Everything in the garden is dead, killed by a sudden hard
freeze, the beans, the tomatoes, fruit still clinging to the
branches. It’s all heaped up ready to go to the compost
pile: rhubarb leaves, nasturtiums, pea vines, even the
geraniums. It’s too bad. The garden was so beautiful,
green and fresh, but then we were all beautiful once.
Everything dies, we understand. But the mind of the
observer, which cannot imagine not imagining, goes on.
The dynasties are cut down like the generations of grass,
the bodies blacken and turn into coal. The waters rise and
cover the earth and the mind broods on the face of the
deep, and learns nothing.
~Louis Jenkins, “Freeze” from Where Your House is Near: New and Selected Poems
This week was our first hard freeze of autumn, following on the heels of the worst flooding in a half century in our county. The land and all that grows here experienced a one-two punch – when the waters pulled back into the streams and rivers, what was left behind looked frozen, soaked and miserable. The people whose homes were devastated are so much more than miserable; they are mudding out by removing everything down to the studs to try to begin again. With hundreds of volunteers and disaster teams helping, there are piles of kitchen appliances, dry wall, carpet and every household item along the main streets of nearby towns, waiting to be hauled off.
Surveying our dying garden is small potatoes in comparison to a flooded town only a few miles away. The memories of how beautiful our garden was a 2-3 months ago is nothing in contrast to the families who lost their stored heirlooms and cherished memories to the muck and mire of deep waters.
But we are a resilient community. We are people of persistence and creativity and there will eventually be beauty again here. Driving on a newly opened road beside the still-surging river where a few days ago several feet of water covered a cornfield, I spotted a trumpeter swan, standing in glorious spotless white, picking her way through the mud-stained cornstalks, hoping to find something of value left behind in the devastation.
There is still hope; it did not wash away. We only need to use our imagination to find it.
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That country where it is always turning late in the year.
That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist;
where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger,
and midnights stay.
That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun.
That country whose people are autumn people,
thinking only autumn thoughts.
Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.
~Ray Bradbury from The October Country
Just as a painter needs light
in order to put the finishing touches to his picture,
so I need an inner light,
which I feel I never have enough of in the autumn.
A few days of heavy rain in November transforms our farm to mush. Puddles are everywhere, the ground is saturated and mushrooms are sprouting in the most unlikely places. It’s ideal weather for the trumpeter swans and snow geese who glean in the nearby harvested cornfields, filling up on dropped corn kernels. They fly overhead to head out to the fields, noisily honking, their wings swooshing the air as they pass over.
The wet weather means chores are more challenging on our farm. Some of the stalls in the barn have started to get moist from the rising ground water, so the Haflingers appreciate diving into fresh shavings for a good roll and shake. I can appreciate the relief they feel as I like getting back to solid footing too at the end of the day. Much of my day also seems to be spent navigating slippery slopes and muddy terrain, both real and figurative.
It isn’t always apparent what ground is treacherous from appearance alone. The grassy slope heading down to the barn from the house looks pretty benign until I start navigating in a driving rainstorm in the dark, and suddenly the turf becomes a skating rink and I’m finding I’m picking my way carefully with a flashlight. The path I seek is to find the patches of moss, which happily soak up the water like a sponge carpet-like, so not slick to walk on. Even if moss ordinarily is not a welcome addition to lawn or pasture–I appreciate it this time of year.
Another challenge is pushing a wheelbarrow with two 60 pound bales of hay back up that slope to the stalls for the day’s feeding. There is no traction underneath to help my feet stick to the ground for the push uphill. I can feel particularly foolish at this futile effort–my feet sometimes slide out beneath me, landing me on my knees down on the ground, soaked and humiliated, and the wheelbarrow goes skidding right back down to the barn door where it started.
Trusting the footing underneath my feet is crucial day to day. If I am to get work done most efficiently and make progress, I must have solid ground to tread. But the stuff of real life, like our farm’s ground, doesn’t come made to order that way. Some days are slick and treacherous, unpredictable and ready to throw me to my knees, while other days are simple, easy, and smooth sailing. Waking in the morning, I cannot know what I will face that day–whether I need my highest hip boots to wade through the muck or whether I can dash about in comfy house slippers. My attitude has something to do with it too–sometimes my “internal” footing is loose and slippery, tripping up those around me as well as myself. That is when I need most to plant myself in the solid foundation that I know will support me during those treacherous times. I need my faith, my need to forgive and experience forgiveness, my family holding me as I fall, and to help pick them up when they are down. Without those footings every day, I’m nothing more than a muddy soiled mess lying face down on the ground wondering if I’ll ever walk again.
