In the waning evening light, I stood in the barnyard holding the hose to fill the water trough, gazing across a sunset-lit field of grass and weeds, puzzling over an intermittent flash and glimmer thirty yards away.
Trough filled, I set out to find what glinted and blinked in the breeze, assuming an errant piece of foil or lost piece of jewelry to be reclaimed, somehow fallen mysteriously from the sky into the middle of a horse pasture.
As I moved closer, my body blocked the sun’s rays so the glistening ceased. I moved aside, hoping to allow the fading light to re-ignite the spark that drew me there.
Doused by the advancing shadow of sunset, it vanished as I neared the spot. Looking closely, I found only a broad blade of grass shimmering with a silvery trail left behind by a slug tail.
Mere mucus slime scintillating in the setting sun! A complex mix of proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans, glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, antimicrobial peptides, and metal ions of zinc, iron, copper and manganese.
Precious trace metals flashing in the grass, masquerading as jewels.
What a fool to think only something man-made could lure me there. Instead, this miracle of mucus trailing from a lowly slug proved a far greater treasure is always hiding in the grass, if I only bother to look.
Girls are like slugs—they probably serve some purpose, but it’s hard to imagine what. ― Bill Watterson, in Calvin and Hobbes
From David Attenborough’s Life on our Planet (a truly remarkable video of how slug mucus becomes integral in their reproductive cycle)
A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:
We were familiar with the night. We knew its favourite colours, its sullen silence and its small, disturbing sounds, its unprovoked rages, its savage dreams.
We slept by turns, attentive to the flock. We said little. Night after night, there was little to say. But sometimes one of us, skilled in that way, would pipe a tune of how things were for us.
They say that once, almost before time, the stars with shining voices serenaded the new born world. The night could not contain their boundless praise.
We thought that just a poem — until the night a song of solar glory, unutterable, unearthly, eclipsed the luminaries of the night, as though the world were exorcised of dark and, coming to itself, began again.
Later we returned to the flock. The night was ominously black. The stars were silent as the sheep. Nights pass, year on year. We clutch our meagre cloaks against the cold. Our aging piper’s fumbling fingers play, night after night, an earthly echo of the song that banished dark. It has stayed with us. ~Richard Bauckham “Song of the Shepherds”
There is no specific “song of the shepherds” recorded in scripture. They were unlikely people to be inspired to use flowery words and memorable turns of phrase. Scripture says simply they looked at each other and agreed to get to Bethlehem as fast as possible and see for themselves what they had been told by God. There was no time to waste singing out praises and thanksgiving; they “went with haste.”
Witnessing an appearance of the heavenly host followed by seeing for themselves the incarnation of the living God in a manger must have been overwhelming to those who otherwise spent much time alone and in silence. They must have been simply bubbling over with everything they had heard and been shown. At least scripture does tell us the effect the shepherds’ witnessing words had on others: “and all who heard it wondered…”
I don’t think people wondered if the shepherds were embroidering the story, or had a group hallucination, or were flat out fabricating for reasons of their own. I suspect Mary and Joseph and the townspeople who heard what the shepherds had to say were flabbergasted at the passion and excitement being shared about what had just taken place. Seeing became believing and all could see how completely the shepherds believed by how enthusiastically they shared everything they knew.
We know what the shepherds had to say, minimalist conversationalists that they are. So we too should respond with wonder at what they have told us all.
We stood on the hills, Lady, Our day’s work done, Watching the frosted meadows That winter had won.
The evening was calm, Lady, The air so still, Silence more lovely than music Folded the hill.
There was a star, Lady, Shone in the night, Larger than Venus it was And bright, so bright.
Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady, It seemed to us then Telling of God being born In the world of men.
And so we have come, Lady, Our day’s work done, Our love, our hopes, ourselves, We give to your son. ~Bob Chillcott “The Shepherd’s Carol”
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.
He fell in love with a simple field of wheat, and I’ve felt this way, too; melted, like a pool of mint chip ice cream, foolishly in love, even though we know how it turns out in the end: snicked by the scythe, burnt in the furnace of the August sun, threshed, separated, kernel from chaff. But right now, it’s spring, and the wheat aligns in orderly rows: Yellow green. Snap pea. Sage. Celadon. His brush strokes pile on, wave after wave, as the haystacks liquefy, slide off the canvas, roll on down to the sea. ~Barbara Crooker “Field with Wheat Stacks” from Les Fauves.
There is nothing here but wheat, no blade too slight for his attention: long swaying brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows, the hopefulness of early spring. All grass is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms, no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight. His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded into the underpainting. He let the wind play through the stems like a violin, turning the surface liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents. No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat. ~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from Les Fauves
I continually fall in love with the fields in my world – I’m unable to take my eyes off them as they green up in the spring, as they wave in the breeze in June, as they turn into gold in August.
Each day brings a change to record and remember.
The colors pile on, one after another after another until it all must be cut short, harvested, stored and consumed, leaving behind the raw shorn remnants.
