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.

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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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The Way It Ought To Be

After three weeks of hot weather and drought,
           we’ve had a week of cold and rain,
just the way it ought to be here in the north,
            in June, a fire going in the woodstove
all day long, so you can go outside in the cold
            and rain anytime and smell
the wood smoke in the air.
 
This is the way I love it. This is why
           I came here almost
fifty years ago. What is June anyway
          without cold and rain
and a fire going in the stove all day?
~David Budbill, “What Is June Anyway?” from Tumbling toward the End.

I spent seven hours yesterday at my daughter’s house
helping her expand their garden by at least ten times.
We dug up sod by the shovelful, shook off the dirt as
best we could; sod into the wheelbarrow and off to the
pile at the edge of the yard. Then all that over and over
again. Five hours total work-time, with time out for lunch
and supper. By the time I got home I knew all too well
that seventy-two is not thirty-five; I could barely move.

I got to quit earlier than Nadine. She told me I’d done
enough and that I should go get a beer and lie down on
the chaise lounge and cheer her on, which is what I did.

All this made me remember my father forty years ago
helping me with my garden. My father’s dead now, and
has been dead for many years, which is how I’ll be one
of these days too. And then Nadine will help her child,
who is not yet here, with her garden. Old Nadine, aching
and sore, will be in my empty shoes, cheering on her own.

So it goes. The wheel turns, generation after generation,
around and around. We ride for a little while, get off and
somebody else gets on. Over and over, again and again.
~David Budbill “Seventy-Two Is Not Thirty-Five” from Tumbling toward the End.

June is not supposed to be like this.

It is typically cool and rainy during these first few weeks of summer. June is an impossible month to hold outdoor weddings as we discovered a year ago. We celebrated our daughter and son-in-law’s wedding amid chilly breezes and sprinkles, avoiding a downpour.

Yet if it had been this year we would have all baked and sweated to a golden melting crust sitting in the full sun.

Yesterday we reached 106 F here in the normally temperate Pacific Northwest. I am scanning the weather forecast for any hint of rain (none) and am celebrating the prediction of mid-80s temperatures (hopefully soon). I once thought 85 to be intolerably hot.

It all is a matter of perspective when considering how things “ought” to be.

Wild temperature fluctuations and weather extremes are not new to this earth, but they certainly seem more frequent, causing more damage and suffering among all earth dwellers, whether plant or animal. We expect natural predictable cycles in the seasons and in the passing of one generation to another — a smooth replacement plan as older gives way to the younger.

This is how it ought to be. Yet it isn’t always so. Sometimes not even close.

We’ll remember 2020 and early 2021 as months of pandemic that sucked the life and joy from so many of us. Now the crazy heat index of June 2021 is effectively distracting us from a dwindling risk of COVID infection to consider instead the immediacy of how to avoid overheating ourselves, our animals and our gardens/crops.

It is always something in this life of peril and worry.

That is just how it is,
rather than how it ought to be.

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Searching a Blossom as a Loved One’s Face

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.


In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
~Jane Kenyon from “Peonies at Dusk”

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away !

~Rudyard Kipling from “The Glory of the Garden”

There is no better place to be than in a garden down on my knees. Humans were created for this: the naming, the turning over of the soil, the planting and nurturing, the weeding and thinning, the harvest and gratitude, and then a time of lying fallow to rest.

The garden is a place for prayer and praise.

When I meet a truly great gardener, like my friend Jean who has grown and hybridized dahlias for decades, what I see growing in the soil is a tapestry of artwork made from petals, leaves and roots. She has passionately cared for these plants and they reflect that love in every spiral and swirl, hue and gradient of color, showing stark symmetry and delightful variegation.

Arising from the plainest of homely and knobby look-alike tubers grow these luxurious beauties of infinite variety. I kneel stunned before each one, captivated, realizing that same Creator makes sure I too bloom from mere dust and then set me to work in His garden.

Once the Weather Warms

As a child, my father helped me dig
a square of dense red clay, mark off rows
where zinnias would grow,
and radishes and tender spinach leaves.
He’d stand with me each night
as daylight drained away
to talk about our crops leaning on his hoe
as I would practice leaning so on mine.

