After the keen still days of September, the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth… The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, emerald and topaz and garnet. Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her… In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible. ~Elizabeth George Speare from The Witch of Blackbird Pond
On this early morning gray clouds lie heavy and unrelenting hovering low over the eastern hills, when a moment’s light snuck out from under the covers throwing back the blankets to glow golden over the mountain.
Only a minute of unexpected light underneath the gray gone in a heartbeat (as are we) yet O! the Glory when we too are luminous.
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My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old farm house on that land where several generations of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung
their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you know when your family has lived close to the earth: things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have
enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.
I may walk the streets of this century and make my living in an office but my blood is old farming blood and my true self is underground like a potato.
I have taken root in my grandfather’s fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees. ~Faith Shearin from “Fields”
It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.
A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.
My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!
Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme, Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine, Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain, For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well, For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel, There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee, There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me, Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again, Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock, I wish her safe landing, without any shock, If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea, I will always remember, your kindness to me, Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass, Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass, Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain For we may or might never, all meet here again
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There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.
Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.
I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.
But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most: -the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked -the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains -the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us
Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.
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Mown meadows skirt the standing wheat; I linger, for the hay is sweet, New-cut and curing in the sun. Like furrows, straight, the windrows run, Fallen, gallant ranks that tossed and bent When, yesterday, the west wind went A-rioting through grass and grain. To-day no least breath stirs the plain; Only the hot air, quivering, yields Illusive motion to the fields Where not the slenderest tassel swings. Across the wheat flash sky-blue wings; A goldfinch dangles from a tall, Full-flowered yellow mullein; all The world seems turning blue and gold. Unstartled, since, even from of old, Beauty has brought keen sense of her, I feel the withering grasses stir; Along the edges of the wheat, I hear the rustle of her feet: And yet I know the whole sea lies, And half the earth, between our eyes. ~Sophie Jewett “In Harvest”
Autumn harvest happens outside of me despite sudden coolness of the air, thanks to showers that green the fields for one more month of grazing, midst the smell of the dying of vines and roots.
Autumn harvest is happening inside of me as I slow down my walk, curl up within the lengthening nights, the color of my thoughts turning to bronze and gold and red
before I let go before I let go
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This upstart thistle Is young and touchy; it is All barb and bristle,
Threatening to wield Its green, jagged armament Against the whole field.
Butterflies will dare Nonetheless to lay their eggs In that angle where
The leaf meets the stem, So that ants or browsing cows Cannot trouble them.
Summer will grow old As will the thistle, letting A clenched bloom unfold
To which the small hum Of bee wings and the flash of Goldfinch wings will come,
Till its purple crown Blanches, and the breezes strew The whole field with down. ~Richard Wilbur “A Pasture Poem” from Anterooms
Not unlike the thistles that dot our pastures, I can have a tendency to be a bristly, barbed and sharp – some is simply my nature, but also long years of relentless training to become tough and impenetrable. Perhaps it represents my need for self-protection, but like the thistle, though having spiky thorns may keep me from being “eaten”, it doesn’t deter the gentle approach of butterfly or bee.
As a result, I have been softened over time (in more ways than one!) by forces outside of myself – a ripening that means I am less threat and more welcoming. My unfolding into fluffy blossom became my way of enveloping myself around my world as grace enveloped me.
With the breezes, the softest of thistle down spreads afar rather than standing stock-still in self-defense. I find in my seventh decade, I’m actually meant to fly, settling into nooks and crannies I never could have dreamed while barbed and spiky.
That is how grace and redemption works on thistles and bristly people: from sharp edges to delicate downiness.
We are all in need of such transformation.
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In the waning evening light, I stood in the barnyard holding the hose to fill the water trough, gazing across a sunset-lit field of grass and weeds, puzzling over an intermittent flash and glimmer thirty yards away.
Trough filled, I set out to find what glinted and blinked in the breeze, assuming an errant piece of foil or lost piece of jewelry to be reclaimed, somehow fallen mysteriously from the sky into the middle of a horse pasture.
As I moved closer, my body blocked the sun’s rays so the glistening ceased. I moved aside, hoping to allow the fading light to re-ignite the spark that drew me there.
Doused by the advancing shadow of sunset, it vanished as I neared the spot. Looking closely, I found only a broad blade of grass shimmering with a silvery trail left behind by a slug tail.
Mere mucus slime scintillating in the setting sun! A complex mix of proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans, glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, antimicrobial peptides, and metal ions of zinc, iron, copper and manganese.
Precious trace metals flashing in the grass, masquerading as jewels.
