Unseen Nest

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.
~Tess Gallagher “Choices” from Midnight Lantern: New and Selected Poems.

Am I capable of such tenderness,
such recognition of the well-being of others,
by saving the nest
and all future potential nests
rather than exercise my freedom
to have an unimpeded world view
when and where I want it?

I must not forget:
my right to choose
can only mean
choosing to do right
by those who have no choice.

You Are My Sunshine

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.

The Departure Gate


and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled
and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse
on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last
blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant
asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving
in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes.
The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed
in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days
are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck
and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle
in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly,
they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate,
and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits
patiently in a long, long line.
~Barbara Crooker “And Now It’s September” from Spillway

The advance of autumn usually feels like I’m waiting to embark on an unplanned journey that I wish to avoid. I don’t like airports, don’t like the strangeness of unfamiliar destinations, don’t like flying with nothing between me and the ground.

Now “fall” is just like that — like I’m falling.

I look at what is dying around me and know these blasts of color and fruitfulness are their last sad gasps.

So too, when I go out the departure gate, may I go down the long ramp gaily without fear and without regrets — maybe even with a skip in my step as I fall.

It’s Time for Swinging to be Done

The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.
She is saying it’s time that the swinging were done with,
time that the creaking and pinging and popping
that sang through the ceiling were past,
time now for the soft vibrations of moths,
the wasp tapping each board for an entrance,
the cool dewdrops to brush from her work
every morning, one world at a time.
~Ted Kooser “Porch Swing in September” from Flying at Night

It is hard to just let go and let life move on, as it will do on this day’s transition to autumn, whether with us or without us.

We build our little lives so carefully; we plan and choreograph and anticipate, and all it takes is a creaky swing (or a measly little virus) to pull it to shreds.

So we rebuild, strand by strand, in the conviction that we still belong here even when everything around us is changing and will pay no attention to how we’re left hanging.

We keep trying.
We keep believing.
We keep wanting to make the world a little more beautiful.

Fitting Exactly Where Needed

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   
The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.  
 

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.
~Naomi Shihab Nye “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems

Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

Here’s the truth of it:
no one really wants to be famous
but seeks a life of meaning and purpose
rather than one empty of significance.

The button alone is
pure window-dressing,
a flash in the pan,
a bauble ready to loosen and fall off,
easy to go missing.

A button hole by itself
without a button to latch around
is plain and gaping and lonely and allows in drafts,
blending into the background,
silently waiting for its moment of usefulness.

We cannot forget who we’re meant to be
and what we’re meant to do –
we fit the task for which we’re made.

Send me a button and I’ll make sure it is secured.

I Don’t Mean to Make You Cry

I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion–pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, chopping and weeping…
~Suji Kwock Kim from “Monologue for a Onion”

It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   
from the taut ball first the brittle,   
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,   
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on   
weeping as you go on in, through   
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on   
in to the core, to the bud-like,   
acrid, fibrous skins densely   
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most   
pungent

~William Matthews from “Onions”

I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion”
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency…

…You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”

Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.

This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.

It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:

I weep over the headlines.
I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken.
I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear.
I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.

We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.

Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.

So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.

No, I don’t mean to make you cry
as you peel my layers away,
gently, one by one,
each more tender until you reach my heart.
Chop away at me if you must
but weep the good tears, the ones that mean
we weep for the sake of our meal together:
you eating and drinking,
and me – consumed.

To Scatter New Potatoes

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

~Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist

Van Gogh Painting, Oil on Canvas on Panel Nuenen:
August, 1885 Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, The Netherlands
Digging Potatoes by Martin Driscoll http://www.martindriscoll.com

Digging potatoes is one of the most satisfying tasks for a farmer. Often the dead above-ground vines have melted into the ground, blending in with the weeds and encroaching sprawl of squash vines. Finding the treasure underneath the topsoil is an act of faith. You set the shovel or fork boldly into the dirt to loosen up the top eight inches. Then you submerge your hand into the dirt and come up with a fistful of potato gold nuggets, each smooth cool tuber rolling into fresh air like so many newly discovered hidden Easter eggs.

A daily dig for words to write isn’t nearly as easy as finding potatoes in the soil; the bounty under the surface often remains hidden away from my view and elusive. I have to keep searching and sifting and sorting. Some that I end up with are rotten. Some are overexposed, too green and toxic. Some are scabby and look ugly, but are still useable and hopefully tasty.

Yet I get out my virtual spade and dig into the dirt of life every day, hoping, just hoping, to come up with words in my hands that are not only beautiful, colorful, smooth and palatable, but a sheer delight for the digger/reader to discover along with me.

Decomposing Standards

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day

the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning,

it feels as though it could be
the day before or a year ago
or a year before that.

With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out,
and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.

Time all but stops.

But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts, and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

I’ve written about horse manure before in a variety of contexts as it is a daily chore here to keep it picked up, wheeled to the pile, wait for it to compost and then use it to fertilize garden or fields. It is one of the crops on our farm and we take our manure management seriously.

I have not written before about our dogs’ coprophagous grins (look it up). This is a family-friendly blog so I’m not using the colloquial term that might be used while we’re out in the barn. But grinning they are, with a muzzle full of manure.

