I’ve always wondered if there was a name for the small round globe that is part of the whole aggregate berry like a thimbleberry, raspberry or blackberry – they are so smooth and perfectly formed, each a uniquely homogenous part of the whole. Yet if separated and by itself, nearly invisible.
So I found out each individual is called a drupe, or more familiar and lovingly, a drupelet. Despite such a plain name, each little drupelet bears its own beauty, and a special flavor to be savored and unforgotten, only made sweeter by being part of the whole – – even sweeter when redeemed and consumed.
Kind of like us, willing to die for just such a taste of eternity.
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds. It slips in clumps off the barn roof, wingless angels dropped by parachute. Inside, I hear the horses knocking aimlessly in their warm brown lockup, testing the four known sides of the box as the soul must, confined under the breastbone. Horses blowing their noses, coming awake, shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats. They do not know what has fallen out of the sky, colder than apple bloom, since last night’s hay and oats. They do not know how satisfactory they look, set loose in the April sun, nor what handsprings are turned under my ribs with winter gone. ~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990
This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass growing out of control and needs mowing.
It is also confusing to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.
It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from the safety of their confinement, for good reason.
Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.
Surprisingly, the horses leave the sun and the grass and the relative freedom and come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.
I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun with the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.
So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.
All day he’s shoveled green pine sawdust out of the trailer truck into the chute. From time to time he’s clambered down to even the pile. Now his hair is frosted with sawdust. Little rivers of sawdust pour out of his boots.
I hope in the afterlife there’s none of this stuff he says, stripping nude in the late September sun while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks. I hope there’s no bedding, no stalls, no barn
no more repairs to the paddock gate the horses burst through when snow avalanches off the roof. Although the old broodmare, our first foal, is his, horses, he’s fond of saying, make divorces. Fifty years married, he’s safely facetious.
No garden pump that’s airbound, no window a grouse flies into and shatters, no ancient tractor’s intractable problem with carburetor ignition or piston, no mowers and no chain saws that refuse to start, or start, misfire and quit...
…then he says let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset and off we go, a couple of aging fools.
I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools. ~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”
When I pull open the barn doors every morning and close them again each evening, as our grandparents did one hundred years ago, six rumbling voices rise in greeting. We exchange scents, nuzzle each others’ ears, rumble grumble back a response.
We do our chores faithfully as our grandparents once did– draw fresh water into buckets, wheel away the pungent mess underfoot, release an armful of summer from the bale, reach under heavy manes to stroke silken necks.
We don’t depend on our horses’ strength and willingness to don harness to carry us to town or move the logs or till the soil as our grandparents did.
Instead, these soft eyed souls, born on this farm over two long decades ago, are simply grateful for our constancy morning and night to serve their needs until the day comes they need no more.
And we depend on them to depend on us to be there to open and close the doors; their low whispering welcome gives voice to the blessings of living on a farm ripe with rhythms and seasons, sunrises and sunsets that keep coming, as if yesterday, today and tomorrow are just like one hundred years ago.
We’ve exhausted the strawberries with only a few “everbearing” continuing to produce through the remaining hot days of summer. The raspberries too are drying up with leaves curling. The mountain huckleberries have had their hey-day. The blueberries continue strong and juicy.
And now blackberries, free for the picking, hang in mouth-watering clusters from every fence line, long roads and ditches, just begging to be eaten. Blackberry vines seem like trouble 90% of the year–growing where they are not welcome; their thorns reach out to grab passersby without discriminating between human, dog or horse. But for about 3 weeks in August, they yield black gold–bursting unimaginably sweet fruit that is worth the hassle borne the rest of the weeks of the year.
Thorns are indeed part of our everyday life. They stand in front of much that is sweet and good and precious to us. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry, make us beg for mercy. In fact, man has died by thorns and been killed for the sweetness.
Yet thorns did not stop salvation, did not stop goodness, did not stop the promise of redemption to come. We don’t even need to wait to be fed and no one need die: such a gift as this was dropped from heaven itself.
Let the end of all bathtubs be this putting out to pasture of four Victorian bowlegs anchored in grasses.
Let all longnecked browsers come drink from the shallows while faucets grow rusty and porcelain yellows.
Where once our nude forebears soaped up in this vessel come, cows, and come, horses.
Bring burdock and thistle, come slaver the scum of timothy and clover on the cast-iron lip that our grandsires climbed over
and let there be always green water for sipping that muzzles may enter thoughtful and rise dripping. ~Maxine Kumin “Watering Trough”
Farmers became the original recyclers before it was a word or an expectation — there isn’t anything that can’t be used twice or thrice for whatever is needed, wherever and whenever, especially far from the nearest retail outlet or farm supply store.
The water troughs on the farm where I grew up were cast-off four-legged bath tubs hauled home from the dump, exactly like the old tub I bathed in when staying overnight at my grandma’s farm house. She needed her tub to stay put right in the bathroom, never considering an upgrade and remodel; she would never offer it up to her cows.
