Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Beauty of Distant Light, Interrupted

Some people, I recognize, simply know this kind of stuff. They are bent that way.  Perhaps they took lots of science classes in school, or in a fit of curiosity along the way, studied up on it and integrated the perfectly fitted knowledge.  That's not me.

I was not the math and science guy so in vogue these days.  I sang in the school choir, competed with the speech team, and performed in school plays.  I didn't blow things up in the science lab.  In college, when the curriculum forced me into yet another lab science, I tried to get "Gourmet Cooking" qualified - it included a lab requirement, after all - but the Dean said "no." Word around campus was that Astronomy was the blow-off class that anybody could pass.  I registered, faithfully attended the first four classes and then, with an exam closely approaching and I not having understood a single word heard or read, quietly dropped the class.

But the evening sky this week erased all that feckless indifference.  It was, hmm, different.  It was as haunting as it was beautiful.  I was captivated, curiously troubled and yet strangely warmed.  For once I wanted more than to simply receive it with gratitude; this time I wanted to somehow understand it.  How can it be that somewhere in the universe above me and the chicken yard, in the waning moments of a day suspended in the stranglehold of a season stifled by cloying pandemic fear and isolation a phenomenon so evocative and poignant could ephemerally materialize?  I snapped the picture, but by the time I returned indoors a few moments later it was gone.

Where does the purple/pink of sunset come from?  Scratching around several internet-offered explanations, I could only smile at the summary answer.  I should have guessed. It's almost always the explanation of the origin of larger-than-life beauty.

Obstacles surmounted.

In the vineyard, the best grapes emerge from vines that have struggled  into challenging soil.  On the stage or the playing field, the finest, most artful performances result from the most rigorous practice and rehearsal.  And in the evening sky, it turns out that the most alluring colors are daubed by sunlight that has traveled the farthest from the horizon, along the way stripped of its light-weight blues by molecular obstacles and interferences and storm clouds.


It is color that has had to work hard to find us.  And the result is beauty, itself.

Somehow, in days like these when obstacles and limitations and the ominous hovering of metaphorical clouds are palpably - oppressively - present; in this season during which beauty seems a distant enough and pale phenomenon, this wisdom from the evening sky speaks grace to me.  And I not only better understand; I am even more deeply grateful.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

A World-Renewing Fire*

Every three or four years, the 3-acre native prairie which we established with the help of the DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service a number of years ago needs burning.  It is a process that, for millions of years - billions, more likely -  happened naturally courtesy of lightening and such; but we tend to prefer our fires a little more controlled here in the neighborhood of our home. And so it is that when conditions are right - meaning “dry enough” and “still enough,” the contractor appears with his crew and reduces the 6-7 foot tall grasses - the blue stems and switchgrass, the little bluestem and the June grass - to ash.  And so it happened again last weekend.
Ferocious in its execution and stark in its aftermath, the burning is, nonetheless, therapeutically and horticulturally beneficial.  The fire clears the accumulated detritus and debris that builds up across the seasons; it stunts the invasives, strengthening and vitalizing the forbs and the grasses, allowing them time to get a head start on growth.  The fire is nature's channel of resiliency - deepening roots, opening seeds, and clearing the accumulated obstacles to growth.
I try to remember all that as I survey the scene through the windows that have sequestered us these past several weeks as a global pandemic has forced us into isolation.  Our beloved prairie wreaks with a charred stench; it looks like a scar; and it feels like a death, though the truth of it, I have come to trust, is exactly the opposite.
I don’t know if, analogically - metaphorically - any of that has any resonance in this season outside of all of our windows that feels, for all the world, like death.  But I am not unaware of all the accretions that build up in our cultures and lives that need purging; and the invasives that intervine our souls whose stunting would happily benefit us; and the hard-shelled seeds that only calamity can encourage open.  
I recall the stories and insights of all the spiritual mystics - people like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Francis and Clare and more modern ones since for whom "suffering" was the doorway to profound enlightenment and depth; "torment" the window opening onto ecstasy and glory; for whom "humility" and "surrender" were discipleship - quite in contrast to our preference for tranquility and pleasure, and our determination to dominate and control.  
Concurrently I recall all those biblical images of loss and gain, death and life that form the furrows of our faith…
…and I hope there is some transfering resonance.  We grieve the loss of precious lives in this viral fire, there is no burnishing that pain.  But we do not lament the exposure and loss of the lies we tell ourselves and each other, the arrogances we animate, the bigotries we protect, the delusion of independence we pridefully salute.  These, perhaps, will all beneficially come to ash.  
I try to see the blackened prairie through different eyes - vision shaped, in part, by Frederich Buechner who noted through the eyes of faith that, in God’s hands, “the worst thing is never the last thing.”
And so we take a deep breath, never minding the occasional residual whiff of fiery smoke, and continue our work as best we are able. 

