They Call It Easing the Spring

“Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine glori”

(translation)
Recently I lived suitable for warfare,
and I soldiered not without glory.

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
   And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
   Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easily
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
   Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
   They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
   For today we have naming of parts.
~Henry Reed “Naming of Parts”
(1942)

“Naming of Parts” was a well-known British anti-war poem I memorized for debate class in high school in 1970, reciting it for interpretive reading competitions.

Below is a portion of a 1944 letter sent home to my mother from my father as he served as a Marine company officer in the South Pacific from January 1943 – fall 1945. After he returned home, physically uninjured, I had never seen him with a gun in his hands, and wasn’t aware he even had kept a gun after leaving the Marines. One day, in the early 1970’s, one of our farm’s beef animals was injured so my father, for the first time in thirty years, pulled out a gun from its hiding place to put down the suffering animal. I never saw the gun again and believe my father disposed of it soon after – firing that gun after so many years was too much for him.

“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa.  It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget. 

So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation.  In training – close order drill- etc.  there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed.  The command is INSPECTION – ARMS.  On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle.  It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened.  Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.

Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the <Tarawa> beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting.  You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading.  When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles. 

A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.
~ Marine Captain Henry Polis (age 22) in a 1944 letter home about the Battle of Tarawa (November 1943)

Henry Polis 1943

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We Were All Beautiful Once

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.

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A Moment of Marvel

On this first day of November
it is cold as a cave,
the sky the color
of neutral third parties.
I am cutting carrots
for the chicken soup.
Knife against carrot
again and again
sends a plop of pennies
into the pan.
These cents,
when held to the gray light,
hold no noble president,
only stills
of some kaleidoscope
caught being pensive…
and beautiful,
in the eye of this beholder,
who did not expect
this moment of marvel
while making an early supper
for the hungry children.

~Cindy Gregg, “Monday” from Suddenly Autumn.

I wasn’t prepared for November to begin on this chilly Monday morning.

Throwing on my barn coat and boots, I pulled up some of the last carrots from the garden, cut them up, added some already harvested beans, peas and corn from the freezer, threw in some baby potatoes to make a crockpot of beef bone soup.

When we return home hungry from our community work tonight, we will be tired but well fed.

There is a moment of marvel in preparing a meal from one’s own garden bounty, remembering the small seeds put in the ground 6 months ago, and now washed and cut and simmering in a pot in our kitchen.

The start of November isn’t so chilly after all. We are warmed by the work done through the spring and summer, the sun and rain that grew these vegetables, and the Creator God who provides, even in the cold and dark months of the year.

We’ll make it through this first Monday of November, anticipating the marvels to come.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Live Each Day As If It Were My First

You tell me to live each day
as if it were my last. This is in the kitchen
where before coffee I complain
of the day ahead—that obstacle race
of minutes and hours,
grocery stores and doctors.

But why the last? I ask. Why not
live each day as if it were the first—
all raw astonishment, Eve rubbing
her eyes awake that first morning,
the sun coming up
like an ingénue in the east?

You grind the coffee
with the small roar of a mind
trying to clear itself. I set
the table, glance out the window
where dew has baptized every
living surface.
~Linda Pastan “Imaginary Conversation” 

To live each day like the first day, rather than the last…

It would mean unbridled awe and astonishment, as it should be.
Not only gratitude that the world exists, but grateful that I exist.

Newly created and baptized by amazement each day,
just like my first day.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available for order here:

To a Heaven of Impermanence

In heaven it is always autumn.
~John Donne

The leaves are always near to falling there
but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven’s paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven’s calm, they take each other’s arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down,
    the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that’s said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun
    shining brightly

as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we’re here, I think it must
    be heaven.
~Elizabeth Spires “In Heaven It Is Always Autumn” from Now the Green Blade Rises

I wander the autumn garden mystified at the passing of the weeks since the seed was first sown, weeds pulled, peapods picked. It could not possibly be done so soon–this patch of productivity and beauty, now wilted and brown, vines crushed to the ground, no longer fruitful.

The root cellar is filling up, the freezer is packed.  The work of putting away is almost done.

So why do I go back to the now barren soil we so carefully worked, numb in the knowledge I will pick no more this season, nor feel the burst of a cherry tomato exploding in my mouth or the green freshness of a bean or peapod straight off the vine?

Because for a few fertile weeks, only a few weeks, the garden was a bit of heaven on earth, impermanent but a real taste nonetheless.   We may have once mistaken our Lord for the gardener when He appeared to us radiant, suddenly unfamiliar, but it was He who offered us the care of the garden, to bring in the sheaves, to share the forever mercies in the form of daily bread grown right here and now.

