Thursday, September 19, 2019

In Anticipation of Shoots from Stumps

It has been a challenging few weeks.  Death has been too much on my mind -- deaths of both mentors and memories; deaths relational, institutional, and even intellectual.  That it all coincided with my birthday made the passings all the more poignant. 

I confess that I haven't handled it well.  Yes, I know that people die.  My affection affords no prophylactic barrier against mortality.  And yes, institutions have their own life cycle.  Sometimes they, too, pass away; more commonly they simply morph into some other, hopefully more relevant, permutation.  My head understands these things.

My head, however, is not the problem.

It's my stomach that feels the ache.  For days now - weeks, really - I have lived with a stone in my stomach that has weighted and sickened the inside of me while clouding, shrouding even, the outside.  You needn't bother to ask Lori; you can infer that I haven't been a joy to be around.  Tears have been my pastime.  Lament has been my song.  Thundercloud blue has been my color.

I have carried on the obligatory argument with myself, noting to my inner griever how blessed I have been to know these people - to have been touched by them, formed and enlarged by them.  Death doesn't change the fact that they have lived, and lived for good.  Their "wild and wonderful life," as the poet Mary Oliver describes it, has been food for countless hungry souls who, like me, are forever grateful that our lives intersected in such nourishing ways. 

For the institutions that are moving beyond my recognition I truthfully and humbly give thanks for the privilege of living and loving and serving among them for the time that was ours to share.  Through childhood and adulthood, respectively, those walls and the people who gathered within them have alternately cradled and framed me; challenged and beckoned me; anchored and animated me.  And the ideas they taught me - the beliefs and understandings, the principles and convictions, the clarities and even the ambiguities - have formed my skeletal structure.  That this acquired structure has come to feel more like an exoskeleton that is cracking so as to allow a different kind of growth and flight doesn't alter the truth of my gratitude for all the stability that it has afforded me throughout these enlivening years.  I find myself elsewhere now, and differently shaped, but that inherited structure has been both ladder and bridge.

I "get" all that.  I "know" it to be true.  My head puts forward a persuasive argument.  My gut, however, still seeks some spiritual, emotional emetic that would disgorge this aching stone.

A couple of years ago we had to cut down an oak tree behind the house.  It was a beautiful adolescent tree that the prior stewards of this farmstead had planted.  We had enjoyed its changing colors and its stately growth.  It was neither diseased nor damaged; its only offense was standing too near the solar array that we had installed a few years prior.  The oak was casting too large of a shadow.  We delayed, we turned our heads, but ultimately, with the help of a friend, we pulled the chainsaw rope and made way for the sunshine.  Then, too, our stomachs ached with the loss.  A short time later, an assessing arborist called our attention to a wounded catalpa tree in front of the house.  The giant tree with the giant leaves and seed pods was dangerously hollowed.  We followed the expert's advice and  grievingly turned away while the chainsaws once again did their work. 

Two stumps remained - one behind and one in front; amputations relentlessly reminding us of where life had once been.

And then something happened.  In true biblical fashion, shoots emerged from the stumps.  Life, it turns out, had not disappeared from those roots but merely been forced to find fresh expression.  And they have flourished.  We now have an oak "bush" out back and a catalpa explosion in front.  They look nothing like they did before, except for the leaves - extremities still gathering sunlight and embodying their inner selves.  A mother hen and her hatchling, escaping the confines of the chicken fence for afternoon strolls, nestle beneath the oak bush for comforting shade.  In more ways than one, it along with its parallel tree out front, are locations of life rather than death. 

Tenacious life. 

Morphing life.

Life unafraid and undeterred. 

And my soul has started toying with an emerging curiosity about what might grow out of these truncations so stark in my own story.  Picking up a stone that had made its errant way into the flower bed, I place it reverently beneath the oak branches - a nascent altar.  A token of possibility.

It isn't quite a purging -- an aching, after all, still remains --  but at least a symbolic act of hope.

