Light That Almost Speaks

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the year
At any other period –
When March is scarcely here


A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Hills
That Science cannot overtake,
But Human Nature feels.


It waits upon the Lawn;
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope we know;
It almost speaks to you.


Then as Horizons step,
Or Noons report away,
Without the Formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:


A quality of loss
Affecting our Content,
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
~Emily Dickinson – 85- Part two: Nature

Maybe it is the particular tilt of the globe on its axis,
or the suffusion of clouds mixing
with the perpetually damp atmosphere
or perhaps the knowledge
darkness no longer claims us

but the lighting of March melting into April
has its own sacred whispering voice.a

We are immersed in it but it belongs
framed on gallery walls for perpetuity
to be admired at any time of the year,
whenever we need the soft cushion of golden pastels.

Surrounded by sacrament without and within,
our life in the Lord
gently glows.

The Edge of Morning

Horse Team by Edvard Munch
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn
Black chimney builds into the quiet sky
Its curling pile to crumble silently.
Far out to the westward on the edge of morn,
The slender misty city towers up-borne
Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue;
And yonder on those northern hills, the hue
Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.

And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs
With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main
Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain,
Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze,
Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team,
With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam.

~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
photo by Josh Scholten

The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.

Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.

We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.

We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.

For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.

And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.

No fossil fuel necessary back then.
No exhaust other than steaming nostrils
and a pile of manure here or there.

We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.

Beyond Communion

I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion,
beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly
take corncobs, pulling away as I hold
until the mid-points snap.
They are careful of my fingers,
offering that animal-knowledge,
the respect which is due to strangers;
and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.

I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.

You Are My Sunshine

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

The Heart of a Pear

There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear
when it is perfect to eat.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Silver dust
lifted from the earth,
higher than my arms reach,
you have mounted.
O silver,
higher than my arms reach
you front us with great mass;


no flower ever opened
so staunch a white leaf,
no flower ever parted silver
from such rare silver;

O white pear,
your flower-tufts,
thick on the branch,
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts.

~Hilda Doolittle Dawson (H.D.) “Pear Tree”

we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful. 
~Jane Kenyon from “Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer”

A moment’s window of perfection is so fleeting
in a life of bruises, blemishes and worm holes.
Wait too long and nectar-smooth flesh
softens to mush and rot.

The unknown rests beneath a blushed veneer:
perhaps immature gritty fruit unripened,
or past-prime browning pulp brimming with fruit flies
readily tossed aside for compost.

Our own sweet salvage from warming humus
depends not on flawless flesh deep inside
but heaven’s grace dropped into our laps:
to be eaten the moment it is offered.

The perfect pear falls when ripe
and not a moment before,
ready to become an exquisite tart which
tastes of a selfless gift.

Staying Brave Enough

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

~Wendell Berry from “The Country of Marriage”

Our daughter and her new husband started their married life yesterday with a ceremony on the farm. God invites them into the orchard and yard where His garden is blooming. It is here where His light illuminates the darkness, and where, each day for the rest of their lives, their covenant with one another mirrors their covenant with God as His children.

Even on the dark days, the light pursues them.
Even on the dark days, their brave love will bloom.

Moss Balm For Misunderstanding

There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the “dialect of moss on stone – an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy…

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking.
A cursory glance will not do it.
Mosses are not elevator music;
they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.
~Robin Kimmerer from Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Most lie low, flourishing with damp,
harvesting sunlight, no commotion, moss
mouse-silent, even through wind and hail,
stoic through motors roaring fumes,
through fat-clawed bears grubbing.

They can soothe the knife-edges of stones
with frothy leaf by leaf of gray-green life,
and burned-ground mosses cover destruction,
charred stumps, trees felled and blackened.
Cosmopolitan mosses likewise salve
sidewalk cracks, crumbling walls.

They root in thin alpine air, on sedentary
sand dunes, cling to cliff seeps beneath
spilling springs. For rest, they make mats
on streamside banks, for pleasure produce silky
tufts, wavy brooms of themselves in woodlands
for beauty, red roof moss for whim, elf
cap, hair cap, sphagnum for nurturing.

I believe they could comfort the world
with their ministries. That is my hope,

even though this world be a jagged rock,
even though this rock be an icy berg of blue
or a mirage of summer misunderstood
(moss balm for misunderstanding),
even though this world be blind and awry
and adrift, scattering souls like spores
through the deep of a starlit sea.
~Pattiann Rogers from “The Moss Method”

In this part of the world, mosses are everywhere. They are so much a part of the green backdrop, they become invisible as part of the scenery. Our lawn is mostly moss carpet in some spots, and many shingles on roofs sprout verdant fuzz.

Trees and rocks are festooned with moss: draped, painted and garlanded. Moss rugs make bare-foot tree climbing a more comfy adventure with branches forming hairy armpits and cushiony crotches.

Moss is softens our sharp edges, it forgives our abrasive surfaces, it heals the wounds and gaps and cracks. It becomes balm-like therapy for a struggling world baring its teeth in anger and misunderstanding.

I say let it grow: green, gentle, generous and grace-filled.
We all can use more of that.

The Soul Confined

 
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.
~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990

photo of spring snow by Paul Dorpat

This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass growing out of control and needs mowing.

It is also confusing to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.

It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from the safety of their confinement, for good reason.

Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.

Surprisingly, the horses leave the sun and the grass and the relative freedom and come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.

I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun with the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.

So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.

The Cheeks of Blossom

Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

This April we are surrounded by corpse light:
the threat of untimely death, so we distance ourselves
one from the other, awaiting the “all clear”
which may be a long time coming ~

We have already forgotten the unprecedented illumination
that walked from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning
to guarantee that
we people,
we who are no more than bare twigs and stubs,
we who feel hardly alive,
are now begotten green,
ready to burst into blossom,
our cheeks pink with life,
promising future fruitfulness.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: A Bud on Dead Wood

I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.

Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.

But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me
I am
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.
~Stevie Smith from “Black March”

Suddenly, in the last week, buds are forming everywhere.

From seemingly dead wood
that stands cold and dormant in late March,
comes new life, returning like an old friend.

Transforming what seems lifeless,
as if fresh air has been breathed into a corpse.

What could be more lifeless than a cross piece of timbers
built specifically for execution?

Yet life sprung from that death tree,
an unexpected and glorious bud,
ready to burst into most fragrant blossom.

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

O Deus, ego amo te,
O God I love Thee for Thyself
Nec amo te ut salves me,
and not that I may heaven gain
Nec quod qui te non diligent,
nor yet that they who love Thee not
Æterno igne pereunt.
must suffer hell’s eternal pain.

Ex cruces lingo germinat,
Out of the bud of the wood of the Cross
Qui pectus amor occupant,
wherefore hearts’ love embraces
Ex pansis unde brachiis,
whence out of extended arms
Ad te amandum arripes. Amen.
you lovingly take us. Amen.
~Prayer of St. Francis Xavier  “O Deus Ego Amo Te” 18th Century Traditional