…the golden hour of the clock of the year. Everything that can run to fruit has already done so: round apples, oval plums, bottom-heavy pears, black walnuts and hickory nuts annealed in their shells, the woodchuck with his overcoat of fat. Flowers that were once bright as a box of crayons are now seed heads and thistle down. All the feathery grasses shine in the slanted light. It’s time to bring in the lawn chairs and wind chimes, time to draw the drapes against the wind, time to hunker down. Summer’s fruits are preserved in syrup, but nothing can stopper time. No way to seal it in wax or amber; it slides though our hands like a rope of silk. At night, the moon’s restless searchlight sweeps across the sky. ~Barbara Crooker “And Now it’s October” from Small Rain.
…but I do try to stopper time. I try every day not to suspend it or render it frozen, but like summer flower and fruit that withers, to preserve any sweet moment for sampling through stored words or pictures in the midst of my days of winter. I roll it around on my tongue, its heady fragrance becoming today’s lyrical shared moment, unstoppered, perpetual and always intoxicating.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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”
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.
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
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.