Only Here and Now

When I work outdoors all day, every day,
as I do now, in the fall, getting ready for winter,
tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods,

doing the last of the fall mowing,
pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…


when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…


when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—
then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind,
the curse of thought, and I pause and wonder why
I so seldom find this shining moment in the now.
~David Budbill “This Shining Moment in the Now” from While We’ve Still Got Feet.

I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work compared to my husband’s faithful daily labor in the garden and elsewhere on the farm. We both celebrate the good and wonderful gifts from the Lord, His sun, rain and soil. Although these weeks are a busy harvest time preserving as much as we can from the orchard and the garden, too much of my own waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.

I know that isn’t healthy. My body needs to lift and push and pull and dig and toss, so I head outside to do farm and garden chores. This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” — all the processing that happens mostly in my head.

I’m grateful for this tenuous balance in my life, knowing as I do that I was never cut out to be a good full time farmer. I sometimes feel that shining glow in the moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.

Thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord. I am learning to let those harvest moments shine.

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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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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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Radical Gratitude

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

We are making hay when we should be making whoopee;
we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain,
or Lazarus.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Other than a few exceptional circumstances in my life, I have always played it safe: a down-home, don’t rock the boat, work hard and live-a-quiet-life kind of person. My grandparents lived that way, my parents lived that way so I feel like it is bound in the twists and turns of my DNA.

Even so, I do know a thing or two about sulking on the edge of rage, lost in a morass of seething bitterness about the state of the world.  Yet if I were honest about it, my discontent is all about me, always about me. I want to have accomplished more to deserve taking up space in my days on earth.

But that’s a problem we all have, isn’t it? We’re never worthy of such unmerited grace as has been shown to us.  It is such a pure Gift I wait for, borne out of God’s radical sacrifice that warrants from me a life of radical gratitude, even when I choose to live it out a little quietly, making hay and raising tomatoes.

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In Long Straight Rows

It’s not spring yet, but I can’t
wait anymore. I get the hoe,
pull back the snow from the old
furrows, expose the rich dark earth.
I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,
one by one.
I see my grandmother’s hand,
doing just this, dropping peas
into gray gumbo that clings like clay.
This moist earth is rich and dark
as chocolate cake.
Her hands cradle
baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft
and hands them down to me, safe beside
the ladder leading up to darkness.
I miss
her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,
but mostly her hands.
I push a pea into the earth,
feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,
she says, in long straight rows,
dancing in light green dresses.
~Linda Hasselstrom “Planting Peas”

My earliest childhood memories include the taste and smell of fresh peas.  We lived in farming country north of Seattle where 50 years ago hundreds of acres of peas were grown for canning and freezing.  During the harvest, large pea harvesting machines would arrive for several days and travel down the road in caravans of 10 or 12, going from farm to farm to farm. They worked 24 hours a day to harvest as quickly as possible and traveled the roads late at night because they were so huge, they would take up both lanes of the country roads.  Inevitably a string of cars would form behind the pea harvesters, unable to pass, so it became a grand annual parade celebrating the humble pea.

The smell in the air when the fields were harvested was indescribable except to say it was most definitely a “green” and deliciously fresh smell.  The vines and pods would end up as silage for cattle and the peas would be separated to go to the cannery.  I figured those peas were destined for the city dwellers because in our back yard garden, we grew plenty of our own.

Pea seeds, wrinkled and frankly a little boring, could be planted even before the last frost was done with us in March, or even sometimes on Washington’s birthday in February.  The soil needed to not be frozen and not be sopping.  True, the seeds might sit still for a few weeks, unwilling to risk germination until the coast was clear and soil warmed a bit, but once they were up out of the ground, there was no stopping them.  We would generally have several rotations growing, in the hope of a 6 week pea eating season if we were fortunate, before the heat and worms claimed the vines and the pods.

We always planted telephone peas, so the support of the vines was crucial–we used hay twine run up and down between two taut smooth wires attached high and low between two wooden posts.  The vines could climb 6 feet tall or better and it was fascinating to almost literally watch the pea tendrils wind their way around the strings (and each other), erotically clinging and wrapping themselves in their enthusiasm.

Once the pods start to form,  impatience begins.  I’d be out in the garden every day copping feels, looking for that first plump pod to pick and pop open.  It never failed that I would pick too soon, and open a pod to find only weenie little peas, barely with enough substance to taste.  Within a day or two, however, the harvest would be overwhelming, so we’d have to pick early in the morning while the peas were still cool from the night dew.

Then it was shelling time, which involved several siblings on a back porch, one mother supervising from a distance to make sure there weren’t too many peas being pelted in pique at an annoying little brother, and lots of bowls to catch the peas and the pods.  A big paper sack of intact pods would yield only a few cups of peas, so this was great labor for small yield.   Opening a pod of peas is extremely satisfying though;  there is a tiny audible “pop” when the pod is pressed at the bottom, and then as your thumb runs down the inner seam of the pod loosening all the peas, they make a dozen little “pings” in the bowl when they fall.  A symphony of pea shelling often accompanied by the Beach Boys and the Beatles.

Once the weather got hot, the pea worms would be at work in the pods, so then one encountered wiggly white larvae with little black heads and their webs inside the pods.  We actually had a “Wormie” song we sung when we found one, even in the 60’s recognizing that our organic garden meant sharing the harvest with crawling protein critters. The peas would be bored through, like a hollowed out jack o’lantern, so those got dumped in the discard bowl.

The dull green coat of the raw pea turns bright green during the several minutes of blanching in boiling water, then they are plunged into ice water until cool and packed in ziplock bags.  Those peas are welcomed to the table during the other 11 months out of the year, sometimes mixed with carrots, sometimes with mushrooms, sometimes chased with a little fresh garlic.  They are simply the most lovely food there is other than chocolate.

From an undistinguished pea seed to intricate vines and coiling tendrils–from pregnant pods bursting at the seams to a bounty at meals: the humble pea does indeed deserve a grand parade in the middle of the night and the close attention of only the best grandmas.

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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 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.

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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

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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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