Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’ The hard snow held me, save where now and then One foot went through. The view was all in lines Straight up and down of tall slim trees Too much alike to mark or name a place by So as to say for certain I was here Or somewhere else: I was just far from home. A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather— The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was a pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone, Without so much as wishing him good-night. He went behind it to make his last stand. It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, Or even last year’s or the year’s before. The wood was gray and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it though on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay. ~Robert Frost, “The Wood-pile” from North of Boston
My labor is usually done with fervor and purpose, but there are times when I do not experience the fruits of my labor. It is left to smolder slowly to decay rather than provide the intended warmth and nurture of a fresh hearthfire.
I might have chosen a different way to go if I had known.
Perhaps I will simply follow the birds instead…
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When I opened the door I found the vine leaves speaking among themselves in abundant whispers. My presence made them hush their green breath, embarrassed, the way humans stand up, buttoning their jackets, acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if the conversation had ended just before you arrived. I liked the glimpse I had, though, of their obscure gestures. I liked the sound of such private voices. Next time I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open the door by fractions, eavesdrop peacefully. ~Denise Levertov, “Aware” from This Great Unknowing.
I need to be cautious or I also would be swallowed up inch by inch by a variety of vines surrounding our home and farm buildings. Between the ivy, Virginia creeper and our opportunistic ubiquitous blackberry vines, I’m mere audience to their varied plans of expansive world domination.
As part of generations of human creep, I can’t indict the vines as aggressive interlopers for going where no vine has gone before. Much human migration has been out of necessity due to inadequate food sources or inhospitable circumstances. Some is due to a spirit of adventure and desire for new places to explore. Nevertheless, we human vines end up dominating places where we may not be really welcome.
So we human vines whisper together conspiratorially about where to send out our tendrils next, never asking permission, only sometimes asking for forgiveness later.
I can’t help but listen to those private voices – one of which is my own – who feel discontented with the “here and now” — we suspect somewhere else may be better. Rather than choose to stay and flourish in place, we keep creeping and overwhelming our surroundings.
Horseback on Sunday morning, harvest over, we taste persimmon and wild grape, sharp sweet of summer’s end. In time’s maze over fall fields, we name names that went west from here, names that rest on graves. We open a persimmon seed to find the tree that stands in promise, pale, in the seed’s marrow. Geese appear high over us, pass, and the sky closes. Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here. ~Wendell Berry “Wild Geese”from Collected Poems 1957-1982
I hear them coming before I see them: the wild geese flying overhead, noisily honking their way across an autumn sky, drawn to the harvested cornfields to glean after the machinery has left.
Soon they will leave altogether, pulled to be content somewhere else.
I remain as witness rather than move on, reminding myself, my heart quiet, my eye clear, what I need is here until it is my turn to leave.
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My father taught me how to eat breakfast those mornings when it was my turn to help him milk the cows. I loved rising up from
the darkness and coming quietly down the stairs while the others were still sleeping. I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon
from the drawer, and slip into the pantry where he was already eating spoonfuls of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries
from our own strawberry fields forever. Didn’t talk much—except to mention how good the strawberries tasted or the way
those clouds hung over the hay barn roof. Simple—that’s how we started up the day. ~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.
By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.
One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.
I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.
I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.
Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.
Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.
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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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…I’m taking the day off. Quiet as a feather. I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors into the temple. ~Mary Oliver from “Today” from A Thousand Mornings
Some days warrant stillness. On this Sabbath day of rest, seek to be quiet as a feather, silently in place, listening.
Maybe, hear each other again. Surely, hear the Word of God.
A funny thing about feathers: alone, each one is merely fluff and air. Together — feathers become lift and power, with strength and will to soar beyond the tether of gravity’s pull on our flawed humanity back to dust.
As quiet as a feather, joined and united, one overlapping another, rise above and fly as far as your life and breath can take you.
May peace be still.
Thank you, once again, to the chickens displayed at the NW Washington Fair in Lynden last week, who struggled to be still in their cages for these close-up feather photos….
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Old-fashioned flowers! I love them all: The morning-glories on the wall, The pansies in their patch of shade, The violets, stolen from a glade, The bleeding hearts and columbine, Have long been garden friends of mine; But memory every summer flocks About a clump of hollyhocks.
The mind’s bright chambers, life unlocks Each summer with the hollyhocks. ~Edgar Guest from “Hollyhocks”
The endless well of summer lies deep in the heart of old-fashioned flowers, but no well is so deep as hollyhocks – the veins of their petals pumping color as they sway on long-nubbined stems, carefree in the breeze.
My mind is suddenly unlocked, opened by a hollyhock key.
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You get down on your knees in the dark earth—alone for hours in hot sun, yanking weed roots, staking trellises, burning your shoulders, swatting gnats; you strain your muscled midwestern neck and back, callous your pianist’s hands.
You cut roses back so they won’t fruit, rip out and replace spent annuals. You fill your garden dense with roots and vines. And when a humble sprout climbs like a worm up out of death, you are there to bless it, in your green patch, all spring and summer long,
hose like a scepter, a reliquary vessel; you hum through the dreamy wilderness—no one to judge, absolve, or be absolved—purified by labor, confessed by its whisperings, connected to its innocence.