Yet in stubble is the memory of something that was once truly grand and beautiful and will be again.
Even stubble in a simple field reminds me of what is yet to come.
I took the dog and went to walk in the auditorium of the woods, but not to get away from things. It was our habit, that was all, a thing we did on summer days, and much there was to listen to. A slight wind came and went in three birches by the pond. A crow uphill was going on about the black life it led, and a brown creeper went creeping up a brown trunk methodically with no record of ever having been understood by anyone. A woodpecker was working out a deep hole from the sound of it in a stand of dead trees up there. And then a jay, much put upon, complained about some treachery it may or may not have endured, though most are liars anyway. The farther in, the quieter, till only the snapping of a stick broke the silence we were in. The dog stood still and looked at me, the woods by then already dark. Much later, on the porch at night, I heard the owl, an eldritch thing. The dog, still with me, heard it too, a call that came from where we’d been, and where we would not be again. ~John Foy, “Woods,” from Night Vision
We live near fields and woods so the evening walks we take with the dogs are listening walks. There is always plenty to hear.
It is an immense relief to hear something other than the talking heads on TV or podcasts. The voices we hear in the woods are unconcerned about upcoming elections, pandemics or the state of the economy.
I listen for the sound of breezes rustling the tree branches, the crunch of sticks and dry leaves under my boots, and more often than not, the woodpeckers tapping away at tree trunks, eagles chittering from the treetops, and unseen owls visiting back and forth from their hidey-holes. The red-tailed hawks scream out warnings as they float from tree top to tree top, particularly upset that we’ve brought along the corgis into their territory.
So, like the outside world, this woods has its own talking heads and drama, but I know who I will listen to and where I prefer to hang out if given a choice. I understand I’m only a visitor to their world and will be invited back only as long as we tread softly.
I tell myself softly, this is how love begins— the air alive with something inconceivable, seeds of every imaginable possibility floating across the wet grasses, under the thin arms of ferns. It drifts like snow or old ash, settling on the dust of the roadways as you and I descend into thickets, flanked by the fragrance of honeysuckle and white primrose.
I recall how my grandmother imagined these wanderers were living beings, some tiny phylum yet to be classified as life. She would say they reminded her of maidens decked in white dresses, waltzing through air. Even after I showed her the pods from which they sprang, blossoming like tiny spiders, she refused to believe.
Now, standing beside you in the crowded autumn haze, I watch them flock, emerge from brittle stalks, bursting upon the world as young lovers do—trysting in the tall grasses, resting fingers lightly in tousled hair. Listen, and you can hear them whisper in the rushes, gazing out at us, wondering— what lives are these? ~Bradford Tice, “Milkweed,” from Rare Earth
We all need to recall the wonder of love – how it forms, how it grows hidden away in a pod of potential until the right moment of emergence.
Then love looks around shyly, wondering at the world it is meant to transform by simply overwhelming it.
Because I have come to the fence at night, the horses arrive also from their ancient stable. They let me stroke their long faces, and I note in the light of the now-merging moon
how they, a Morgan and a Quarter, have been by shake-guttered raindrops spotted around their rumps and thus made Appaloosas, the ancestral horses of this place.
Maybe because it is night, they are nervous, or maybe because they too sense what they have become, they seem to be waiting for me to say something
to whatever ancient spirits might still abide here, that they might awaken from this strange dream, in which there are fences and stables and a man who doesn’t know a single word they understand. ~Robert Wrigley “After a Rainstorm”from Beautiful Country
Haflinger horses must have a migration center in their brain that tells them that it is time to move on to other territory, a move based on quality of forage, the seasons, or maybe simply a sudden urge for a change in scenery. I imagine, over hundreds of years of living in the rather sparse Alpen meadows, they needed to move on to another feeding area enmasse on a pretty regular basis, or if the weather was starting to get crummy. Or perhaps the next valley over had a better view, who knows? Trouble is, my Haflingers seem to have the desire to “move to other pastures” even if the grass in their own territory is plentiful and the view is great. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of natural or man-made barrier that will discourage them.
I have a trio of geldings (the “Three Musketeers”) who are particularly afflicted with wanderlust. There is not a field yet that has held them when they decide together that it is time to move on. We are a hotwire and white tape fenced farm–something that has worked fairly well over the years, as it is inexpensive, easily repaired and best of all, easily moved if we need to change the fencing arrangement in our pasture rotation between five different 2 acre pastures. Previous generations of Haflingers have tested the hotwire and learned not to bother it again. No problem. But not the Three Musketeers.
They know when the wire is grounding out somewhere, so the current is low. They know when the weather is so dry that the conduction is poor through the wire. They know when I’ve absent mindedly left the fencer unplugged because I’ve had someone visit and we wanted to climb unshocked through the fences to walk from field to field. These three actually have little conferences out in the field together about this–I’ve seen them huddled together, discussing their strategy, and fifteen minutes later, I’ll look out my kitchen window and they are in another field altogether and the wire and tape is strewn everywhere and there’s not a mark on any of them. Even more mysteriously, often I can’t really tell where they made their escape as they leave no trace–I think one holds up the top wire with his teeth and the others carefully step over the bottom wire. I’m convinced they do this just to make me crazy.
