Old friend now there is no one alive who remembers when you were young it was high summer when I first saw you in the blaze of day most of my life ago with the dry grass whispering in your shade and already you had lived through wars and echoes of wars around your silence through days of parting and seasons of absence with the house emptying as the years went their way until it was home to bats and swallows and still when spring climbed toward summer you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened you and the seasons spoke the same language and all these years I have looked through your limbs to the river below and the roofs and the night and you were the way I saw the world ~W.S. Merwin “Elegy for a Walnut Tree” from The Moon Before Morning
We bought this old farm over thirty years ago: the Lawrence family’s “Walnut Hill Farm”~ a front yard lined with several tall black walnut trees brought as seedlings in a suitcase from Ohio in the ought-1900’s.
These trees have thrived over 100 years on this hilltop farm overlooking the Canadian mountains to the north, the Nooksack River valley to the west, the Cascade peaks to the east, each prolific in leaves and prodigious in fruit.
In the tallest, we had a treehouse built high up where the view through the limbs and leaves takes our breath away: for only a little while we are perched above and beyond this world, and that never fails to make us smile.
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When you are already here you appear to be only a name that tells of you whether you are present or not
and for now it seems as though you are still summer still the high familiar endless summer yet with a glint of bronze in the chill mornings and the late yellow petals of the mullein fluttering on the stalks that lean over their broken shadows across the cracked ground
but they all know that you have come the seed heads of the sage the whispering birds with nowhere to hide you to keep you for later
you who fly with them
you who are neither before nor after you who arrive with blue plums that have fallen through the night
The light of September is a filtered, more gentle illumination than we have experienced for the past several months of high summer glare.
Now the light is lambent: a soft radiance that simply glows at certain times of the day when the angle of the sun is just right, and the clouds are in position to soften and cushion the luminence.
It is also liminal: it is neither before or after, on the threshold between seasons when there is both promise and caution in the air.
Sometimes I think I can breathe in light like this, if not through my lungs, then through my eyes. It is a temptation to bottle it up with a stopper somehow, stow it away hidden in a back cupboard. Then I can bring it out, pour a bit into a glass on the darkest days and imbibe.
But for now, I fill myself full to the brim. And my only means of preservation is with a camera and a few words.
So I share it now with all of you to tuck away for a future day when you too are hungry for lambent light. Just check out “September.”
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I love the look, austere, immaculate, Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones. There’s something in my very blood that owns Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate, A thread of water, churned to milky spate Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.
I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray, Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves; That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath, Summer, so much too beautiful to stay, Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves, And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death. ~Elinor Wylie from “Wild Peaches”
An amber light stretches from sky to ground this beautiful morning, another mid-summer dawning- today a clone of yesterday’s and the day before.
A stretch of forty identical days cannot last and will not stay. I long again for rain and chill nights.
Drying up and pock-marked with holes, I feel punched and withering in this browning landscape, wondering on this Sabbath day of communing together where holiness is to be found.
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overly delicate, like a flower skimmed of all fragrance.
You hear in the long last notes of the nightingale’s song
how to harbor what’s left of joy, how spring clutches
the green shoot of life and holds on and on through summer, prepares
for no end that is sure in coming, the fall ever endlessly repeating. ~Maureen Doallas “Recounting Seasons”, from Neruda’s Memoirs
One of my greatest joys is watching time as days become weeks, then months, and as years flow by, the seasons repeat seemingly endlessly. I know they must end for me eventually so I anticipate transitions before they take place.
In the “olden” days, many farmers kept daily hand-written diaries to track the events of the seasons: when the soil was warm enough to sow, when the harvest was ready, the highs and lows of temperature fluctuations, how many inches in the rain gauge, how deep the snow.
Now we follow the years with a swift scroll in our photo collection in our phones: the tulips bloomed two weeks later this year, or the tomatoes ripened early or the pears were larger two years ago.
I take comfort things tend to repeat predictably year after year, yet I can spot subtle differences. Our hydrangea bushes are a harbinger of seasonal change: they are blooming a darker burgundy color this year, the lace caps are mostly blue rather than pink and purple. Their blooms fade eventually into blended earth tones, then blanche, finally losing color altogether and becoming skeletal.
