Straining to Win the Sky

The tree is more than first a seed,
then a stem,
then a living trunk,
and then dead timber.
The tree is a slow,
enduring force
straining to win the sky.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

It is always a difficult decision to take down decades-old trees that have become a risk of falling in a windstorm or losing branches that can cause damage. The time had come for the row of Lombardy poplars lining our western property line, originally planted in the 70s to create a buffer for a newly constructed farm building at our neighbors’ place. In their old age, the poplars were breaking and failing.

Yesterday they were felled by a tree expert who knew exactly how to bring them down in a tight area, leaving an open expanse we are adjusting to seeing. We are considering what might eventually take their place.

We have a few other dying trees on the farm we must part with soon, victims of recent drought years. It feels like parting with old friends. Each one reached to win the sky, but like us, must end up as dust.

And so we too are so much more than mere life cycle:
like trees, we are infinite variety and fascinating diversity,
clothed in finery yet at times naked and vulnerable;
we lift burdens in our arms and harbor the frail,
dig our roots deep and hold fast,
shade those overcome by the sun, and sing in the breeze.

Most of all, we aim high to touch and win a sky which remains beyond our grasp.

(Our lone fir on top of the hill is doing just fine and she remains our sentinel tree and farm focal point, trying to touch the jet planes that ascend from the nearby Vancouver, B.C. airport in the top pictures)

The night before they were felled
Last night, the missing poplar row revealed a new mountain view to the north

If you enjoy these Barnstorming posts, you’ll enjoy this book which is available to order here:

Always Something to Make You Wonder

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Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore.
There is always something to make you wonder
in the shape of a tree,
the trembling of a leaf.
~ Albert Schweitzer

Long ago I gave up striving
for perfect symmetry,
strong shapely limbs,
the straightest trunk,
the most luscious foliage and colorful blooms.

Instead, my life is as fruitful as possible,
even if I bend more in winter storms,
my roots not anchored as deep,
despite bare and broken branches,
falling leaves,
crooked trunk,
and increasing lumpiness.

I try to provide the best of which I’m capable,
with a minimum of scab, rot and hidden worms.

The promise of breathtaking beauty for eternity
makes getting up in the morning worth the effort
when we would rather hide our homeliness and decay under the covers.

Yet nothing can be as beautiful as the reality of
broken people giving their all
for other broken people.

It is for this we are created;
our imperfections on display,
continually pruned and refined
to produce needed fruit,
abundantly filling and ever so sweet.

It’s enough to make you wonder…

A new book from Barnstorming available to order here

The Clustered Roots of Grace

I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
of grace.
~Denise Levertov “For the New Year, 1981”

Years ago,  my newly widowed sister-in-law was trying to bring order to her late husband’s large yard and flower garden, overgrown following the shock of his sudden cardiac death.  In her ongoing ebb and flow with her grief, she brought to us several paper bags full of bearded iris roots resting solemnly in clumps of dirt. They appeared to be such unlikely sources of beauty, hope and healing: dry misshapen knobby feet and fingers, crippled-appearing and homely.

We got them into the ground late in the year yet they rewarded us with immense forgiveness. They took hold in their new space and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape. Over the years they have continued to gladden our hearts until we too must, to save them, divide them to pass on their gift of beauty to another garden.

This act– by division, will hope increase–feels radical yet that is exactly what God did:  sending Himself to become dusty, grime and earth-covered, so plain, so broken, so full of hope ready to bloom.

A part of God put down roots among us to grow, thrive and be divided, over and over and over again to increase the beauty and grace for those of us limited to this soil.

Just so —
our garden blooms so all can see and know:
hope grows here from clustered roots of grace.

Van Gogh “Irises” owned by J. Paul Getty Museum, California

New book from Barnstorming available — to order, click here

What Makes Things the Same

At first we just say flower. How
thrilling it is to name. Then it’s
aster. Begonia. Chrysanthemum.

We spend our childhood learning
to separate one thing from another.
Daffodil. Edelweiss. Fern. We learn

which have five petals, which have six.
We say, “This is a gladiolus, this hyacinth.”
And we fracture the world into separate

identities. Iris. Jasmine. Lavender.
Divorcing the world into singular bits.
And then, when we know how to tell

one thing from another, perhaps
at last we feel the tug to see not
what makes things different, but

what makes things the same. Perhaps
we feel the pleasure that comes
when we start to blur the lines—and once again everything
is flower, and by everything,
I mean everything.
~Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, “Where We are Headed” from Hush

Somehow we find reassurance in naming things each according to its own kind – after all, we were given that task by God Himself in the Garden. We take our work seriously at lining up labels and categories based on all the differences we observe — we want to organize and define, separate and segregate, to do our best to create order out of a jumble, even if we are too young to have words for what we are doing.

Yet when we emphasize differences, we fail to appreciate all that is shared among us and end up fracturing rather than joining together. We look for what keeps us apart rather than find the common ground that blurs the lines, creating a healing bond between us.