Last night, when I brought them in from a totally different field from where they had started in the morning, they all smirked at me as they marched to their stalls as if to say, “guess what you have waiting for you out there.” It was too dark to survey the damage last night but I got up extra early to check it out this morning before I turned them out again.
Sure enough, in the back corner of the field they had been put in yesterday morning, (which has plenty of grass), the tape had been stretched, but not broken, and the wires popped off their insulators and dragging on the ground and in a huge tangled mass. I enjoyed 45 minutes of Pacific Northwest cloudy morning putting it all back together. Then I put them out in the field they had escaped to last night, thinking, “okay, if you like this field so well, this is where you’ll stay”.
Tonight, they were back in the first field where they started out yesterday morning. Just to make me crazy. They are thoroughly enjoying this sport. I’m ready to buy a grand poobah mega-wattage fry-their-whiskers fence charger.
But then, I’d be spoiling their fun and their travels. As long as they stay off the road, out of our garden, and out of my kitchen, they can have the run of the place. I too remember being afflicted with wanderlust, long long ago, and wanting to see the big wide world, no matter what obstacles had to be overcome or shocks I had to endure to get there. And I got there after all that trouble and effort and realized that home was really where I wanted to be. Now, prying me away from my little corner of the world gets more difficult every year. I hope my Haflinger trio will eventually decide that staying home is the best thing after all.
What words or harder gift does the light require of me carving from the dark this difficult tree?
What place or farther peace do I almost see emerging from the night and heart of me?
The sky whitens, goes on and on. Fields wrinkle into rows of cotton, go on and on. Night like a fling of crows disperses and is gone.
What song, what home, what calm or one clarity can I not quite come to, never quite see: this field, this sky, this tree. ~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”
Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left, if only in our memories. We remember how it was and how it can be — the promise of better to come.
While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop, a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must, like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering, all evil threatening to consume our world.
What clarity, what calm, what peace can be found at the foot of that tree, where our hearts can rest in this knowledge: our sin died there, once and for all and our names are carved into its roots for all time.
It is possible, I suppose that sometime we will learn everything there is to learn: what the world is, for example, and what it means. I think this as I am crossing from one field to another…
At my feet the white-petalled daisies display the small suns of their center piece, their – if you don’t mind my saying so – their hearts. Of course I could be wrong, perhaps their hearts are pale and narrow and hidden in the roots. What do I know? But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given, to see what is plain; what the sun lights up willingly; for example – I think this as I reach down, not to pick but merely to touch – the suitability of the field for the daisies, and the daisies for the field. ~Mary Oliver from “Daisies”
I am content realizing I won’t understand what this world means, (and why any of us matter when we are all made up of the same atoms as everything else in existence);
No, I will remain in the dark until I cross from this field to the next. I have to wait for heaven itself to see how the Sun illuminates what matters.
It is all mystery in the meantime, and sometimes a mean and joyless mystery – with pain and heartbreak and suffering, but just enough loving sacrifice to make it worthwhile.
How are our atoms different from that stone, or that tree or that daisy?
We are breathed on. As God’s breath surges within us, we laugh out loud, weep mightily and sing out His Words – struggling to be suitable for this field, so often trampled and broken, but with plans to flourish plentiful in the Sun of heaven.
It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. ~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine
However you may come, You’ll see it suddenly Lie open to the light Amid the woods: a farm Little enough to see Or call across—cornfield, Hayfield, and pasture, clear As if remembered, dreamed And yearned for long ago, Neat as a blossom now With all the pastures mowed And the dew fresh upon it, Bird music all around. That is the vision, seen As on a Sabbath walk: The possibility Of human life whose terms Are Heaven’s and this earth’s.
The land must have its Sabbath Or take it when we starve. The ground is mellow now, Friable and porous: rich. Mid-August is the time To sow this field in clover And grass, to cut for hay Two years, pasture a while, And then return to corn.
This way you come to know That something moves in time That time does not contain. For by this timely work You keep yourself alive As you came into time, And as you’ll leave: God’s dust, God’s breath, a little Light. ~Wendell Berry from The Farm
Farming is daily work outside of time – the labor of this day is the care for the eternal. There is a timelessness about summer: about preparing and planting and preserving, this cycle of living and dying repeating through generations. We, as our many great great grandparents did, must become God’s dust yet again.
So I’m reminded, walking through the pasture’s clover patch, of all the ways to become seed and soil for the next generation. For a blossom that appears so plain and goes so unnoticed during its life, it dies back, enfolding upon itself, with character and color and drama, each a bit differently from its neighbor.
Just like us.
Perhaps it is the breath of clover we should remember at the last; God’s own breath comes to us disguised in so many ways as we walk this ground. Inhale deeply of Him and remember we too are made fruits of His eternal labor.