And the commencement of a new spiritual practice:  waiting with that hope, and watching for emerging stems.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

This Earth That Even Heaven Envies

Dew drops slung off the tips of my shoes in every direction as I made my early morning way to the chicken yard and back.  It hasn’t rained for days, but even the rain chains hanging from the roof gutters glisten with the dew of this cool and ample morning.  It’s too soon to call it “autumn”, but daylight is slower to open its eyes these mornings; earlier to close them in the evenings.  The chickens help me to notice these seasonal undulations that once transpired invisibly in the ether, well beyond my awareness.

Tomatoes are ripening by the crates full these days, and we struggle to keep up with the stewardship of them.  Peppers, too, in greater and greater diversity.  Dehydrators have been running almost non-stop.  Our personal salsa and marinara factory churns out jars and freezer bags, but still the countertop is covered.  It’s a prodigal time of year when I reach to recall what I must have been thinking when I planted all those seeds.  But it’s a smiling reach, because I relish in the abundance.

Yesterday, in anticipation of some friends who were joining us for brunch, I went out and dug a few potatoes, pulled an onion, plucked some peppers and a squash and united them with the prior evening’s eggs.  To be able to accomplish such a thing is surreal gratification. The prairie grasses, mature and stately by this point in the season, sweep with the breeze – a three-acre bristling sea with its own instinctual tidal flow.  Branches of the plum tree, apples and pears, sag low from the fruited weight.  We haven’t yet considered the options for tending to that sweeter harvest.  It is a wondrously inspiring time of year.

A well-known Christian “leader” of a particular persuasion recently blamed the epidemic of mass shootings on the teaching of evolution in our schools.  “We’ve taught our kids that they come about by chance through primordial slime and then we’re surprised that they treat their fellow Americans like dirt,” said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.  It’s a clever turn of phrase, but the logic is flawed.  Setting aside for the moment the considerable and substantive issues involved with confusing the public educational mission with that of the faith community, that something subtler, more complicated and sinister likelier accounts for our violence towards each other is evidenced by the fact that a greater awareness of our kinship with the earth and the breadth of the natural world hasn’t engendered any more care of it than the other humans with whom we share it.  More poignantly, that “primordial slime” is used as a slur – a pejorative – is ample enough evidence of how scornfully we view the creation that is simultaneously ancestor, sibling and spouse.  A local politician recently penned a partisan screed in the weekly newspaper mocking the environmental concerns of the opposing party, lampooning all the handwringing about “supposed” climate change as "alarmist scare-tactics."

Never mind the scientific consensus.

Never mind the visceral experience of increasingly troublesome weather.

And never mind that it simply doesn’t matter.

As I watch the grasses sway, the mother hen tend to her hatchling; as I shade my eyes from the blinding color of the blossoms on the stem and marvel at the heaviness of the fruit and the profligacy of the garden; as I wipe the dew from the deck chairs to enjoy yet another breakfast sprung from the land in the coolness of the morning, I think about that image voiced by John in his climactic biblical vision of that time when God finally gets God's way:  “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

Out of heaven, in order to come down here.  Looking around me I think, “who wouldn’t?”

And I wonder what deters us from doing everything we can to reverence and partner lovingly and protectively with this glorious home that even heaven aches to join – whether there is a crisis or not?

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Safe Within the Wings

It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
Irish Proverb
How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings...Luke 13:34

Since the baby chick hatched surreptitiously one month ago, it has been constantly chaperoned by older hens.  Initially barricaded by three who moved the hatchling as a unit around the chicken yard, the phalanx has eventually diminished to two — a Speckled Sussex and a Light Sussex — who guide, supervise and correct.  Those, and protect.  So far, the most visible threat they perceive seems to be me.  Each time I pass through the gate to accomplish one chore or another, the caretakers maneuver the chick into the recesses of the chicken run or the outer reaches of the chicken yard.  Remove is, so far, the preferred form of protection; failing that, subsume.  The baby chick simply disappears beneath the feathers and girth of the older hen.  Eventually, for the patient observer, a small beak emerges from behind the protective wing, assessing the prospects for resumed play.

