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.

Friday, January 3, 2020

A Fresh Path Despite the Brush, the Mud, and the Thorns

On New Year's Day we cleared a new path.


It seemed like the right way to spend this morning of new beginnings.  Indeed, a biblical way, if the prophet Isaiah has it right.

When we purchased the property we would name "Taproot Garden", now well-over 8 years ago, we discovered a path on the eastern edge of our property that led to a clearing with an old fire pit in disrepair.  Perhaps our predecessors - or their children - had camped in the near, but secluded, space.  It has ever since been a beckoning mystery - evocative in its remove - save for one limitation.  The path went nowhere, except to the clearing.  There, the way reached a dead end, with little alternative but to turn around and retrace your steps.  We have dreamed of extending the path to connect with the prairie trail, but the woods are thick and brushy, and the challenge of hacking our way through the trees and the brush perennially dissuaded us.  The dead end has endured...


Meanwhile, circumstances changed.  When we moved to this land we inherited a path around the western edge of the field that was to become the native prairie.  The grassy, tended way commenced just beyond our lawn, extended west toward the brushy expanse of the undeveloped property adjacent to us, before bending north toward the woods at the back of our property, eventually turning back eastward at the tree line and then south again toward the house.  The circle occasioned bucolic strolls - on foot during the warmer seasons, and on snow shoes during the whiter months.  Nestled now in the space between woods and tall grass, the way invited a slower, more observant pace while watching for butterflies and birds, noticing animal prints and emerging colors, and breathing deeper.  Eyes seemed sharper, noses more discerning, ears more alert around that path.  The very air seemed to crackle with wonder and intrigue.  More than one apathetic child has stepped onto that path with pronounced disinterest, only to complete the circuit with wide eyes and uninterruptible chatter about the sights and scents and sounds.

The only problem, confirmed by the recent sale of that undeveloped neighboring land, was that this western leg of the surrounding trail is not on our land.  Before, it never really mattered.  Now, of course, it did.

It was easy enough to mow a new path on our side of the line, deeper into the prairie, to replace the section that was lost.  But it abbreviated the walk.  Less an expansive circle, the trail now became a narrow rectangle - less a "way around," and more of a movement "out and back."  Our thoughts were drawn again to that dead end on the other side.

Could we add a new way - through the woods; creating a new linkage, yes, but also adding a new ambiance; a different experience?  The way through, after all, would be hilly - more topographically diverse; in the very midst of trees, before breaking out once more into the grassy lane.  A few days before, wielding a pair of loppers, we picked and stepped and pruned our way along a promising, hypothetical path.  "This could work," we heard ourselves saying, until the way was blocked by a massive grove of multiflora rose - a thorny morass of prickly shoots and vines perhaps 10-feet square, growing in our way.  We had lost track of where we were, and our enthusiasm suddenly felt a sharp deflation, as if pricked by one of those thorns.  And then one of us looked beyond the Medusa-like obstruction and exclaimed, "I see prairie grass just on the other side."

And so it came to pass a few days later, that on New Year's Day we fisted once again the trusty loppers, gassed up and roared the brush mower into life, and actualized the dream.  We cut, we mowed, we got stuck in the mud of the bisecting spring we didn't even know was there, but which only adds a feature of interest.  Eventually, even the thorny morass was nothing more than wood chips paving the threshold from one section of the Way, into a new.  We are already dreaming of the rekindled fires in that old, decrepit pit - perhaps some logs and stumps surrounding it for seating; and a whole new reason to go and come...and, perchance, to pause between the two.

And to wonder what other paths might emerge in this year just beginning, never mind the brush, the mud, and the thorns that obscure them?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Little Walk on Different Terms

It has finally dawned on me that I have been working hard to keep from learning a lesson that our dogs have been teaching with equal force and persistence.  Tir and Nia are inside dogs.  Yes, we live on an acreage where I know they would dearly love to run free.  There are trunks to christen, rot to roll in, unusual scents into which their snout would love to burrow.  There would be the unbridled exhilaration of stretching the legs and moving full throttle.  For a few of those very reasons - along with the additional reality of hostile teeth and sprays and claws potentially behind any bush - we keep them inside or, otherwise, leashed.  That, and we are cautious and protective to a fault.  When they do go outside the trip is primarily utilitarian.  There is need for exercise, to be sure, but their bodies have other needs we prefer them to satisfy outdoors.

