By the Shade of Thought and Dreams

In the high woods that crest our hills,
Upon a steep, rough slope of forest ground,
Where few flowers grow, sweet blooms today I found
Of the Autumn Crocus, blowing pale and fair.
Dim falls the sunlight there;
And a mild fragrance the lone thicket fills.


Languidly curved, the long white stems
Their purple flowers’ gold treasure scarce display:
Lost were their leaves since in the distant spring,

Their February sisters showed so gay.
Roses of June, ye too have followed fleet!
Forsaken now, and shaded as by thought,
As by the human shade of thought and dreams,
They bloom ‘mid the dark wood, whose air has wrought
With what soft nights and mornings of still dew!
Into their slender petals that clear hue,
Like paleness in fresh cheeks; a thing
On earth, I vowed, ne’er grew
More delicately pure, more shyly sweet.

Child of the pensive autumn woods!
So lovely, though thou dwell obscure and lone,
And though thy flush and gaiety be gone;
Say, among flowers of the sad, human mind,
Where shall I ever find
So rare a grace? in what shy solitudes?

~Robert Laurence Binyon “Autumn Crocus”

The early September emergence
of autumn crocus is always unexpected,
surprising even when I know where they hide
in the shade of spent peony bushes.

They are bound in waning summer dreams beneath the surface,
their incubation triggered by retreating light from above,
unlike their springtime cousins who emerge to the sun through snow.

The autumn crocus waits with thoughtful temerity,
summoned forth from earthly grime
to remind us the end of summer is not the end of them or us.

A luminous gift of hope and beauty
borne from a humble bulb;
plain and only soil-adorned.

Slowly unfurling on a pale leggy stem,
the tender lavender petals peel back to reveal golden crowns of saffron,
brazenly blooming when all else is dying back.

In the end, they too painfully wilt, deeply bruised and purple –
under the Sun’s reflection made manifest;
returning defeated, inglorious, fallen, to dust.

Yet we know – they remind us – they (and we) will rise again.

we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. . . It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
C.S. Lewis from God in the Dock

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Presences of Absences

The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still.
I went over to the graveyard beside the church
and found them under the old cedars…
I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did…

I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated
with presences and absences,
presences of absences,
the living and the dead.
The world as it is

would always be a reminder
of the world that was,
and of the world that is to come.
~Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always during the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together with a slew of the no-longer-living. Some, who have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, my alcoholic grandfather (who I remember as a very old man) who died of sudden cardiac arrest at the age I am now, my grandmother from whom I inherited inherent messiness and the love of things that bloom, my parents who divorced for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

These givers of my genes rest here in this beautiful place above Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains with shining snow beside them. It is a peaceful spot to lay one’s dust for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and grandchildren to ponder if they keep up this annual tradition of the cemetery-visit.

The world as it is…remembers the world that was. 

The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration where we pray no one is missing.

All in good time. All in good time.

A new book from Barnstorming – available for order here

Waiting in the Wilderness: This Quintessence of Dust

What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

God –
the God who made the dust,
who made the stars,
who made the elements of which we are composed –
that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us,

to live for all time like us,
as a servant of the soil.
I am the dust of the earth,
but God declares that he is not too good,
not too proud,
for my dustiness.
~Daniel Stulac from
 Plough Quarterly No. 4: Earth

What I know for sure is this:
We come from mystery and we return to mystery.
I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from,
so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.
And I know this, too:

Standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life.
~Parker Palmer “On the Brink of Everything

This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell the significance
of how, in the beginning,
this dust became us, and
how, forevermore,
this is the dust we leave behind.

Only now,
the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored by faith
can breathe glory
into us,
the plainest of ash.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of usAll around,
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found, in you

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
Oh, you make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new,
You are making me new
You make me new,
You are making me new
(Making me new)

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
Oh, you make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new,
You are making me new
You make me new,
You are making me new

Songwriters: Lisa Gungor / Michael Gungor

Waiting in Wilderness: Rain on a Dusty Road

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears,
for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.
I was better after I had cried, than before–
more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.
~Charles Dickens as “Pip” in Great Expectations

Jesus wept.
~John 11:35

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent (an old English word for “lengthening”).

This six week observance humbles the hardest of hearts by readying us to walk through the dusty wilderness of our sin and brokenness. 

Over the coming weeks, I learn again of Christ’s traveling the parched road to the cross. His tears become a cleansing rain — tears of sorrow and sacrifice meant to renew and restore the earthly dust beneath His feet – the dust from which His Father formed us and to which we will return.

This journey leads us through the ashes of our bitterness, pride, and ingratitude. We follow this difficult and arduous wilderness road, fitting our foot to each tear-stained print He left behind, knowing where ultimately it must take us.

VERSE 1 
It is Ash Wednesday’s early morn. 
The old, the young, the newly born 
Await the mark of Adam’s dust 
To seal their wills in Jesus’ trust. 

VERSE 2 
Prepared to walk the Lenten trail 
They face death’s dark and shadowed vale. 
Rememb’ring Christ who led the way 
They bravely march beneath his sway. 

VERSE 3 
You came from dust and dust would be 
Without the Great Son’s victory. 
The gift is free yet must be claimed 
By goodness lived and evil tamed. 