* Adapted from a meditation offered to the Trustees of Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth TX, April 24, 2020; the title modifying a phrase by Wendell Berry.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Curious about the Movements in the Night

"To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight,and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings."---Wendell Berry

Something visited the coops during the night.  Evidence of determined digging shows itself outside the door and along the side of two of the coops.  Whatever it was made little progress, whether due to concluded futility, weariness, or distraction I cannot say.  The activity does not overly worry me.  Even if the critter had succeeded in its tunneling, it only would have entered the run.  The birds, quietly nesting in the chamber above, were safely secured behind a protective door, wedged immovably closed behind the raised ramp.  The visitor would have been sorely disappointed for all its efforts.

So, it isn't worry that gives me pause, but curiosity.  What was it?

The likeliest culprit is a raccoon.  They are certainly common in the area, have visited and reconnoitered the coops before, and tend to be persistent.  But it could, as well, have been an opossum - more than one of which has found its way into the occasional live traps I set when their attentions grow bothersome.  Neither is a skunk beyond the realm of possibility, though I hope that isn't the case.  I could do without that olfactory complication.  And these in no way exhaust the possibilities.

Closer inspection might reveal subtler clues - a paw print, perhaps, or the scratch trail of a toenail.  Even without actually releasing, surely a skunk would leave behind some trace of its scent.  Lack of damage to the fence suggests that the visitor was either agile enough to leap over, or small enough to scoot under - this latter, it seems to me, likelier than the former.  Deer have never shown the least bit of interest in the chickens, and though wildcats and coyotes could almost surely clear the four-foot barrier, I've not been aware of such interest in the past.

And so here I am, surprisingly fascinated.  I could set up a light, but that rather reminds me of the old joke about the man looking under a street light for his lost keys.  When asked by a passerby if the man had lost them in this area the searcher replied, "no but this where the light is."  I could, then, set up a light, but that would only stake out the location where the visitor would absolutely not be.  Alternatively, I could set up an infrared wildlife camera, but that would necessitate me buying one - precisely the kind of investment in which I am more and more disinterested.  Or I could make occasional forays with a flashlight, almost surely scaring away anything of interest.  That, and as Berry notes in the poem, to go into the dark with a light is to only know the light.

If I truly want to meet my guest, I will need to heed the rest of Berry's poetic advice:  I will need to go dark in order to know the dark and the dark feet and wings that inhabit it.

Which, of course, is scarily vulnerable.  Risky, even.  I may not like what I find, or be safe in its presence.  Or get sprayed in the process.

But it could, just as well, be something quite wondrous - something I have never seen, and know nothing about, but that, knowing, could enlarge me.

Like so much about this sequestered time in which the lights are off in every existential way.  We hear scratching around our psychic and emotional periphery, and are aware that things are happening, but the ambiguity, the unfamiliarity - the great veil of blindness and unknowing - keep us paralyzed, and afraid; "inside" in more ways than one.

