Welcome Back, Trees

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
~Wendell Berry, “IX” from Leavings.

As we both grow older, we watch our some of our farm’s fields slowly fill in with young trees, despite our efforts over the years to keep pulling out saplings to preserve pasture. Yet the trees are more determined to fill in the gaps than we are to remove them. The cottonwoods, alders and maples are returning to what once was their soil.

After all, this land was forested over a century ago and yielded to determined loggers and farmers as the old growth firs and cedars fell to the axe and the deciduous trees became firewood and furniture. We now find ourselves yielding back what we can, acknowledging what this land and these patient trees have to teach us about our transience. A few decades are a short stay to those who send roots and branches deep and wide in their effort to stay put.

Welcome back, trees. You have kindly waited for your turn to own the ground again.

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An Eternal Ultimate Eye

Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods.  Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death.  Even the sun has gone off somewhere…

Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.  
~Jane Kenyon
from “Season of Change and Loss” in Winter: A Spiritual Biography

The tree, and its haunting bird,
Are the loves of my heart;
But where is the word, the word,
Oh where is the art,

To say, or even to see,
For a moment of time,
What the Tree and the Bird must be
In the true sublime?

They shine, listening to the soul,
And the soul replies;
But the inner love is not whole,
and the moment dies.

Oh give me before I die
The grace to see
With eternal, ultimate eye,
The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living Green,
The Tree and the Bird –
Oh have they ever been seen,
Ever been heard?
~Ruth Pitter “The Bird in the Tree”

Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.   The usual day-long serenade of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering from the treetops, the occasional dog barking, woodpeckers hammering at tree bark with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth. Our horses, confined to their stalls in the barns, snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.

But there are no longer birdsong arias; I’m left bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wakes me at 4 AM in the spring.

And no peeper orchestra tuning up in the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.

It is way too quiet – clearly a time of bereavement. The chilly silence of the darkened days, interrupted by gunshot percussion, is like a baton raised in anticipation after rapping the podium to bring us all to attention. I wait and listen for the downbeat of spring — the return of birds and frogs tuning their throats, preparing their symphony.

Oh, give me the grace to see and hear the Bird in the Tree with an eternal ultimate eye and ear.

Like a bird on a tree
I’m just sitting here
I get time
It’s clear to see
From up here
The world seems small
We can seat together
It’s so beautiful
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
Sometimes you need to go
And take a step back
To see the truth around you
From a distance you can tell
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
~Eldar Kedem

Between the March and April line—
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows and grows,—
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night’s delicious close.
The saddest noise I know.
It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.
It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.
An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.
~Lyrics adapted from an Emily Dickinson poem

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Dawn on our Darkness: A Shadowed Earth Reaches Up

   the season quicker now
the darkening—

no longer the leaves
fluttering down

but the whole shadowed earth
reaching up, taking hold
~David Baker “Quicker”

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

~Robert Browning from Andrea del Sarto

My branches are bare during this season of letting go. As starkly revealed as I am, perhaps darkening days are a blessing – less spotlight on my plainness in silhouette – all knobby joints and awkward angles and curves.

One thing I know though: in this season I prefer the shadowland, yet I still reach up, trying to hold on to the promise beyond me. In fact, so many of us have kept grasping at what we know is there but cannot see, God has come down to grab on to each one — and is still hanging on to us.

We are not too plain to be lifted, welcomed, cherished as we are, into heaven’s arms.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Such Letting Go

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
~Lucille Clifton “Lesson of the Falling Leaves” from Blessing the Boats

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Autumn” translated by Robert Bly

Sometimes I wake from my sleep
with a palpitating start:
dreaming of falling,
my body pitching and tumbling
yet somehow I land,
~oh so softly~
in my bed,
my fear quashed and cushioned by
awaking safe.

I feel caught,
held tightly,
rescued amid the fall
we all do someday,
like leaves drifting down
from heaven’s orchard,
like seeds released like kisses
into the air,
the earth rises to meet me
and Someone cradles me there.

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A Tree with Happy Leaves

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the Earth!

That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.

Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,


and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain–

imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.
~Mary Oliver “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me”

I’m walking under the trees
walking in and out of their shadows
walking step by step under the trees
so the leaves on their lowest branches
graze my bare head
as I walk slowly under the trees
so close to me they could have
their arms around my shoulders,
walking under the guardian trees.

I’m walking under the trees
plucking a leaf
and putting it in my pocket
so I won’t forget walking
under the cloak of these trees
thinking of nothing else
but the trees and me walking
under all their leaves and branches
walking all morning under the trees.
~Billy Collins “Walking Under the Trees”

I’m fortunate to have grown up in the land of trees, here in the Evergreen State of Washington. I spent hours and hours just walking or riding my horse in the woods of my childhood home. When I moved away to a state without many trees, I felt abandoned and lonesome. I had to find my way back.

Sometimes the woods can feel claustrophobic and I need to see a horizon to be aware of the comings and goings of the sun. Fortunately, on this farm where we raised our children, we can move easily from one to the other.

Each day, I’m reminded of the wondrous journey I am on. As a child, I always imagined living in a place of happy leaves. Growing up, I looked until I found it.

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O Hushed October Morning

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away…

~Robert Frost “October”

These mornings I wander stunned by light and mist
to see trees tremble inside their loosening cloaks,
a pulsing palette of color ready to detach,
revealing mere bones and branches.

I want it all to be less brief,
leave the leaves attached like a fitted mosaic
rather than randomly falling away.

Their release is not their choosing:
the trees know it is time for slowly letting go~
readying for sleep, for sprouts and buds,
for fresh tapestry to be woven
from October’s leaves lying about their feet.

