From the place where we are right Flowers will never grow In the spring.
The place where we are right Is hard and trampled Like a yard.
But doubts and loves Dig up the world Like a mole, a plow. And a whisper will be heard in the place Where the ruined House once stood. ~Yehuda Amichai “The Place Where We Are RIght” from A Touch of Grace
Sometimes I am so certain I am right, remaining firm in my convictions no matter what. Yet when there is no movement, the ground beneath my feet hardens with my stubborn trampling. Nothing new can grow without my crushing it underfoot; any possibility becomes impossible.
Sometimes I harbor doubts and uncertainties, digging and churning up the ground upon which I stand. When things are turned over, again and again, new weeds and seeds will take root. Sorting them out becomes my challenge, determining what to nurture and what is worthless.
As I look ahead to this coming week, treading the familiar ground of the events of Holy Week, I cannot help but question and wonder: how can this impossible Love save those, who like me, feel dry and hard and devoid of possibility or who unwittingly allow weeds to proliferate?
Then I hear it, like a whisper. Yes, it is true. Loved despite sometimes being hard ground, or growing weeds or lying fallow as a rocky path.
I too will rise again from the ruins. I too will arise.
When the plowblade struck An old stump hiding under The soil like a beggar’s Rotten tooth, they swarmed up & Mister Jackson left the plow Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon. The horse was midnight Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s Pocketwatch. He shivered, but not The way women shook their heads Before mirrors at the five & dime—a deeper connection To the low field’s evening star. He stood there, in tracechains, Lathered in froth, just Stopped by a great, goofy Calmness. He whinnied Once, & then the whole Beautiful, blue-black sky Fell on his back. ~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome
Death by a thousand stings.
This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.
The farmer saves himself.
The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.
How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?
A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:
-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis -we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer -we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose -we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.
Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.
He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.
My father did field work with horses when he was young and honestly — he hated every moment of it. He badly wanted a tractor though his father could never afford one, so the draft horses were their meal ticket, swerving around the large stumps on a farm that would never produce enough to sustain the family.
My father wanted more when he grew up. For him, it wasn’t about the rhythms of the seasons or his relationship with the horses, or the romance of the soil turning over to be planted. It was hard sweaty frustrating often futile work.
He didn’t welcome my interest in horses but he still supported me. He loaned me the seed money that got us started with a small breeding herd of Haflinger horses and he had advice for us when we asked but not unless we asked. He built stalls in our barn and fashioned hefty metal stall closures and helped in whatever way he could with the handy skills he had learned growing up on a farm that never could succeed.
As a child, I had stumbled after my dad in the figurative furrows he plowed ahead of me, always leading me to pursue something better. He reminded me regularly that I could do whatever I set my mind to, like setting the wing of the plow and eyeing the straight line, mapping the course ahead. And I did, largely because of his encouragement during the 60’s when most girls didn’t hear that from their daddies. Instead it was usually angry bored moms who became the voices who pushed their daughters to dig deeper and plow stronger. Not my mom.
My dad’s encouragemnt still echoes in my mind. He gave me momentum in the furrow. He is still there behind me, ready to steady me when I stumble.
I’m glad he led me down his plow line, and all these years later, he still follows me and isn’t going away.
O wet red swathe of earth laid bare, O truth, O strength, O gleaming share, O patient eyes that watch the goal, O ploughman of the sinner’s soul. O Jesus, drive the coulter deep To plough my living man from sleep…
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn, And Thou wilt bring the young green corn, And when the field is fresh and fair Thy blessed feet shall glitter there, And we will walk the weeded field, And tell the golden harvest’s yield, The corn that makes the holy bread By which the soul of man is fed, The holy bread, the food unpriced, Thy everlasting mercy, Christ. ~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy
As my farmer husband applies our rich composted manure pile to the spring garden, turning over the soil, thousands of newly exposed red wiggler worms immediately dive for cover. Within seconds, the naked little creatures …worm their way back into the security of warm dirt, having been rudely interrupted from their routine. Gracious to a fault, they tolerate being rolled and raked and lifted and turned upside down, waving their little bodies expectantly in the cool air before slipping back down into the dark. There they will continue their work of digesting and aerating the tired soil of the garden, reproducing in their unique hermaphroditic way, leaving voluminous castings behind to further feed the seedlings to be planted.