Years later now in my big garden plot,
the soggy remnant stems of plants
flopped over several months ago,
the ground is cold, the berries gone,
the stakes like hungry sentries
stand guarding empty graves. And still
I hear his voice asking what I think
would best be planted once the weather warms.
~Margaret Mullins “Lonely Harvest” from Family Constellations

We were both raised by serious vegetable gardeners; as kids we helped plant and weed and harvest from large garden plots because that was how families fed themselves fresh produce rather than from a can. Even frozen vegetables were not plentiful in the stores and too expensive, so grow-it-yourself was a necessity before it became a trending hashtag.

Now, with his parents’ past guidance in his ears, my husband works the soil to prepare it yet again for yielding: the over-wintered shells of squash, the limp left-over bean vines, the stumps of corn stalks. Dark composted manure is mixed in, rototilled and fluffed, grass and weed roots pulled out. Then he carefully marks off the grid of rows and the decisions made about what goes where this year; what did well in the past? what didn’t germinate and what didn’t produce?

Then he lays the seeds and pats the soil down over the top and we wait.

Our garden has been yielding now for two weeks – plentiful greens and radishes and now fresh strawberries with peas coming on strong. It will be a resource for our church community and our winter meals as well as a fresh bounty for our table over the next three months.

Planting a garden is our very tangible expression of hope in the future when the present feels overwhelmingly gloomy with despair. Yet a garden doesn’t happen without our planning, work and care making that first spinach leaf, that first pea pod, that first strawberry taste even sweeter.

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our
garden.”

~Voltaire’s last line from Candide

A Friendly Visit

When a friend calls to me from the road 
And slows his horse to a meaning walk, 
I don’t stand still and look around  
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,    
And shout from where I am, What is it? 
No, not as there is a time to talk. 
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,    
Blade-end up and five feet tall,    
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
~Robert Frost, “A Time to Talk” from The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems

We don’t take the time to visit anymore. Human connection is too often via VPN and pixels, chat groups and texts, GIFs and tweets. We’ve lost the fine art of conversation and intently listening, and no one remembers how to write a letter long-hand, fold it into an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it into a mailbox.

No wonder our grandchildren are unsure how to cultivate a relationship like they might a garden: working the soil of another’s life, turning it over and over, fluffing it up, pulling out the unwanted weeds that smother growth, nurturing it with the best fertilizer, planting the seeds most likely to germinate, drenching with the warmth of light and energy, keeping the roots from getting thirsty.

We need to listen; we need to talk; we need to take time; we need to lean on the walls between us and bridge our gaps as best we can.

Just call out to me. I’ll stop what I’m doing, drop my hoe and plod over for a good chin wag. It’s what every good gardener needs to do.

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

Only the Gardener

A lily shivered
at His passing,
supposing Him to be
the Gardener.
~Margaret D. Smith “Easter morning, yesterday”
from A Widening Light -Poems of the Incarnation

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.
John 21:12

It’s so easy to look and see what we pass through in this world, but we don’t. If you’re like me, you see so little. You see what you expect to see rather than what’s there.
~Frederick Buechner from The Remarkable Ordinary

It is too easy by the next day to let go of Easter — to slide back into the Monday routine, managing our best to survive each day, teeth gritted, as we have before.

We were blind, thinking Him the Gardener as He passed by; we just don’t pay attention to Who is right before us, tending us.

God knows this about us.  So He meets us for breakfast on Monday and every day thereafter and feeds us, a tangible and meaningful act of nourishing us in our most basic human needs though we’ve done nothing to deserve the gift. He cooks up fish on a beach at dawn and invites us to join Him though we have done nothing to deserve it.

The night before he shared a meal and broke bread in Emmaus to open the eyes and hearts of the blinded.

It is time to open our eyes, our minds, our hearts to Who this really is. This is no mere Gardener.

When He offers me a meal of His Word,  I will accept it with open eyes of gratitude, knowing the gift He hands me is nothing less than Himself.


God’s Gardener

fuschiadrops

 

fuschia1

 

3rfarm8

 

Grandma Kittie grew flowers–lots of them.  Her garden stretched along both sides of the sidewalk to her old two story farm house, in window boxes and beds around the perimeter, in little islands scattered about the yard anchored by a tree, or a piece of driftwood, a gold fish pond or a large rock.  Wisteria hung like a thick curtain of purple braids from the roof of her chicken coop, and her greenhouse, far bigger than her home, smelled moist and mossy with hanging fuschia baskets.  For her it was full time joy disguised as a job: she sold seedlings, and ready-to-display baskets, and fresh flower arrangements.  She often said she was sure heaven would be full of flowers needing tending, and she was just practicing for the day when she could make herself useful as a gardener for God.