I wonder what it would mean to explore the darkness of this new time - in the dark - instead of retreating from it, grappling for any light that might be within reach.  I'm not talking about venturing out among the infection; I'm wondering about venturing out into the unknown created by the virus - the solitude, the different constancy of family time, the more limited availability of goods and distractions and options; navigating within new constraints, testing heretofore unseen capacities and sampling untapped resourcefulness.  As long as we confine ourselves to the lighted spaces, we will only know what we have known.

Something has been scratching around out there in the darkness - digging, exploring, sniffing.  Once upon a time I would have panicked.

Now, in more ways than one, I'm curious about what's out there...

...in the dark.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Protection in Anticipation of Tomorrow

Cleo is brooding again.  Cleo - short for "Cleopatra" - is the Light Sussex hen who has taken up residence in the further reaches beneath the freshman coop.  Presumably on top of eggs.  It happened once before, not quite a year ago, and so we recognize the signs.  She rarely moves.  Occasionally I see her sipping from the waterer or taking in a little feed, but mostly she settles herself in the bedding in the crawl space beneath the coop.  We have another week or so to wait before learning if there is actually something to hatch beneath her maternally spread frame, or if she has simply wearied of the company of her coop mates and opted for more private accommodations.  I'm betting on the former.

Last time this happened, the resulting chick received hovering supervision until the three care-giving nanny hens offered it enough space and exposure to apparently come to a bad end.  But that hatch occurred beneath a different, more public coop.  This time, the brooding is playing out beneath the freshman coop which is already secluded and separately fenced.  Should new life emerge, I'm determined to give it a better chance.  Yesterday I added a new layer of more securing fence inside the existing mesh, just in case.

The garden fence, too, has needed some attention.  A deer fence surrounds the entirety of it, but while the polypropylene mesh satisfactorily keeps away the deer, rabbits are undeterred.  Hence, the additional layer of chicken wire around the entire 1/3 acre circumference. But after 8+ years, even the chicken wire has been breached.  There are holes.  Here and there.


Already needing to modify the outline of the fence, we took this week's opportunity to remove all the old wire and prepare the perimeter for new.  In the coming days we will pull intruding grasses, lay out shade cloth, and encircle the growing space with fresh protection.

In our off-minutes, we have pulled emerging grasses from around the rhubarb just peaking above the surface.

It has felt good, and productive in this season when vulnerability is the only news.

Here in the midst of virus-necessitated semi-isolation on the farmstead, we have been dutifully compliant - washing our hands, sanitizing countertops, keeping our distance from lurking infection, eating healthy foods, and opening ourselves to the sunshine whenever it chooses to break through the spring clouds and rain.  And that is all well and good.  Good, and prudent, but ultimately grounded in fear.  Protecting ourselves is certainly a priority, but anticipating chicks hatching beneath the coop and food growing in the garden is a welcome alternative. It feels hopeful more than fearful.

Generative more than precautionary.

Incubational more than prophylactic.

And as I say, it feels good - to protect, to anticipate, to plant seeds in the greenhouse; to do more than wait and prevent, but to prepare...

...and protect.

It's not enough, after all, to merely live another day.  It is beckoning to think there might be something warm and animated and nourishing in that next day that warrants us being there.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Perhaps the Other Buds We Simply Haven't Seen

Filling the depleted feed bins in the chicken coops, I notice a change in the young fruit trees planted just beyond.  We are in the wide space of winter here in the upper midwest - so deeply into the thick of it that neither beginning nor ending is any longer or yet in view.  The days are thick with cold, and the sun is more capricious surprise than reliable presence.  Days are lengthening as we slide glacially, if inexorably, toward spring; but still they are short, with outdoor activity confined to essentials.  Maintaining the feeders and the waterers is hurriedly accomplished, without extra moments commonly built in for observant reflection.

But this morning the sun made one of its celebratory cameo appearances - like one of those movie stars who occasionally, unexpectedly opened a window as Batman and Robin scaled the exterior of a building on the old '60's television show.  The morning is frigid, but somehow companionable; hospitable, despite the chill.  I took in a deep, cleansing breath, surveyed the wide view, and then the nearer one.  And that's when I noticed the buds.