I frequently think back to that first morning we realized that this little puffball had hatched among us.   I naively, foolishly thought I should rush right out, somehow scoop it up into my cradling embrace, and spirit it out to the barn for safe keeping.  As if the guardian hens would have allowed it!  I would probably still be smearing antibiotic cream on the puncture wounds in my face and hands from frenzied beaks mercilessly unleashed.  The chick’s well-being would have only been diminished in my “care.”  These mothering hens simply and intuitively know how it is to be done.

Saved, then, from my own well-meaning, I have instead simply observed and admired.  Somehow they have kept the chick fed and hydrated.  Somehow they see to it that the little one moves inside at night, and out again each morning to keep active.  Now four weeks into this constant supervision, they perceive the time to be right for greater independence.  The motherers don’t stray far, but the spacing in recent days has spread to feet as opposed to inches.  There are moments when the chick appears to be by itself.  This aloneness, of course, is more illusion than reality.  Should I take too much of a step in its direction, the two motherers appear almost as if by magic, seemingly out of nowhere, to surround and deter.

“It’s almost biblical,” I think to myself; my background instinctively assigning all goodness to holy script. But caretaking, I realize upon more patient reflection, is not first of all biblical; it is natural — simply the way we were created to be with each other.

In each other’s care.
In each other’s keeping.
The weaker, sheltered beneath the wings of the stronger.

I’m not sure how we have so grievously lost touch with this primal obligation and privilege.  Any more we insert an avalanche of questions and conditions in front of such caring.  We are concerned with worthiness, about the potential for dependency, about how much it will cost us in money and time and effort and distraction; about precedent.  We don’t want to be inconvenienced — or the needy too convenienced.

Maybe it’s because we spend too little time among the chickens.

To be honest, it’s not perfect out there.  There is a pecking order, sometimes ruthlessly constructed and scrupulously maintained.  There are skirmishes over food, and should one or another manage to snag a passing mouse a mighty chase ensues.  But they do know how to care for a baby chick.  They instinctively seem to understand what we are struggling to remember:  that it is in the shelter of each other that we live.  Gathered beneath the wings.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Seeds of Life in the Midst of Death

There is a coolness residual in this early morning - a faint signal that summer is waning, autumn stealthily approaching. If the sky is to be believed, there might be rain today. My hose-shaped hand would welcome the sabbatical.

It's Saturday morning, a day that ever since childhood has unfolded at a slower, more relaxed and reflective pace - even these days, at this stage of my life, when any day could afford the same. Sprinkling water into the flower pots, I allow the heaviness of the week to slip away. Death has been too much in the air these successive days; death, both metaphorical and material; both feathered and foreshadowed.

For some cosmic reason, half of the appliances in our home took this opportunity to die - the kitchen disposal, a countertop oven, a refrigerator, the washer and dryer. All of them too soon - too young, though of course the warranties had expired. All week I've been the crotchety old man decrying the cheapening of our manufacturing, cursing the planned obsolescence, and lamenting our senseless additions to some landfill. And then a young hen, newly introduced to the flock from its security in the barn enclosure was viciously snuffed out in a gruesome manner I'm having trouble erasing from my mind. And then news of a friend's cancer, dormant for a deceiving time and presumed gone, returned. All this, with the dull ache of last week's multiple mass shootings still throbbing in our soul.

I'm weary of the pall.

Good, then, to see new blossoms opening in the pots. The chirping of the surprise baby chick bounding down the ramp of the coop as I open the hatch evokes a spontaneous smile.  I inhale with the myriad sounds of morning - the roosters' antiphonal crowing, the cheeps and rasps of crickets, cicadas and birds.  There are blossoms on the squash vines, the okra bushes and the miscellaneous pepper plants foretelling good things to come. And there are tomatoes to pick; tomatoes, red and juicy and full of seeds...

...the promise of good things further still down the road.  And did I mention there is a chance of rain?

