Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Whenever the Time is Right



Late last spring we learned about a particular variety of pepper that intrigued us.  Even though our other pepper starts were well into their development in the greenhouse and would soon be transplanted into the garden, we placed a bet on a long autumn and ordered the seeds.  The plants sprouted and grew, and eventually found their home in the soil alongside the other vegetables.  Betting against Iowa’s winter is typically folly, and this year the odds did not fall in our favor.  Just as the plants were maturing, just as the peppers were ripening, the temperatures dropped, the frost settled, and the plants were lost.  


It was, of course, our fault.  We planted too late.  The window of opportunity was too short.  The calendar worked against us.  The happy thought is that this year we have the seeds in hand to sow according to a timelier schedule.


There is that kind of time. 

Clock time.  

Calendar time.  

The regimented, methodical exchange between the sun and the moon.  

Tick, Tock; sunrise, sunset.


But there is that other kind of time for which it is harder to account.  The Greek language actually two words so as to differentiate – “chronos”, referring to that clock-type of time; and “kairos,” that more ambiguous variety.  Kairos is that intangible but comprehensible “right” time.  Scripture would want to label it “God’s timing.”  Kairos is that constellation of things happening or coming to pass, “when the time is right.”  One asks another to marry, not according to a mark on any calendar, but “when the time is right.”  There certainly is a “chronological” element to fruit ripening on the tree – growing days, etc. – but ultimately the variables of capricious rain and temperatures and sunshine and soil character provide the “kairotic” determination. Regardless of however many days have passed in the season, the apple is ready to pick…when the apple declares that it is ready to be picked.


Every year in late autumn, the chickens begin to molt.  It is the simple but fascinating metamorphosis in which the old feathers clothing the bird are exchanged for new.  Simple and fascinating, yes, but ugly – scary, even.  The first time I observed it I thought a plague had descended on the flock.  It turns out, it is what is supposed to happen.  Routinely beginning at the neck and proceeding toward the tail, the feathers fall away leaving a scraggly, pathetic little bird to scratch around in embarrassed exposure until the new, lush and downy coat can emerge to cover the gaps.  Why the process doesn’t commence earlier in the season, while it is warm and the birds quite likely would enjoy the breeze I have never understood.  I’ll add that to my list of questions to ask God once we are face to face.  What I observe, instead, is a carpet of fallen feathers in the chicken yard, scratched upon by a flock of silly looking naked hens…


…as the snow begins to fly.




Somehow it works out.  By Christmas the flock is, once again, more resplendent than “Solomon in all his glory,” to quote the biblical verse; resplendent, but more pragmatically observed, warm.




For some unfathomable reason, this year, one of the girls has just begun the process.  Let me just review that this is Iowa, this is January, and there is 6-8” of snow on the ground and the temperatures routinely live in the teens.  Why this hapless Blue Copper Maran chose this inopportune moment to strip naked on the Cosmos can know.  What I can know is that I fear for her life, and every morning that I see her descend the ramp for the explorations of another day, and every evening when I see her scoot her way back up into the coop having survived the hours in the cold, I marvel with gratitude.


And somehow, even though I cannot understand the timing, I nonetheless – and strangely – trust it.  


Trusting, as well, the curiously inscrutable “kairotic” movements and moltings at work in me.  

Even if, on occasion, it feels uncomfortably cold in the midst them.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Life Curiously Sprung From Death

 The trails we cleared last year through the woods have been one of my favorite improvements to the property.  Through the prairie, or around and behind the chicken yard, the path extends into the trees, over a creek, up a hill and onto the bluff, and then out again.  It is an extraordinary walk even on the most ordinary of days, but especially in winter; especially in winter with snow; especially in winter with snow, while it is snowing. 

We missed that magical window of opportunity last weekend when five inches of snow settled over the farmstead, but with temperatures in recent days moderating enough for the snow to soften we seized the moment yesterday before the blanket completely melts away.  Reminded by a neighbor in recent weeks that hunting season is underway, we bundled up for warmth, and then wrapped ourselves in neon jackets, just to be on the safe side.  With the dogs settled in for naps, we tugged on our boots and stepped off onto the trail.