There is good reason I end up on my knees at times. It is the best reminder of where I would be full time if it were not for stronger Hands that lift me up, clean me up and guide my footsteps all my days.
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It was in the Spring
The Passover had come.
There was feasting in the streets and joy.
But an awful thing
Happened in the Spring –
Men who knew not what they did
Killed Mary’s Boy.
He was Mary’s Son,
And the Son of God was He –
Sent to bring the whole world joy.
There were some who could not hear,
And some were filled with fear –
So they built a cross
For Mary’s Boy
~Langston Hughes “The Ballad of Mary’s Boy” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
We have had several days of southerly winds trying to break us loose from the vise grip of a tired and dying winter. Yet we are held tightly by our frailties.
Despite the warming trend, I find my strength still waning at the end of a long day. I slipped in the mud trying to gain traction unloading a couple hundred pounds of manure from the wheelbarrow. Landing on my backside, my pants muddied thoroughly, I can choose to laugh or cry.
The baptism of mud is a sacrament of the present moment, reminding me of my need for cleansing grace. So I both laugh and cry.
God is revealed in the awful and glorious moments of my being covered in the soil of earth and the waste of its creatures. He knows I need reminding that I too am dust and to dust shall return.
He knows I am too often wasteful and a failed steward,
so need reminding by landing me in the middle of it.
He knows I need to laugh at myself,
so lands me right on my backside.
He knows I need to cry,
so allows me to feel sore and sorrow.
To be known for who I am
by a God who laughs with me, weeps for me
and groans with the pain I have caused;
I will know
no greater love.
God, as Mary’s boy, conquered the shroud and the rolled away stone,
ending my living for myself, only to die,
and began my dying to self, in order to live.
and that has made all the difference.
When Jesus wept, the falling tear
In mercy flowed beyond all bound.
When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
Seized all the guilty world around.
My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.
It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.
My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,
then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.
His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming
and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words
Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.
I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.
My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.
We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.
And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.
You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.
The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.
~Tom Hennen, “Early Spring in the Field” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems.
I shouldn’t be turning on the heat in the house on a late May morning but there is still an undeniable chill, even at this point in spring. The flowers outside are lush, but we’re still two or three weeks behind our usual bloom schedule.
We’re all impatient to be done with the coldness of a winter that has driven a wedge between people and politics, families and friends, well and ill.
We seek warmth and renewal and hugs and handshakes.
Instead we are asked for patience, to continue to practice the art of waiting for a safe reentry to spring and summer. No one wants to be tossed brutally back to the winter we just crawled away from.
May we emerge together, muddied but whole, ready to face whatever comes next.
The neighbor’s horses idle
under the roof
of their three-sided shelter,
looking out at the rain.
one or another
will fade into the shadows
in the corner, maybe
to eat, or drink.
Still, the others stand,
blowing out their warm
breaths. Rain rattles
on the metal roof.
Their hoof prints
in the corral
open gray eyes to the sky,
and wink each time
another drop falls in.
The September rains have returned and will stay awhile. We, especially the horses, sigh with relief, as flies no longer crawl over their faces all day seeking a watery eye to drink from. With no flies around, there are also no longer birds tickling pony backs looking for a meal.
Our Haflingers prefer to graze under open gray skies not bothering to seek cover during the day; their mountain coats provide adequate insulation in a rain squall. Darkness descends earlier and earlier so I go out in the evening to find them standing waiting at the gate, ready for an invitation to come into the barn.
Their eyes are heavy, blinking with sleep; outside their muddy hoofprints fill with rain overnight.
It is a peaceful time for us no-longer-young ponies and farmers. We wink and nod together, ready for rain, ready for the night.
In Summer, in a burst of summertime
Following falls and falls of rain,
When the air was sweet-and-sour of the flown fineflower of
Those goldnails and their gaylinks that hang along a lime;
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “Cheery Beggar”
Open the window, and let the air
Freshly blow upon face and hair,
And fill the room, as it fills the night,
With the breath of the rain’s sweet might.
Nought will I have, not a window-pane,
‘Twixt me and the air and the great good rain,
Which ever shall sing me sharp lullabies;
And God’s own darkness shall close mine eyes;
And I will sleep, with all things blest,
In the pure earth-shadow of natural rest.