And so it is with me. I harbor joy by noticing each change, knowing the repetition of the seasons and the cycle of blooming will continue, with or without me here watching. I am unnecessary except as a recorder of fact.
I will keep watching and keep documenting as long as I’m able.
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Some of the most powerful memories of summer come out of our childhood when we wake up on a June morning and suddenly remember that school is out and that summer stretches in front of us as endlessly as the infinities of space.
Everything is different. The old routines are gone. The relentless school bus isn’t coming. The bells will be silent in silent hallways.
Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks.
Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick, or the celebration of a holiday or a birthday. Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.
But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable. It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons. Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending.
Yet summer does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into the shadow dusk of autumn and the night of winter.
I always let go of summer with reluctance, feeling as if no summer like it will ever come again.
Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday. Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.
Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect.
We’ve already had a taste.
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In spring there’s hope, in fall the exquisite, necessary diminishing, in winter I am as sleepy as any beast in its leafy cave, but in summer there is everywhere the luminous sprawl of gifts, the hospitality of the Lord and my inadequate answers as I row my beautiful, temporary body through this water-lily world. ~Mary Oliver from “Six Recognitions of the Lord”
what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled— to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world. I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery. ~Mary Oliver from “The Ponds”
I admit to being oblivious to the wonders going on beneath my feet, around my middle and above my head. My nose is to the grindstone, doing what needs to be done.
When a moment comes out of nowhere and I’m dazzled by something I’ve seen or heard or smelled, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. It has always been there; I’m simply waking to it.
Lord, lift my head in the midst of my blind hunger to see what you have already prepared for me.
Translation from Icelandic:
Hear, smith of heavens. The poet seeketh. In thy still small voice Mayest thou show grace. As I call on thee, Thou my creator. I am thy servant, Thou art my true Lord.
God, I call on thee; For thee to heal me. Bid me, prince of peace, Thou my supreme need. Ever I need thee, Generous and great, O’er all human woe, City of thy heart.
Guard me, my savior. Ever I need thee, Through ev’ry moment In this world so wide. Virgin–born, send me Noble motives now. Aid cometh from thee, To my deepest heart.
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I. Allegro non molto– Frozen and trembling in the icy snow, In the severe blast of the horrible wind, As we run, we constantly stamp our feet, And our teeth chatter in the cold. II. Largo– To spend happy and quiet days near the fire, While, outside, the rain soaks hundreds. III. Allegro– We walk on the ice with slow steps, And tread carefully, for fear of falling. Symphony, If we go quickly, we slip and fall to the ground. Again we run on the ice, Until it cracks and opens. We hear, from closed doors, Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds in battle. This is winter, but it brings joy. ~Vivaldi (Winter poem)
La Primavera (Spring) Opus 8, No. 1, in E Major
I. Allegro– Festive Spring has arrived, The birds salute it with their happy song. And the brooks, caressed by little Zephyrs, Flow with a sweet murmur. The sky is covered with a black mantle, And thunder, and lightning, announce a storm. When they are silent, the birds Return to sing their lovely song. II. Largo e pianissimo sempre– And in the meadow, rich with flowers, To the sweet murmur of leaves and plants, The goatherd sleeps, with his faithful dog at his side. III. Danza pastorale. Allegro– To the festive sound of pastoral bagpipes, Dance nymphs and shepherds, At Spring’s brilliant appearance. ~Vivaldi (Spring poem)
L’Estate (Summer) Opus 8, No. 2, in G minor
I. Allegro non molto– Under the heat of the burning summer sun, Languish man and flock; the pine is parched. The cuckoo finds its voice, and suddenly, The turtledove and goldfinch sing. A gentle breeze blows, But suddenly, the north wind appears. The shepherd weeps because, overhead, Lies the fierce storm, and his destiny. II. Adagio; Presto– His tired limbs are deprived of rest By his fear of lightning and fierce thunder, And by furious swarms of flies and hornets. III. Presto– Alas, how just are his fears, Thunder and lightening fill the Heavens, and the hail Slices the tops of the corn and other grain. ~Vivaldi (Summer poem)
L’Autunno (Autumn) Opus 8, No. 3, in F Major
I. Allegro– The peasants celebrate with dance and song, The joy of a rich harvest. And, full of Bacchus’s liquor, They finish their celebration with sleep. II. Adagio molto– Each peasant ceases his dance and song. The mild air gives pleasure, And the season invites many To enjoy a sweet slumber. III. Allegro– The hunters, at the break of dawn, go to the hunt. With horns, guns, and dogs they are off, The beast flees, and they follow its trail. Already fearful and exhausted by the great noise, Of guns and dogs, and wounded, The exhausted beast tries to flee, but dies. ~Vivaldi (Autumn poem)
I walk this path to stand at the same spot countless times through the year, to witness the palette changing around me.