There is more to these days than death after all.

Friday, August 2, 2019

A Classroom for the Heart

We hadn’t planned on hatching baby chicks.  We assembled a flock of laying hens and proceeded to gather each day the eggs they offered.  And then a rooster accidentally found his way into the assemblage.  And then another one.  

It happens.

Even then our practice continued without alteration; attentively gathering each day’s ovaline deposits without concern for possible fertilization.  It takes 21 days of carefully temperature controlled incubation to hatch an egg, and that simply wasn’t going to happen.  Until a trio of brooding hens had different plans.  

The design of our coops includes an interior roosting area, elevated a foot off the ground and accessed by a ramp.  Each evening the chickens ascend the ramp, after which I lower the hatch and raise the ramp, thereby securing the flock until they are released with morning light.  Beneath that elevated roosting area is a foot-high crawl space the chickens use for shade or relaxation.  Or, as it turns out, brooding.  Unnoticed by me for some number of days, one and then two and eventually three hens secreted themselves at the very back corner of this crawl space; well out of reach and sight.  When I did finally spy the girls in their hiding place, my first thought was sickness - that they had removed themselves to die.  Several mornings I released the flock, expecting to find the worst underneath.  Every morning, their brightly alert eyes confounded and relieved my fears.  And then it hit me:  “I bet they are sitting on eggs, far enough way that I can’t collect them.”

And so it was that a week ago we noticed a tiny puffball of a newly hatched chick, moving in the wake of the older hens.  One single hatchling.  Our first thought was to capture the new arrival and relocate it in the brooder where we had raised a group of purchased chicks last winter.  The mothering trio, however, thought otherwise.  They were in charge of this little one.  Anytime either of us drew near they shuttled the chick back under the coop — with reinforcements.  On our first venture out to take stock of this new arrival, fully 12 of the older hens crammed into the “run”, shoulder to shoulder, like a football line, barricading the three “mothers” and the chick behind them just to insure that we couldn’t interfere.  In the ensuing days, the threesome and their ward explore the chicken yard in an expanding circumference, pausing from time to time to allow the chick its rest.  We watch as it climbs the neck of its primary “mother” to nestle between her shoulders; slipping down beneath her wing at the least sign of concern.  

And I audaciously believed for an instant that I knew better than they how to raise a chick.  

A week has passed, and the chick is noticeably healthy and growing.  The “mothers” and their extended community are incarnating the wisdom that the rest of us have largely forgotten:  that it takes a village to raise a child.  It is too big a job for any one of them to accomplish alone.  Collectively, they pay attention.  Together they see to its access of food and water.  In concert they watch the skies and monitor the fence line for the least hint of predation.  That new little puffball bobbing around among them is “their” shared responsibility, and they are impressively, conscientiously, taking their job very seriously.  Once upon a time our own neighborhoods behaved like this - our schools, as well, and faith communities.  The very fabric of our society was woven from precisely such conscious threads of interdependence and mutual responsibility. Today such notions sound merely quaint; dangerous even, or perhaps simply too expensive or too much bother. 

I do my best to stay out of the way of these resident experts - far enough away to not raise alarms, but close enough to observe.  It’s humbling to be taken to school by these feathery creatures with a brain the size of a walnut.  But, then, maybe it isn’t the size of one’s brain that matters as much as the capacity and suppleness of one’s heart.

Either way, I’m deeply grateful for the education and the example.  I have much to learn about caring.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Awful, Beautiful Spectacle of Renewed Health

In reading this blog, parental discretion is advised.

SamtheRooster is back.

I don't mean to suggest that Sam had run away. At this point, I'm not sure we could dislodge him from the chicken yard if we tried. No, I only mean that SamtheRooster, as we had come to know him, had disappeared.

Some history is important to this story. We only purchase female chickens — "Started Pullets" is the technical description. We have neighbors who sleep. We sleep. We aren't interested in morning crowing; and neither interested in — nor possessing the equipment to manage — hatching fertilized eggs, we were not interested in those reproductive virtues of having a rooster. Plus, roosters sort of intimidate me. They are big. They have spurs. And, from a purely economic point of view, they do not lay eggs I can sell. Hence, our determination to only purchase hens.

