Rumors of Rutabagas

Rutabagas were new to me
when I first paired with Jean.
At Thanksgiving and Easter dinners
her grandpa Frank, her spinster cousin,
mom, dad, and a tribe of handsome
brothers dined in near silence
at a great green table
with fierce griffins underneath.
I would wonder if their quiet
was about secrets or something wrong
but now I think it was
just how they gathered.

Rutabagas were on the table.
I had to ask Jean what they were.
My first mouthful tasted
like something in a gunny sack;
nothing like a wine
from which an epicure, or would-be epicure,
might claim to read the soils
in which the grapes were grown.
She said she loved their dug-up texture,
the hint of dirt
that couldn’t be baked away,
how they left the tongue
with a rumor of something
underground and dark.

Autumn vegetables suit her,
I think, and none more than rutabagas,
so reluctant to have left the ground.

~James Silas Rogers, “Rutabagas: A Love Poem” from Sundogs

It’s true. We had never eaten rutabaga before this Thanksgiving. It is an otherworldly thing that looks like it would rather stay out of sight in the ground. Rutabagas get no respect because they appear rough and tumble, though in actuality they are exceedingly humble with a shy sense of humor.

Our son Ben is an innovative cook and loves to try new things for family get-togethers. This week our dinner was graced with peeled, diced and roasted root vegetables including this new addition. These all came direct from our garden – hiding deep in the soil one minute and roasting in olive oil and seasonings the next: beets, carrots, leeks, garlic and this absolutely ginormous and homely-looking rutabaga.

This is Dan’s first year of planting rutabaga seed, having experimented with turnips previously; we were impressed with the growth of roots up to the size of a melon. It was a great addition to the roasted vegetables, tasting of an earthy but slightly sweet essence of the soil that nourished it.

Rumor is – rutabagas will be back in the garden plan for next year. There is just something exceptional about a scabby-skinned, pock-marked and bumpy vegetable that prefers to stay tucked away in the dark underground, but when chosen, picked and brought into the light, happily feeds a family for a week.

May we all have the heart of a rutabaga.

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The Sea Inside

The first woman who ever wept
was appalled at what stung
her eyes and ran down her cheeks.
Saltwater. Seawater.
How was it possible?
Hadn’t she and the man
spent many days moving
upland to where the grass
flourished, where the stream
quenched their thirst with sweet water?
How could she have carried these sea drops
as if they were precious seeds;
where could she have stowed them?
She looked at the watchful gazelles
and the heavy-lidded frogs;
she looked at glass-eyed birds
and nervous, black-eyed mice.
None of them wept, not even the fish
that dripped in her hands when she caught them.
Not even the man. Only she
carried the sea inside her body.

~Lisel Mueller “Tears” in Alive Together

From weeping salty seeds or leaking a flood of amnion,
we begin life afloat in our very own sea water pool
and someday depart amid tears of grief flowing over us.

We left behind the sweet waters of the garden
desperate for saline soothing and healing of our wounds.

Destined to bring salt to the rest of the world,
we flavor through our flowing tears, if that’s what it takes.
From the beginning, immersed in salt water,
all our days we seek healing as we weep in joy and sorrow.

That’s what it takes.

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Vines Running Wild

Poetry is a rich, full-bodied whistle,
cracked ice crunching in pails,
the night that numbs the leaf,
the duel of two nightingales,
the sweet pea that has run wild,
Creation’s tears in shoulder blades.
~Boris Pasternak

Here are sweet-peas, on tip-toe for a flight:
With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things,
To bind them all about with tiny rings.
~John Keats
from I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill

Sweet peas and pumpkins are strange neighbors on the table
Usually separated by weather and season,
one from late spring,
the other from mid-autumn,
truly never meant to meet.

Yet here they are, side by side,
grown in the same soil
through the same weeks,
their curling vines entwined.

A few dropped sweet pea seeds
forgotten in the summer weeds;
eventually swelled and thrived,
now forming rich autumn blooms
gracing a harvest table
with bright pastels and spring time fragrance.