Even in the best of times, it’s easy this time of year to feel “enclosed.”  The warmth of the hearth is hard to exchange for the icy wind outside.  Sedentariness is a struggle to interrupt with physicality.  But left to themselves, these quiet “comforts” can, without noticing the loss of emotional oxygen, quietly and psychologically strangle.  


That’s in the best of times.  And these aren’t those times.  Even with a vaccine on the horizon, the havoc wreaked by the global pandemic has demoralized us.  Even with the election behind us, our collective partisanship embarrasses us, and offers little promise of anything but more angry and paralyzing dysfunction to come.  Perhaps it is that we are simply weary of it all, or maybe it all really is as ominous as it seems.  All we know is that we smile less; tears wet our eyes more readily.  It doesn’t feel like the week of Christmas.


As we trudged into the woods, then, the chilly air felt renewing in that bracing way it can, and the hushing silence that only woods can beckon began to quiet that persistently disquieting drone deep within that we hadn’t been able to still in recent weeks.  We pushed aside fallen branches that cluttered the path – “nature’s pruning,” we call it.  We noted the various tracks and trails of wildlife who know this tree cover as home far more than we.  We noticed the remnant green leaves that remain on the miscellaneous branch tips, and mouthed the Peter Mayer song lyrics that spontaneously came to our lips, 

“Even when white obscures the scene

Still, in winter, there is green.”


And then we turned a corner, deep into the woods, and saw a broken tree trunk a short way off the trail.  The tree was clearly dead, and yet it was just as clearly alive in a completely new way.  I am no expert in flora fungi, but my subsequent reading on the subject suggests that the fungus that has happily taken hold of this fallen tree is opportunistic, rather than malignant – not causing the tree’s demise, but using that death to nourish its own vitality.  In a demonstrably vivid biblical sense, new life out of death.  A beginning, birthed by an ending.


I needed that curious discovery.  Preoccupied by death and dying of so many kinds, on so many fronts, I am profoundly grateful for the metaphorical reminder that all this cultural mess; all this rotted wrangling and hollowed out body politic; all this literal disease and death just might collectively represent some type of birth pangs.  Compost, in my line of work; “holy shit,” as Gene Logsdon once described it in his helpful book with that title.  


If that is the case, then whatever might be struggling to be born will have ample nourishment; there is plenty of…compost…to sustain it.


The fallen tree back in the woods doesn’t eliminate the stench of all that is seeming to suffocate us, but I’ve taken the image of it back along the trail, into the clearer spaces of my life as a curiously hopeful reminder of that which I know – and trust – but still forget:


Life will have its way.


May it be so.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Days When the Good is Not Far-Fetched

 It is oddly quiet around the farmstead, save for the gusting winds that portend chillier changes to come; a kind of suspended animation.  The garden is cleared of its spent vines and bushes; the tomato cages stored away.  The chicken yard is fully winterized, with the more capacious waterers replaced by the smaller heated ones plugged in and ready; runs wrapped with tarps and sided with straw; windows closed and secured.  The chickens, themselves - only yesterday, it seems, pathetic and threadbare with their molting - have replumed with warm resplendence.  Beyond our humble address, democracy, too, is holding its breath; waiting for the recent election to be clarified and settled.  In a pandemic-frozen world a vaccine is nearing release, but not yet.  "Suspended animation," indeed.

All is ready.  We are waiting for what surely will arrive any day.  But precisely which day is beyond our sight.  The belly is swollen, but thus far only false contractions.  The election will get resolved.  The virus will eventually be quieted.  Winter will descend and grip us.  But today the forecast predicts 50-degrees.

We aren't usually this prepared.  Winter more commonly catches us distracted with other busyness.  Last year the garden had to wait until the new spring to be cleared of its autumn detritus.  More than once I have winterized the coops as the snow flurried.  But whether by uncharacteristic discipline, fewer distractions, or more time on our hands, this year has been different.  Yesterday we even trimmed down bushes and hedges that sometimes go years without shaping.  

Ready, and waiting.

