Once the Weather Warms

As a child, my father helped me dig
a square of dense red clay, mark off rows
where zinnias would grow,
and radishes and tender spinach leaves.
He’d stand with me each night
as daylight drained away
to talk about our crops leaning on his hoe
as I would practice leaning so on mine.

Years later now in my big garden plot,
the soggy remnant stems of plants
flopped over several months ago,
the ground is cold, the berries gone,
the stakes like hungry sentries
stand guarding empty graves. And still
I hear his voice asking what I think
would best be planted once the weather warms.
~Margaret Mullins “Lonely Harvest” from Family Constellations

We were both raised by serious vegetable gardeners; as kids we helped plant and weed and harvest from large garden plots because that was how families fed themselves fresh produce rather than from a can. Even frozen vegetables were not plentiful in the stores and too expensive, so grow-it-yourself was a necessity before it became a trending hashtag.

Now, with his parents’ past guidance in his ears, my husband works the soil to prepare it yet again for yielding: the over-wintered shells of squash, the limp left-over bean vines, the stumps of corn stalks. Dark composted manure is mixed in, rototilled and fluffed, grass and weed roots pulled out. Then he carefully marks off the grid of rows and the decisions made about what goes where this year; what did well in the past? what didn’t germinate and what didn’t produce?

Then he lays the seeds and pats the soil down over the top and we wait.

Our garden has been yielding now for two weeks – plentiful greens and radishes and now fresh strawberries with peas coming on strong. It will be a resource for our church community and our winter meals as well as a fresh bounty for our table over the next three months.

Planting a garden is our very tangible expression of hope in the future when the present feels overwhelmingly gloomy with despair. Yet a garden doesn’t happen without our planning, work and care making that first spinach leaf, that first pea pod, that first strawberry taste even sweeter.

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our
garden.”

~Voltaire’s last line from Candide

The Worm Forgives the Plough

Field with Plowing Farmers by Vincent Van Gogh

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…


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

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

As my farmer husband applies our rich composted manure pile to the spring garden, turning over the soil, thousands of newly exposed red wiggler worms immediately dive for cover. Within seconds, the naked little creatures …worm their way back into the security of warm dirt, having been rudely interrupted from their routine. Gracious to a fault, they tolerate being rolled and raked and lifted and turned upside down, waving their little bodies expectantly in the cool air before slipping back down into the dark. There they will continue their work of digesting and aerating the tired soil of the garden, reproducing in their unique hermaphroditic way, leaving voluminous castings behind to further feed the seedlings to be planted.

Worms are unjustly denigrated by humans primarily because we don’t like to be surprised by them. We don’t like to see one in our food, (especially only part of one) and are particularly distressed to see them after we’ve digested our food. Once we get past that bit of squeamishness, we can greatly appreciate their role as the ultimate recyclers, leaving the earth a lot better off once they are finished with their work.

We humans actually suffer by comparison — to be called “a worm” is really not so bad but the worm might not think a comparison to humans is a great compliment.

My heart land is plowed,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness,
the steady teamster centers the coulter.  

The furrow should be straight and narrow. 
I am tread upon yet still will bloom; 
I forgive the One who turns my world upside down.

The plowing under brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturns to the cleansing dew,
as knots of worms stay busy making fertile
our simple dust. 

Plow deep my heart, dear Lord. 

the cut worm forgives the plow...
~William Blake from “Proverbs of Hell”


Earth Day Lamenting

More often than not, I’m still groggy every morning when I step out the front door onto the porch to make my way down the gravel driveway to fetch the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat (as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and an average of 3 additional stray cats), predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….um, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat.  Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” – kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  Ask the mouse or bird how they feel about becoming the blood sacrifice.

I believe the welcome mat is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff.  Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals.   Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction.  These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its  two stomachs for a number of hours. 

Bird barf.  

It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the  dozens to local schools) are great teaching material.  It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good.  There is fur and there are feathers.  Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn.  Ask the mouse or rabbit (or occasional kitten) how they feel about becoming owl litter.  There should be a law.

Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing.  The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak – like part of a cloth tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a Haflinger represents on earth.

At least we have figured out how to recycle all that poop back to the fields to feed the next generation of grass, which feeds the next generation of Haflingers, which becomes poop to feed the next generation of grass, and so on and so on and so on…

This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of  grass/hay/silage to chew it  again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure.   If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously.   So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen?  Probably as many as purple cows.  I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.

In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need,  can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so figure the rest can rot. 

Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 50 years.  Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind and (sometimes) recycle what they don’t want or need.

I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing.  I can go green, just might save on the grocery bill and my bathroom scale would thank me.

Cat and Mouse

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

~Marge Piercy from “The Cat’s Song”

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

~ from “Pangur Bán” by a 9th century Irish monk

I’m still groggy every morning when I step out my front door onto the porch to make my way down a  gravel driveway to get the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat — as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and the 3 feral stray cats — predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….uh, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat. 

Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  This is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

In my daily walk through life, I too have my share of things from my own hunting expeditions that I unceremoniously dump into a compost pail: things I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot.  Apple cores, peach pits, corn husks, banana peels, orange rinds…none have the gross-out characteristics of a tiny gall bladder but I can at least comfort myself with the knowledge they won’t end up on the bottom of anyone’s slipper.

photo by Nate Gibson

How Possibility Gets Planted

I’ve come to understand that life “composts” and “seeds” us as autumn does the Earth. I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the hardest of times.

Looking back, I see how the job I lost pushed me to find work that was mine to do, how the “Road Closed” sign turned me toward terrain I’m glad I traveled, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to find new sources of meaning. In each of these experiences, it felt as though something was dying, and so it was. Yet deep down, amid all the falling, the seeds of new life were always being silently and lavishly sown.
~Parker Palmer

I know disappointment feels particularly bitter when I’m the one at fault, realizing I could have done things differently, not letting go when I kept hanging on.

I know that my failings, like leaves that flame out as everything around turns cold and brisk and unforgiving, eventually fall to the ground, to be forgotten compost by spring. Yet I don’t forget.

I know hard times become the seeds and nurture for new growth and new life, like a planting of possibilities in the soil of regret.

I’m given chances, again and again, to try to get it right. All is grace.

Composting

Nature teaches nothing is lost.
It’s transmuted.

Spread between rows of beans,
last year’s rusty leaves tamp down weeds.
Coffee grounds and banana peels
foster rose blooms. Bread crumbs
scattered for birds become song.
Leftovers offered to chickens come back
as eggs, yolks sunrise orange.
Broccoli stems and bruised apples
fed to cows return as milk steaming in the pail,
as patties steaming in the pasture.

Surely our shame and sorrow
also return,
composted by years
into something generative as wisdom.

~Laura Grace Weldon, “Compost Happens” from Blackbird

As a farmer, I spend over an hour a day cleaning my barn, and wheel heavy loads of organic material to a large pile in our barnyard which composts year round.  Piling up all that messy stuff that is no longer needed is crucial to the process: it heats up quickly to the point of steaming, and within months, it becomes rich fertilizer, ready to help the fields to grow grass, or the garden to produce vegetables, or the fragrant blooms in the flower beds.  It becomes something far greater and more productive than what it was to begin with. 

That’s what my past clinical work in detox and treatment of addictions was like.

As a physician, I helped patients “clean up” the parts of their lives they can’t manage any longer, that are causing problems with their health, their families and jobs, and most of all, their relationship with their Creator.  There isn’t a soul walking this earth who doesn’t struggle in some way with things that take over our lives, whether it is work,  computer use, food, gambling, you name it.  For the chemically dependent, it comes in the form of smoke, a powder, a bottle, a syringe or a pill.  There is nothing that has proven more effective than “piling up together” learning what it takes to walk the road to health and healing, “heating up”, so to speak, in an organic process of transformation that is, for lack of any better description, primarily a spiritual treatment process. 

When a support group becomes a crucible for the “refiner’s fire”,  it does its best work melting people down to rid the impurities before they can be built back up again, stronger than ever.  They become compost, productive, with the wisdom and readiness to grow others.

This work with a spectrum of individuals of all races, professional and blue collar, rich and homeless,  coming from all over the state for help,  was transforming for me.  I worked with incredibly gifted nursing and counseling staff, some recovering themselves, who dedicated their careers to this work.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25: 40–‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Nature teaches that nothing is lost.

God teaches we seek out the lost until they are found and then and only then, the work of transformation begins.

To Muck and Shovel and Sing

“He (the professor) asked what I made of the other students (at Oxford) so I told him.
They were okay, but they were all very similar…
they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies,
and they thought they would always win.
But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.

He asked me what could be done about it.
I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year
to do some dead-end job
like working in a chicken processing plant
or spreading muck with a tractor.
It would do more good than a gap year in Peru. 

He laughed and thought this was tremendously witty.
It wasn’t meant to be funny.

~James Rebanks from The Shepherd’s Life
(how a sheep farmer succeeds at Oxford and then goes back to the farm)


In our barn we have a very beat up old AM/FM radio that sits on a shelf next to the horse stalls and serves as company to the horses during the rainy stormy days they stay inside, and serves as distraction to me as we clean stalls of manure and wet spots in the evening.  We live about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, so most stations that come in well on this radio’s broken antenna are from the lower mainland of British Columbia.  This includes a panoply of stations spoken in every imaginable language– a Babel of sorts that I can tune into: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, French and of course, proper British accent English.  But standard issue American melting pot genetic mix that I am, I prefer to tune into the “Oldies” Station and reminisce.

There is a strange comfort in listening to songs that I enjoyed 40-50+ years ago, and I’m somewhat miffed and perplexed that they should be called “oldies”.  Oldies always referred to music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, not the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s!   I listen and sing along with a mixture of feeling ancient and yet transported back to my teens.  I can think of faces and names I haven’t thought of in decades, remember special summer days picking berries and hear long lost voices from school days. I can smell and taste and feel things all because of the trigger of a familiar song.   There is something primordial –deep in my synapses– that is stirred by this music. In fact, I shoveled manure to these same songs 50 years ago, and somehow, it seems not much as changed. 