Dogs love to eat horse poop (among other things). No one has figured out why except that decomposing things – fecal, rotting or decaying- just simply smell good to a dog and what smells good must taste good. It does not smell good on their breath or, when they happily roll in it, on their fur. But they don’t seem to mind stinking to high heaven as long as it is their choice. What consenting dogs do should not concern us, right?
Right – until the stink reaches the threshold of the house or man’s best friend wants to plant a slobbery kiss on your cheek.

There is a lesson here in the manure pile.
There must be a pony buried here somewhere.
And there is.

We human beings, proper as we may appear on the surface, like to roll around in the figurative decomposing stuff too. Especially individuals in the news this week and in the recent past who proclaim strict Christian values and are leaders in preaching standards of morality have found themselves up to their eyeballs in the stink of their own choices, surrounding themselves with it. Jobs have been lost and reputations ruined.

We almost lost a farm dog because he inadvertently overdosed on ivermectin horse wormer that may have been in ingested manure or dripped nearby. What may appear benign, no big deal and may not hurt anyone, could in fact be lethal.

So I tell the dogs to wipe that coprophagous grin off their faces and clean up their act. If I wanted to hang out with the stink of decomposition, I’d go picnic next to a nice steaming warm compost pile.

At least I know in the case of the compost pile, the manure eventually becomes something far more wholesome, thereby ultimately redeemed.

Great Expanses

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Not the midnight sun exactly, or endless summer,
just that extra hour holding steady, western
horizon stable, as though shadows won’t lengthen
when in August you can outrun the night
or feel as though you do, latitude in your favor,

North of Sioux City, the sky widens into South Dakota,
turn west and you will think you could see all the way
to Wyoming, and if you drive long enough you will,
crossing the Missouri River, the bluffs gentle,
then the grasslands, the turnoffs for reservations.

As dusk approaches, you may pass a stone house,
long deserted, a star carved over the door, a small pond,
wind stirring over it even now, forming a second thought,
a space you will carry within your speech,
your soul stirred by these great expanses.
~Jane Hoogestraat “At the Edge of a Time Zone” from Border States.

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We have spent long hours in the past week traveling on the great expanses of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho plains. It is a marvel to see so far in every direction yet to feel you are barely moving at 80 miles an hour. The extra hour gained at the edge of a time zone is pure gravy of gifted time.

This is challenging land on which people eke out a living. We have seen a cowboy and herding dog flanking a few dozen Angus cattle alongside the freeway. We’ve seen huge combines kicking up dust clouds as they thresh fields of grain. There are 150 year old remnants of barns and buildings, barely standing against the constant winds and harsh weather.

While we now cross the plains in a day or two, native people and wagon train pioneers spent months by foot or horse, many never managing to reach their destination.

These expanses echo with those lost lives of previous centuries, not to forget hundreds of thousands of bison that also once grazed these basins.

We’ll return to the land of rain and green and ubiquitous trees today. But the great expanses of the plains always enlarge my vision of who lives and works within this vast country.

My heart swells in gratitude with the view of such an endless horizon.

abandoned schoolhouse (now collapsed) near Rapalje, Montana

In Our Hollowness

There is a day that comes when you realize
you can’t bake enough bread
to make things turn out right, no matter
how many times you read Little House on the Prairie
to your children. There aren’t enough
quart jars to fill with tomatoes
or translucent slices of pear to keep you
from feeling unproductive. There is no bonfire
that burns orange enough in the chill October night
to keep your mind from following the lonesome
howls and yips of the coyotes concealed
by darkness in the harvested cornfield
just beyond the circle of your fire.

And when you step away from your family and fire,
into the dark pasture and tip your head back,
feel the whole black bowl of sky
with its icy prickles of stars, its swath of Milky Way,
settle over you, you know that no one
and everyone is just this alone on the Earth
though most keep themselves distracted enough
not to notice. In your hollowness
you open your arms to God because no one else
is enough to fill them. Eternity
passes between and no one knows this but you.

The hum of their conversation, the whole world, talking.
When it is time, you turn, grasp the woodcart’s handle,
pull it, bumping behind you across the frosty grass,
up the hill to the house, where you
step inside cubes of light, and begin to do ordinary things,
hang up coats, open and close drawers,
rinse hot chocolate from mugs. And you are still
separate, but no longer grieving bread.
~Daye Phillippo “Bread” from The Exponent. Vol. 124 – No 75 (May 3, 2010)

Try as I might, there aren’t enough chores to do, nor meals to make, nor pictures to take or words to write to distract me from the emptiness that can hit in the middle of the night. We each try to find our own way to make the world feel right and good, to give us a sense of purpose for getting up each morning.

Yet life can be harsh. I hear regularly from my patients who fight a futile struggle with pointlessness. Hours, days and years are hollow without loving and meaningful relationships with each other, but especially with our Creator.

My work here is simple: to find meaning in routine and the rhythm of the seasons with a desire to leave behind something that will last longer than I will. In those moments of feeling hollowed-out, I am reminded that God-shaped hole is just as He created it. God knows exactly what I need— I rise like leavened bread becoming more than I could ever be without Him.

The ordinary in me is filled by the extraordinary.