with rain in the forecast so we may not have anything but junk hay in the barn this winter in a year when hay will cost a premium. For a decade now we have stopped breeding our Haflinger horses as even the demand for well bred horses is not robust enough to justify bringing more into the world.
Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.
We spent many years dreaming about our 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 30 year old hand me down truck with almost 250,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming and 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 (even the occasional cougar, lynx and bear!) 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 raised three wonderful children here. We’ve bred and grown good beef and horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields. We breathe clean air and enjoy hearing 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 are blessed with one another, with the continuing sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between. This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.
Spread between rows of beans, last year’s rusty leaves tamp down weeds. Coffee grounds and banana peels foster rose blooms. Bread crumbs scattered for birds become song. Leftovers offered to chickens come back as eggs, yolks sunrise orange. Broccoli stems and bruised apples fed to cows return as milk steaming in the pail, as patties steaming in the pasture.
Surely our shame and sorrow also return, composted by years into something generative as wisdom. ~Laura Grace Weldon, “Compost Happens” from Blackbird
As a farmer, I spend over an hour a day cleaning my barn, and wheel heavy loads of organic material to a large pile in our barnyard which composts year round. Piling up all that messy stuff that is no longer needed is crucial to the process: it heats up quickly to the point of steaming, and within months, it becomes rich fertilizer, ready to help the fields to grow grass, or the garden to produce vegetables, or the fragrant blooms in the flower beds. It becomes something far greater and more productive than what it was to begin with.
That’s what my past clinical work in detox and treatment of addictions was like.
As a physician, I helped patients “clean up” the parts of their lives they can’t manage any longer, that are causing problems with their health, their families and jobs, and most of all, their relationship with their Creator. There isn’t a soul walking this earth who doesn’t struggle in some way with things that take over our lives, whether it is work, computer use, food, gambling, you name it. For the chemically dependent, it comes in the form of smoke, a powder, a bottle, a syringe or a pill. There is nothing that has proven more effective than “piling up together” learning what it takes to walk the road to health and healing, “heating up”, so to speak, in an organic process of transformation that is, for lack of any better description, primarily a spiritual treatment process.
When a support group becomes a crucible for the “refiner’s fire”, it does its best work melting people down to rid the impurities before they can be built back up again, stronger than ever. They become compost, productive, with the wisdom and readiness to grow others.
This work with a spectrum of individuals of all races, professional and blue collar, rich and homeless, coming from all over the state for help, was transforming for me. I worked with incredibly gifted nursing and counseling staff, some recovering themselves, who dedicated their careers to this work.
As Jesus says in Matthew 25: 40–‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Nature teaches that nothing is lost.
God teaches we seek out the lost until they are found and then and only then, the work of transformation begins.
“He (the professor) asked what I made of the other students (at Oxford) 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)
In our barn we have a very beat up old AM/FM radio that sits on a shelf next to the horse stalls and serves as company to the horses during the rainy stormy days they stay inside, and serves as distraction to me as we clean stalls of manure and wet spots in the evening. We live about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, so most stations that come in well on this radio’s broken antenna are from the lower mainland of British Columbia. This includes a panoply of stations spoken in every imaginable language– a Babel of sorts that I can tune into: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, French and of course, proper British accent English. But standard issue American melting pot genetic mix that I am, I prefer to tune into the “Oldies” Station and reminisce.
There is a strange comfort in listening to songs that I enjoyed 40-50+ years ago, and I’m somewhat miffed and perplexed that they should be called “oldies”. Oldies always referred to music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, not the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s! I listen and sing along with a mixture of feeling ancient and yet transported back to my teens. I can think of faces and names I haven’t thought of in decades, remember special summer days picking berries and hear long lost voices from school days. I can smell and taste and feel things all because of the trigger of a familiar song. There is something primordial –deep in my synapses– that is stirred by this music. In fact, I shoveled manure to these same songs 50 years ago, and somehow, it seems not much as changed.
Or has it? One (very quick) glance in the mirror tells me it has and I have.
Yesterday, I Got You, Babe and you were a Bridge Over Troubled Waters for this Natural Womanwho just wants to be Close to Youso You’ve Got a Friend. There’sSomething in the way ICherish The Way We Were and of courseLove Will Keep Us Together.If You Leave Me Now, You’re So Vain. I’ve always wanted it My Way but How Sweet It Is when I Want To Hold Your Hand. Come Saturday Morningwe’re Born to Be Wild.
Help!Do You Know Where You’re Going To?Me and You and A Dog Named Boo will travel Country Roadsand Rock Around the Clock even though God Didn’t Make the Little Green Apples. Fire and Rain will make things All Right Nowonce Morning is Broken, I’ll Say a Little Prayer For You.
I Can’t Get No Satisfactionfrom the Sounds of Silence —If— Those Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Stand By Me as It’s Just My Imaginationthat I am a Rock,when really I only want Time in a Bottle and to just Sing, Sing a Song.
They just don’t write songs like they used to. I seem to remember my parents saying that about the songs I loved so well. Somehow in the midst of decades of change, there are some constants. Music still touches our souls, no matter how young or old we are.
And there will always be manure that needs shoveling.
When I pull open the barn doors, every morning and each evening, as my grandparents did one hundred years ago, six rumbling voices rise in greeting. We exchange scents, nuzzle each others’ ears.
I do my chores faithfully as my grandparents once did– draw fresh water into buckets, wheel away the pungent mess underfoot, release an armful of summer from the bale, reach under heavy manes to stroke silken necks.
I don’t depend on our horses’ strength and willingness to don harness to carry me to town or move the logs or till the soil as my grandparents did.
Instead, these soft eyed souls, born on this farm almost three long decades ago, are simply grateful for my constancy morning and night to serve their needs until the day comes they need no more.
I depend on them to depend on me to be there to open the doors; their low whispering welcome gives voice to the blessings of living on a farm ripe with rhythms and seasons, as if today and tomorrow are just like one hundred years ago.