Never Leaving the Land

My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black. © MoonPath Press, 2016

My husband and I met in the late 70’s while we were both in graduate school in Seattle, living over 100 miles away from our grandparents’ farms farther north in Washington. We lived farther still from my grandparents’ wheat farm in Eastern Washington and his grandparents’ hog farm in Minnesota. One of our first conversations together, the one that told me I needed to get to know this man better, was about wanting to move back to work on the land. We were both descended from peasant immigrants from the British Isles, Holland and Germany – farming was in our DNA, the land remained under our fingernails even as we sat for endless hours studying in law school and medical school classes.

When we married and moved north after buying a small farm, we continued to work full time at desks in town. We’ve never had to depend on this farm for our livelihood, but we have fed our family from the land, bred and raised livestock, and harvested and preserved from a large garden and orchard. It has been a good balance thanks to career opportunities made possible by our education, something our grandparents would have marveled was even possible.

Like our grandparents, we watch in wonder at what the Creator brings to the rhythm of the land each day – the light of the dawn over the fields, the activity of the wild birds and animals in the woods, the life cycles of the farm critters we care for, the glow of the evening sun as night enfolds us. We are blessed by the land’s generosity when it is well cared for.

Now forty years after that first conversation together about returning to farming, my husband and I hope to never leave the land. It brought us together, fed our family, remains imbedded under our fingernails and in our DNA. Each in our own time, we will settle even deeper.

Thank you to retired RN and poet Lois Parker Edstrom for this exquisite poem about living and dying on the land. It has been my privilege to meet her and her husband and welcome them to our farm.
Your words have brought me many blessings!

The Vine That Tendrils Out Alone

A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.
~Kay Ryan from “A Certain Kind of Eden”
from Flamingo Watching

This is the season for entwining enchantment.

Simply walking out in the garden in the morning, the tendrils are reaching out and grabbing onto my shirt and my jeans. If I stood still for an hour, they would be wrapping up my legs and clinging to my arms. There I would be, held hostage by these insistent vines for the duration of the season.

There are worse fates: a verdant Garden is exactly where we were placed to begin with.

The vines that don’t find a grab-hold, end up bending back onto themselves, curling back down the ladder they just created, sometimes knotting themselves into a nest. They wind up and down in nothingness and sadly cannot hold fast enough to be fruitful except creeping along the ground itself.

May there always be Someone Solid to cling to, to wrap around, to hold fast. May we once again know the glories of His Garden.

Tied Up in Knots

Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold 
The stars glitter and sparkle. 
All are asleep on this lonely farm, 
Deep in the winter night. 
The pale white moon is a wanderer, 
snow gleams white on pine and fir, 
snow gleams white on the roofs. 
Only tomten is awake.

Rubs his hand through his beard and hair, 
Shakes his head and his cap. 
Turns at his own command, 
Turns to the task at hand.

He must appreciate what life he’s got
By finding ways to tie time’s knot.

The ponies dream on in the cold moon’s light, 
Summer dreams in each stall. 
And free of harness and whip and rein, 
Tomten starts to twist and twirl each mane
While the manger they drowse over 
Brims with fragrant clover.

Still is the forest and all the land, 
Locked in this wintry year. 
Only the distant waterfall 
Whispers and sighs in his ear. 
The tomten listens and, half in dream, 
Thinks that he hears Time’s endless stream, 
And wonders, how can its knots be bound? 
Where will its eternal source to be found?

~adapted from “Tomten” by Viktor Rydberg

It is hard to say exactly when the first one moved in.  This farm was distinctly gnome-less when we bought it, 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 winter 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 read, they appeared to be the work of Gernumbli faenilesi, a usually transient species of gnome called “tomtens” 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 and trying to slow down time so they can stay in residence eternally.

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 bring in more feral cats, the tangling stopped.

It appeared the tomtens had moved on to a more hospitable habitat.   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 tended to arrive in pairs and bunches, liked to play music, smoked pipes, played on a teeter totter, worked with garden tools, took naps on sun-warmed rocks and one even preferred a swing.  They are a bit of a rowdy bunch but I enjoy their happy presence and jovial demeanor.  

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.

I shudder to think.  One has to consider 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

Clumsy Clusters of Grace

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I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
of grace.
~Denise Levertov “For the New Year, 1981”

 

 

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One autumn years ago,  my sister-in-law brought several paper bags full of iris roots resting solemnly in earth-covered clumps: dirt–dry misshaped feet and fingers crippled with potential. Her garden had become overcrowded and for her iris to continue to thrive, she needed to divide and share the roots.

We were late getting them into the ground but their clustered grace rose up forgiving us our clumsiness. They took hold and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape.

These iris will continue to gladden our hearts until we too must divide them to pass on their gift of beauty to another garden. This act– “by division, will hope increase”–feels radical yet that is exactly what God did in sending His Son to become earth-covered.

A part of God was broken off to put down roots, grow, thrive and be divided, over and over and over again to increase the beauty and grace for those of us limited to this soil.

Each spring our garden blooms so all can see and know: hope lives here —
even in the last few hours of an old and tired year
passing haltingly, hesitantly
into something brand new.

 

 

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God’s Gardener

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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.

 

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The Rhythm of Furrowed Ground

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Well I know now the feel of dirt under the nails,
I know now the rhythm of furrowed ground under foot,
I have learned the sounds to listen for in the dusk,
the dawning and the noon.

I have held cornfields in the palm of my hand,
I have let the swaying wheat and rye run through my fingers,
I have learned when to be glad for sunlight and for sudden
thaw and for rain.

I know now what weariness is when the mind stops
and night is a dark blanket of peace and forgetting
and the morning breaks to the same ritual and the same
demands and the silence.
~Jane Tyson Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

 

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Our garden is over-producing so we freeze and dehydrate and give away and compost what we cannot eat now.  It is a race to the finish before the first killing frost in less than a month.

Carrying dirt under fingernails is a badge of honor for the gardener.  The soil that clings to our boots and our skin represents rhythm and ritual in every move we make – we know what is expected of us when we rise first thing in the morning and later as we settle weary under a blanket at night.

May there ever be such good work as we rise in anticipation every morning.
May there ever be such good rest as we sleep in peace, forgetting the demands of the new day.

 

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“Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

 

 

High Noon in the Garden

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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…