I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.
I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. ~Annie Dillardfrom Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Too much of the time I fixate on what I think I can control in life~ what I see, hear, taste, feel
Instead – how must I appear to my Maker as I begin each day? -my utter astonishment at waking up, -my true gratitude for each breathless moment, -my pealing resonance when struck senseless by life.
There’s a single tree at the fence line… When I cross the unfertile pasture strewn with rocks and the holes of gophers, badgers, coyotes, and the rattlesnake den (a thousand killed in a decade because they don’t mix well with dogs and children) in an hour’s walking and reach the tree, I find it oppressive. Likely it’s as old as I am, withstanding its isolation, all gnarled and twisted from its battle with weather. I sit against it until we merge, and when I return home in the cold, windy twilight I feel I’ve been gone for years. ~Jim Harrison, from “Fence Line Tree” from Saving Daylight.
Our fence line apple tree is considerably older than I am, and not a far walk away from the house. I visit it nearly every day, to be reminded that there is a wonder in gnarled limbs and blatant asymmetry.
What strikes me is the consistent presence of this tree though so much changes around it: the seasons, the birds that nest in it, the animals that graze under it and the ever-changing palette above and beyond.
This tree stands bent and misshapen, though not nearly as fruitful as in its younger years, yet still a constant in my life and in generations to come.
May I be that constant for those around me, to be steady when all around me changes in swirls and storms. Perhaps being bent and wrinkled and knobby can also be beautiful.
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.
We lose light so quickly by mid to late afternoon these days. There is no wistful lingering within the descent of evening; the curtain is pulled closed and it is dark — just like that.
I don’t know about you, but I’m having more difficulty adjusting to the loss of daylight this year than any year previously. This is perplexing as the change of seasons is no mystery to me. Somehow I’m feeling a new deprivation beyond the fact that shorter days are simply a part of the annual autumnal routine.
As if – something precious has been stolen away
as if – I had any claim to the light to begin with
as if – I exist only to notice what ceases to exist.
I’m ready for more than just feeling loss. I’m ready to break into blossom; to be the light instead of grumbling in the dark.
I go to the mountain side of the house to cut saplings, and clear a view to snow on the mountain. But when I look up, saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in the uppermost branches. I don’t cut that one. I don’t cut the others either. Suddenly, in every tree, an unseen nest where a mountain would be. ~Tess Gallagher “Choices” from Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems.
Am I capable of such tenderness, such recognition of the well-being of others, by saving the nest and all future potential nests rather than exercise my freedom to have an unimpeded world view when and where I want it?
I must not forget: my right to choose can only mean choosing to do right by those who have no choice.
The melon shades of leaves will soon rust and fall gently to layers of rest and forgetting, like sunken poems, unusual love, and grave silence after the crows.
The black walnut tree trembles down its mysterious spheres to sleep darkly, to pulse with memory of heartwood.
Old roses are paling with grace in this air of ruining tomorrows. Autumn again, and all the years twisting a garland of melancholy. ~Tim Buck, “Autumn” from VerseWrights Journal
The beauty around me is dying. It becomes harder to find vibrance and life in my surroundings in the volatility of deep autumn: a high wind warning is on the horizon in a few hours and we face a long winter as the uncontrolled pandemic continues unabated.
Those facts alone are enough to make me wander about the farm feeling melancholic. Even more than the loss of mere leaves and the fading of blooms is the reality of so many afflicted and infected people whose season for dying will come too soon.
Woe to us who are more concerned about our inconvenience and discomfort today than the months of ruined tomorrows for millions.
Lest it be forgotten in our bitterness – the promise of healing and renewal is also on the horizon.
May I listen for the pulse deep within the heartwood of each person with whom I have differences; my love for them must not fade nor wither but grow more graceful, more forgiving, more vibrant and beautiful by the day.
Stand near the river with your feet slightly apart. Push your toes down beyond the mud, below the water. Stretch your arms and head back deliberately, until straight lines no longer matter—until the sky from any angle is your desire. Let the skin go grey and split open. If you die a little somewhere the wind will carve the branches back into an alphabet someone will try to remember how to read. Stay this way half a century or more, turning leaves in the half-note tides of the air. Inside, with that blood so slow no one hears it, set buds for spring by each late October. November, December, dream what it means being owl…or star. ~Kathleen Cain, “What This Means, Being Cottonwood” from Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace
According to old Morton Lawrence, the original owner of this farm, this particular cottonwood was a special tree. He called it the “Balm of Gilead” tree for the sticky resin that exudes from its spring buds, which he liked to rub into his dry cracked hands. The scent is memorable, both sweet and green, and invokes the smell of spring ground awakening from a long winter.
The big tree stands apart from the rest of the forest, always a sentinel of the seasons, blowing cotton fluff in the late spring and heart-shaped leaves in the fall, covering the surrounding fields.
The buds may well have healing properties, as described in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, but it is this tree that I depend upon for its unblinking steadiness through the worst wind storms, the driest summers and our iced-over winters. The cottonwood, in its multi-armed reach to the skies, is balm to my eyes, no matter when I look at it — a dream of the healing I’ll find someday in heaven for all that ails me.