VERSE 4 
It is Ash Wednesday’s early morn. 
The old, the young, the newly born 
Await the mark of Adam’s dust 
To seal their wills in Jesus’ trust.

from Lent, released February 1, 2019 
Written by Nelson Koscheski (BMI), Ryan Flanigan (BMI); © 2018 

A Foot in the Door

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 roo
m.

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

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

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”

This overnight overture into the light,
a parturition of “ink caps” after a shower.
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 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 unworthy soil,
this brief and shining life in the sun,
this folding, curling and collapse
to die back to dust and dung.

Inedible, yet so Chrisincredible,
they rise beautiful
and worthy
as is the way of things
that never give up
once a foot’s in the door.

This Tranquil Dust

I like to live in the sound of water,
in the feel of mountain air. A sharp
reminder hits me: this world still is alive;
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing
enters into the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.

~William Stafford, “Time for Serenity, Anyone?” from Even in Quiet Places

We are, as breathed on dust, called into the service and company of another, called to do work other than our own. This creature, formed of dust, is entrusted with the garden, with all the animals, and with all living things. Our creatureliness binds us to the role of steward, friend, and companion of all other creatures who share our fragility.
~Walter Brueggemann from “Remember You Are Dust”

As a physician, I am reminded daily of the fragility of our bodies and minds, this breathed-on dust of us, especially now as a mere novel virus has immobilizes the world’s population.

As a farmer, I dwell compatibly with the dust I’m entrusted to steward.  I carry it around under my fingernails, on my boots, my skin smudged in unexpected ways and places as I go about my chores and tasks.  The dust of the barnyard wilderness clings to me, not wanting to let go of one of its own as I return indoors.  Sunbeams in our house swirl with released dust motes given new life through solar energy, each mote a source of fragile strength, tranquil beauty, complex simplicity.  Such joyful dust dance makes me reluctant to get out the dust rags and cleaning solutions.

As a child of the Creator, I am well aware of the cleansing needed in this grimy, desperately soiled world.  The dustiest parts of me lie far deeper than my shedding skin — the breathed-on dust that innervates, circulates and motivates me.

God sent His Son to be the dust rag I sorely need;  I cling to Him as He comes to clean house.

Cruel April

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

 What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.


I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
~T.S. Eliot from “The Wasteland

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
1 John 3:2

We do not want to think of ourselves as the dust we were and the dust we will become but the last several months have changed that. We have become hosts to a virus that can transform us to dust. 

We thought we were living fully before; now, in our isolation, we have to examine what a full life really means, mixing our memories and desires.

Dust, like the relentless emerging life of April,
is so cruel~
it reminds us
of what could have been,
as life rises miraculous
from the dead.

We become nothing more than a handful of dust…
yet the Creator lifts us up in the palm of His hand, and blows on us:
we then breathe and pulse and weep and bleed.

We shall be like Him,
part of his Hand,
breath of His breath,
for we shall see Him as He is.

We Are Not Alone: God is Not Too Good for My Dustiness

God –
the God who made the dust,
who made the stars,
who made the elements of which we are composed –
that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us, to live for all time like us,
as a servant of the soil.
I am the dust of the earth,
but God declares that he is not too good,
not too proud,
for my dustiness.
~Daniel Stulac from
Plough Quarterly No. 4: Earth

What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue

This dust breathed upon to become man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell the Spirit that rouses flesh and blood.

The dust of Christ, our transcendent hope,
becomes the Garden restored,
a seed planted in the soil of our hearts,
sprouting from the plainest of ash.

I, plainest of the plain, breathe and pulse and weep and bleed~

just like Him.

Never an End to What’s Left Behind

“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985

My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it.  She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs,  unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties.  Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying,  and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975.    She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.

I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral.  In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote.  It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare.  In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.

She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.

Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations.  As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt.  She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother.  Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.

Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world.  Her most visible  joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring.  It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned.  She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America.  It  provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.

I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died.  I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended.  Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy.  I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.

He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do.   He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will.  This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church.  She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting.  Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades.  The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.

I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled.  Yes, I knew her, I said.  Yes, she was a remarkable woman.  Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.

There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful.  I know now that she did have a secret life.  She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little.  Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well.  It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives,  her money would hurt us more than it would help.

Her full story has died with her.  Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave. 

Of this, I am deeply proud.

The Abundance of This Place

Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light.
~Wendell Berry from “A Vision”

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same;

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days,
When left alone in the yellow stubble
The rusty-coated mare would graze.

~Léonie Adams from “Country Summer”

Most of the work on our farm involves the ground – whether plowing, seeding, fertilizing, mowing, harvesting – this soil lives and breathes as much as we creatures who walk over it and the plants which arise rooted to it.

Yes, there must be light. Yes, there must be moisture. Yes, there must be teeming worms and microbes deep within the dirt, digesting and aerating and thriving, leaving behind needed nutrients as they live and die.

And yes, we all become dust again, hopefully returning to the ground more than we have taken.

As I watch our rusty-coated horses graze on the stubble of these slopes and valleys, I’m reminded it is a sacrament to live in such abundance. We all started in a Garden until we desired something more, and knowing our mistake, we keep striving to return.

So this land teems with memories: of the rhythms and cycles of the seasons, of the songs and stories of peoples who have lived here for generation after generation.

Eventually we will find our way back to the abundant soil.