They are, in this sense if in few others, well-trained.  When the urge makes itself known to one or the other of them, he or she will take up position by the front door.  We take the hint, gather up the leashes and proceed outside and down the driveway.  It needn't take long.  Besides, I have other things to do.  Call and response.  A biological liturgy of need.  Down and back.  Mission accomplished.

But that is precisely what rarely happens.

They sniff.  They circle.  They stretch to the full length of their recoiling leashes.  They explore.  Tir routinely seizes the opportunity to lay on the driveway or the road out front, roll over on his back and signal his desire to have his tummy rubbed.  He never extends such an invitation inside.  It is a ritual confined to the driveway or the road; if coerced, perhaps just off the gravel, on the grass.  Nia, for her part, is busily locating any morsel - a fallen walnut, a deer dropping, or a clod of potting soil - to chew and swallow.  This, for her, is a culinary treasure hunt.  Conspicuously absent from any of this perambulation is bodily relief.  We have made the trip outside for this singular purpose, but it is only accomplished after my patience is exhausted, as demonstrated by tugs and verbal harassment and much stomping of feet.

It has happened yet again.  Tugs, barking (mine, not theirs), coercion, bribery.  Finally, and only at the last remaining second of my patience, business.  And then, suddenly, it finally made sense to me.

Early in my life, when we would visit my grandparents who lived in a sparsely populated rural patch of south Texas, we would spend hours rocking and gliding on the expansive front porch.  We watched cars passing on the state highway just across from the old school.  We reminisced.  We waved at acquaintances turning onto the county road heading further off the beaten path.  And eventually, almost every afternoon, my grandmother would suggest, with eager and childlike enthusiasm, "Let's go for a ride!"  It being my grandmother, we would, of course, comply.

A "ride" simply meant piling into the car and driving county roads out in the country and farm roads back into the brush simply to see whatever there might be to be seen.  There was no pinpointed destination, nor predetermined time frame.  We drove until we were collectively ready to return home.  On foot, it would be an "amble".  In the car it was a "ride".

The dogs, I have finally comprehended, have simply borrowed a page from my Grandmother's playbook.  Business - purpose - is secondary.  All this time, I have been leashing up the dogs for a utilitarian strike.  They have been going on a jaunt.  For me, the steps are functional.  For them, it's all about excursion.  Bodily need versus exploratory event.  And they mean to wring out not simply their bladders but the fascinating possibilities of life itself.

It has taken me awhile, but I am finally learning.  Even in winter, with a chill in the air and snow on the ground, there is still plenty to see and smell, plenty to romp th
rough and peek beneath, never mind my numbing fingers and face.  Not so numb, however, to prevent a smile.  I might just take off in a run, and roll onto my back in the middle of the road.  Maybe Tir will rub my belly.

If not that, at least relax, and walk, and see what might be there to see.

Friday, December 6, 2019

A Melancholic Coup in the Coop

You always seem to be the last to know 
Man, that's just the way that the story goes 
There's nothin' you can do when the fields have turned brown 
Man, you have to face it it's a young man's town 
     It's a young man's town 
     Full of young man's dreams 
     All God's children gotta learn to spread their wings 
     Sometimes you gotta stand back 
     And watch 'em burn it to the ground 
     Even though you built it, it's a young man's town  
----Vince Gill
Sam was a surprise.  The two Mottled Java chickens arrived at the farmstead three and half years ago, already 8-weeks old, and we presumed them to be the two laying hens we had purchased.  When, a few months later, "Samantha" began to crow and strut in proud display of much more ornamental feathers, "Sam" was undeniably born.  Despite this unintentional introduction to our flock, SamtheRooster remained and settled in - into the flock, to be sure, but more surprisingly into our affections, as well.  He handsomely patrols the yard.  He alerts the hens to take cover when ominous wings beat overhead.  And he is, well, quite fond of the ladies.  At least when he is feeling himself.  