When He says my name, then I will know Him. 
He will lead me farther than I have ever been.

A book of beauty in words and photography is available to order here:

The Fallen Works of Light

The summer ends, and it is time
To face another way. Our theme
Reversed, we harvest the last row
To store against the cold, undo
The garden that will be undone.
We grieve under the weakened sun
To see all earth’s green fountains dried,
And fallen all the works of light.
You do not speak, and I regret
This downfall of the good we sought
As though the fault were mine. I bring
The plow to turn the shattering
Leaves and bent stems into the dark,
From which they may return. At work,
I see you leaving our bright land,
The last cut flowers in your hand.
~Wendell Berry “The Summer Ends” from A Timbered Choir.

I want to memorize it all before it changes
as the light weakens from
the sun shifting from north to south,
balancing on the fulcrum of our country road at equinox.

The dying back of the garden leaves and vines reveals
what lies unharvested beneath,
so I gather in urgency, not wanting it to go to waste.

We part again from you, Summer –
your gifts seemed endless
until you ended –
a reminder that someday, so must I.

I sit silenced and brooding, waiting for what comes next.

A book of beautiful words and photography, available to order here:

There Goes the Neighborhood

She lingered in that charming little garden to say hello to the gnomes,
such a glorious infestation!
How few wizards realize just how much we can learn
from the wise little gnomes-
or, to give them their correct names, the Gernumbli gardensi.
‘Ours do know a lot of excellent swear words,’ said Ron…
J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It is hard to say exactly when the first one moved in.  This farm was distinctly gnome-less when we bought it over thirty years ago, largely due to twenty-seven hungry barn cats residing here at the time in various stages of pregnancy, growth, development and aging.  It took awhile for the feline numbers to whittle down to an equilibrium that matched the rodent population.  In the mean time, our horse numbers increased from three to seven to over fifteen with a resultant exponential increase in barn chores.   One spring twenty years ago,  I was surprised to walk in the barn one morning to find numerous complex knots tied in the Haflingers’ manes.  Puzzling as I took precious time to undo them, literally adding hours to my chores, I knew I needed to find the cause or culprit.

It took some research to determine the probable origin of these tight tangles.  Based on everything I researched, they appeared to be the work of Gernumbli faenilesi, a usually transient species of gnome preferring to live in barns and haylofts in close proximity to heavy maned ponies.  In this case, as the tangles persisted for months, they clearly had moved in, lock, stock and barrel.   The complicated knots were their signature pride and joy, their artistic way of showing their devotion to a happy farm.

All well and good, but the extra work was killing my fingers and thinning my horses’ hair.  I plotted ways to get them to cease and desist.

I set live traps of cheese and peanut butter cracker sandwiches, hoping to lure them into cages for a “catch and release”. Hoping to drive them away, I played polka music on the radio in the barn at night.  Hoping to be preemptive, I braided the manes up to be less tempting but even those got twisted and jumbled.  Just as I was becoming ever more desperate and about to round up more feral cats, the tangling stopped.

It appeared the gnomes had moved on to a more hospitable habitat.  Apparently I had succeeded in my gnome eradication plan. 

Or so I thought.

Not long after, I had the distinct feeling of being watched as I walked past some rose bushes in the yard.  I stopped to take a look, expecting to spy the shining eyes of one of the pesky raccoons that frequents our yard to steal from the cats’ food dish.  Instead, beneath the thorny foliage, I saw two round blue eyes peering at me serenely.   This little gal was not at all intimidated by me, and made no move to escape.   She was an ideal example of Gernumbli gardensi, a garden gnome known for their ability to keep varmints and vermin away from plants and flowers.  They also happen to actively feud with Gernumbli Faenilesi so that explained the sudden disappearance of my little knot-tying pests in the barn.

It wasn’t long before more Gardensi moved in, a gnomey infestation.  They tend to arrive in pairs and bunches, bringing their turtles and dogs with them, like to play music, smoke pipes, play on a teeter totter, work with garden tools, take naps on sun-warmed rocks and one even prefers a swing, day and night through all four seasons.  They are a bit of a rowdy bunch and always up for a party, but I enjoy their happy presence and jovial demeanor.   I haven’t yet heard any bad language as we have a “keep it clean” policy about bad words around here.  They seem quite hardy, stoically withstand extremes in weather, wear masks when asked and only seem fearful when hornets build a nest right in their lap.

