Waiting in Wilderness: A Whisper Will Be Heard

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

~Yehuda Amichai “The Place Where We Are RIght” from A Touch of Grace

Field with Plowing Farmers by Vincent Van Gogh
Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

Sometimes I am so certain I am right, remaining firm in my convictions no matter what. Yet when there is no movement, the ground beneath my feet hardens with my stubborn trampling. Nothing new can grow without my crushing it underfoot; any possibility becomes impossible.

Sometimes I harbor doubts and uncertainties, digging and churning up the ground upon which I stand. When things are turned over, again and again, new weeds and seeds will take root. Sorting them out becomes my challenge, determining what to nurture and what is worthless.

As I look ahead to this coming week, treading the familiar ground of the events of Holy Week, I cannot help but question and wonder: how can this impossible Love save those, who like me, feel dry and hard and devoid of possibility or who unwittingly allow weeds to proliferate?

Then I hear it, like a whisper. Yes, it is true. Loved despite sometimes being hard ground, or growing weeds or lying fallow as a rocky path.

I too will rise again from the ruins. I too will arise.

photo by Joel DeWaard

The Swarm Fell on His Back

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

When the plowblade struck   
An old stump hiding under   
The soil like a beggar’s   
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up   
& Mister Jackson left the plow   
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.   
The horse was midnight   
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s   
Pocketwatch.  He shivered, but not   
The way women shook their heads   
Before mirrors at the five   
& dime—a deeper connection   
To the low field’s evening star.   
He stood there, in tracechains,   
Lathered in froth, just   
Stopped by a great, goofy   
Calmness. He whinnied   
Once, & then the whole   
Beautiful, blue-black sky   
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

Death by a thousand stings.

This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.

The farmer saves himself.

The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.

How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?

A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:

-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.

Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.

He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.

Returning Home

In the quiet misty morning
When the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
And the sky is clear and red,
When the summer’s ceased its gleaming
When the corn is past its prime,
When adventure’s lost its meaning –
I’ll be homeward bound in time

Bind me not to the pasture
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow

If you find it’s me you’re missing
If you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening,
And in the road I’ll stop and turn
Then the wind will set me racing
As my journey nears its end
And the path I’ll be retracing
When I’m homeward bound again

Bind me not to the pasture
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow

In the quiet misty morning
When the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
I’ll be homeward bound again.

~Marta Keen “Homeward Bound”

Seventy eight years ago, my parents married on Christmas Eve. It was not a conventional wedding day but a date of necessity, only because a justice of the peace was available to marry a score of war-time couples in Quantico, Virginia, shortly before the newly trained Marine officers were shipped out to the South Pacific to fight in WWII.

When I look at my parents’ young faces – ages 22 and just turned 21 — in their only wedding portrait, I see a hint of the impulsive decision that led to that wedding just a week before my father left for 30 months. They had known each other at college for over a year, had talked about a future together, but with my mother starting a teaching job in a rural Eastern Washington town, and the war potentially impacting all young men’s lives very directly, they had not set a date.

My father put his college education on hold to enlist, knowing that would give him some options he wouldn’t have if drafted, so they went their separate ways as he headed east to Virginia for his Marine officer training, and Mom started her high school teaching career as a speech and drama teacher. One day in early December of 1942, he called her and said, “If we’re going to get married, it’ll need to be before the end of the year. I’m shipping out the first week in January.” Mom went to her high school principal, asked for a two week leave of absence which was granted, told her astonished parents, bought a dress, and headed east on the train with a friend who had received a similar call from her boyfriend.

This was a completely uncharacteristic thing for my overly cautious mother to do, so… it must have been love.

They were married in a brief civil ceremony with another couple as the witnesses. They stayed in Virginia only a couple days and took the train back to San Diego, and my father was shipped out. Just like that. Mom returned to her teaching position and the first three years of their married life was composed of letter correspondence only, with gaps of up to a month during certain island battles when no mail could be delivered or posted.

As I sorted through my mother’s things following her death over a decade ago, I found their war-time letters to each other, stacked neatly and tied together in a box.

In my father’s nearly daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over, while apologizing for the repetition:

“I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”

This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.

He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story, however, made it through:

“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa.  It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget. 

So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation.  In training – close order drill- etc.  there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed.  The command is INSPECTION – ARMS.  On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle.  It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened.  Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.

Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting.  You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading.  When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles. 