But there were people who could afford to install showers and molded tubs so out their tubs went to find new life and purpose on farms like ours.
We kept goldfish in our bathtub water trough, to keep the algae at bay and for the amusement of the farm cats. The horses and cows would stand drowsily by the tub, their muzzles dripping, mesmerized by flashes of orange circling the plugged drain.
I often wondered what they thought of sharing their drinking water with fish, but I suspect they had more weighty things to ponder: where the next lush patch of grass might be, how to reach that belly itch, finding the best shade with fewest flies to take that afternoon nap.
When it comes to sharing a tub, maybe farm animals aren’t that different from their farmer keepers after all: they both stand dripping and thoughtful alongside the tub, wondering about the next thing to be done, which may well be a well-earned rest.
They put up hay loose there, the old way, forking it into the loft from the wagon rack while the sweaty horses snorted and switched off flies and the littlest kids were commanded to trample it flat in between loads until the entire bay was alight with its radiant sun-dried manna…. It was paradise up there with dusty sun motes you could write your name in as they skirled and drifted down. There were ropes we swung on and dropped from and shinnied up and the smell of the place was heaven, hurling me back to some unknown plateau, tears standing up in my eyes and an ancient hunger in my throat, a hunger…. ~Maxine Kumin from “Hay”
My parents knew that ancient hunger, both born on farms with teams of horses that brought in hay the old way while the children tramped and stamped the loose piles firm.
I’ve known that ancient hunger, having grown up on a farm that brought in to the barn loose hay the old way by tractor and wagon, having danced in the dusty sun motes on the top of the hay on a bright afternoon, the light cut in stripes over the sweet smelling grass.
We’ve made sure our three children knew that ancient hunger, born to a farm that brought in hay bales stacked to the rafters through community effort, those same dusty sun motes swirling about their heads as they learned their jobs, from bale rolling to lifting to tossing and stacking.
And now the next generation of neighborhood children arrive with shouts on haying days to clamor up and down the bale mountains, answering to the same hunger, blowing the same dusty snot and thrilling to the adventure of tractors, wagons and trucks, celebrating the gathering in of sun-dried manna together.
Surely this is what heaven will be like: we are all together, dancing in the light of the sun motes, our hunger filled to the brim by manna provided from above.
“A devout but highly imaginative Jesuit,”
Untermeyer says in my yellowed
college omnibus of modern poets,
perhaps intending an oxymoron, but is it? Shook foil, sharp rivers start to flow. Landscape plotted and pieced, gray-blue, snow-pocked
begins to show its margins. Speeding back
down the interstate into my own hills
I see them fickle, freckled, mounded fully
and softened by millennia into pillows.
The priest’s sprung metronome tick-tocks,
repeating how old winter is. It asks
each mile, snow fog battening the valleys, what is all this juice and all this joy?
~Maxine Kumin “Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins”
These summer mornings I awake in a Hopkins landscape~
the priest who died too young at 44
would have created even more beauty
if he had lived twice as long,
combining words in suspended rhythm,
recreating the world outside our windows
entirely in our minds.
What is this joy I feel when witnessing
what must have moved him to write?
What could be more powerful
than words that awaken in us dawn’s redeeming light?
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
…he says let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset and off we go, a couple of aging fools.
I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools.
~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”
When I pull open the barn doors
and close them again each evening,
as our grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears,
rumble grumble back a response.
We do our chores faithfully
as our grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.
We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandparents did.
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm
two long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for our constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.
And we depend on them
to depend on us
to be there
to open and close the doors;
their low whispering welcome
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
sunrises and sunsets,
as if yesterday, today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.
On days when there was a break in the fighting, the two of us drank hot tea.
We were rattled by the same passions.
Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May
over which women and horses wander. ~Isaac Babel “The Story of a Horse”
War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,
we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.
Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel
as a meadow over which women and horses wander. ~Maxine Kumin “Women and Horses”
I believe in the gift of the horse, which is magic,
their deep fear-snorts in play when the wind comes up,
and the ballet of nip and jostle, plunge and crow hop.
I trust them to run from me, necks arched in a full swan’s S, tails cocked up over their backs like plumes on a Cavalier’s hat. I trust them to gallop back, skid to a stop, their nostrils
level with my mouth, asking for my human breath that they may test its intent, taste the lure of it. I believe in myself as their sanctuary and in the earth with its summer plumes of carrots,
its clamber of peas, beans, masses of tendrils as mine. ~Maxine Kumin from “Credo”
So this is a picture of peacefulness,
the carelessness of a summer afternoon on horseback,
wandering along a hilltop
a gallop through a meadow,
a sharing of breath with an animal that chooses,
instead of running far away,
to circle around
and come back
again and yet again.
We try to live gracefully
and at peace with our imagined deaths but in truth we go forward
stumbling, afraid of the dark,
of the cold, and of the great overwhelming
loneliness of being last. ~Maxine Kumin from “Death, Etc.”
she passed away at age 88 in February 2014