The chickens share a 1/3-acre enclosure with a dozen or so fruit trees - apples, pears, pawpaws, persimmons and figs.  The trees are juvenile, but even so provide a shady respite beneath the foliage of summer.  In recent months they have looked naked and dead, but clearly they have been busy throughout these wintry weeks.  Buds now swell at regular intervals throughout the twiggy branches.  Countless packages of promise, stirring, preparing, gathering momentum for the sweet possibilities ahead.

It's hard not to smile at the prospects.  We are hungry for even a hint of something more flavorful.  Nothing, of course, is guaranteed.  There is always the threat of harmful insects and disease; and there is much pruning to accomplish between now and then.  But it is good to find promissory notes abounding and surrounding - metaphorically as well as literally.

There isn't a lot of good news these days.  Culturally - globally - it is a cold winter, indeed.  We seem more intent on chopping each other down than encouraging much growth.  Th air is poisonous; our interactions are toxic. Everyone seems angry or fearful, or both.  We mock, we ridicule, we impute and then impugn one another's motives as if we had clear windows into the soul of others, and we, alone, are righteous.  It isn't the stuff of fruitfulness.

Or hope.

We have come to view the essence of evil in the guise of each other.  Today is bleak enough that there isn't much incentive to look up and out and beyond.

The buds, however, offer opportunistic distraction.  Here and here, there and there they break the surface of apparent death with an eruption of promise.  Of course the trees, themselves, afford that hint as well, but it is subtler.  They necessarily require a longer view, albeit one that, precisely because of that longer view, I am prone to forget.  But the buds, thriving amidst a shorter calendar, foretell a more accessible fruit.

I should be able to hang onto the promise of that turnaround - the farmstead, after all, is constantly teaching that lesson in one way or another.  Decay is never the final word.  Autumn's decline and winter's dormancy are eventually replaced by spring.  Even the fetid stench of today's decay signals a transformation into tomorrow's feeding nutrients.  I should remember, and trust, and keep pushing forward, but what with the iciness of winter and the acrid smoke of our interactions, I forget.

And then a budding branch catches my attention - like a burning bush - speaking a word of promise.  A prophetic word in fact.  "I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11).

Hope.  And a future.


"We can get through this," I think to myself.

And suddenly it's not so cold after all.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Promise of Warming Fires to Come

I left my glasses inside.  They wouldn't have been much use where I am headed.  The warm, moist breath inside my balaclava greeting the -2 degree air outside would have resulted in a foggy blindness that I can't afford.  It's foolishness to choose a hike in the woods on a day like today in which frostbite and snow-covered footing make every moment and step precarious.  But the breeze was still and the sky was blue and I am obsessed with the new trails we have cleared beyond the prairie.

Multi-layered, then, from feet to head to hands, I crunched across the glistening snow, smiling at the morning greetings from "Gallo the Younger" and "Sam the Elder" who christen the chicken yard with cock-a-doodle-doos.

It's becoming habit to start where the trail used to end - down the eastern path toward the derelict fire pit now sadly overgrown.  The circling stones have even shifted over time, with the appearance that some are even missing, though I find none fallen or scattered nearby.  It's hard to imagine the squirrels pushing them away or the deer finding for them alternate uses, but there are gaps, nonetheless.

Only once have we filled the ring and ignited it into its intended purpose - shortly after moving to the farmstead, when the kids were visiting.  We stacked kindling and logs and stuffed newspapers and coaxed it all, finally, into flames.  We roasted marshmallows and made s'mores - standing around the fire because we hadn't thought to bring chairs.  It's a fond memory, but we never repeated it for reasons I don't recall.  I have an aversion to dead ends, and perhaps for no other reason, after awhile, this little cul-de-sac in our woods faded from my interest.