A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”

My father did return home to my mother after nearly three years of separation. He finished his college education to become an agriculture teacher to teach others how to farm the land while he himself became bound to the pasture and chained to the plow.

He never forgot those who died, making it possible for him to return home. I won’t forget either.

My mother and father could not have foretold the struggles that lay ahead for them. The War itself seemed struggle enough for the millions of couples who endured the separation, the losses and grieving, as well as the eventual injuries–both physical and psychological.  It did not seem possible that beyond those harsh and horrible realities, things could go sour after reuniting.

The hope and expectation of happiness and bliss must have been overwhelming, and real life doesn’t often deliver.  After raising three children, their 35 year marriage fell apart with traumatic finality.  When my father returned home (again) over a decade later, asking for forgiveness, they remarried and had five more years together before my father died in 1995.

Christmas is a time of joy, a celebration of new beginnings and new life when God became man, humble, vulnerable and tender. But it also gives us a foretaste for the profound sacrifice made in giving up this earthly life, not always so gently.

As I peer at my father’s and mother’s faces in their wedding photo, I remember those eyes, then so trusting and unaware of what was to come.  I find peace in knowing they returned home to behold the Light, the Salvation and the Glory~~the ultimate Christmas~~in His presence.

In the quiet misty morning
When the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
And the sky is clear and red,
When the summer’s ceased its gleaming
When the corn is past its prime,
When adventure’s lost its meaning –
I’ll be homeward bound in time

Bind me not to the pasture
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow

If you find it’s me you’re missing
If you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening,
And in the road I’ll stop and turn
Then the wind will set me racing
As my journey nears its end
And the path I’ll be retracing
When I’m homeward bound again

Bind me not to the pasture
Chain me not to the plow
Set me free to find my calling
And I’ll return to you somehow

In the quiet misty morning
When the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing
I’ll be homeward bound again.

~Marta Keen “Homeward Bound”

Freedom is Being Easy in Your Harness

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

 

 

I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
A definition of freedom:
It’s being easy in your harness.

~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday

 

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

 

 

The past was faded like a dream; 
There come the jingling of a team, 
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain, 
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain. 
Up the slow slope a team came bowing, 
Old Callow at his autumn ploughing, 
Old Callow, stooped above the hales, 
Ploughing the stubble into wales. 
His grave eyes looking straight ahead, 
Shearing a long straight furrow red; 
His plough-foot high to give it earth 
To bring new food for men to birth. 

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…

At top of rise the plough team stopped, 
The fore-horse bent his head and cropped. 
Then the chains chack, the brasses jingle, 
The lean reins gather through the cringle, 
The figures move against the sky, 
The clay wave breaks as they go by. 
I kneeled there in the muddy fallow, 
I knew that Christ was there with Callow, 
That Christ was standing there with me, 
That Christ had taught me what to be, 
That I should plough, and as I ploughed 
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud, 
And as I drove the clods apart 
Christ would be ploughing in my heart, 
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots, 
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

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

 

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

 

 

We shoulder much burden in the pursuit of happiness and freedom,
worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
every tear.

Our heart land is plowed,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow should be straight and narrow.

We are tread upon
yet still bloom;
we are turned upside down
yet still produce bread.

The plowing under brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms now making fertile simple dust.

Plow deep our hearts this day of celebrating freedom, dear Lord.
May we grow what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
everywhere.

 

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

Thank you once again to Joel deWaard, local farmer and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

 

The Light Again of Beginnings

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thistledowndrizzle

For seasons the walled meadow
south of the house built of its stone
grows up in shepherd’s purse and thistles
the weeds share April as a secret
finches disguised as summer earth
click the drying seeds
mice run over rags of parchment in August
the hare keeps looking up remembering 
a hidden joy fills the songs of the cicadas

two days’ rain wakes the green in the pastures
crows agree and hawks shriek with naked voices
on all sides the dark oak woods leap up and shine
the long stony meadow is plowed at last and lies
all day bare
I consider life after life as treasures
oh it is the autumn light

that brings everything back in one hand
the light again of beginnings
the amber appearing as amber
~ W. S. Merwin, “September Plowing” from Flower & Hand

 

 

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terrystree

 

The rain has returned –
too many weeks of parchment leaves and soil,
now moistened and refreshed.

The light is so different in the evenings,
autumnal beginnings and summer endings,
a burning amber of sky and earth.

It is treasured up and stored,
to be harvested in the dead of winter
when such amber light is only remembrance
in the midst of so much gray.