Visiting Grandma was often an overnight stay, and summer evenings in her yard were heavy with wafting flower perfume.  One of her favorite flowers–indeed it was so hardy and independent it really could be considered a weed–was the evening primrose.  It was one of a few night blooming plants meant to attract pollinating moths.   Its tall stems were adorned by lance shaped leaves, with multiple buds and blooms per stem.  Each evening, and it was possible to set one’s watch by its punctuality, only one green wrapped bud per stem would open, revealing a bright yellow blossom with four delicate veined petals, a rosette of stamens and a cross-shaped stigma in the center, rising far above the blossom.  The yellow was so vivid and lively, it seemed almost like a drop of sun had been left on earth to light the night.  By morning, the bloom would begin to wither and wilt under the real sunlight, somehow overcome with the brightness, and would blush a pinkish orange as it folded upon itself, ready to die and drop from the plant in only a day or two, leaving a bulging seed pod behind.

I would settle down on the damp lawn at twilight, usually right before dusk fell, to watch the choreography of opening of blossoms on stem after stem of evening primrose.  Whatever the trigger was for the process of unfolding, there would be a sudden loosening of the protective green calyces, in an almost audible release.  Then over the course of about a minute, the overlapping yellow petals would unfurl, slowly, gently, purposefully, revealing their pollen treasure trove inside.   It was like watching time lapse cinematography, only this was an accelerated, real time flourish of beauty, happening right before my eyes.  I always felt privileged to witness each unveiling as Grandma liked to remind me that few flowers ever allowed us to behold their birthing process.  The evening primrose was not at all shy about sharing itself and it would enhance the show with a sweet lingering fragrance.

Grandma knew how much I enjoyed the evening primrose display, so she saved seeds from the seed pods for me, and helped me plant them at our house during one of her spring time visits.   I remember scattering the seeds with her in a specially chosen spot, in anticipation of the “drops of sun” that would grace our yard come summertime.  However, Grandma was more tired than usual on this particular visit, taking naps and not as eager to go for walks or eat the special meals cooked in honor of her visit.  Her usually resonant laughing brown eyes appeared dull, almost muddy.

The day she was to return home she came into the kitchen at breakfast time, wearily setting down her packed bags.  She gave me a hug and I looked at her, suddenly understanding what I had feared to believe.  Something was dreadfully wrong.  Grandma’s eyes were turning yellow.

Instead of returning home that day, she went to the hospital.  Within a day, she had surgery and within two days, was told she had terminal pancreatic cancer.  She did not last long, her skin becoming more jaundiced by the day, her eyes more icteric and far away.  She soon left her earthly gardens to cultivate those in heaven.

I’ve kept evening primrose in my garden ever since.  Grandma is inside each bloom as it unfolds precipitously in the evening, she wafts across the yard in its perfume.  Her spirit is a drop of sun coming to rest,  luminous,  for a brief stay upon the earth, only to die before we’re ready to let it go.  But as the wilted bloom lets go,  the seeds have already begun to form.

Grandma will grow flowers again–lots of them.

 

eveningprimrose

 

kittie

 

novemberrose1

 

 

High Noon in the Garden

carrotsa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vegetable gardening is not for the faint of heart.  In the few short weeks of the growing season, there is all manner of botanical birth, growth, reproduction, withering and death in such ultra-compressed fashion, it can leave even the veteran gardener gasping for air.  I consider myself somewhat bold and fearless in my every day roles, as any good physician (or mother) must be, but when it comes to the facts of life as played out in the garden,  I turn all mushy.

This week there was no question what needed to be accomplished.  The sun was out,  the seeds planted a few weeks ago were finally beginning to show themselves above ground, but they were literally drowning in a sea of weeds.   The joy of germination was turning into the heartbreak of overabundant indiscriminate growth.  It was time for action.

I awoke early, emotionally preparing myself.  I pulled on my jeans and hooded sweatshirt, stepped into rubber boots,  armed my pockets with trowel and garden hook, and adopted a confident stance as I stared at the expanse of green sprouts before me.

“Gonna kill me some weeds,”  I muttered menacingly from under my straw hat, looking like Wyatt Earp at high noon, rolling up my sleeves, and hitching up my pants like a sharp shooter.