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The Shadow of the Mercy of Light

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past, and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is a part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

What is the way to the woods, how do you go there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness, and joy. By passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high, original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the strait way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.

Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come in among these trees you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
~Wendell Berry, “Sabbath 1985 V”

We who live in the six day world, walking the six day path to the narrow gate forget too quickly about the seventh day Sabbath. The meaning of our existence is not defined by how much we accomplish in the week, or how capable we are at carrying our burdens.

We are invited to walk through the narrow way, where worries and heavy loads cannot fit the opening.

Passing through shadow is part of reaching the light. The mercy of the shadow is — then we know light exists.

Light beyond shadow, Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!

Hope in our pain and our dying. in our darkness,
there is Light, in our crying, there is Love,
in the noise of life imparting Peace that passes understanding.

Light beyond shadow, Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

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A Decent Little Cottage

Imagine yourself as a living house. 
God comes in to rebuild that house. 
At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. 
He is getting the drains right
and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; 

you knew that those jobs needed doing
and so you are not surprised. 

But presently He starts
knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably 

and does not seem to make any sense. 
What on earth is He up to? 
The explanation is that He is building
quite a different house from the one you thought of – 

throwing out a new wing here, 
putting on an extra floor there, 
running up towers, 
making courtyards. 
You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: 
but He is building a palace. 
He intends to come and live in it Himself.
~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

Whether bunker or cottage or palace,
when I seek shelter, safety or simplicity,
it is not enough.
I am not a dwelling for God
until His remodel project is finished~

He puts down His chisel, hammer and saw,
sees what He has salvaged from the junk heap,
looks me over
and declares it good.

My father’s treehouse is twenty seven years old this summer, lonesome and empty high up in the black walnut tree in our front yard. It remains a constant reminder of my father’s own abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams.

Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even my writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe to visit, as the support branches in its century-old tree are weakening with age and time. It is on our list of farm restoration projects, but other falling down buildings must be prioritized first.

My father’s dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My dad, retired from his desk job and having recently survived a lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous daunting building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building it on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider a project less risky, and praying the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather did clear just as my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

I decided his dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was completed a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck surrounded by a protective railing, a trap door, and staircase up the trunk. We had an open tree celebration and had 15 friends and neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as the main weight-bearing branch is weakening with age. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  As I look out my front window, it remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and those yet unfulfilled. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots, but its muscle strength is failing. It will, inevitably come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and for 20+ years, they’ve been raising five children there.  The treehouse kids are old enough to come work for me on our farm, a full circle feeling for me.  This next generation is carrying on a Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams myself, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that the years and the seasons slip by me faster and faster as I near the age my father was when he first learned he had cancer. It would be a blessing to me to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Like my father, I will some day teeter in the wind like our old tree, barely hanging on. When ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand off my dreams too. The time will have come to let them go. Thank you, Dad, for handing me yours.

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Who Can Know?

I do not like to think about my life,
one lived too often without original fire.


I would rather walk among the serious trees,
hooded by important weather, by immense silences.


I’d rather unravel the wind’s calligraphies,
letter by letter, and spell myself into the world,


a glittering altar of atoms, all aswirl.
Who can know what will happen to each of us,


as time’s currents bend and assail us,
as gravity pulls us further into ourselves?


Better to be buoyed skyward, to modestly reach out
to the palaver of raindrops, to the silky leaves,


so that the air’s amazement stirs an answering
ripple among my own heavy branches.


Let me lose myself in the star’s mute company,
among the steady wanderers of night


whose eyes ignite a cupola of yearnings.
Crown me with a wreath of stars unmoored


from desire, untampered by this ache
for a blaze beyond the tremor of my fingertips.

~Maurya Simon, “A Thousand Acres of Light” from Cartographies 

I take myself too seriously,
thinking everything in my life must be planned
so I am prepared for what could happen next –

Of course it is impossible
as who can know?

Each day the unexpected happens
if I am willing to recognize it:
the rush of the wind, the drenching of raindrops,
the tingle of the winter sun on my face.

In that moment I might find endless perfection.

Even the thriving among us may lie down this night
and fail to wake tomorrow,
atoms toppled over, leaves shriveled, roots exposed,
no longer needing to breathe
much sooner than planned.

Let me lose myself in that thought:
what is lost here is more than replaced by
the joy of beholding the Face of the Eternal God.

Faire is the heav’n, where happy souls have place,
In full enjoyment of felicitie,
Whence they doe still behold the glorious face
Of the divine, eternall Majestie…

Yet farre more faire be those bright Cherubins
Which all with golden wings are overdight,
And those eternall burning Seraphins,
Which from their faces dart out fierie light;
Yer fairer than they both, and much more bright,
Be th’ Angels and Archangels which attend
On God’s owne person, without rest or end.

These then is faire each other farre excelling
As to the Highest they approach more neare,
Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling
Fairer than all the rest which there appeare,
Though all their beauties joynd together were:
How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse
The image of such endlesse perfectnesse?
~Edmund Spenser

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A Puzzling Light

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something;

A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light…
~John Ashbery from “Some Trees”

Surrounded as we are by special trees on this farm, I watch them carefully through the seasons.
I hope to learn what they have to teach me about adaptation to change
through the driest of hot days,
to the coloring and loss of their leafy wardrobes,
to the barren nakedness of winter,
to the renewal of buds adorning spring branches.

Trees have plenty to say, but all in invisible silence. I’ve read about the communication that takes place underground between them via their roots and I have to say — I feel left out knowing I don’t speak or understand their language.

So I learn from trees by observing what is visible above the ground, especially when the light is just right.

Simply by merely being here, year after year – that means something.

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