 

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Mission Accomplished

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And on those hot afternoons in July,
when my father was out on the tractor
cultivating rows of corn, my mother
would send us out with a Mason jar
filled with ice and water, a dish towel
wrapped around it for insulation.

Like a rocket launched to an orbiting
planet, we would cut across the fields
in a trajectory calculated to intercept—
or, perhaps, even—surprise him
in his absorption with the row and the
turning always over earth beneath the blade.

He would look up and see us, throttle
down, stop, and step from the tractor
with the grace of a cowboy dismounting
his horse, and receive gratefully the jar
of water, ice cubes now melted into tiny
shards, drinking it down in a single gulp,
while we watched, mission accomplished.
~Joyce Sutphen “Carrying Water to the Field”

 

 

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It was a special responsibility to carry cold water out to my father when he was on the tractor.  Yes, he could have carried a thermos-full along with him all day but then he would not have seen his daughter walking carefully from the house over the fresh-turned dirt, he would not have an excuse for a short break to wipe the sweat from his face or survey the straightness of the furrows, he would not have lifted her up to sit beside him on the tractor and allowed her to “drive”, steering down the rows, curving around the killdeer nests so their young are spared.

Such a special responsibility to nurture someone hard at work who doesn’t stop to refill themselves. It happens rarely any more – whether field or factory or the family home. What wondrous love to carry water to those who thirst; what wondrous grace fills furrowed lives.

 

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The Dent in the Ground

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Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

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photo by Tayler Rae

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 “Name of Horses”

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As a child, not yet a teenager, I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in an open clearing of our woods where our horse rested in the ground. She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. At first it was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see. When the 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 I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.

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

I’ll always remember you.

wallysolstice

pastureoctober

galloping

 

Moving to Higher Ground

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…the freshly plowed fields
steam in the night like lakes.
The smell of the earth floods over the roads.
The field mice are moving their nests
to the higher ground of fence rows,
the old among them crying out to the owls
to take them all. The paths in the grass
are loud with the squeak of their carts.
They keep their lanterns covered.
~Ted Kooser “Spring Plowing”

 

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Call for the Soil

plowing match photo by www.ninalintonphotography.com
Dundas, Prince Edward Island plowing match by http://www.ninalintonphotography.com

“When the April wind wakes the call for the soil,
I hold the plough as my only hold upon the earth,
and, as I follow through the fresh and fragrant furrow,
I am planted with every foot-step,
growing, budding, blooming into a spirit of spring.”
–  Dallas Lore Sharp, 1870-1929

To watch the soil turn over in the spring, whether by horse power with mane and tail or horse power with tires and engine, is to know my own inner soil needs turning upside down as well.  A grip on the handles of the plow connects the dirt and the soul.

The fresh earth ploughed, its face once hidden, surfaces, teeming with life.  There is the glisten of moist dirt, the wiggle of worms slithering quickly back into the depths, the roots of the old giving way to the nurture of new planting.

The spirit buds and blossoms once the soil is turned and smoothed into its new position, ready for seeds that will be fed from the heavens.  As the worm forgives the plow,  so we are forgiven for turning things upside down.  We must start over to bloom.  We are ready to get our hands and feet dirty in order to be fruitful.

While We Sleep

Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
~Wendell Berry

Every day this time of year I scramble to the top of the hay pile in the barn to push down two bales to feed to our horses, now that the pastures are resting and “left to grace” for the winter.  My husband has been busy spreading our composted manure out on the fields to give them an extra fertilizer boost for next spring’s growth, only a little more than four months away.

As farmers, we have to always be thinking one or two seasons ahead:  the hay brought into the barn in June or July does not leave the barn until late-autumn.  The manure piled up in winter gets spread on pastures the following fall.  The tilled cornfields surrounding us are seeded in May and not harvested until October after several months of rain and sun and rain again.

More than practicing forethought, as farmers we know our meager efforts, as tangible as they are, are dependent solely on grace: that there will be enough rain, that there will not be too much rain, that there will be enough days of sunlight, that the seed will sprout, that the machinery will work when needed, that there will be no blight or pests, and that the hay crew will materialize when needed for harvest.   So much of this is not due to the labor of our hands, no matter how much we sweat and ache, but due to the great work of the Creator in His Creation.

Every hay bale I open spills forth His mercy, a reminder of how grateful I am for seed and sun and rain and a barn full of promises.