Autumn Was certainly not winter, scholars say, When holy habitation broke the chill Of hearth-felt separation, icy still, The love of life in man that Christmas day. Was autumn, rather, if seasons speak true; When green retreats from sight’s still ling’ring gaze, And creeping cold numbs sense in sundry ways, While settling silence speaks of solitude. Hope happens when conditions are as these; Comes finally lock-armed with death and sin, When deep’ning dark demands its full display. Then fallen nature driven to her knees Flames russet, auburn, orange fierce from within, And brush burns brighter for the growing grey. ~David Baird “Autumn”
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Watch for the Light
The shepherds were sore afraid. So why aren’t we?
The scholars say Christ was most likely born in the autumn of the year ~ so fitting, as our reds and oranges fade fast to grey as we descend into this wintering world crying out for resuscitation.
Murderous frosts and falling snow have wilted down all that was flush with life and we become desperate for hope for renewal in the midst of the dying.
And so this babe has come like a refiner’s fire to lay claim to us and we who have gotten too comfortable will feel the heat of His embrace – in the middle of the chill, in the middle of our dying – no matter what time of year.
Cold morning. November, taking a walk, when up ahead, suddenly, the trees unleave, and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings, their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/ reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb- struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moley, And then, they’re gone. ~Barbara Crooker, “Murmuration” from Some Glad Morning.
Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour.
Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.
Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
There comes a time in every fall before the leaves begin to turn when blackbirds group and flock and gather choosing a tree, a branch, together to click and call and chorus and clamor announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds without a sound or backward glance pour from every branch and limb into the air, as if on a whim but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed at how it was chosen, how it was changed. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing
…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward I saw a flock of blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was there and the sound was simply all those wings, all those feathers against air, against gravity and such a beautiful winning: the whole flock taking a long, wide turn as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
If we lived only in human society what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being here, in this curving and soaring world that is not our own so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing
Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.
Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions. It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t. It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t. They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.
We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA. Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.
We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.
The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is like muffled weeping.
Everything in the garden is dead, killed by a sudden hard freeze, the beans, the tomatoes, fruit still clinging to the branches. It’s all heaped up ready to go to the compost pile: rhubarb leaves, nasturtiums, pea vines, even the geraniums. It’s too bad. The garden was so beautiful, green and fresh, but then we were all beautiful once. Everything dies, we understand. But the mind of the observer, which cannot imagine not imagining, goes on. The dynasties are cut down like the generations of grass, the bodies blacken and turn into coal. The waters rise and cover the earth and the mind broods on the face of the deep, and learns nothing. ~Louis Jenkins, “Freeze” from Where Your House is Near: New and Selected Poems
This week was our first hard freeze of autumn, following on the heels of the worst flooding in a half century in our county. The land and all that grows here experienced a one-two punch – when the waters pulled back into the streams and rivers, what was left behind looked frozen, soaked and miserable. The people whose homes were devastated are so much more than miserable; they are mudding out by removing everything down to the studs to try to begin again. With hundreds of volunteers and disaster teams helping, there are piles of kitchen appliances, dry wall, carpet and every household item along the main streets of nearby towns, waiting to be hauled off.
Surveying our dying garden is small potatoes in comparison to a flooded town only a few miles away. The memories of how beautiful our garden was a 2-3 months ago is nothing in contrast to the families who lost their stored heirlooms and cherished memories to the muck and mire of deep waters.
But we are a resilient community. We are people of persistence and creativity and there will eventually be beauty again here. Driving on a newly opened road beside the still-surging river where a few days ago several feet of water covered a cornfield, I spotted a trumpeter swan, standing in glorious spotless white, picking her way through the mud-stained cornstalks, hoping to find something of value left behind in the devastation.
There is still hope; it did not wash away. We only need to use our imagination to find it.
Wild geese are flocking and calling in pure golden air, Glory like that which painters long ago Spread as a background for some little hermit Beside his cave, giving his cloak away, Or for some martyr stretching out On her expected rack. A few black cedars grow nearby And there’s a donkey grazing.
Small craftsmen, steeped in anonymity like bees, Gilded their wooden panels, leaving fame to chance, Like the maker of this wing-flooded golden sky, Who forgives all our ignorance Both of his nature and of his very name, Freely accepting our one heedless glance. ~Anne Porter, “A November Sunrise” from An Altogether Different Language.
My need for forgiveness is continually overwhelmed by God’s capacity to forgive: I mess up so frequently, it is as natural as breathing to me.
I tend to forget His provision — God’s grace cleans up after me.
May I never forget His name, see the beauty He created and acknowledge His capacity for loving the unlovable.
In the years to come they will say, “They fell like the leaves In the autumn of nineteen thirty-nine.” November has come to the forest, To the meadows where we picked the cyclamen. The year fades with the white frost On the brown sedge in the hazy meadows, Where the deer tracks were black in the morning. Ice forms in the shadows; Disheveled maples hang over the water; Deep gold sunlight glistens on the shrunken stream. Somnolent trout move through pillars of brown and gold. The yellow maple leaves eddy above them, The glittering leaves of the cottonwood, The olive, velvety alder leaves, The scarlet dogwood leaves, Most poignant of all.
