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

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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.

All Things Glad and Flourishing

Spring flew swiftly by, and summer came;
and if the village had been beautiful at first,
it was now in the full glow and luxuriance of its richness.
The great trees, which had looked shrunken and bare in the earlier months, had now burst into strong life and health;
and stretching forth their green arms over the thirsty ground,
converted open and naked spots into choice nooks,
where was a deep and pleasant shade
from which to look upon the wide prospect,
steeped in sunshine, which lay stretched out beyond.
The earth had donned her mantle of brightest green;
and shed her richest perfumes abroad.
It was the prime and vigour of the year;
all things were glad and flourishing.”
~ Charles Dickens from Oliver Twist 

Despite a pandemic,
despite economic hardship,
despite racial tensions and in-the-street protests,
despite political maneuvering and posturing:

life is green and flourishing and vigorous
even when we feel gray and withered and weakened.

May we not forget why we are here.
May we never forget our calling and purpose
to steward the earth and care for one another.

The Face of a Frog

I miss the friendship with the pine tree and the birds
that I had when I was ten.
And it has been forever since I pushed my head
under the wild silk skirt of the waterfall.

The big rock on the shore was the skull of a dead king
whose name we could almost remember.
Under the rooty bank you could dimly see
the bunk beds of the turtles.

Nobody I know mentions these things anymore.
It’s as if their memories have been seized, erased, and relocated
among flowcharts and complex dinner-party calendars.

Now I want to turn and run back the other way,
barefoot into the underbrush,
getting raked by thorns, being slapped in the face by branches.

Down to the muddy bed of the little stream
where my cupped hands make a house, and

I tilt up the roof
to look at the face of the frog.
~Tony Hoagland, from “Nature” Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty

I grew up on a small farm with several acres of woodland. It was my near-daily retreat until I left for college: I walked among twittering birds, skittering wild bunnies, squirrels and chipmunks, busy ant hills and trails, blowing leaves, swimming tadpoles, falling nuts, waving wildflowers, large firs, pines, cottonwoods, maples and alder trees.

I had a favorite “secret” spot sitting perched on a stump where a large rock provided a favorite warm sunning spot for salamanders. They and I would make eye contact and ponder what the other was thinking.

It was where I felt closest to Creation, more so than the house I slept in with my family, the busy classrooms, the dentist office and retirement home where I worked.

Only our church sanctuary was such a thin place with a “can almost touch the hem of God” reality.

At college I searched for a place as private, as quiet, as serene, as full of the voices of creation – nothing ever matched the woods of my childhood home. I gave up as I lived a decade in the city and almost forgot what a familiar woods felt like.

I’ve come close again on this farm we’ve stewarded for thirty years, but the constant distractions are much greater now than when I was a child. I can’t empty out my head and heart as completely to receive the gifts of the field and trees and woodlands. I have greater worries, bigger responsibilities, places to go, people to see, things to do, a shorter timeline to get what I want to accomplish done …

Perhaps the time will come again to simply gaze into the eyes of a fellow creature, and invite them in with a head and heart ready to receive what they and our Creator have to give.


The Farm Goes On

A hill, a farm,
A forest, and a valley.
Half a hill plowed, half woods.
A forest valley and a valley field.

Sun passes over;
Two solstices a year
Cow in the pasture
Sometimes deer

A farmhouse built of wood.
A forest built on bones.
The high field, hawks
The low field, crows

Wren in the brambles
Frogs in the creek
Hot in summer
Cold in snow

The woods fade and pass.
The farm goes on.
The farm quits and fails
The woods creep down

Stocks fall you can’t sell corn
Big frost and tree-mice starve
Who wins who cares?
The woods have time.
The farmer has heirs.

~“Map” by Gary Snyder from Left Out in the Rain.

We have now passed from the season when our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold.  In June, the cherry orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass.  During the summer months, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM.   So many hours of light to work with! 

I yearn for the coming dark rainy days to hide inside with a book. 

Instead the lawnmower and weed whacker call our names, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be prepared for winter.  It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this.  It’s just that nothing we do is enough.  Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially.  The fences always need fixing. 

Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.

We spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be.  We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful.  Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe.  We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 35 year old hand me down truck with almost 200,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year.  Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents.  We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup.  The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything.  We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses.   Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.

And our house would always stay clean.

Dream on.  Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes.   I know ours is.  Yet here we be and here we stay.

It’s home.  We’ve raised three wonderful children here.  We’ve bred and grown good horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields.  We breathe clean air and hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven.  Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm.  I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality.  Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older.   Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.

We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between.  This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.

Never Leaving the Land

My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black. © MoonPath Press, 2016

My husband and I met in the late 70’s while we were both in graduate school in Seattle, living over 100 miles away from our grandparents’ farms farther north in Washington. We lived farther still from my grandparents’ wheat farm in Eastern Washington and his grandparents’ hog farm in Minnesota. One of our first conversations together, the one that told me I needed to get to know this man better, was about wanting to move back to work on the land. We were both descended from peasant immigrants from the British Isles, Holland and Germany – farming was in our DNA, the land remained under our fingernails even as we sat for endless hours studying in law school and medical school classes.

When we married and moved north after buying a small farm, we continued to work full time at desks in town. We’ve never had to depend on this farm for our livelihood, but we have fed our family from the land, bred and raised livestock, and harvested and preserved from a large garden and orchard. It has been a good balance thanks to career opportunities made possible by our education, something our grandparents would have marveled was even possible.

Like our grandparents, we watch in wonder at what the Creator brings to the rhythm of the land each day – the light of the dawn over the fields, the activity of the wild birds and animals in the woods, the life cycles of the farm critters we care for, the glow of the evening sun as night enfolds us. We are blessed by the land’s generosity when it is well cared for.

Now forty years after that first conversation together about returning to farming, my husband and I hope to never leave the land. It brought us together, fed our family, remains imbedded under our fingernails and in our DNA. Each in our own time, we will settle even deeper.

Thank you to retired RN and poet Lois Parker Edstrom for this exquisite poem about living and dying on the land. It has been my privilege to meet her and her husband and welcome them to our farm.
Your words have brought me many blessings!