Perhaps I too may bloom where I land,
even if ill-timed and out of place,
I might run wild, interwoven, bound to others
who look nothing like me,
encouraged to climb higher,
to blossom bravely,
even in the face of knowing
the killing frost is soon to come.

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Into Every Small Fold

It is not enough to offer a silent thank you,
looking down at dark mums and the garden’s final offerings
of autumn—late-planted greens, their small leaves
fragile and pale. And bright orange peppers,
the odd liveliness of their color signaling an end.
To see the dense clouds drop into its depths and know
who placed them there. It is not enough to welcome God
into every small fold of the day’s passing.
To call upon some unknown force
to let the meat be fresh, the house not burn,
the evening to find us all here again. Yet,
we are here again. And we have witnessed
the miracle of nothing. A slight turning of empty time,
bare of grief and illness and pain. We have lived
nondescript this season, this day, these sixty-minutes.
But it is not enough. To bow our heads in silence.
To close our eyes and see in each moment
of each second the uneventful wonder
of none.
~Pamela Steed Hill “The Miracle of Nothing”

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday.
It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.
You can feel the silent and invisible life.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

I am covered with Sabbath rest
quiet and deep~
planted, grown, and now harvested in soil
still warm and dry from a too long summer,
now readying for sleep again.

I know there is nothing ordinary
in this uneventful wonder of none.

I am called by such Light
to push out against darkness,
to be witness to the miracle of nothing
and everything.

Can there be nothing more eventful
than the wonder of an ordinary Sunday?

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Wrapped in the Shawl of Fading Summer

Summer begins to have the look
Peruser of enchanting Book
Reluctantly but sure perceives
A gain upon the backward leaves —

Autumn begins to be inferred
By millinery of the cloud,
Or deeper color in the shawl
That wraps the everlasting hill.
~Emily Dickinson in “Summer Begins to Have the Look”

Summer is waning and wistful;
it has the look of packing up,
and moving on
without bidding adieu
or looking back over its shoulder.

I’m just not ready to wave goodbye to sun-soaked clear skies.

Cooling winds have carried in darkening clouds
spread green leaves everywhere,
loosened before their time.
Rain is many weeks overdue
yet there is temptation to bargain
for a little more time.
Though we are in need of a good drenching
there are still onions and potatoes to pull from the ground,
berries to pick before they mold on the vine,
overwhelming buckets of tomatoes,
and the remaining corn cobs bulging.

The overhead overcast is heavily burdened
with clues of what is coming:
earlier dusk,
the feel of moisture,
the deepening graying hues,
the briskness of breezes.

There is no negotiation possible.
I need to steel myself and get ready,
wrapping myself in the soft shawl of inevitability.

So autumn advances with the clouds,
taking up residence where summer has left off.
Though there is still clean up
of the overabundance left behind,
autumn will bring its own unique plans
for display of a delicious palette of hues.

The truth is we’ve seen nothing yet.

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The Ripening Fruit

Now the bumbling bees that hover
Over loveliness in flower
Important with their store of pollen
Have had their hour;

Time has come for you to shed your
Silken petals and declare
Whether you are apple, cherry,
Plum or pear,


And all summer take your pleasure
Nourishing the ripening fruit
With the sun and rain you welcome
Through leaf, through root.

~Charles Pratt “Valediction” from From the Box Marked Some Are Missing: New and Selected Poems

apple blossoms
pear blossoms


This is the time of year when so much budding potential has reached the peak of fruitfulness – plums, apples and pears are ready for the table, the oven, the dehydrator and freezer. The cherries had their season weeks ago.

My grandchildren wander the orchard with me, marveling at the bounty that has dropped from its branches, and looking up at what remains to be collected above our heads.

They pick up an apple and take a bite, trying to avoid worm holes and bruises. It seems we always are dodging the daily reality of worms and bruises.

It takes so much to yield bud to blossom to fruit to nourishment and the honeybee is our ticket to preserved winter fruit, making honey in the process. It is a marvelous way that nature is designed to replenish itself and nurture us, year after year.

