I know where this road ends to the east: at the very edge of the Cascade foothills, right in the middle of a small tribal nation trying to survive challenging economic times on their reservation land.
Heading west from here, there is another tribal nation trying to survive. In between are farmers who are having to sell their dairy herds because milk prices aren’t keeping up with the cost of maintaining their business. There are families now without sustainable wage employment because large industries have pulled up stakes and closed their doors. There is land that is overpriced as people flee the cities to come to rural surroundings because of ongoing pandemic shutdowns and worries.
There is much sadness all along this country road during times like these, but that’s not new. In another 100 years it will still not be new. There will always be foggy and stormy days interspersed among times of hope and light.
We remain a diverse people of tears and struggle, but we take turns carrying one another when one has what another does not. We still have the sun and the rain and the soil, the turning of the seasons and the rhythm of sun up and sun down.
Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.
He loved mountains, or he has loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire. ~J.R.R. Tolkienfrom The Lord of the Rings
Yesterday afternoon we drove up the highway an hour or so to be witness to grander things than our own worries or the chaos of election season.
There is always that moment when we turn the bend into Heather Meadows and Mount Shuksan suddenly appears, overwhelming the landscape and everything and everyone else. There is simply nothing else to look at so I stand there gawking, forgetting to breathe.
Then I realize that I have become more self-conscious rather than less: here am I at the foot of this incredible creation, wondering at how blessed I am to be there, and that moment becomes all about me. The mountain has been here for eons and will continue to be here for eons, and I’m merely a momentary witness.
We had left behind all the divisiveness and drama and talking heads: up in the mountains there was such sheer stillness all around us – nary a breeze or a bird call or even a bug making ripples on the lakes to spoil the perfect reflection.
I brought these images back with me to remember my moment of awestruck witness. The photographic image isn’t the real mountain, it isn’t even the pristine perfect reflection. Yet it means I was privileged to watch the mountain watching me back, welcoming me home.
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. ~ C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse… ~Long time equestrian wisdom attributed to many famous riders
Nineteen years ago today in 2001, two days before the world changed forever, I helped organize a gathering of Haflinger horse owners from western Canada and the United States in our nearby town of Lynden, Washington. We received permission to have a Haflinger parade on a quiet Sunday morning while the townspeople were all in church. We wanted to be sure we would not interfere with traffic coming to town and leaving after worship services.
It was a remarkable morning of over ninety Haflingers – riding, driving, walking their horses, enjoying the quiet peace of a Sabbath morning in a friendly little town.
After September 11, 2001, nothing has felt quiet or calm in the same way ever again.
This is to remember the day we spent together, in the insides of us enjoying the outsides of our horses.
…I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain…. I am opaque, so much black asphalt.
I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator — our very self-consciousness — is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends. I get in the car and drive home. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
We drive up the highway an hour or so to lose ourselves rather than become more self-conscious. We want to be witness to grander things.
Once we turn the bend into Heather Meadows, Mount Shuksan suddenly appears, overwhelming the landscape. There is simply nothing else to look at so I stand there gawking, forgetting to breathe. Then I realize that I have become more self-conscious rather than less: here am I at the foot of this incredible creation, wondering at how blessed I am to be there, and it becomes all about me. The mountain has been here for eons and will continue to be here for eons, and we’re merely passing through, bubbles floating on the unending stream of time.
Yesterday we were completely alone in what typically is a place of many gawkers, all setting up tripods and clicking cameras. It was absolutely silent – even the birds had abandoned the chilly hills for warmer climes lower down.
Most remarkable yesterday was the stillness meant there was a double delight: two mountains, reflection and the real thing herself. It is the most glass-like the lakes have been on our many visits.
We had to finally climb in the car and head back down the highway to home. I carry these images back with me to remember that moment of awestruck witness. The image isn’t the real thing, it isn’t even the real reflection. Yet it is me watching the mountain watching me back.
On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress, grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I never looked back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle, now leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.
Never before had I felt such exhilaration at breaking through one wall to discover the unknown that lay on the other side.
I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family had begun. We were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn.
A real (sort of) starter farm.
Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me, just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that admittedly impulsive commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed brand new.
I will never forget the feeling of freedom on that drive north out of the traffic congestion of the city. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.
We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals: Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. We soon added little brother Ben and seven years later, sister Lea. We settled happily into parenthood, our church community, serving on school and community boards, gardening, and enduring the loss of our parents one by one.
Thirty four years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm. Our sons married wonderful women, moving far away from home, our daughter teaches a fourth grade classroom a few hours away and we have two grandchildren with the third expected any moment.
A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fit me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day for thirty years. With retirement looming, I’m trying out a three day a week schedule and the old sweater doesn’t fit quite so comfortably.
My happily retired husband finds he is busier than ever: volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.
That rainy Halloween day over three decades ago I was freed into a wider world. I would no longer sit captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams. Instead I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a broader community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian and snow geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.
It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty four years and three grown children and three (almost) grandchildren later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together. We’re still pregnant with the possibility that a wide world is waiting, just on the other side of the wall.
We must go up into the chase in the evenings, and pray there with nothing but God’s cloud temple between us and His heaven!
…and then all still – hushed – awe-bound, as the great thunderclouds slide up from the far south! Then, there to praise God! ~Charles Kingsley
Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. ~Celtic saying
To make myself understood and to diminish the distance between us, I called out: “I am an evening cloud too.” They stopped still, evidently taking a good look at me. Then they stretched towards me their fine, transparent, rosy wings. That is how evening clouds greet each other. They had recognized me. ~Rainer Maria Rilke, Stories of God
We do not live in a part of the world with extremes in weather and for that I’m immensely grateful. We are moderate in temperature range, precipitation, wind velocity – for the most part.
Our cloud cover is mostly solid gray much of the time, very plain and unassuming, barely worth noticing.
When there are a few days each season of dramatic clouds, the horizon takes on a different feel, telling a new story, inviting our attention and admiration and welcoming us closer.
Heaven is nearer; the clouds recognize us and greet us with their rosy wings. The thin place between earth and heaven becomes thin indeed.
What I remember is the ebb and flow of sound That summer morning as the mower came and went And came again, crescendo and diminuendo, And always when the sound was loudest how it ceased A moment while he backed the horses for the turn, The rapid clatter giving place to the slow click And the mower’s voice. That was the sound I listened for, The voice did what the horses did. It shared the action As sympathetic magic does or incantation. The voice hauled and the horses hauled. The strength of one Was in the other and in the strength was impatience. Over and over as the mower made his rounds I heard his voice and only once or twice he backed And turned and went ahead and spoke no word at all. ~Robert Francis “The Sound I Listened For” from Collected Poems
In the rural countryside where we live, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past and experience working the land in a way that honors the traditions of our forebears.
A good teamster primarily works with his horses using his voice. No diesel engine means hearing bird calls from the surrounding fields and woods, along with the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day.
There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of motors are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing — time to stop and take a breather, time to start back up and do a few more rows, time to water, time for a meal, time for a nap, time for a rest in a shady spot.
This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before. This is gentle to our ears and our souls, measuring the ebb and flow of sound and silence.
The horse-drawn field mower is a sound I listen for, if not next door then in my dreams.