All winter the blue heron slept among the horses. I do not know the custom of herons, do not know if the solitary habit is their way, or if he listened for some missing one— not knowing even that was what he did— in the blowing sounds in the dark, I know that hope is the hardest love we carry. He slept with his long neck folded, like a letter put away. ~Jane Hirshfield “Hope and Love” from The Lives of the Heart
I know what it is like to feel out of step with those around me, an alien in my own land. At times I wonder if I belong at all as I watch the choices others make. I grew up this way, missing a connection that I could not find, never quite fitting in, a solitary kid becoming a solitary adult. The aloneness bothered me, but not in a “I’ve-got-to-become-like-them” kind of way.
I went my own way, never losing hope.
Somehow misfits find each other. Through the grace and acceptance of others, I found a soul mate and community. Even so, there are times when the old feeling of not-quite-belonging creeps in and I wonder whether I’ll be a misfit all the way to the cemetery, placed in the wrong plot in the wrong graveyard.
We disparate creatures are made for connection of some kind, with those who look and think and act like us, or with those who are something completely different. I’ll keep on the lookout for my fellow misfits, just in case there is another one out there looking for company along this journey.
The way the dog trots out the front door every morning without a hat or an umbrella, without any money or the keys to her dog house never fails to fill the saucer of my heart with milky admiration.
Off she goes into the material world with nothing but her brown coat and her modest blue collar, following only her wet nose, the twin portals of her steady breathing, followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside every morning and eat all his food what a model of self-containment she would be, what a paragon of earthly detachment. If only she were not so eager for a rub behind the ears, so acrobatic in her welcomes, if only I were not her god. ~Billy Collins, from “Dharma” from Sailing Alone Around the Room
We all should know, at least once in our lives, the complete and total enthusiastic and worshipful devotion that comes without hesitation from a dog. No other living creature grants us this: not a spouse, certainly not our children, never a cat or a horse, but dogs worship the ground we walk on.
It doesn’t take long when living with one or two dogs, to realize they are only human too – with insatiable appetites for independent defiance as they follow their noses rather than respond promptly to a call and whistle.
I love them anyway, even though they are wholly misinformed about my apparent divinity on earth.
In my view, our farm dogs exist solely so I can rub behind their divinely designed corgi ears. Is that not reason enough?
The kitchen is sweet with the smell of apples, big yellow pie apples, light in the hand, their skins freckled, the stems knobby and thick with bark, as if the tree could not bear to let the apple go. Baskets of apples circle the back door, fill the porch, cover the kitchen table.
My mother and my grandmother are running the apple brigade. My mother, always better with machines, is standing at the apple peeler; my grandmother, more at home with a paring knife, faces her across the breadboard. My mother takes an apple in her hand,
She pushes it neatly onto the sharp prong and turns the handle that turns the apple that swivels the blade pressed tight against the apple’s side and peels the skin away in long curling strips that twist and fall to a bucket on the floor. The apples, coming off the peeler,
Are winding staircases, little accordions, slinky toys, jack-in-the-box fruit, until my grandmother’s paring knife goes slicing through the rings and they become apple pies, apple cakes, apple crisp. Soon they will be married to butter and live with cinnamon and sugar, happily ever after. ~Joyce Sutphen, “Apple Season” from Coming Back to the Body.
I liked how the starry blue lid of that saucepan lifted and puffed, then settled back on a thin hotpad of steam, and the way her kitchen filled with the warm, wet breath of apples, as if all the apples were talking at once, as if they’d come cold and sour from chores in the orchard, and were trying to shoulder in close to the fire. She was too busy to put in her two cents’ worth talking to apples. Squeezing her dentures with wrinkly lips, she had to jingle and stack the bright brass coins of the lids and thoughtfully count out the red rubber rings, then hold each jar, to see if it was clean, to a window that looked out through her back yard into Iowa. And with every third or fourth jar she wiped steam from her glasses, using the hem of her apron, printed with tiny red sailboats that dipped along with leaf-green banners snapping, under puffs of pale applesauce clouds scented with cinnamon and cloves, the only boats under sail for at least two thousand miles. ~Ted Kooser “Applesauce”
Politics is applesauce. ~Will Rogers
Yesterday was applesauce-making day on our farm. The number of windfall apples lying on the ground is exponentially increasing, so I could put off the task no longer. The apple trees in our orchard are primarily antique varieties rarely grown any longer. I selected Spitzenburgs, a favorite apple of Thomas Jefferson, a Baldwin or two, some Pippins, a few Kings, and some Dutch Mignons, a russet apple undistinguished in appearance, not at all pretty, and easy to pass by for something more showy.
It took no time at all to fill several large boxes. Sadly, some apples were beyond hope; they lay rotting, half consumed by hornets, slugs, deer, raccoons and other critters so I let them be.
The task of washing, peeling and coring organic apples is time consuming. They require a fair amount of preparation: the bruised spots must be cut out, as well as the worm holes and tracks. The apples are cut to the core and sliced into the simmering pot to be stirred and slowly cooked down to sauce. Before long, before my eyes, together they become a pale yellow mash, blending their varied flavors together. However the smooth sweetness of this wonderful sauce is owed to the Dutch Mignon. It is a sublime sauce apple despite its humble unassuming appearance. Used alone, it would lack the “stand out” flavors of the other apple varieties, but as it cooks down, it becomes a foundation allowing the other apples to blend their unique qualities.
If I’m feeling really homespun, I marry the sublime with cinnamon and sugar, to create something happily ever after.
So it should be with the fellowship of diverse people and so should it be after a painful political season. We are bruised, wormy, but salvageable. We are far better together than we are separate. And through the process, with perhaps a sprinkle of cinnamon and sweetness, we are transformed into something far better than how we began.