Last winter, Sam struggled.  When the polar vortex settled over Central Iowa, Sam suffered.  Indeed, every morning when we released the chickens we expected to find him dead.  He spent the days in a stationary stoop, silently, hunched over despondently near the coop entrance like Willy Loman returning home each evening in "Death of A Salesman."  We eventually diagnosed some frostbite - understandable in those sub-zero days - but the problem seemed a deeper, more existential ennui.  Nonetheless, Sam soldiered on.  Then, as if on Easter's cue, Sam revived in the spring.  His posture returned, along with his prance and patrol.  When his libido likewise returned with disconcerting verve we knew that so had the "Sam" of old.  

Meanwhile, baby chicks were growing in the barn - one of whom revealed itself to be yet another unintentional rooster.  A Blue Copper Maran, "Gallo" eventually gained admission to the larger flock along with the other youngsters, and Sam quickly put Gallo in his place.  Let no one, least of all Gallo, be confused about who was in charge.  Since summer, they have benignly co-existed.  

Until a couple of weeks ago, when a tectonic shift began grinding out a new landscape within the flock.  Gallo, having patiently bided his time, began to intimidate.  Sam began to cower.  More than once I looked out on the yard and witnessed the former standing atop the latter, pecking the older rooster into submission, or chasing him into the "freshman" coop, or variously harassing Sam into the lower reaches of the pecking order.  Then, two days ago, I watched Gallo chase Sam across the chicken yard and over the fence.  

A coup in the coop.  
A violent overthrow.  

Sam hung around a few moments, but when I looked over awhile later he had vanished.  Twice during the day I vainly searched the acreage for the humiliated bird.  Absence, along with the presence of my own disquiet.  Evening came and suddenly there he was; in the front yard, a safe distance from the coops and Gallo out back.  Lori maneuvered him, against his will, inside the fence and eventually inside one of the coops, but we knew something would have to change, to match the change that had already occurred.  

Yesterday, while Sam remained safely confined with a couple of hens inside the JV coop, I reestablished a segregation fence around the freshman coop - a subset of the larger chicken yard.  I gathered up the de-throned rooster in my arms and relocated him to the safety of the smaller enclosure, along with a couple of hens to keep him company.  We'll see how it goes, and if it will go on indefinitely.  He has his space, his remove from the hassle, companionship and food, shelter and water.  It remains to be seen if he has contentment.  We have long talked about subdividing the chicken yard and establishing a kind "Shady Rest" for aging chickens, given our aversion to retiring them to stews.  It never occurred to me that Sam would be the first resident rocking on the front porch.

This morning, releasing the flock from the safety of the night, Sam toddled happily down the ramp along with his roommates.  That, in itself, is encouraging.  In recent weeks he has been the last to emerge, remaining sequestered some days for hours.  He has been out and about within the narrower confines, moving, pecking, and watching on occasion the sky.  If it feels like exile to him, he doesn't seem to resent it; happy, for now, to be free of the bullying.  I feel for him, though.  It's tough to watch the fields turn brown on the other side of the fence; and live, the old man, in a young man's town.

Still,  I'm watching.  For my part, I have led a privileged life, blessedly free from the torments of bullying and blithely ignorant of palace intrigue.  I've endured none of the pecking order dramas of the chicken yard, notwithstanding the usual jostlings of professional careerism.  And yet I'm not getting any younger; and though happily retired and meaningfully engaged in satisfying pursuits, the view is...different from this side of the yard.  Perhaps Sam has wisdom to share - 

about patience, 
about resilience, 
about adaptability, 
and about the acquiescent embrace of changing times and terms.

Perhaps.  I'll watch and see.  

In the meantime, the King has moved to a new address.  Long live the King.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Already, and the Not Quite Yet

After a tumultuous tug-of-war, the seasons have reached a kind of detente, establishing a fragile "demilitarized zone" between the crisp mildness of autumn and the bitter cold of winter.  While shoveling and parkas have been prematurely pressed into service, it is too soon to store the short sleeves.  It snows, but it also melts.  We've had our milky clouds, but also our melting sun.  Every day is a surprise, but the suddenly slowed motion after a few tumultuous weeks enables a closer attention to the subtleties of change.

The leaves have fallen but the grass remains green.  The ornamenting pumpkins have sunken into themselves, but the solstice remains weeks away.  The bare ground in the chicken yard oozes underfoot with yesterday's rain, but hardens with the overnight freeze.  It is a seasonal, climatic alternation between "neither one" and "both/and."  Nature, indifferent to the ambiguity, goes about its work with patience and equanimity.  Autumn and winter, like our two beloved dogs, may tussle on occasion, but more beloveds than adversaries, they will eventually work out the transition to their mutual satisfaction.