I first went to the defense of the carrot row.  Tiny carrot seedlings are some of the most vulnerable in the garden.  They start as two little grass-like shoots, very weed-like in their beginnings.  In a few days, the next shoot is the identity give-away: a feathery leaf looking very much like carrot green tops.  True effective weeding really can’t start until the carrots can be distinguished from weeds, even the look-alike frilly weeds that pretend they are carrots so they will be left alone.  Very clever camouflage, but not to my sharp eye.

The real carrots are tender little plants, barely clutching the ground with one little root string as compared to the deep hold that weeds have in the soil — weeds make a satisfying “pop” sound when successfully pulled out by the roots.  This work requires down on your hands and knees finger weeding, the dirt-under-the-nails sort-through-each-little-green-shoot-to-find-the-right-one-to-pull technique.  Even so, despite my best intentions, the “real” plants still get pulled accidentally:  my father called that “thinning”, another cruel and painful aspect of gardening when perfectly good plants are pulled out to make more space for the near neighbors.  It still seems all too arbitrary and capricious.

All this weed-o-cide makes me think about a book I read in the early seventies, The Secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird.  They gave me a new understanding of the challenges of being a plant.  I almost can hear the high pitched little shrieks some scientists have recorded as plants are plucked, cut or mowed down.   Then there is the very real question of what is a weed and how it has become victim to our human prejudice about what is worthwhile to grow and what is not.  Maybe since the dawn of time we humans have watched the slugs, the squirrels, the birds, the deer and the rabbits decide what is tastier, and frankly my dear,  it isn’t the weeds.

But who am I to say that a beet plant is more worthy to exist than quack grass?   What animosity and enormous resource is expended to rid the world of the lovely dandelion’s perfect sphere of seeds about to blow with the wind, or the waxy buttercup meant to tickle a child’s chin into a yellow reflection.

But I’m only the gardener with a job to do.  It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it.

By the end of the morning as the sun beats down directly overhead, neat little rows of honest to goodness domesticated plants become obvious and the garden pathways are littered with weed carcasses as well as a few thinned radishes, beets and carrots.   High noon indeed.  I gaze at my spent weapons–dirty hands and fingertips that are barely recognizable–and sigh deeply.   Until the next skirmish to keep the weedy invaders from infiltrating, I can rest easier knowing my little plants have less chance of being overwhelmed by the encroaching wilderness of weeds and varmints.

So I lay down my arms, clean the dirt from under my fingernails, and sit down to listen to the symphony sounds of plants happily growing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overrun By Weed Creep

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horse manure composted garden

 

…all I know is that we must cultivate our garden…
~Voltaire from Candide

 

gardenrows

 

This year, once again, we’re late getting our garden in — there have been too many other things happening in our work and home life to even think about getting the garden in.  Starting a garden in June is not something I recommend to anyone.  It requires bushwhacking to make a suitable bed for the seeds.

Thankfully, my now newly retired husband — normally part-time farmer now full-time — was up to the job.

The weeds, never discouraged by cool rainy weather, have instead been emphatically encouraged. They grow with exuberance, happily seeding themselves, thank you very much. The garden plot had become a veritable forest to contend with before the soil could be prepared for seeding.

My husband set to work on the jungle on hands and knees, digging into the turf of weeds, loosening their grip, pulling them out, shaking off the clinging clumps of dirt from their roots and turning over fresh soil to dry in the sun under a fresh dressing of warm composted manure.  Along with creating multiple trenches for our vegetable seeds and starts, we planted prayers that there was still enough time left in the growing season to actually bear a harvest.

I admit there are plenty of times my life feels like our neglected garden plot.  If not kept tended, if not exposed to enough warmth and light, if not fertilized with the steaming loam from a well-composted manure pile, if not kept clear of the unwanted weeds that take hold and grow no matter what the weather conditions, there can be no harvest of value whatsoever.  I will accomplish nothing other than sustaining self-sowing weeds for the next generation to battle.

I leave behind a life unrecognizable as a source of nurture as it is overrun by weed creep.

Each year we’re determined to do better but we know we’re running out of time and gardening seasons. It isn’t just the resultant sore back and dirty fingernails that serve as reminders of the hard work of tending one’s life like one’s soil.  It is that burst of sweetness that comes from eating the first fresh peas, the sharp tang of a radish straight from the ground, the bowl of greens unsullied by chemicals, the onions, potatoes and squash stored away in the root cellar for winter consumption.

Most of all, it is the satisfaction of knowing we accomplished something wonderful with our own hands — guided gently by the ultimate Gardener who won’t allow a few weeds to overrun us.

 

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squashsprouts

 

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