It's hardly Purgatory.  We are incredibly privileged.  There is no tacit condemnation awaiting ached-for redemption.  It's a blessing, really, to be nestled in a taffy-like autumn that is stretching into uncharacteristic reaches of November.  It's just...different.  We have more experience with frenzy, with rushing, with "Just in Time" - if not a little past that.  But we could get used to it.

Already our personal roots have begun to reach into deeper soil, stretching into corners of the soul usually undiscovered until January's darkness or February's existential ache.  With less exhaustion and more stillness, our reading is already meatier, our prayers loamier and more considered, our conversations more expansive with equal parts analysis and imagination.  We are settling in - into the changing season, into the comfort of the glowing hearth, into the interior environs of a home we love, and into the evocations of the Word that pronounced day and night, creeping, swimming and flying things, flowering trees and fruiting plants...

...and even humans...

..."very good."

Despite the world's seemingly endless and concerted efforts to contradict that assessment, just now - at least here on the farmstead, poised in suspended animation
- it is easy to believe.  

Monday, November 2, 2020

Soil Work Yet To Be Done

When we first settled on this land we came to call “Taproot Garden,” we knew nothing about soil.  We had read some things; heard some lectures; come to understand something of the architecture of it.  But we hadn’t explored it, dug around in any of it; we hadn’t scooped up a handful and examined the character of it beneath our eyes and between our fingers.  Moreover, we were deluded.  We live in Iowa, the apex of fertility.  This is the land where things grow.  We had no idea that this was only occasionally true.  


I don’t mean “occasionally” to suggest the vicissitudes of time, although that, too, can be true.  Given the almost fiendish undulations of flooding and drought, of the mischievous late freeze (or early) and the intervening storm, sometimes things grow and sometimes they don’t.


No, by “occasionally” I was thinking geographically rather than temporally.  Iowa does indeed have fertile soil; it just doesn’t have it everywhere.  Take Taproot Garden as Exhibit A.  The U.S. Geological Soil Survey classifies our property as “highly erodible.”  The very feature that keeps this land above the flood plain puts our topsoil at risk.  We enjoy a higher elevation, with a domed landscape.  Rain washes the soil downhill.  Shortly after moving here we acquired soil maps from the County Extension office that indicated wild and multiple fluctuations in types and character.  There is some good soil here; it’s just located here and there, interrupted by wide bands of less promising…dirt.  Having moved here with the intention of producing a garden, I arrived fueled with the na├»ve assumption that the matter was as simple as sowing a few rows of seeds.  The land itself quickly disabused me of this ignorance.


We learned that there would be work to do, not simply using the soil but building it, first.  There would be compost to add, microbial activity to encourage, organic content to develop, fertility to build and restore.  And it would not happen overnight.  


We just completed our 9th garden season here – a season cut short by early frosts and snow.  We didn’t really mind, because it has been a busy season – harvesting and preserving - and we were happy to slow the pace.  We will eat well throughout the winter and subsequent spring.  The in-gathering has been abundant.  Which is to say that these years spent encouraging the soil are bearing fruit.  Literally.  Of course, there is more to do.  Soil, after all, is a living thing that, like the rest of us, needs care and feeding and loving attention.  It is a partnership.  A reciprocity.  If we want good things to emerge from this garden we have to invest good things in exchange.  







I ponder these things on this election eve, acknowledging that the same is true of democracy, community, culture.  Regardless of who prevails at the ballot box, there will be work to do.  There are fertile corners and bands in this American soil in which good things grow.  But there is heavy clay, as well, in which good seeds struggle to find purchase.  Erosion has taken a heavy toll on our life together, fecundity washed away by turbulent acrimony and the misguided presumption of permanence.  

And then, of course, there is the poison.  God, there has been so much poison spilled!   We have deluded ourselves into thinking it actually aided or protected or cleared the way for better things, but the evidence is increasingly clear.  Poison does what it always does:  it kills.  We have been denuded, defoliated, deadened.


Now remains what always remains:  the slow, determined rehabilitation of the soil.  The soil which is "us."


Whoever wins.