Until now, that is, since we have opened a way beyond.  Now my imagination is constantly drawn down that lane, even on a morning like this one when wiser souls remain inside beneath a coverlet, in  a comfortable chair near the fireplace, with a book.  I lunk along inside all my quilted layers, stiffly, like the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man, the only sounds the crowing of the roosters, the songs of the birds in the branches, and the skittering of the rabbit I've disturbed up ahead.  It's worth the cold to enter this crystalline carpeted, tree-walled chapel.  The path is an aisle; the slope into the valley below a transept; the overreaching branches a dome to rival the Sistine Chapel; the deer droppings, in a surreal sort of way an offering of their own.  Tracks of multiple kinds confirm that this is an active sanctuary.  Cold, yes, but hushed.  Holy. How could I not be here with this congregation?

I walk through, first one direction; then, having completed the circle, repeat it down the opposite way to change my angle of vision.  And then, again, the fire ring - overgrown, but in the snow still distinct.




"We will kindle fire here again," I promise the silent stones, "and this time we will sit...and linger."

The stones made no response, but I smile with anticipatory satisfaction and resolve.  There is something sacred, after all, about stirring cold embers and a dormant hearth into flame.  Vocational, even - this business of enkindling a spent fire.  A pastoral - prophetic, even - prayer.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

That the Real Work Might Begin

After the initiating roar and snip of New Year's Day, the Way-making has continued in our woods these past two days.  The presenting task has been to link last week's new path with an existing access point along the fence line at the northwest edge of the prairie, via a deeper loop of cleared ground.  The stub of a trail has long-since extended past the large cedar tree at that intersection, but quickly dissolved into the thicket of scrub and brush and densely growing trees.  It's passable in winter while the branches are bare, but forbidding throughout the rest of the year as if nature was protecting secrets.

Yesterday consisted of "macro" work, the brush mower snarling its way through saplings and scrub.  It was trial and error progress, the Way more opaque than last week's clearing.  More than once, stumped, I quieted the engine and walked in circles, prospecting the way forward, before turning the key and activating the blades to make the discerned way plain.  I made mistakes, abandoned halted progress, found myself briefly lost, and ultimately followed the way tantalizingly close to the edge of a drainage ravine, eroded there by years - decades - of rain and wash.  Loosely roofing the ruts nearby was a lattice work of roots, the soil below and around them long-since washed away.

Eventually, the cedar sentinel came into view, this first swath, rough cut, completed.

Today the hand work - the "micro" pruning - commenced.  With less difficulty than I feared, I located yesterday's rudimentary efforts and pressed the loppers into more detailed labor.  I had quietly dreaded this slower, more retail undertaking and hoped to quickly snip my way through.  But as often happens, the Way, itself, became wondrous.  The details became distracting.  The woodland floor was littered with branches and twigs naturally pruned through the years - the brittle stories of winters and winds past, written in the kindling.  There were fallen trees - woody elders with whom time had caught up through northers or age or shifts in the soil beneath them.  There were the stubs of dead branches on a trunk's lower reaches, laddering the way up to vigorous older siblings higher up.

And there was deception.  Sturdy, intimidating saplings turned out to be shallowly rooted and easily pulled away.  Harmless looking branches I expected to easily snap out of their encroachment proved dense and solid and beyond the blades of my assault.  Branching, imposing arms the thickness of my own snapped off at the slightest touch, fooling with their faux facade.  A first-impressioned clearing proved canopied by overweaving fingers from mirroring trees on either side.

It was beautiful, it was fascinating, daunting and hypnotizing; and by the time I reached, again, that landmarking cedar I was disappointed that the circuit was completed.  To be sure, there is more trimming and pruning to be done - and no doubt will be in perpetuity.  I need to return, sooner rather than later.  But this time I'll enter with a different set of eyes.  I had broached this quietly strange world with one presumed work to do, but in attending to it, and despite my furtive glances, my loppers had distracted me from the larger labor of seeing and listening, and allowing myself to be...

spoken to,
and taught.

Perhaps that will be the work - the real work - of tomorrow, the weather of this unpredictable winter permitting.