Just past dawn, the sun stands with its heavy red head in a black stanchion of trees, waiting for someone to come with his bucket for the foamy white light, and then a long day in the pasture. I too spend my days grazing, feasting on every green moment till darkness calls, and with the others I walk away into the night, swinging the little tin bell of my name. ~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”
This is not a usual summer, lacking boisterous gatherings of family and friends, missing our endless July outdoor meals~ instead staying in place, quietly feasting upon each gifted moment while close-crop grazing ’til I’m full up and spilling over, ready to someday again share all I have until empty.
This is the grip, like this: both hands. You can close your eyes if you like. When I say, “Now,” it’s time. Don’t wait or it’s all over. But not too soon, either—just right. Don’t worry. Let’s go. Both hands. ~William Stafford, “Survival Course” from Even in Quiet Places.
I know well the feeling of pulling against a momentum determined to break free of the strength I can muster to keep it under control. This is how my life, personally and professionally has often felt over the decades. It seems I am barely hanging on, at times losing my grip, my feet braced but slipping beneath me.
The full-uddered cow in the painting is compelled to join her herd in a pastoral scene just across the creek, but the milk maid must resist the cow’s escape. For the cow’s benefit and comfort, she must be milked. The cow has another agenda. She has snapped her rope tie, almost pulled up the stake, and in a show of strength and determination, the maid braces to pull a much larger animal around to retie her and restore things to how they were.
The action suggests the maid may succeed, but the cow’s attention is directed far afield. She doesn’t even feel the tug on her halter. We’re not fully convinced the cow won’t suddenly pull loose and break away from the maid’s grip, leaping the stream, tail raised straight in the air like a flag of freedom.
Right now, as spring advances rapidly with grass growing thick in the pastures, our horses smell that richness in the air. Sometimes this tug of war takes place when my plan is different than the horse’s. The fields are too wet for them to be out full time yet, so they must wait for the appropriate time to be released to freedom. The grass calls to them like a siren song as I feed them their portion of last summer’s uninviting hay. They can pull my shoulders almost out of joint when they are determined enough, they break through fences in their pursuit of green, they push through stall doors and lift gates off hinges. Right now I’m barely an adequate counterbalance to the pursuit of their desires and I struggle to remind them I’m on the other end of their lead rope.
Each day I find I try too hard to restore order in my life, on the farm, in the house, in my work, with my family. I want to pull that cow back around, get her tied up and relieved of her burden of milk so that it can nurture and replenish others. Sometimes I hang on, only to be pulled roughly along on the ground, scraped and yelling in the process.
Sometimes I just let go and have to try to catch that cow all over again.
Once in awhile I successfully get the cow turned around and actually milked without a spill.
I’ve held on with both hands. I’m clasping them together in prayer and petition that I won’t get pulled into the mud. I’ve got a grip. And maybe, just maybe, I will make cheese….
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.
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.
What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs, And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. ~W.H. Davies “Leisure”
This would be a poor life indeed if we didn’t take time to stand and stare at all that is displayed before us – whether it is the golden cast at the beginning and endings of the days, the light dancing in streams and stars or simply staring at God’s creatures staring back at us.
People living in mighty cities may have more gratifying professional challenges, or greater earning potential, or experience the latest and greatest opportunities for entertainment. But they don’t have these sunrises and sunsets and hours of contentment as we watch time pass unclaimed and unencumbered.
Oh give me a home where the Haflingers roam, where the deer and the corgi dogs play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day…
With my arms raised in a vee, I gather the heavens and bring my hands down slow together, press palms and bow my head.
I try to forget the suffering, the wars, the ravage of land that threatens songbirds, butterflies, and pollinators.
The ghosts of their wings flutter past my closed eyes as I breathe the spirit of seasons, the stirrings in soil, trees moving with sap.
With my third eye, I conjure the red fox, its healthy tail, recount the good of this world, the farmer tending her tomatoes, the beans
dazzled green al dente in butter, salt and pepper, cows munching on grass. The orb of sun-gold from which all bounty flows. ~Twyla M. Hansen “Trying to Pray” fromRock. Tree. Bird
There is much to pray about. The list is endless and the need overwhelming.
Where even to begin?
It is for good reason we are advised by Paul to “pray without ceasing” (the word in Greek is adialeiptos or “uninterruptedly”) in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
It is not only when we audibly and in form, address our petitions to the Deity that we pray. We pray without ceasing. Every secret wish is a prayer. Every house is a church; the corner of every street is a closet of devotion. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson in his sermon: Pray Without Ceasing
A farmer may have an addendum: every barn is a church, every moment kneeling and weeding the soil an act of devotion, every moment of care-taking God’s creation an act of sacramental obedience. Praying without ceasing in the course of one’s day.
Yet even before we clasp our hands together, we are told to “Rejoice always.” -Rejoice before complaining. -Rejoice before requesting. -Rejoice before losing heart.
Let me be breathing in the spirit of the seasons, overwhelmed by joy, before I talk with God. He knows which tears are which.
Of all the beasts that God allows In England’s green and pleasant land, I most of all dislike the Cows:
Their ways I do not understand. It puzzles me why they should stare At me, who am so innocent; Their stupid gaze is hard to bear —
To country people Cows are mild, And flee from any stick they throw; But I’m a timid town bred child, And all the cattle seem to know. ~from “Cows” by T.S. Eliot, published long after his death
Raised with Guernsey and Jersey cows
outside my back door,
I sat dreamily
on their bony backs
while dad milked by hand twice a day,
filling the metal pail
as barn cats circled and purred.
Giving up the dairy,
we raised Scottish Highlanders
of long horn and shaggy hair-
wild and skeptical creatures
who barely tolerated a curry comb
or rub behind the ears.
I know well the unblinking stare of the cow
as they chew their cud and lick their nostrils;
I love their unending interest
in the absurdity
watching what we do.
into the deep pool
of their brown eyes
by their curious gaze
and why they should choose to care
Broad August burns in milky skies, The world is blanched with hazy heat; The vast green pasture, even, lies Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.
Amid the grassy levels rears The sycamore against the sun The dark boughs of a hundred years, The emerald foliage of one.
Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen, Within the clement twilight thrown By that great cloud of floating green, A horse is standing, still as stone.
He stirs nor head nor hoof, although The grass is fresh beneath the branch; His tail alone swings to and fro In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.
He stands quite lost, indifferent To rack or pasture, trace or rein; He feels the vaguely sweet content Of perfect sloth in limb and brain. ~William Canton “Standing Still”
I admit I flunked sloth long ago. Perhaps I was born driven. My older sister, not a morning person, was annoyed that even as a toddler I awoke chirpy and cheerful, singing to myself and ready to conquer the day.
I can’t say that is still the case but it’s close and still annoying to those who have to put up with me.
Even so, I’m not immune to the attractions of a hot hazy day of doing absolutely nothing but standing still switching flies. I envy our retired ponies in the pasture who spend the day grazing, moseying, and lazing because … I work hard to make that life possible for them.
August was invented for lulling about. Maybe if I try hard enough, I’ll get a passing grade.