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

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A Simple Field

Field with Wheat Stacks – Van Gogh

He fell in love with a simple field
of wheat, and I’ve felt this way, too;
melted, like a pool of mint chip
ice cream, foolishly in love,
even though we know
how it turns out in the end:
snicked by the scythe, burnt
in the furnace of the August
sun, threshed, separated, kernel
from chaff. But right now,
it’s spring, and the wheat aligns
in orderly rows: Yellow green.
Snap pea. Sage. Celadon.
His brush strokes pile on,
wave after wave, as the haystacks
liquefy, slide off the canvas,
roll on down to the sea.

~Barbara Crooker “Field with Wheat Stacks” from Les Fauves.

Wheat Field with Sheaves -Vincent Van Gogh
Sheaves of Wheat in a Field –Vincent Van Gogh
Ears of Wheat – Van Gogh 1890

There is nothing here but wheat, no blade
too slight for his attention: long swaying
brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows,
the hopefulness of early spring. All grass
is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no
gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms,
no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers
roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight.
His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental
concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded
into the underpainting. He let the wind play
through the stems like a violin, turning the surface
liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents.
No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat.
~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from Les Fauves

I continually fall in love with the fields in my world – I’m unable to take my eyes off them as they green up in the spring, as they wave in the breeze in June, as they turn into gold in August.

Each day brings a change to record and remember.

The colors pile on, one after another after another until it all must be cut short, harvested, stored and consumed, leaving behind the raw shorn remnants.

Yet in stubble is the memory of something that was once truly grand and beautiful and will be again.

Even stubble in a simple field reminds me of what is yet to come.

Hope Increased

iriswinter

Van Gogh's Irises
Van Gogh’s Irises

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 which had become overgrown following his sudden cardiac death in his mid-fifties.  In her ongoing ebb and flow with her grief, she brought to us several paper bags full of iris roots resting solemnly in clumps of dirt–dry misshapened feet and fingers crippled and homely — such unlikely sources of hope and healing.

We were late in the year getting them into the ground but they rewarded us with immense forgiveness. They took hold in the freedom of space in a new home and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape. Over the years they continue 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 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 will bloom so all can see and know: hope grows here.

iris514152.jpg

irisrain3

irissunset

cedarsprings18

irisrain

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
~Thomas Hardy “The Darkling Thrush” written on New Year’s Eve 1899

Pursued by Poplars

poplargold

poplarrowoct

poplartorches

poplarswinter

A row of Populus Nigra (Latin for “people of the dark”), otherwise known as Lombardy Poplars, seems to be following me.  I feel pursued by this long border of eighty-plus year old poplars on the west edge of our farm.  The trees themselves, supposedly nearing the end of a typical poplar life span, are grand massively tall specimens, their leaves and branches noisily reacting to the tiniest of breezes.  In greater winds, they bend and sway wildly, almost elastic.  The trees themselves are certainly not going anywhere in their hot pursuit of me, but beneath the ground is a remarkable stealth root system that is creeping outward, reaching inch by inch closer to the house.

That is what strikes fear in my heart.

If I leave those roots undisturbed for only a few months, they swell to arm size, lying just below the surface of the ground, busily sprouting numerous new little Populus Nigra along the length of the root.   These are no cute babyish innocent little seedlings.  These are seriously hungry plants determined to be fed from the roots as if from a fire hose.  They literally put on inches over a week;  they are over 6 feet tall in a month or two.   If I am not paying attention, suddenly I’m faced with dozens of new poplar babies, each sucking on a communal maternal umbilical cord.

I have no choice but to seek and destroy on a regular basis.  It is a shock and awe operation.  I’m shocked at the growth and awed at the strength of the adversary.   Many of these simply cannot be pulled up from the dust by hand as the process results in a root crawling many yards long, heading east toward the house like a heat-seeking missile.  To finish off the job, sometimes the root must be removed entirely by tractor.  I am here to certify that it is impossible to remove sufficient root system to stem the Populus Nigra tide.  It will always return, healthier than before.

I do have to admire this tree for its fortitude as well as its beauty.  As a wind break, it is unparalleled, its leaves melodious in the breeze.   It sheds its foliage as well as dying branches in the fall, messily scattering itself as far as arboreally possible, so tends to precipitate warming bonfires on autumn evenings.   Lastly, it makes for great artwork by the likes of Monet and Van Gogh, creating predictability, uniformity and symmetry both in their paintings and in the palette of our farmscape.

The poplars may be pursuing me but I enjoy the chase.  I gaze with appreciation at our row of poplars’ dark outline against the horizon during orange sunsets.  I miss their hubbub of constant activity when their leaves drop for winter.  Stripped naked, they wait in surreptitious silence for the rush of spring warmth and moisture to start creeping forward again, the gush of sap plumping up seedlings like balloons, once again growing clones against all odds.

My husband suggested it was time to take the poplars down before they break over in their old age, overcome in the strong northeasters.  I must disagree.  They deserve the chance to fight off our struggle to the finish to prevent infiltration beyond their defined border row.

Being pursued by a tree is never a bad thing.   I am humbled their shallow roots will likely outlast me even as I try to take them out, inviting me into the dust to join them.

 

Van Gogh Poplars in Autumnpoplars in autumn –Van Gogh

 

Van Gogh Avenue of PoplarsAvenue of Poplars — Van Gogh

From spring to autumn 1891, Monet devoted himself to the treatment of a new subject, the only one he painted throughout this period: poplar trees. He produced a group of about 20 canvases depicting the trees planted on the edge of a marsh situated on the left bank of the Epte, two kilometres upstream from Giverny. The site had been put up for sale during the summer, and the plan was to cut down these trees. After the mayor had refused to grant a reprieve, Monet found himself forced to pay a sum of money to the timber merchant to stop the trees being felled before he had finished the series. Having set up in a boat, he made the most of the perspective effect offered by the line of poplars, which followed the winding course of the river upstream, forming a kind of large ‘S’. He was then able to form decorative compositions that were built around curved lines and counterbalanced by the verticals of the trunks. Monet painted several sub-series, reproducing the trees face-on and reflected in the river, but sometimes he reduced the motif to the simple vertical line of the trunks. With this new series, the painter repeated the approach he had undertaken the previous year with the Meules. The titles echo those he had chosen for that first series. The aim was identical in both cases: to depict the variations in light and seasons. The ‘instantaneity’ of these paintings is meant to convey the impression one feels when encountering the subject at a precise moment. The poplars series was the first to be exhibited without any other painting, as a complete entity in itself, when it was shown in the Durand-Ruel gallery in 1892.