Whichever “side” prevails.


Compost.  Spades.  Determined will.  The sweat equity beneath anything of promise.  We have work to do.  


If we want anything nourishing to grow.  

One thing is certainly true:  we have plenty of accumulated manure piled around to help us get started.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Letting Feathers Fall

 It’s molting time again.  It sounds like a Buck Owens song – for those old enough to remember Buck Owens. And it isn’t pretty.  "Crying time," indeed, as Buck originally sang it.  There are feathers everywhere in the chicken yard, carpeting the coop, blanketing the nesting boxes, littering the run and beyond.  It’s a disconcerting sight under normal circumstances; doubly so given the recent memory of feathery piles left by raccoon invasions only weeks ago.  Gratefully, these feathers haven’t been ripped, but merely shed.  






Productively, rather than murderously.


Loss of these feathers is in the chickens’ best interest.  


Nonetheless there is a price to be paid.  A molting chicken is a pathetic sight.  Happening gradually, over time, the feather drop leaves bare patches that resemble mange.  Once magnificently beautiful, the hens are increasingly scraggly and half naked. Given how they now separate themselves from the others in the flock, even they seem to have looked in the mirror and recoiled in embarrassment. 


A marred appearance, then, with bodies as touchy and sensitive as one might expect with all that exposure, but also altered priorities.  With feathers to replace before winter - and temperatures already dropping - inner resources shift from egg production to more pressing business. 


It doesn’t take long these days – or a very big basket – to collect the ovaline deposits. There are fewer and fewer.  The chickens are productive, in other words, but in different ways; and the benefits are personal.


So what’s the point?  Why is this happening?


The answer, in a word, is renewal.  Restoration.  This, for the girls, is a kind of sabbath time.  Thoughts of progeny are set aside for the season while self care takes priority.   Over the course of this sabbatical, a new and lush winter coat gradually replaces the dimmed and tattered and jostled one that has outlived its usefulness.  It is the biblical prophecy’s fulfillment played out before our eyes:  “Behold, I am making all things new.”


And it gives me pause.  My season is changing as well.  I’ve got no feathers to drop and our outer coat to replenish, but plenty else that needs refreshment.  There are more than a few faded and tattered parts, both on the surface and deeper in, that could benefit from some shedding and the reassignment of resources.  


It isn’t, the chickens are teaching me, less work; simply different work.  And the result is something warmer and yet more beautiful than before.  


“…all things new.”  


A metaphorical molting.  I rather like the idea.  Somebody else can lay the eggs for awhile.


In the meantime, let the feathers fall where they will.  We'll see what new colors, what new textures, take their place.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Just When I Needed You Most

I owe you an apology.

No, dear reader, not to you.  The apology I owe is to the garden. 

Back in the annual romantic horticultural swoon of spring and early summer we spent such fond hours together, refreshing beds, working in compost, sowing seeds, transplanting seedlings, assembling the irrigation system, relishing the intertwining fecundity of soil and possibility.  As the weeks went by I spent perspirational but soulful hours inside your gate, weeding, watching for predatory bugs and withering diseases.  It was hard work, but it was good work.  They were satisfying hours.  


But in recent weeks something in me shifted.  I wasn’t aware of when it happened.  Even now I can’t pinpoint the moment, or the reason.  Perhaps I got otherwise busy.  Perhaps I was distracted.  To be sure, COVID concerns have ground the reverence out of all kinds of things in recent months.  Too many things have devolved to merely the functional, the necessary, the basic.  Masked shoppers in stores barely make eye contact with one another; casual conversation is almost unimaginable.  We get in, gather what we need, and check out as fast as possible.  There is a vacuous wariness in the air between us that is almost as stultifying as the virus potentially within us.  A joylessness has come to characterize us as the pandemic has dragged on.  Head down, we simply get it done – whatever “it” might happen to be.


That could extend to the garden.  But I can’t blame it all on COVID-19.  After all, one could argue that the garden should have been the most powerful antidote to the malaise.  Nature, growth, fresh air and soil, and unaffected work.  Nothing about the garden’s daily needs has been altered by health concerns; neither masks nor social distance nor virtual interactions.  The CDC has published no guidelines about safe gardening.  All that was needed continued to be what always is needed – a hoe, a hose, time, energy and attention. 