What a fool to think only something man-made could lure me there. Instead, this miracle of mucus trailing from a lowly slug proved a far greater treasure is always hiding in the grass, if I only bother to look.
Girls are like slugs—they probably serve some purpose, but it’s hard to imagine what. ― Bill Watterson, in Calvin and Hobbes
From David Attenborough’s Life on our Planet (a truly remarkable video of how slug mucus becomes integral in their reproductive cycle)
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There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparell’d in celestial light, The glory of a dream.
The rainbow comes and goes, And lovely is the rose; The moon doth with delight Look round her when the heavens are bare; Waters on a starry night Are beautiful and fair; The sunshine is a glorious birth; But yet I know, where’er I go, That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.
Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind. ~William Wordsworth from Intimations of Immortality
I woke immersed in sadness; it doesn’t happen often. Whether a dream surrounded me in sorrow, or perhaps the weight of grayness of the morning, I couldn’t tell.
I felt burdened and weepy, wondering where hope had fled just overnight.
Even though I know true glory lies beyond this soil, I still look for it here, seeking encouragement in midst of trouble. I set out to find light which clothes the ordinary, becoming resplendent and shimmering from celestial illumination.
Though I may sometimes grieve for what is lost, there is enough, there is always enough each morning to remind me God’s gift of grace and strength transforms this day and every day.
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The air was soft, the ground still cold. In the dull pasture where I strolled Was something I could not believe. Dead grass appeared to slide and heave, Though still too frozen-flat to stir, And rocks to twitch and all to blur. What was this rippling of the land? Was matter getting out of hand And making free with natural law, I stopped and blinked, and then I saw A fact as eerie as a dream. There was a subtle flood of steam Moving upon the face of things. It came from standing pools and springs And what of snow was still around; It came of winter’s giving ground So that the freeze was coming out, As when a set mind, blessed by doubt, Relaxes into mother-wit. Flowers, I said, will come of it. ~Richard Wilbur “April 5, 1974”
As the ground softens with the warming sun, so do I. Winter freeze was comforting as nothing appeared to change, day after day.
Neither did I, staying stolid and fixed and frozen.
But now the fixed is flexing its muscles, steaming in its labor, greening and growing transformed.
The mares go down for their evening feed into the meadow grass. Two pine trees sway the invisible wind some sway, some don’t sway. The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight For just a minute or so. The mares have their heads on the ground, the trees have their heads on the blue sky. Two ravens circle and twist. On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer. ~Charles Wright “Miles Away”
It isn’t yet time to turn the Haflingers out on pasture. The fields still squish from our heavy winter rains when I check the grass growth and test how firm the ground feels.
But spring is in the air, with pollens flying from the trees and the faint scent of plum and cherry blossoms wafting across the barn yard. The Haflingers know there are green blades rising out there.
There is a waning pile of hay bales in the barn being carefully measured against the calendar. We need to make it last until the fields are sufficiently recovered, dried out and growing well before the horses can be set free from their confinement back on the green.
Haflingers don’t care much about the calendar. They know what they smell and they know what they see and they know what they want.
One early spring some years ago, as I opened the gate to a paddock of Haflinger mares to take them one by one back to the barn, their usual good manners abandoned them. Two escaped before I could shut the gate, the siren call of the green carrying them away like the wind, their tails high and their manes flying. There is nothing quite as helpless as watching escaped horses running away as fast as their legs can carry them.
They found the nearest patch of green and stopped abruptly, trying to eat whatever the meager ground would offer up. I approached, quietly talking to them, trying to reassure them that, indeed, spring is at hand and soon they will be able to eat their fill of grass. Understandably suspicious of my motives, they leaped back into escape mode, running this time for the pasture across the road.
We live on a road that is traveled by too many fast moving cars and trucks and our farm on a hill is hampered by visibility issues –my greatest fear is one of our horses on the road would cause an accident simply because there would be no time for a driver to react after cresting a hill at 50 mph and finding a horse a mere twenty yards away.
I yelled and magically the mares turned, veering back from the road. As I marveled at my ability to verbally redirect them from dashing into potential disaster, they were heading back to the barn on their own, where their next most attractive feature on the farm dwelled: our stallion. He was calling them, knowing things were amiss, and they responded, turning away from the green to respond to the call of the heart.
So that was where I was able to nab them in their distracted posing for the guy in their lives. Guys can do that to a gal. You can end up completely abandoning thoughts of running away with the wind when the right guy calls your name.
Lured from the green grassy borders of heaven, we respond to the call of the heart from the world.
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.