Worms are unjustly denigrated by humans primarily because we don’t like to be surprised by them. We don’t like to see one in our food, (especially only part of one) and are particularly distressed to see them after we’ve digested our food. Once we get past that bit of squeamishness, we can greatly appreciate their role as the ultimate recyclers, leaving the earth a lot better off once they are finished with their work.
We humans actually suffer by comparison — to be called “a worm” is really not so bad but the worm might not think a comparison to humans is a great compliment.
My heart land is plowed, yielding to the plowshare digging deep with the pull of the harness, the steady teamster centers the coulter.
The furrow should be straight and narrow. I am tread upon yet still will bloom; I forgive the One who turns my world upside down.
The plowing under brings freshness to the surface, a new face upturns to the cleansing dew, as knots of worms stay busy making fertile our simple dust.
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing And the sky is clear and red, When the summer’s ceased its gleaming When the corn is past its prime, When adventure’s lost its meaning – I’ll be homeward bound in time
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
If you find it’s me you’re missing If you’re hoping I’ll return, To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening, And in the road I’ll stop and turn Then the wind will set me racing As my journey nears its end And the path I’ll be retracing When I’m homeward bound again
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing I’ll be homeward bound again. ~Marta Keen “Homeward Bound”
In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition: “I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”
This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.
He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:
“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa. It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget.
So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation. In training – close order drill- etc. there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed. The command is INSPECTION – ARMS. On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle. It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened. Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.
Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting. You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading. When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles.
A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”
My father did return home to my mother after almost three years of separation. He was “bound to the pasture and chained to the plow” as he resumed his love of farming the land and teaching others how it is done.
He never forgot those who died, making it possible for him to return home. I won’t forget either.
I am old enough to have parents who grew up on farms worked by horses, one raising wheat and lentils in the Palouse country of eastern Washington and the other logging in the woodlands of Fidalgo Island of western Washington. The horses were crucial to my grandparents’ success in caring for and tilling the land, seeding and harvesting the crops and bringing supplies from town miles away. Theirs was a hardscrabble life in the early 20th century with few conveniences. Work was year round from dawn to dusk; caring for the animals came before any human comforts. Once night fell, work ceased and sleep was welcome respite for man and beast.
In the rural countryside where we live now, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past. Watching a good team work with no diesel motor running means hearing bird calls from the field, the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day. There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of engines are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing. It is time to stop and take a breather, it is time to start back up and do a few more rows, it is time to water, it is time for a meal, it is time for a nap, it is time for a rest in a shady spot. This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before.
Our modern agribusiness megafarm fossil-fuel-powered approach to food production has bypassed the small family farm which was so dependent on the muscle power of humans and animals. In our move away from horses worked by skilled teamsters, what has been gained in high production values has meant loss of self-sufficiency and dedicated stewardship of a particular plot of ground. Draft breeds, including the Haflinger horses we own, now are bred for higher energy with lighter refined bone structure meant more for eye appeal and floating movement, rather than the sturdy conformation and unflappable low maintenance mindset needed for pulling work. Modern children are bred for a different purpose as well, no longer raised to work together with other family members for a common purpose of daily survival. Their focus at school is waning as they have no morning farm chores when they get up, too little physical work to do before they arrive at their desks in the morning. Their physical energy, if directed at all, is directed to competitive sports, engaged in fantasy combat rather than winning a very real victory over hunger.
I am encouraged when young people still reach for horse collars and bridles, hitch up their horses and do the work as it used to be done. All is not lost if we can still make incremental daily progress, harnessed together as a team with our horses, tilling for truth and harvesting hope.
I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. –Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor
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”