Faultless Light

Once in your life you pass
Through a place so pure
It becomes tainted even
By your regard, a space
Of trees and air where
Dusk comes as perfect ripeness.
Here the only sounds are
Sighs of rain and snow,
Small rustlings of plants
As they unwrap in twilight.
This is where you will go
At last when coldness comes.
It is something you realize
When you first see it,
But instantly forget.
At the end of your life
You remember and dwell in
Its faultless light forever.
~Paul Zimmer “The Place” from Crossing to Sunlight Revisited

I am astonished
by an ever-changing faultless light
and don’t want to ever forget
my thirst for its illumination:
slaked by such simple glories
as transcendent orange pink
a shift of shadows
the ripeness of fluff about to let go,
all giving me a glimpse of tomorrow over the horizon of today.

The Abundance of This Place

Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light.
~Wendell Berry from “A Vision”

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same;

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days,
When left alone in the yellow stubble
The rusty-coated mare would graze.

~Léonie Adams from “Country Summer”

Most of the work on our farm involves the ground – whether plowing, seeding, fertilizing, mowing, harvesting – this soil lives and breathes as much as we creatures who walk over it and the plants which arise rooted to it.

Yes, there must be light. Yes, there must be moisture. Yes, there must be teeming worms and microbes deep within the dirt, digesting and aerating and thriving, leaving behind needed nutrients as they live and die.

And yes, we all become dust again, hopefully returning to the ground more than we have taken.

As I watch our rusty-coated horses graze on the stubble of these slopes and valleys, I’m reminded it is a sacrament to live in such abundance. We all started in a Garden until we desired something more, and knowing our mistake, we keep striving to return.

So this land teems with memories: of the rhythms and cycles of the seasons, of the songs and stories of peoples who have lived here for generation after generation.

Eventually we will find our way back to the abundant soil.

Hives and Swarms

Here is the place; right over the hill    
Runs the path I took; 
You can see the gap in the old wall still,    
And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook. 

There is the house, with the gate red-barred,    
And the poplars tall; 
And the barn’s brown length, and the cattle-yard,    
And the white horns tossing above the wall. 

There are the beehives ranged in the sun;    
And down by the brink 
Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o’errun,    
Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink. 

A year has gone, as the tortoise goes,    
Heavy and slow; 
And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows,    
And the same brook sings of a year ago. 

I can see it all now,—the slantwise rain    
Of light through the leaves, 
The sundown’s blaze on her window-pane,    
The bloom of her roses under the eaves. 

Just the same as a month before,—    
The house and the trees, 
The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,—    
Nothing changed but the hives of bees. 

Before them, under the garden wall,    
Forward and back, 
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,    
Draping each hive with a shred of black. 

Trembling, I listened: the summer sun    
Had the chill of snow; 
For I knew she was telling the bees of one    
Gone on the journey we all must go! 
~John Greenleaf Whittier from “Telling the Bees”

An old Celtic tradition necessitates sharing any news from the rural household with the farmer’s bee hives, whether cheery like a new birth or a wedding celebration or sad like a family death.  This ensures the hives’ well-being and continued connection to home and farm – the bees are kept in the loop, so to speak, so they stay at home, not swarming to move on to a more hospitable and presumably communicative place.

Good news seems always easy to share; we tend to keep bad news to ourselves so this tradition helps remind us that what affects one of us, affects us all. These days, with instant news at our fingertips at any moment, bad news is constantly bombarding us. Like the bees in the hives of the field, we want to flee from it and find a more hospitable home.

I do hope the Beekeeper comes and personally reassures us:
“Here is what has happened.
All will be okay.
We will navigate this life together.
Please stay with me.”

O gentle bees, I have come to say
That grandfather fell to sleep to-day.
And we know by the smile on grandfather’s face.
He has found his dear one’s biding place.
So, bees, sing soft, and, bees, sing low.
As over the honey-fields you sweep,—
To the trees a-bloom and the flowers a-blow
Sing of grandfather fast asleep;
And ever beneath these orchard trees
Find cheer and shelter, gentle bees.
~Eugene Field from “Telling the Bees”


A Bright Sadness: Blessed By Doubt

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law,
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.
~Richard Wilbur “April 5, 1974”

photo by Nate Gibson

As the ground softens with spring,
so do I.
Somehow the solid winter freeze was comforting
as nothing appeared to change and stayed static,
so did I,
remaining stolid and fixed,
resisting doubt and uncertainty.

But now, with light and warmth,
the fixed is flexing,
steaming in its labor,
and so must I find
blessing in giving ground
and giving birth
to what will follow.
Flowers will come of it.


A Mosaic of Leaves

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And then in the falling comes a rising, 
as of the bass coming up for autumn’s last insects 
struggling amid the mosaic of leaves on the lake’s surface. 
We express it as the season of lacking, but what is this nakedness
— the unharvested corn frost-shriveled but still a little golden 
under the diffuse light of a foggy sky,
the pin oak’s newly stark web of barbs, the woodbine’s vines 
shriven of their scarlet and left askew in the air 
like the tangle of threads on the wall’s side 
of the castle tapestry—what is it but greater intimacy,
the world slackening its grip on the veils, letting them slump
to the floor in a heap of sodden colors, and saying,
this is me, this is my skeletal muscle, 
my latticework of bones, my barren winter skin, 
this is it and if you love me, know that this is what you love. 
~Laura Fargas “October Struck” from Animal of the Sixth Day

 

 

 

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Something about the emerging nakedness of autumn reassures that we can be loved even when stripped down to our bones. We do make quite a show of shedding our coverings, our bits and pieces fluttering down to rejoin the soil, but what is left is meager lattice.

But when the light is just right, we are golden, illuminated and illuminating, even if barely there.

 

 

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An Unblinking Gaze

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Of all the beasts that God allows
In England’s green and pleasant land,
I most of all dislike the Cows:

Their ways I do not understand.
It puzzles me why they should stare
At me, who am so innocent;
Their stupid gaze is hard to bear —

To country people 
Cows are mild, 
And flee from any stick they throw; 
But I’m a timid town bred child, 
And all the cattle seem to know.
~from “Cows” by T.S. Eliot, published long after his death

 

 

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Raised with Guernsey and Jersey cows
outside my back door,
I sat dreamily
on their bony backs
while dad milked by hand twice a day,
the rhythmic
swoosh swoosh
filling the metal pail
as barn cats circled and purred.

Giving up the dairy,
we raised Scottish Highlanders
of long horn and shaggy hair-
wild and skeptical creatures
who barely tolerated a curry comb
or rub behind the ears.

I know well the unblinking stare of the cow
as they chew their cud and lick their nostrils;
I love their unending interest
in the absurdity
of people,
watching what we do.

I fall
into the deep pool
of their brown eyes
and drown
there willingly,
anchored
by their curious gaze
and why they should choose to care
about me
at all.

 

 

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Dent in the Ground

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All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
~Donald Hall, “Names of Horses”

 

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As a child,  I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in 1965 in an open clearing of our woods where our little chestnut mare, Dolly, rested in the ground.

She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. I had returned to the house, unable to watch, but could not help but hear the gunshot as if it had gone through me as well.

At first her grave was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see.

When my tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear.

Later it became the sanctuary where I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.

Her bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.

No one but me remembers you.

 

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