The Artist chooses His color and technique lovingly, with a gentle touch for each season.
My life too is painted with richness and variety: from the bare lines of winter, to a green emergence of spring, a summer sweet fruitfulness and a mosaic crescendo of autumn.
This ever-new pathway extends beyond the reach of the canvas.
Had I not been awake I would have missed it, A wind that rose and whirled until the roof Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore
And got me up, the whole of me a-patter, Alive and ticking like an electric fence: Had I not been awake I would have missed it
It came and went too unexpectedly And almost it seemed dangerously, Hurtling like an animal at the house,
A courier blast that there and then Lapsed ordinary. But not ever Afterwards. And not now. ~Seamus Heaney “Had I Not Been Awake”
It is very still in the world now – Thronged only with Music like the Decks of Birds and the Seasons take their hushed places like figures in a Dream – ~Emily Dickinson from an envelope poem fragment
My dreams have been exceptionally vivid recently, not scary but seemingly real. I’ll awake suddenly, surfacing out of deepest sleep to take a breath of reality and remind my brain that I’m still in bed, in a dark hushed room, my husband solid and warm beside me. All is well. I lie awake, reorienting myself from dream world to my world and ponder the hazy neuro-pathways in-between.
If I had not been awake after my dreams, I would have missed the night sounds of coyotes howling in the fields around the farmhouse, the chorus of peepers in the wetlands, the trickling waterfall in our koi pond, the clicking of the owls flying overhead, the sudden gust of wind that shakes the windows, the pelting of heavy rain.
So much still happens when I am asleep to the world, numb and inattentive. Even so, when dreams wake me, I find myself alive and listening, electrified by the awareness of everything around me.
Suddenly, nothing is ordinary because everything is. I am the most unordinary ordinary of all.
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
When I pull open the barn doors, every morning and each evening, as my grandparents did one hundred years ago, six rumbling voices rise in greeting. We exchange scents, nuzzle each others’ ears.
I do my chores faithfully as my 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.
I don’t depend on our horses’ strength and willingness to don harness to carry me to town or move the logs or till the soil as my grandparents did.
Instead, these soft eyed souls, born on this farm two or three long decades ago, are simply grateful for my constancy morning and night to serve their needs until the day comes they need no more.
I depend on them to depend on me to be there to open the doors; their low whispering welcome gives voice to the blessings of living on a farm ripe with rhythms and seasons, as if today and tomorrow are just like one hundred years ago.
Stand near the river with your feet slightly apart. Push your toes down beyond the mud, below the water. Stretch your arms and head back deliberately, until straight lines no longer matter—until the sky from any angle is your desire. Let the skin go grey and split open. If you die a little somewhere the wind will carve the branches back into an alphabet someone will try to remember how to read. Stay this way half a century or more, turning leaves in the half-note tides of the air. Inside, with that blood so slow no one hears it, set buds for spring by each late October. November, December, dream what it means being owl…or star. ~Kathleen Cain, “What This Means, Being Cottonwood” from Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace
According to old Morton Lawrence, the original owner of this farm, this particular cottonwood was a special tree. He called it the “Balm of Gilead” tree for the sticky resin that exudes from its spring buds, which he liked to rub into his dry cracked hands. The scent is memorable, both sweet and green, and invokes the smell of spring ground awakening from a long winter.
The big tree stands apart from the rest of the forest, always a sentinel of the seasons, blowing cotton fluff in the late spring and heart-shaped leaves in the fall, covering the surrounding fields.
The buds may well have healing properties, as described in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, but it is this tree that I depend upon for its unblinking steadiness through the worst wind storms, the driest summers and our iced-over winters. The cottonwood, in its multi-armed reach to the skies, is balm to my eyes, no matter when I look at it — a dream of the healing I’ll find someday in heaven for all that ails me.