The Departure Gate


and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled
and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse
on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last
blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant
asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving
in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.
The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed
in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days
are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck
and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle
in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly,
they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate,
and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits
patiently in a long, long line.
~Barbara Crooker “And Now It’s September” from Spillway

The advance of autumn usually feels like I’m waiting to embark on an unplanned journey that I wish to avoid. I don’t like airports, don’t like the strangeness of unfamiliar destinations, don’t like flying with nothing between me and the ground.

Now “fall” is just like that — like I’m falling.

I look at what is dying around me and know these blasts of color and fruitfulness are their last sad gasps.

So too, when I go out the departure gate, may I go down the long ramp gaily without fear and without regrets — maybe even with a skip in my step as I fall.

To Scatter New Potatoes

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

~Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist

Van Gogh Painting, Oil on Canvas on Panel Nuenen:
August, 1885 Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, The Netherlands
Digging Potatoes by Martin Driscoll http://www.martindriscoll.com

Digging potatoes is one of the most satisfying tasks for a farmer. Often the dead above-ground vines have melted into the ground, blending in with the weeds and encroaching sprawl of squash vines. Finding the treasure underneath the topsoil is an act of faith. You set the shovel or fork boldly into the dirt to loosen up the top eight inches. Then you submerge your hand into the dirt and come up with a fistful of potato gold nuggets, each smooth cool tuber rolling into fresh air like so many newly discovered hidden Easter eggs.

A daily dig for words to write isn’t nearly as easy as finding potatoes in the soil; the bounty under the surface often remains hidden away from my view and elusive. I have to keep searching and sifting and sorting. Some that I end up with are rotten. Some are overexposed, too green and toxic. Some are scabby and look ugly, but are still useable and hopefully tasty.

Yet I get out my virtual spade and dig into the dirt of life every day, hoping, just hoping, to come up with words in my hands that are not only beautiful, colorful, smooth and palatable, but a sheer delight for the digger/reader to discover along with me.

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

To Let it Go

I let her garden go.
let it go, let it go
How can I watch the hummingbird
Hover to sip
With its beak’s tip
The purple bee balm — whirring as we heard
It years ago?

The weeds rise rank and thick
let it go, let it go
Where annuals grew and burdock grows,
Where standing she
At once could see
The peony, the lily, and the rose
Rise over brick

She’d laid in patterns. Moss
let it go, let it go
Turns the bricks green, softening them
By the gray rocks
Where hollyhocks
That lofted while she lived, stem by tall stem,
Blossom with loss.
~ Donald Hall from “Her Garden” about Jane Kenyon

Some gray mornings
heavy with clouds
and tear-streaked windows
I pause melancholy
at the passage of time.

Whether to grieve over
another hour passed
another breath exhaled
another broken heart beat

Or to climb my way
out of deepless dolor
and start the work of
planting the next garden

It takes sweat
and dirty hands
and yes,
tears from heaven
to make it flourish
but even so
just maybe
my memories
so carefully planted
might blossom fully
in the soil of loss.


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

Seize the Day, Also the Night

Night and day
seize the day, also the night —
a handful of water to grasp.
The moon shines off the mountain
snow where grizzlies look for a place
for the winter’s sleep and birth.
I just ate the year’s last tomato
in the year’s fatal whirl.
This is mid-October, apple time.
I picked them for years.
One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
It was the birth of love that year.
Sometimes we live without noticing it.
Overtrying makes it harder.
I fell down through the tree grabbing
branches to slow the fall, got the afternoon off.
We drove her aqua Ford convertible into the country
with a sack of red apples. It was a perfect
day with her sun-brown legs and we threw ourselves
into the future together seizing the day.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking
out the windows at birds, making dinner,
a life to live day after day, a life of
dogs and children and the far wide country
out by rivers, rumpled by mountains.
So far the days keep coming.
Seize the day gently as if you loved her.
~Jim Harrison “Carpe Diem” from Dead Man’s Float

There is so much to cling to, as if this were the only day, the only night, knowing it can never come again.

There is so much that has passed, like a blink, and I wonder where time disappears to, where it hides after it disappears over the horizon.

There is so much to remember and never forget.
There is so much yet to come that is unknowable.

So I seize each day, oh so gently, like a lover.

Heaven-Sent Maize

A dim veil hangs over the landscape and flood,
And the hills are all mellowed in haze,
While Fall, creeping on like a monk ‘neath his hood,
Plucks the thick-rustling wealth of the maize.

And long for this manna that springs from the sod
Shall we gratefully give Him the praise,
The source of all bounty, our Father and God,
Who sent us from heaven the maize!
~William Fosdick “The Maize”

The autumn garden can feel like a treasure hunt as we pull out and sort through the dead and dying vines and stalks: the giant zucchini growing undetected under leaves, the cucumber hanging from a cornstalk, the fat hollowed beans ready to burst with seed.

Yet the greatest Easter Egg of all hidden away in husk and cornsilk is this glass gem corn, a maize variety Dan planted in the spring. We’ve never experimented with it before and it grew listlessly, almost half-hearted, with stunted stalks and few apparent ears, pitiful next to our robust sweet corn crop.

It fooled us; this corn is pure gold in a kaleidoscope display. The ears are meager but glowing like stained glass, colorful quilt patches on a stalk. We gathered it up for “Show and Tell” at church last night, showing our Chapel friends what God can do with His unending palette of heaven-sent color and imagination. People come in all colors too, thanks to His artistry, but not nearly so varied as this kernels of colored glass.

I Am Responsible

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 it seems now I am.

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. There is nothing “pumpkin spice” and “harvest gold” about growing older.

Even so, the fruit I try to bear is still edible even if not as presentable; the vine 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.

I feel the responsibility of making all this effort count for something. I am here because I was intentionally planted, weeded, nurtured, watered and warmed. When it is my turn, the rot is cut away and thankfully forgotten.

I will still be sweet to the taste, just as I am meant to be.

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!