So when you heft a woody, brushy tangle, or stumble inside grimy, spent by earth, I see all the sacraments in place— and the redeemed world never smelled so sweet. ~Ken Weisner, “The Gardener” from Anything on Earth.
We are in full-garden produce preservation mode right now on the farm – these are the days when we pick the fruits of Dan’s labors – all the hours he spent this spring preparing the soil with rich compost, meticulously pulling out weeds by the roots, rototilling and cultivating, then staking/stringing/sowing the rows, then standing back to watch the sun and rain coax the seeds from the dark.
All this happens in a mere few weeks – we never tire of this illustration of redemption and renewal we’re shown year after year – how a mess of weeds and dirt can be cleared, refined and cleansed to once again become productive and fruitful, feeding those who hunger – both now and deep into winter and next spring.
It gives me hope; even when I myself am feeling full of weeds and despairingly dirty and overwhelmed, I can be renewed. It takes a persistent Gardener who is willing and eager to prune away what is useless, and sow anew what is needed for me to thrive and produce – His hands and knees are covered with my grime.
And the fruit that results! – so very sweet…
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When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. ~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” fromThe Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When our grandchildren visit our farm, I watch them rediscover what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world. I am reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear, there is peace amid the chaos, there is a smile behind the tears, there is stillness within the noisiness there is rest despite my restlessness, there is grace as old gives way to new.
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Serene the silver fishes glide, Stern-lipped, and pale, and wonder-eyed! As through the aged deeps of ocean, They glide with wan and wavy motion. They have no pathway where they go, They flow like water to and fro, They watch with never-winking eyes, They watch with staring, cold surprise, The level people in the air, The people peering, peering there: Who wander also to and fro, And know not why or where they go, Yet have a wonder in their eyes, Sometimes a pale and cold surprise. ~ Max Eastman, “At the Aquarium” Max Eastman: A Life
The fish are drifting calmly in their tank between the green reeds, lit by a white glow that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank glass that holds them in displays their slow progress from end to end, familiar rocks set into the gravel, murmuring rows of filters, a universe the flying fox and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping occasionally, as if they can’t quite let alone a possibility—of wings, maybe, once they reach the air? They die on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise. ~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club
Our shadows bring them from the shadows: a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales. A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple and a patch of gray. One with a gold head, a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins like half-folded fans of lace. A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one, and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water. They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us as we lean on the cement railing in indecisive late-December light, and because we do not feed them, they pass, then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop. “Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them, like a subplot or a motive, is a school of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned, perhaps another species, living in the shadow of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white, seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses, unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet. ~Susan Kolodny “Koi Pond, Oakland Museum”
The water going dark only makes the orange seem brighter, as you race, and kiss, and spar for food, pretending not to notice me. For this gift of your indifference, I am grateful. I will sit until the pond goes black, the last orange spark extinguished. ~Robert Peake from “Koi Pond”
…the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. Matthew 13: 47-48
I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth. He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all. He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely. I looked into his eyes which were far larger than mine but shallower, and yellowed, the irises backed and packed with tarnished tinfoil seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass. They shifted a little, but not to return my stare. – It was more like the tipping of an object toward the light. I admired his sullen face, the mechanism of his jaw, and then I saw that from his lower lip – if you could call it a lip grim, wet, and weaponlike, hung five old pieces of fish-line, or four and a wire leader with the swivel still attached, with all their five big hooks grown firmly in his mouth. Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw. I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat, from the pool of bilge where oil had spread a rainbow around the rusted engine to the bailer rusted orange, the sun-cracked thwarts, the oarlocks on their strings, the gunnels- until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! And I let the fish go. ~Elizabeth Bishop from “The Fish”
All my life, I’ve taken care of a variety of fish in tanks and ponds. As a child, I would watch, mesmerized, as our tropical fish glided around, happily exploring their little ten gallon world. I willingly cleaned away the algae, rinsed the gravel and changed the filter. As a teenager, I boasted at least three different tanks aerating away in my bedroom, my own little aqua-cultural world of bubbles and fins.
During college and medical school, I chose to share my room with goldfish and bettas, thriving on their apparent contentment within a clear glass bowl. I didn’t think of them as emotional support animals, but there was a joy obvious in their albeit limited existence: they still thrived when I was away, not missing me, but were always thrilled when I fed them, and tolerated my messing with their home maintenance.
My current thirty gallon aquarium is decades old and boasts over two dozen fish and plenty of furry algae and plants. Some of my watery friends have lived ten years or more and when they pass, I miss them. Even the dozen koi and goldfish in our farm pond have expressive faces and individual personalities that I’ve gotten to know well as they come when I call.
I know the heart of compassion I feel for any creature I’m responsible for, as I know and have experienced the compassion of our Creator.
I would hope when the time comes that I end up in His net, that He’ll look me in the eye, see the wonder there as I gape at Him. He’ll count my blemishes and wounds and the number of hooks in my mouth from the times I’ve been caught and escaped, and if He’s not yet ready to take me home, or deems me not yet ready to leave this world, He’ll throw me back rather than throw me away to keep trying to get it right.
He has promised us that.
Rainbows, rainbows, rainbows indeed…
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