You won’t remember it—the apple orchard We wandered through one April afternoon, Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.
A city boy, I’d never seen a grove Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.
A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows Arching above us. We walked the aisle, Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.
We had the luck, if you can call it that, Of having been in love but never lovers— The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.
Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light! There was a moment when I stood behind you, Reached out to spin you toward me…but I stopped.
What more could I have wanted from that day? Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point— To learn that what we will not grasp is lost. ~Dana Gioia “The Apple Orchard”
Love, we are in God’s hand. How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead; So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for? ~Robert Browning from Andrea Del Sarto
As I walk down the blooming aisleways of Spring’s ephemeral cathedral, it doesn’t help to regret what could have been – if only – long ago I had reached out to hold what remained free of my grasp. Perhaps it is forever lost to me…
I am overwhelmed by all the potential surrounding me – the trees are literally bursting with blossom and leaf, an undulating green carpeting covering every rolling hill, exuberant new life bouncing and bucking in the pastures.
I wonder, at this age and stage of my life, whatever potential is left to me?
If I give up my dreams if I don’t try to hold on to what seems out of reach if I don’t remember what it feels like to want everything from life, I would wilt and wither without forming fruit.
Ah Love – I am in God’s Hand. Or what’s a heaven for?
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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”
For over two years, we have been surrounded by a shimmering corpse light hovering close, masked and wary when we needed each other most.
Even so, the world is not defeated by death.
An unprecedented illumination emerged from the tomb on a bright Sabbath morning to guarantee that we struggling people, we who became no more than bare twigs and stubs, we who feel at times hardly alive, are now begetting green, ready to burst into blossom, our glowing cheeks pink with life, a picture of our future fruitfulness.
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Out of the nursery and into the garden where it rooted and survived its first hard winter, then a few years of freedom while it blossomed, put out its first tentative branches, withstood the insects and the poisons for insects, developed strange ideas about its height and suffered the pruning of its quirks and clutters, its self-indulgent thrusts and the infighting of stems at cross purposes year after year. Each April it forgot why it couldn’t do what it had to do, and always after blossoms, fruit, and leaf-fall, was shown once more what simply couldn’t happen.
Its oldest branches now, the survivors carved by knife blades, rain, and wind, are sending shoots straight up, blood red, into the light again. ~David Wagoner “The Cherry Tree”
A stone’s throw from an abandoned homestead foundation leans an ancient cherry tree, bent by countless storms and prunings, its northern half now bare, yet from the southern half dangles clusters of sweet century old promises.
Once orchard lifeblood of this farm, its fruit picked for farmers’ market an early dawn hour’s wagon ride to town; now broken down, forgotten until this week of fruitful surrender.
Already, but not yet finished, roots still reaching deep for one more season; a faithful cycle blooming forth with budding life from gnarled knots to soon yield glorious from weary dying branches.
Hundreds of glistening amber globes of rosy sheen cling clustered on crooked lichened limbs, to be gathered heaping into bowls of gold, awaiting ecstatic burst of savored perfection, fulfilling an old promise of sweet abandon.
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I do not like to think about my life, one lived too often without original fire.
I would rather walk among the serious trees, hooded by important weather, by immense silences.
I’d rather unravel the wind’s calligraphies, letter by letter, and spell myself into the world,
a glittering altar of atoms, all aswirl. Who can know what will happen to each of us,
as time’s currents bend and assail us, as gravity pulls us further into ourselves?
Better to be buoyed skyward, to modestly reach out to the palaver of raindrops, to the silky leaves,
so that the air’s amazement stirs an answering ripple among my own heavy branches.
Let me lose myself in the star’s mute company, among the steady wanderers of night
whose eyes ignite a cupola of yearnings. Crown me with a wreath of stars unmoored
from desire, untampered by this ache for a blaze beyond the tremor of my fingertips. ~Maurya Simon, “A Thousand Acres of Light” from Cartographies
I take myself too seriously, thinking everything in my life must be planned so I am prepared for what could happen next –
Of course it is impossible as who can know?
Each day the unexpected happens if I am willing to recognize it: the rush of the wind, the drenching of raindrops, the tingle of the winter sun on my face.
In that moment I might find endless perfection.
Even the thriving among us may lie down this night and fail to wake tomorrow, atoms toppled over, leaves shriveled, roots exposed, no longer needing to breathe much sooner than planned.
Let me lose myself in that thought: what is lost here is more than replaced by the joy of beholding the Face of the Eternal God.
Faire is the heav’n, where happy souls have place, In full enjoyment of felicitie, Whence they doe still behold the glorious face Of the divine, eternall Majestie…
Yet farre more faire be those bright Cherubins Which all with golden wings are overdight, And those eternall burning Seraphins, Which from their faces dart out fierie light; Yer fairer than they both, and much more bright, Be th’ Angels and Archangels which attend On God’s owne person, without rest or end.
These then is faire each other farre excelling As to the Highest they approach more neare, Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling Fairer than all the rest which there appeare, Though all their beauties joynd together were: How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse The image of such endlesse perfectnesse? ~Edmund Spenser
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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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.