No, what happened in me was far more insidious. 

 My relationship changed - as human posture relative to nature so routinely changes.  I became a user; an extractor; a predator of sorts – mining and pillaging the garden assets and stuffing them into the freezer, the dehydrator or the water bath canner as fast as I could with as little thought as possible.  I’ve been going through the motions.  Absent, suddenly, was the reverent partnership; silent was the stewarding joy.  The prolific fruiting became an objectified warehouse – a rooted pantry - rather than a holy abundance.  Gone were the hours spent scooting on my knees or leaning on an implement’s handle, lost in reverent appreciation.  Past were the stolen moments I simply wandered among the rows, marveling at the progress, taking deep and satisfied breaths.  Lately I have shuffled out with harvest crate, perfunctorily filled it with as much as could fit, and lugged it back to the house once the gate was latched behind me.  

Minutes expended among the plants rather than hours.  

It has been mechanical rather than marveling.  

Taking; rarely giving beyond lifting the hydrant handle to drip a little moisture near the stems.


And so I apologize, and am determined to recover a warmer, more participatory way.  Starting today.  It was good to snap on the overalls again this morning, gather up some tools and get down on my knees.  It was good to restore some breathing room around the young pepper plants transplanted late in the season that were getting crowded out and choked by extraneous and invasive growth.  And it was good to notice among those now-liberated plants some optimistic prospects.  It was good to tend early summer’s new bed that is sprouting the adolescent asparagus stems now fronding and gaining strength for years to come.  And it was satisfying to finish weeding a row and turn to admire the progress.  And yes, it was good to fill a bucket with harvest along the way – in the course of my work, rather than being the sum total of my work.  We were in it together again.  


And it did, indeed, feel good – to you, I’m guessing dear garden, as much as to me.

And after something of a melancholic season, the simple therapy of it feels good as well.


And so I’ll be back – more patiently, more gratefully, more reverently this time.  

More partner than predator. 


In the meantime, thanks for all you’ve done without me.

I owe you.


Monday, August 3, 2020

The Miraculous Wonder of Here


I've been tending to things.  

This morning, as the new dawn replaced the full moon, I released the chickens.

I shivered In the cool foretaste of autumn.

I watered flowers and herbs and the sweetgrass I recently planted behind the labyrinth.

I disposed of a dead raccoon.

I sowed native prairie seed, sprinkled compost and watered.

I swept the barn and set up the pen in anticipation of baby chicks arriving soon.

I harvested vegetables.

I added many of them to pots on the stove.


It has been, like each day (though each in its particularity), a juxtaposition of life and death, hope and decay, seed and soil, preparation and completion, nourishment and depletion, salivation and repugnance.  My hands and energies the hyphen and comma connecting the disparate words and phrases of living.  


And it all belongs – the parts that make me smile right along with the elements that make me gag.  Side by side I get to wonder if seeds will grow while delighting in the issue of those that did.  I protect, which unfortunately means I also kill.  A wondrous alchemy of mundanity and profundity, I marvel at the matter-of-factness of the beauty.   

It happens.   I do my best to midwife all sorts of nascent possibilities – in the soil and in my mind – with water and compost and weeding and brooding, but I only assist.  The rest –

the conceiving, the flourishing and the thriving – is well beyond me.  That my hands get wet in the birthing is speechless privilege, coupled with the comic gratitude I continue to feel at the reality of the “me” I have known for 64 years actually being here in the messy, sweaty, earthy reality of it all.


Here in the granularity of it all.  

Here in the birth cries and the death throes.

Here in the sowing and the hoeing.

Here in the tending and the disposing.

Here in the perspiration and the chill.

Here in the cacophonous, riotous, exhausting abundance of everyday of life.  

Here in the miraculous “here.”

When Mary Oliver poetically asks me what I intend to do "with my one wild and precious life," the most and the best I can think of, by way of response, is...

...to simply notice,

and pay attention.