In the afternoon thin blades of cloud Move over the mountains; The storm clouds follow them; Fine rain falls without wind. The forest is filled with wet resonant silence. When the rain pauses the clouds Cling to the cliffs and the waterfalls. In the evening the wind changes; Snow falls in the sunset. We stand in the snowy twilight And watch the moon rise in a breach of cloud. Between the black pines lie narrow bands of moonlight, Glimmering with floating snow. An owl cries in the sifting darkness. The moon has a sheen like a glacier. ~Kenneth Rexroth, “Falling Leaves and Early Snow” from The Collected Shorter Poems.
These photos of our farm are from last week, before an atmospheric river fell in torrents from the sky. The downpour precipitated melting of new-fallen snow in the nearby Cascade mountains and foothills, with subsequent cresting of the rivers and streams in lower mainland British Columbia and our local counties over the weekend.
Before the storm hit us, these pictures depict a flood of golden sunshine in the late afternoon. It was the kind of saturation of light we all were needing, unaware that our skies and ground would soon be over-saturated with far too much water in a few days.
Our communities, both north and south of our nearby Canadian border, continue to reel from this unprecedented flood event, with roads impassable due to standing water and landslides, as well as whole towns evacuated by boat and homes and businesses will be uninhabitable for weeks, if not months.
The sun has returned now that the river in the sky has dried up, having dumped its load. We now wait for the waters and the misery to recede.
The scarlet red of the dying dogwood leaves are poignant indeed, but nothing like the poignancy of communities pulling together to restore normalcy after disaster. Churches have quickly become places of refuge for those who have no home this week and in the weeks to come.
Bless those who are able to help, if not with boats and muscle, then with donations:
The Whatcom Community Foundation Resilience Fund is targeting the local efforts as well as support of the Red Cross, critical in meeting all disaster needs everywhere.
Thank you for reading and praying for restoration for the affected Canadians and Americans.
That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly,dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. ~Ray Bradbury from The October Country
Just as a painter needs light in order to put the finishing touches to his picture, so I need an inner light, which I feel I never have enough of in the autumn. ~Leo Tolstoy
A few days of heavy rain in November transforms our farm to mush. Puddles are everywhere, the ground is saturated and mushrooms are sprouting in the most unlikely places. It’s ideal weather for the trumpeter swans and snow geese who glean in the nearby harvested cornfields, filling up on dropped corn kernels. They fly overhead to head out to the fields, noisily honking, their wings swooshing the air as they pass over.
The wet weather means chores are more challenging on our farm. Some of the stalls in the barn have started to get moist from the rising ground water, so the Haflingers appreciate diving into fresh shavings for a good roll and shake. I can appreciate the relief they feel as I like getting back to solid footing too at the end of the day. Much of my day also seems to be spent navigating slippery slopes and muddy terrain, both real and figurative.
It isn’t always apparent what ground is treacherous from appearance alone. The grassy slope heading down to the barn from the house looks pretty benign until I start navigating in a driving rainstorm in the dark, and suddenly the turf becomes a skating rink and I’m finding I’m picking my way carefully with a flashlight. The path I seek is to find the patches of moss, which happily soak up the water like a sponge carpet-like, so not slick to walk on. Even if moss ordinarily is not a welcome addition to lawn or pasture–I appreciate it this time of year.
Another challenge is pushing a wheelbarrow with two 60 pound bales of hay back up that slope to the stalls for the day’s feeding. There is no traction underneath to help my feet stick to the ground for the push uphill. I can feel particularly foolish at this futile effort–my feet sometimes slide out beneath me, landing me on my knees down on the ground, soaked and humiliated, and the wheelbarrow goes skidding right back down to the barn door where it started.
Trusting the footing underneath my feet is crucial day to day. If I am to get work done most efficiently and make progress, I must have solid ground to tread. But the stuff of real life, like our farm’s ground, doesn’t come made to order that way. Some days are slick and treacherous, unpredictable and ready to throw me to my knees, while other days are simple, easy, and smooth sailing. Waking in the morning, I cannot know what I will face that day–whether I need my highest hip boots to wade through the muck or whether I can dash about in comfy house slippers. My attitude has something to do with it too–sometimes my “internal” footing is loose and slippery, tripping up those around me as well as myself. That is when I need most to plant myself in the solid foundation that I know will support me during those treacherous times. I need my faith, my need to forgive and experience forgiveness, my family holding me as I fall, and to help pick them up when they are down. Without those footings every day, I’m nothing more than a muddy soiled mess lying face down on the ground wondering if I’ll ever walk again.
There is good reason I end up on my knees at times. It is the best reminder of where I would be full time if it were not for stronger Hands that lift me up, clean me up and guide my footsteps all my days.
A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here: