Seeking What Could No Longer Be Found

photo by Kate Steensma

Though I know well enough
To hunt the Lady’s Slipper now
Is playing blindman’s-buff,
For it was June She put it on
And grey with mist the spider’s lace
Swings in the autumn wind,
Yet through this hill-wood, high and low,
I peer in every place;
Seeking for what I cannot find
I do as I have often done
And shall do while I stay beneath the sun.
~Andrew Young “Lady’s Slipper Orchid”

My grandmother’s house where my father was born had been torn down. She sold her property on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company – this was the house where all four of her babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and finally loved again, and where we spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died, Grandma took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the homesteaded wooded acreage on Similk Bay, fronted by meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   Her own health was suffering and she reached a point when it was no longer possible to make it work. A deal was struck with the lumber company and she moved to a small apartment for the few years left to her, remaining bruised by leaving her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought. The old growth woods would soon be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision. He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look. 

My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered about in an area the size of my small bedroom.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic childhood, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  A decade later, my father himself had left farm and family, not looking back.

Sometime after the divorce, when my mother had to sell the farm, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May, seeking what I hoped might still be there, but I knew was no longer.  The split rail fence still stood, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed. There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of the farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-in area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And they would be right – it did.

An embroidery I made for my father after he replanted the lady slippers — on the back I wrote “The miracle of creation recurs each spring in the delicate beauty of the lady slipper – may we ourselves be recreated as well…”

Once more, once more into the sunny fields
Oh, let me stray!
And drink the joy that young existence yields
On a bright, cloudless day.
Once more let me behold the summer sky,
With its blue eyes,
And join the wild wind’s voice of melody,
As far and free it flies.
Once more, once more, oh let me stand and hear
The gushing spring,
As its bright drops fall starlike, fast and clear,
And in the sunshine sing.
~Frances Kemble “A Farewell”

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What Did I Know?

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
~Robert Hayden “Those Winter Sundays”

As a child growing up,
I was oblivious
to the sacrifices my parents made
to keep the house warm,
place food on the table,
teaching us the importance of being steadfast,
to crack the door of opportunity open,
so we could walk through
to a better life
and we did.

It was no small offering
to keep dry seasoned fire and stove wood always at the doorstep,
to milk the cows twice a day,
to grow and preserve fruits and vegetables months in advance,
to raise and care for livestock,
to read books together every night,
to sit with us over homework
and drive us to 4H, Cub Scouts and Camp Fire,
to music lessons and sports,
to sit together for meals,
and never miss a Sunday
to worship God.

This was their love,
so often invisible,
too often imperfect,
yet its encompassing warmth
splintered and broke
the grip of cold
that can overwhelm and freeze
a family’s heart and soul.

What did I know? What did I know?
Too little then,
so much more now
yet still – never enough.

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But Right Now

Maybe night is about to come
calling, but right now
the sun is still high in the sky.

It’s half-past October, the woods
are on fire, blue skies stretch
all the way to heaven. Of course,
we know that winter is coming, its thin
winding sheets and its hard narrow bed.

But right now, the season’s fermented
to fullness, so slip into something
light, like your skeleton; while these old
bones are still working, my darling,
let’s dance.
~Barbara Crooker, “Reel” from The Book of Kells

I’ve never been much of a dancer; we were taught square dancing in grade school when we were kids so I could do-si-do with the best of them.

The non-descript dancing of the sixties and seventies never appealed to me – it was kind of like writhing in place, sometimes alone, sometimes in parallel with another body.

Our church used to hold once a year square dances in November along with a harvest dinner, gathered in a school gymnasium, so my husband and I learned to Virginia Reel up and back and be sore the next day. Those were the days…

But right now, we watch our trees dance this time of year, getting more naked with each passing day and breeze. They sway and bow and join limbs, their bare bones grasping one another in preparation for their cold and narrow winter bed, wrapped in the shroud that will give way, yet again to the green leaves of spring, only a few months away.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

October Colors Shout and Sing

After the keen still days of September, 
the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth…
The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. 
The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. 
The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, 
emerald and topaz and garnet. 
Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her…
In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible.
~Elizabeth George Speare from The Witch of Blackbird Pond

On this early morning
gray clouds lie heavy and unrelenting
hovering low over the eastern hills,
when a moment’s light snuck out from under the covers
throwing back the blankets
to glow golden over the mountain.

Only a minute of unexpected light underneath the gray
gone in a heartbeat
(as are we) yet
O!  the Glory when we too are luminous.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Dwelling On What Has Been

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm:
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
 ~Robert Frost “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”

The field of my childhood farm (1954-59) with the red barn visible on the right. The house was destroyed by fire in the mid-60s but the barn was spared

photo by Harry Rodenberger

My family sold our first farm in East Stanwood when my father took a job working for the state in Olympia, moving to supervising high school agriculture teachers rather than being a teacher himself. It was a difficult transition for us all: we moved to a smaller home and a few acres, leaving behind a large two story house, a huge hay barn and chicken coop as well as large fields and a woods where our dairy cows had grazed.