As long as they continue to coexist peaceably with us and each other, keep the varmints and their knot tying cousins away,  and avoid bad habits and swear words, I’m quite happy they are here.  Actually, I’ve given them the run of the place.  I’ve been told to be cautious as there are now news reports of an even more invasive species of gnome, Gernumbli kitschsi, that could move in and take over if I’m not careful. In fact, several new little fellows moved into my hanging baskets and back into the barn this week – someone obviously had put the word out this is a great place to winter over. Now I need to watch for more mane tangles again.

A gnome explosion.

I shudder to think.  There goes the neighborhood.

photo by Tomomi Gibson

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Unlocked By Hollyhocks

Old-fashioned flowers! I love them all:
The morning-glories on the wall,
The pansies in their patch of shade,
The violets, stolen from a glade,
The bleeding hearts and columbine,
Have long been garden friends of mine;
But memory every summer flocks
About a clump of hollyhocks.


The mind’s bright chambers, life unlocks
Each summer with the hollyhocks.
~Edgar Guest from “Hollyhocks”

The endless well of summer
lies deep in the heart of old-fashioned flowers,
but no well is so deep as hollyhocks –
the veins of their petals
pumping color
as they sway on long-nubbined stems,
carefree in the breeze.

My mind is suddenly unlocked,
opened by a hollyhock key.

hollyhock

Enjoy more photos and poems in this book from Barnstorming, available for order here:

Sunburst Petals

When I pray I go in, and close the door,
But what, really, do we mean by prayer?
Isn’t it anything done with full attention
Whether sinking into silent depths, or
Relishing a sun-ripe peach, or gazing
At the zinnias freshly picked this early
Morning, these multi-petaled shouts of joy,
Lemon yellow, orange, reds, a carnival of
Flame-filled light, the sweet green scent
Summer flowers.

~Sarah Rossiter “Zinnias”

My father’s mother grew a garden of zinnias
to divide the house from the woods:

pop art tops in every color—cream,
peach, royal purple, and even envy

—the sunburst petals

the heads little suns you watch die
on the stem if you want the bloom back.

~Tyler Mills “Zinnias”

As an eight year old, I grew zinnias
from a tiny package of seeds tucked inside
a Christmas card by my third grade teacher
whose rapt attention turned to her backyard garden
when school doors closed in the summer.

She nurtured each of us students
like one of her cream-colored zinnia buds
arising boldly on a single sturdy stem,
growing tall almost before her eyes, yet still undefined.

Watered and fed, her warm light shining on our bright faces,
we opened expectantly under her steady gaze,
each one a sunburst bloom smiling back at her,
which kept her coming back, year after year,
to sow a few more celebratory seeds with her sprinkling of wisdom.

Thank you to Chris and Jan Lovegren for sharing their zinnias!

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The Redeemed World

You get down on your knees in the dark earth—alone
for hours in hot sun, yanking weed roots, staking trellises,
burning your shoulders, swatting gnats; you strain your muscled
midwestern neck and back, callous your pianist’s hands.

You cut roses back so they won’t fruit, rip out and replace
spent annuals. You fill your garden dense with roots and vines.
And when a humble sprout climbs like a worm up out of death,
you are there to bless it, in your green patch, all spring and summer long,

hose like a scepter, a reliquary vessel; you hum
through the dreamy wilderness—no one to judge, absolve,
or be absolved—purified by labor, confessed by its whisperings, connected to its innocence.

So when you heft a woody, brushy tangle, or stumble
inside grimy, spent by earth, I see all the sacraments in place—
and the redeemed world never smelled so sweet.

~Ken Weisner, “The Gardener” from Anything on Earth.

We are in full-garden produce preservation mode right now on the farm – these are the days when we pick the fruits of Dan’s labors – all the hours he spent this spring preparing the soil with rich compost, meticulously pulling out weeds by the roots, rototilling and cultivating, then staking/stringing/sowing the rows, then standing back to watch the sun and rain coax the seeds from the dark.

All this happens in a mere few weeks – we never tire of this illustration of redemption and renewal we’re shown year after year – how a mess of weeds and dirt can be cleared, refined and cleansed to once again become productive and fruitful, feeding those who hunger – both now and deep into winter and next spring.

It gives me hope; even when I myself am feeling full of weeds and despairingly dirty and overwhelmed, I can be renewed. It takes a persistent Gardener who is willing and eager to prune away what is useless, and sow anew what is needed for me to thrive and produce – His hands and knees are covered with my grime.

And the fruit that results! – so very sweet…

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