And to think our fall from the Garden was over one piece of forbidden fruit, especially when there was so much, else available to us.

plum blossoms
cherry blossoms

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art by Anja Lovegren
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A Silken Connection

Someone said my name in the garden,

while I grew smaller
in the spreading shadow of the peonies,

grew larger by my absence to another,
grew older among the ants, ancient

under the opening heads of the flowers,
new to myself, and stranger.

When I heard my name again, it sounded far,
like the name of the child next door,
or a favorite cousin visiting for the summer,

while the quiet seemed my true name,
a near and inaudible singing
born of hidden ground.

Quiet to quiet, I called back.
And the birds declared my whereabouts all morning.

~Li-Young Lee “Out of Hiding”

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
~E.B. White “Natural History”

I seek out the hidden web artist
who rebuilds this remarkable funnel
in an open pipe attached to a gate
I open and close daily without a thought.

As I approach, I see the weaver’s legs
scurrying hurriedly down into the safety of
its chosen darkness.

This spider needs temerity, not timidity,
to find its meal.

How else might it issue a dinner invitation,
luring me down into a sticky funnel vortex,
as a cherished guest meant never to return?

If I go astray and wander into temptation,
lose my way and plunge into the hole,
a silken thread remains:
hearing Him call out
my name from the garden,
urging me to return
to Whom I belong.

Indeed my soul hangs
by this single gossamer thread~
this silken connection calls me
back home, back to eternity.

There’s more that rises in the morning
Than the sun
And more that shines in the night
Than just the moon
It’s more than just this fire here
That keeps me warm
In a shelter that is larger
Than this room

And there’s a loyalty that’s deeper
Than mere sentiments
And a music higher than the songs
That I can sing
The stuff of Earth competes
For the allegiance
I owe only to the Giver
Of all good things

So if I stand let me stand on the promise
That you will pull me through
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace
That first brought me to You
And if I sing let me sing for the joy
That has born in me these songs
And if I weep let it be as a man
Who is longing for his home

There’s more that dances on the prairies
Than the wind
More that pulses in the ocean
Than the tide
There’s a love that is fiercer
Than the love between friends
More gentle than a mother’s
When her baby’s at her side

~Rich Mullins

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Heartbroken By Blight

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness:

I am responsible for these vines.
~Louise Glück “Vespers”

As the calendar turns to September and August fades away, I know all too well what this means. I have spent a lifetime loving the season of autumn best of all, but that is because I wasn’t living it, and, of course, it seems now I am in its midst.

More and more the blight feels personal, the color change is in the mirror looking back at me, the leaves falling from my own scalp, the threat of rot setting in quite real. Growing older is hardly “pumpkin spice” and “harvest gold” in reality.

Even so, the fruit I still bear is edible even if not as presentable; the vine where I grow still bears useful life. A first frost forces ripening and prepares what remains because time is short and there is so much yet to get done.

So who am I anyway?

I feel the responsibility of making all this effort count for something. I am here because I was planted, weeded, nurtured, watered and warmed. The rot will thankfully be forgotten, so remaining sweet to the taste, just as I am meant to be.

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Gray Things Made Golden

Whence comes Solace?—Not from seeing
What is doing, suffering, being,
Not from noting Life’s conditions,
Nor from heeding Time’s monitions;
But in cleaving to the Dream,
And in gazing at the gleam
Whereby gray things golden seem.

II

Thus do I this heyday, holding
Shadows but as lights unfolding,
As no specious show this moment
With its irised embowment;
But as nothing other than
Part of a benignant plan;
Proof that earth was made for man.

~Thomas Hardy “On a Fine Morning”

Earth was made for man

We tend to forget our original task of caring for the Garden we were placed within. Soiling our own nest, we can’t abandon this place for another greener, brighter, happier planet. Of all the planetary options in this infinite universe, we were placed right here and here we remain.

Our solace is that all that ordinarily seems gray gleams golden in the Light that shines down on our shadows. Even when the news is dismal, and the pain is great, and history seems to keep repeating itself despite our best efforts, our Creation is purposeful and preserved through divine sacrifice.

The solace of gray shadows turns to gold.

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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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