I rather enjoy these ambivalent days of no longer autumn and not quite winter.  There is yet space for gratitude unencumbered with mittens and balaclavas.  We can walk without bracing; work without layering; collect the mail without counting the cost; drive without death-gripping the wheel.  We have shopped and decorated and made plans for the holidays ahead, with the sense that it's all premature, even if the calendar disagrees.  It's quieter, but yet lively.  We've moved deeper inside ourselves, but the soul is still actively hunting and gathering like the busy squirrels outside.

Studying in school the major periods of time, I remember wondering how everybody knew when the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began.  As if the character of the world shifted with the calendar's fresh page.  As if "poof," we've moved on.  I know now that it doesn't happen that way.  Life is "fits and starts."  Change is both slope and plateau.  There would have been signs that something tectonic was shifting, but surely the labels followed a rearview assessment rather than a morning's discerning view.

On a more local scale we were certain that winter had descended a few weeks ago by virtue of a series of sub-zero days and snow.  And we were certainly wrong.  The birds are yet present, though their eyes are glancing south.  The wind has not settled on the north, though it is leaning in that direction.  My thermals and flannels are near at hand.

But not quite yet.  These are liminal days with their own stories to tell and their own wisdom to teach.

Like patience.
Like humility.
Like the sense to prepare but the mindfulness to indulge.
Like gratitude.
Like the centering grace to take nothing for granted.
Like a few more glorious days in between.

Fall will fall away, and winter will settle down around us.
But not yet.

Not just yet.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Learning What It Really Means to Coexist

agriculture (n.)

mid-15c., "tillage, cultivation of large areas of land to provide food," from Late Latin agricultura "cultivation of the land," a contraction of agri cultura "cultivation of land," from agri, genitive of ager "a field" + cultura "cultivation"

In a sign of just how deeply into the Twilight Zone we have drifted, the newly appointed head of Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources, Kayla Lyon, asserted in a recent interview:
“Iowa is an agricultural state, but that doesn’t mean ag and natural resources can’t coexist. And they should” (Cedar Rapids Gazette, 11/15/2019).
 Excuse me?  How could they not coexist?  Land, after all - the "agri" part of agriculture - is one of the more obvious natural resources surrounding us.  And even if modern commodity seeds owe much of their parentage to the laboratory, they are, somewhere deep down in their DNA, a natural resource. Plants - the vegetative kind, not the brick and mortar manufacturing sort - produce them.  I can no more get my head around the DNR Chief's differentiation than I could a clergy person's suggestion that "surely the church and the Bible can coexist."  Or a top chef acknowledging that vegetables and the kitchen might not be mutually exclusive. 

But somehow we have forgotten the intrinsic connection.  We have built our own philosophical border wall between the two by dividing them into separate governmental departments - "The Department of Agriculture" and the "Department of Natural Resources" - though the head of the former is elected and called a "Secretary," while the head of the latter is appointed and called "Director."  I'm not sure how to parse the semantics of all that. 

In a sane world, an "Office of Agriculture" would be a sub-category in an organizational chart of the more inclusive "Department of Natural Resources."  But that would suggest that the land and waterways, the wildlife and overall health of the planet that we cultivate - the "cultura" part of agriculture - were of larger and more primary importance.  Alas, that would grossly misrepresent the facts.  By every demonstration possible - laws, practices, attention, funding, deference - we evidence that our principle interest is in the "business" part of farming over the location, the elements, the health and the context of it. 

Once upon a more ignorant time in my life I thought of "soil" as simply that inert matrix into which seeds are poked, and where they ultimately take root for support while waiting for farmers to take care of all their more important needs.  I had no idea that living, fertile soil was, in fact, the most important resource needed by those seeds - soil supported by a healthy ecosystem of waterways, wildlife and organic matter. 

How have we come to this brittler place where waterways are simply agricultural toilets, wildlife is mere sport, and organic matter the laughable and fuzzy romanticism of liberal environmentalists? 

God only knows.  But at least in their polluted, disregarded state they are coexisting with what's really important. 

Until they - our genuinely precious natural resources - no longer can; at which time we will realize how misshapen, misguided and dis-serving our organizational chart really was - and what it really means to "coexist."