~James Henry Leigh Hunt from “A Night-Rain in Summer”
Sweet and sour extends far beyond a Chinese menu;
it is the daily air I breathe.
I am but a cheery beggar in this summer world,
hanging tight to the sweetness of each glorious moment
yet knowing it cannot last:
the startling twilight gold of a July rain,
the intense green of thirsty fields,
a rainbow suspended in misty haze,
the clouds racing to win the day’s finish line.
But as beggars aren’t choosers,
sweet rain ruins hay harvest
and berries turn to mold on the vine.
The sky stooping to kiss the earth
may bring mud and flood.
I breathe deeply now of petrichor:
the scent of raindrops falling on dry land
as if I could wear it like perfume
on those sour days of drought.
Now we must look about us. Near at hand
cloud like a fist has closed on all the hills
and by this meager daylight on our land
we see just this, and this, and not beyond.
The sodden trees emerge and stand revealed;
we must acknowledge each one as it is,
stripped and stark, its basic structure clear,
the last leaves fallen, summer’s season dead.
And day on day the soft mist softly falls
as the long rain drives across the field
and all the while what we had seen beyond
is lost and shut as if it never were.
And we look closely at each other now,
the bleak roots, black grass, and the muddy road,
the litter that we never cleared away,
the broken flowers from a summer’s day –
Oh, stark and clearly we must look within
to weigh at last our purity and sin.
Oh, lovely hills in sunlight far away,
Oh, curving valley where the river sings!
Remembering, we live this discipline,
and hope still beats about us with strong wings.
~Jane Tyson Clement “November Rain” from No One Can Stem The Tide.
Stripped and stark — if fall and winter were the ending of all things, there would be no hope.
There would be no sun shining on the hills far beyond me to reflect back what is coming, and what has been.
When I am down to the bare and broken essentials — so bleak and muddy and the too-early dark — I seek the strength of the wings whooshing through air above me, alive, vibrant, purposeful.
I know this resting pause is not the end. Never has been. Never will be.
~Richard Wilbur from “Year’s End”
The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sear.
Heaped in the hollows of the grove, the autumn leaves lie dead;
They rustle to the eddying gust, and to the rabbit’s tread.
The robin and the wren are flown, and from the shrubs the jay,
And from the wood-top calls the crow through all the gloomy day.
~William Cullen Bryant from “The Death of the Flowers”
These dark, icy, and sodden days are scarcely recalled while basking in the lightness of June when the sun shines 19 hours a day.
There is no way to cope with such overwhelming darkness except by adding in a few minutes more a day over six months, otherwise the shock of leaving behind the light would be too great. Howling wind knocks and batters, freezing rain beats mercilessly at the window panes to coat everything with a 1/4 inch of ice, puddles stand deeper than they appear, mud sucks off boots, leaves are thoroughly shaken from embarrassed branches.
We have no remnant of summer civility and frivolity left; we must adapt or cry trying, only adding to a pervasive sogginess.
Nevertheless, these melancholy days have their usefulness — there are times of joyful respite from frenetic activity while reading, snuggled deep under quilts, safe and warm. Without such stark contrast, the light and bright time of year would become merely routine, yet just another sunny day.
That never happens here in the Pacific northwest.
We celebrate the emerging light with real thanksgiving and acknowledge this encompassing darkness makes our gratitude more genuine.
We are privileged to live within such a paradox: there is, after all, a certain gladness in our sadness.
This has been a wild weather month on the outside:
heavy winds at times, damaging hale storms, snowfall covering the foothills, sweaty sunny middays, torrential unpredictable showers, ankle-deep mud.
And inside my cranium:
words that flew out too quickly, anxiety mixed with a hint of anger, too easy tears, searing frustration, feeling immobilized by the daily muck and mire.
The unpredictable month of May needs no explanation for acting like October, December and August within a span of a few hours. I am not so easily forgiven or unburdened. I end up lying awake at night with regrets, composing apologies, and wanting to hide under a rock until the storm blows over.
But in the midst of all the extremes, while the storm is raging, a miracle takes place:
it can only happen when brilliant light exposes weeping from heavy laid clouds, like the rainbow that dropped from heaven last week to touch the earth right in our backyard, only a few feet from our barn.
God cries too. His wept tears have lit up the sky in a promise of forgiveness.
He assures us: this storm too will pass.
He assures us because He knows we need it.