Only a few years later, the old farmhouse burned down but the rest of the buildings were spared. It passed through a few hands and when we had occasion to drive by, we were dismayed to see how nature was taking over the place. The barn still stood but unused it was weathering and withering. The windows were broken, birds flew in and out, the former flower garden had grown wild and unruly.

This was the place I was conceived and learned to walk and talk, where I developed my love for wandering in the fields and respecting the farm animals we depended upon. I remember as a child of four sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window at the sunrise coming rising over the woods and making the misty fields turn golden.

Yet now this land has returned to its essence before the ground was ever plowed or buildings were constructed. It no longer belongs to our family (as if it ever did) but it forever belongs to our memories.

I am overly prone to nostalgia, dwelling more on what has been than what is now or what I hope is to come. It is easy to weep over the losses when time and circumstances reap circumstances that become unrecognizable.

I may weep, but nature does not. The sun continues to rise over the fields, the birds continue to build nests, the lilacs grow taller with outrageous blooms, and each day ends with a promise of another to come.

So I must dwell on what lies ahead, not what perished in the ashes.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

A book available from Barnstorming — information about how to order here

Rippling of the Land

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 the warming sun,
so do I.
Winter freeze was comforting
as nothing appeared to change, day after day.

Neither did I,
staying stolid and fixed and frozen.

But now the fixed is flexing its muscles,
steaming in its labor,
greening and growing transformed.

So must I,
giving ground
and birth
to blooms.

Through the Knothole

Her elbow rested here
a century ago.
This is the field

she looked upon,
a mad rush of wheat
anchored to the barn.

What her thoughts were,
the words she penned
are driven into the grain,

its deep tide crossing
under my hand. She breathes
through the knothole.

Outside, the wind
pushes the farm
down an ally of stars.
~Wyatt Townley, “The Oak Desk” from The Afterlives of Trees

J.R.Tolkien’s writing desk at the Wade Center at Wheaton College

A writing desk is simply a repurposed tree; the smoothly sanded surface of swirling grain and knotholes nourish words and stories rather than leaves and fruit.

I can easily lose myself in the wood, whether it is as I sit at a window composing, or whether I’m outside walking among the trees which are merely potential writing desks in the raw.

Museums often feature the writing desks of the famous and I’ve seen many over the years – it is thrilling to be able touch the wood they touched as they wrote – gaze at the same grain patterns they saw as the words gelled, and feel the worn spots where elbows rested.

Though my little desk won’t ever become a museum piece, nor will my words ever be famous, I am grateful for the tree that gave me this place to sit each morning, breathing deeply, and praying that I will share worthy fruit.

A Listening Walk

I took the dog and went to walk
in the auditorium of the woods,
but not to get away from things.
It was our habit, that was all,
a thing we did on summer days,
and much there was to listen to.
A slight wind came and went
in three birches by the pond.
A crow uphill was going on
about the black life it led,
and a brown creeper went creeping up
a brown trunk methodically
with no record of ever having
been understood by anyone.
A woodpecker was working out
a deep hole from the sound of it
in a stand of dead trees up there.
And then a jay, much put upon,
complained about some treachery
it may or may not have endured,
though most are liars anyway.
The farther in, the quieter,
till only the snapping of a stick
broke the silence we were in.
The dog stood still and looked at me,
the woods by then already dark.
Much later, on the porch at night,
I heard the owl, an eldritch thing.
The dog, still with me, heard it too,
a call that came from where we’d been,
and where we would not be again.
~John Foy, “Woods,” from Night Vision

photo of brown creeper from American Bird Conservancy
photo of stellar jay from allaboutbirds.org
photo by Ken Schults for National Audubon Society

We live near fields and woods so the evening walks we take with the dogs are listening walks. There is always plenty to hear.

It is an immense relief to hear something other than the talking heads on TV or podcasts. The voices we hear in the woods are unconcerned about upcoming elections, pandemics or the state of the economy.

I listen for the sound of breezes rustling the tree branches, the crunch of sticks and dry leaves under my boots, and more often than not, the woodpeckers tapping away at tree trunks, eagles chittering from the treetops, and unseen owls visiting back and forth from their hidey-holes.
The red-tailed hawks scream out warnings as they float from tree top to tree top, particularly upset that we’ve brought along the corgis into their territory.

So, like the outside world, this woods has its own talking heads and drama, but I know who I will listen to and where I prefer to hang out if given a choice. I understand I’m only a visitor to their world and will be invited back only as long as we tread softly.

Until next time then, until next time.

Greeting the Air

… how do the roots know
they must climb toward the light?
And then greet the air
with so many flowers and colors?

Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal
the splendor of their roots?

But do you know from where
death comes, from above or from below?
From microbes or walls,
from wars or winter?

Where is the child I was,
still inside me or gone?

~Pablo Neruda from “The Book of Questions”

Here I am, on the eve of my 66th birthday, with more questions than answers, the child still inside me puzzling over the mundane and profound.

The “why’s” of life are the reason to keep getting up every day, if only to greet the air, feel the sun, smell the flowers and recognize that from hidden roots come beautiful growth.

I’m still growing by asking the questions that need to be asked.
I’m still growing while my roots reach deeper by the day.
I’m still growing because I know I need to reach out to the Light.

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.