Everything has a common origin, and I mean everything.

Flowers: each needs soil, sun and some water no matter how differently they flourish and bloom.

People who cherish an identity: we are all human.
We were all created from dust and rib.
We share the same Creator.
We bloom, all in our own unique and precious way,
but what matters most
is where we put down roots and how freely we share our fruit.

And that is why we’re put here.

The Autumn Sun

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—


this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.


And so, what else can you do
but let yourself be broken
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?

~Carolyn Locke “What Else?” from The Place We Become

So this is how our life goes:

we are sowed, set down roots, bud and grow and flower and bloom and fruit and flourish,

then dry and change and wither and empty and break away to be carried off beyond this air and water and soil.

We thrived where we were planted, did what we could with a little nurture, to transcend the here and now.

So may we plant the next generation in healthy soil.
May we weed and water and feed as needed.
May we never overshadow the sun but step aside so its light fully shines.

Searching a Blossom as a Loved One’s Face

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.


In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.
~Jane Kenyon from “Peonies at Dusk”

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away !

~Rudyard Kipling from “The Glory of the Garden”

There is no better place to be than in a garden down on my knees. Humans were created for this: the naming, the turning over of the soil, the planting and nurturing, the weeding and thinning, the harvest and gratitude, and then a time of lying fallow to rest.

The garden is a place for prayer and praise.

When I meet a truly great gardener, like my friend Jean who has grown and hybridized dahlias for decades, what I see growing in the soil is a tapestry of artwork made from petals, leaves and roots. She has passionately cared for these plants and they reflect that love in every spiral and swirl, hue and gradient of color, showing stark symmetry and delightful variegation.

Arising from the plainest of homely and knobby look-alike tubers grow these luxurious beauties of infinite variety. I kneel stunned before each one, captivated, realizing that same Creator makes sure I too bloom from mere dust and then set me to work in His garden.

Greeting the Air

… how do the roots know
they must climb toward the light?
And then greet the air
with so many flowers and colors?

Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?

Why do trees conceal
the splendor of their roots?

But do you know from where
death comes, from above or from below?
From microbes or walls,
from wars or winter?

Where is the child I was,
still inside me or gone?

~Pablo Neruda from “The Book of Questions”

Here I am, on the eve of my 66th birthday, with more questions than answers, the child still inside me puzzling over the mundane and profound.

The “why’s” of life are the reason to keep getting up every day, if only to greet the air, feel the sun, smell the flowers and recognize that from hidden roots come beautiful growth.

I’m still growing by asking the questions that need to be asked.
I’m still growing while my roots reach deeper by the day.
I’m still growing because I know I need to reach out to the Light.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Between Heaven and Earth

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy


We, frail people that we are, live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we seek relief, begging for mercy.

As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.

Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?

Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?

Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We can be mere stones no more.

This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

Clumsy Clusters of Grace

irisrain

 

irispotential

 

 

I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
of grace.
~Denise Levertov “For the New Year, 1981”

 

 

irisinnard

 

 

irischance2

 

 

irisrain5137

 

 

One autumn years ago,  my sister-in-law brought several paper bags full of iris roots resting solemnly in earth-covered clumps: dirt–dry misshaped feet and fingers crippled with potential. Her garden had become overcrowded and for her iris to continue to thrive, she needed to divide and share the roots.

We were late getting them into the ground but their clustered grace rose up forgiving us our clumsiness. They took hold and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape.

These iris will continue to gladden our hearts until we too must divide them to pass on their gift of beauty to another garden. This act– “by division, will hope increase”–feels radical yet that is exactly what God did in sending His Son to become earth-covered.

A part of God was broken off to put down roots, grow, thrive and be divided, over and over and over again to increase the beauty and grace for those of us limited to this soil.

Each spring our garden blooms so all can see and know: hope lives here —
even in the last few hours of an old and tired year
passing haltingly, hesitantly
into something brand new.

 

 

irischance1

 

irisrain5121

 

iriscenter5

 

 

iris514152

This Trembling Globe

dandyyellow

 

dandelion close

 

How I loved those spiky suns, 
rooted stubborn as childhood 
in the grass, tough as the farmer’s 
big-headed children—the mats 
of yellow hair, the bowl-cut fringe. 
How sturdy they were and how 
slowly they turned themselves 
into galaxies, domes of ghost stars 
barely visible by day, pale 
cerebrums clinging to life 
on tough green stems.   Like you. 
Like you, in the end.   If you were here, 
I’d pluck this trembling globe to show 
how beautiful a thing can be 
a breath will tear away. 
~Jean Nordhaus “A Dandelion for My Mother” from Innocence
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dandybud
This is how I remember my mom at the end:
fragile, trembling,
a wispy white crown of hair,
clinging stubbornly to what was left of life
with roots that went so deep
there was no pulling them out.
Yet it only took that one last breath,
one quiet will-there-be-another
breath
to blow her away.
And she left us behind,
clinging stubbornly to those roots.
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