Or has it? One  (very quick) glance in the mirror tells me it has and I have.

YesterdayI Got You, Babe and you were a Bridge Over Troubled Waters for this Natural Woman who just wants to be Close to You so You’ve Got a Friend.  There’s Something in the way I Cherish The Way We Were and of course Love Will Keep Us Together. If You Leave Me Now,  You’re So VainI’ve always wanted it My Way but How Sweet It Is when I Want To Hold Your Hand.  Come Saturday Morning we’re Born to Be Wild.

Help! Do You Know Where You’re Going To?  Me and You and A Dog Named Boo will travel Country Roads and Rock Around the Clock even though God Didn’t Make the Little Green Apples.  Fire and Rain will make things All Right Now once Morning is Broken, I’ll Say a Little Prayer For You.

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction from the Sounds of Silence — If— Those Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My HeadStand By Me as It’s Just My Imagination that I am a Rock,when really I only want Time in a Bottle and to just Sing, Sing a Song.

They just don’t write songs like they used to.  I seem to remember my parents saying that about the songs I loved so well.  Somehow in the midst of decades of change, there are some constants.  Music still touches our souls, no matter how young or old we are.

And there will always be manure that needs shoveling.

A Foot in the Door

mushroompile2

 

 

mushroompile11

 

 

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
~Sylvia Plath from “Mushroom”

 

 

mushroompile1

 

 

inkcap2

 

 

This overnight overture,
a parturition of “ink caps” after a rain.
As if seed had been sprinkled on the manure pile,
they sprout three inch stalks
still stretching at dawn,
topped by dew-catching caps and umbrellas.
Nearly translucent as glass,
already curling at the edges in the morning light,
by noon melting into black ooze
by evening complete deliquescence,
withered and curling back
into the humus
which birthed them hours before.

It shall be repeated
again and again,
this birth from muck,
a brief and shining life,
and dying back to dung.

It is the way of things
to never give up
once a foot’s in the door.

 

 

inkcap3

 

 

inkcap5

 

 

inkcap1

 

 

IMG_4179

Overrun By Weed Creep

thegardener

 

horse manure composted garden

 

…all I know is that we must cultivate our garden…
~Voltaire from Candide

 

gardenrows

 

This year, once again, we’re late getting our garden in — there have been too many other things happening in our work and home life to even think about getting the garden in.  Starting a garden in June is not something I recommend to anyone.  It requires bushwhacking to make a suitable bed for the seeds.

Thankfully, my now newly retired husband — normally part-time farmer now full-time — was up to the job.

The weeds, never discouraged by cool rainy weather, have instead been emphatically encouraged. They grow with exuberance, happily seeding themselves, thank you very much. The garden plot had become a veritable forest to contend with before the soil could be prepared for seeding.

My husband set to work on the jungle on hands and knees, digging into the turf of weeds, loosening their grip, pulling them out, shaking off the clinging clumps of dirt from their roots and turning over fresh soil to dry in the sun under a fresh dressing of warm composted manure.  Along with creating multiple trenches for our vegetable seeds and starts, we planted prayers that there was still enough time left in the growing season to actually bear a harvest.

I admit there are plenty of times my life feels like our neglected garden plot.  If not kept tended, if not exposed to enough warmth and light, if not fertilized with the steaming loam from a well-composted manure pile, if not kept clear of the unwanted weeds that take hold and grow no matter what the weather conditions, there can be no harvest of value whatsoever.  I will accomplish nothing other than sustaining self-sowing weeds for the next generation to battle.

I leave behind a life unrecognizable as a source of nurture as it is overrun by weed creep.

Each year we’re determined to do better but we know we’re running out of time and gardening seasons. It isn’t just the resultant sore back and dirty fingernails that serve as reminders of the hard work of tending one’s life like one’s soil.  It is that burst of sweetness that comes from eating the first fresh peas, the sharp tang of a radish straight from the ground, the bowl of greens unsullied by chemicals, the onions, potatoes and squash stored away in the root cellar for winter consumption.

Most of all, it is the satisfaction of knowing we accomplished something wonderful with our own hands — guided gently by the ultimate Gardener who won’t allow a few weeds to overrun us.

 

beanplantA

 

squashsprouts

 

weedyradishes

 

beansprout

 

weeder

 

 

 

So Then, My Brethren, Live

springlane

 

rainylane2

 

It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall,
driving horses, sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory if being in his grace
you do it as your duty.

To go to communion worthily gives God great glory,
but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dung fork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give him glory too.

He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should.

So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from Seeking Peace

 

lookingnorth2

 

Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place.   As an act of worship, we must keep cleaning up after ourselves.  The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend over an hour every day year round through all seasons and weather, carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork and moving manure down this barnyard lane because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes.

In so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship our God with dungfork and slop pail and wheelbarrow.

It is my privilege.  It is His gift to me.

It is Grace that comes alongside me, helping me to live out each day,  pitching the muck and carrying the slop and making me clean again – spring, summer, fall and winter.

Amen.

 

afterthestorm

 

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photo from Emily Vander Haak