Generally speaking, by purchasing started pullets — most commonly 8-10 weeks of age — the gender of a bird is easier to discern. So it was that we brought home two "Mottled Java" birds of about that age. We kept them separate from the flock, as is the protocol, until the risk of importing diseases had passed and, of equal importance, the new arrivals attain a size by which they can hold their own as adjustments to the existing pecking order are made.

I'll confess my surprise when, months after accepting responsibility for them, we discerned that Samantha was, in fact, Sam. We were not happy. For all the aforementioned reasons, we did not want a rooster. We hemmed and hawed, stewed (figuratively speaking) and fretted; complained to the hatchery and wrestled with how to proceed. After all, we had months of feed and tending invested in him by this point, along with the original purchase price, and — OK, I'll admit it, we had gotten somewhat attached to them both — to the end that we resisted simply dispatching Sam or finding for him a new address. So, after considerable consultation and soul searching, and after securing Sam's signature on an agreement of good behavior, he stayed.

I'm not sure the hens have ever forgiven us.  Prior to Sam's advent they had had a really nice and quiet life. Once Sam entered the picture, he was always crowing, strutting, nudging others out of the food line, chasing and ultimately mounting first one and then another. All day long. What we had created was our own little "MeToo Movement" in the chicken yard. And let me just say that chicken sex is not for the faint of heart — for those participating in it or those observing it from outside the fence. It is…rough. For their part, once the act is accomplished, the girls get up, quite literally shake it off, and go on about their search for worms. Such an impact it has had on one of the hens that for months she would exit the coop in the morning and immediately jump the fence into the free range beyond where she would spend the day beyond Sam's reach until such time at dusk that she observed Sam retreat inside the coop for the night. Only then would she jump back over the fence, eat and drink her fill, and choose a different coop in which to calmly pass the night.

And then came this winter. As has been well-reported, this has been a brutal winter — the "Polar Vortex" and all that. During the depths of those sub-zero weeks, Sam became ill. He would descend the coop ramp slowly each morning — silently — slouch over just beyond the outer door and remain there looking like Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman", an empty, bent, hovel of a creature with little will to move or mate and seemingly little will to live. The comb atop his head looked sheered and black; the wattle beneath his chin was swollen, as though afflicted with the mumps, and was itself darkened. Silent, he never crowed — something I never thought I would miss. So disinterested in the hens was he that we feared that not only were his head and neck frostbitten but quite likely certain other extremities as well. A week went by like this, each day us observers expecting the worst. I left town for a meeting and each succeeding day Lori, too, prepared herself to deal with a carcass. Still he survived. Weeks more passed; then months.  And then he began to revive. Slowly, Sam's wattle returned to its more usual size and swing. The comb on his head perked up and reddened as had been its norm. He regained weight, and attitude.  He began to prance again and strut around the yard and even began to crow — weakly at first, but gradually full-throttle. Still, though healthier, he remained…celibate.

Until yesterday. It's not yet exactly springtime, but the temperatures have risen, the snow has melted, the sun is shining. Hints of fertility are emerging in the grasses…and in Sam. Yesterday, the Sam of old was back. No hen was safe. In fact, I don't think anything moving was spared. From sun up to sun down, Sam mounted everything in sight.

As far as I could tell, more than once.

As for the hens, they seemed to take it all in stride — no doubt grateful for the respite, whatever had precipitated it. As for us, though in any other context we would deplore such behavior and take aggressive steps to intervene, in these recuperative, symbolic exercises we found ourselves inexplicably smiling and high-fiving. After such a season off-kilter, out of balance, paralyzed in more ways than one, all somehow seemed right with the world again. At least in the chicken yard.

Welcome back, SamtheRooster. We've missed you. Every part of you.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sanctuary in the Snow

It had snowed all night.  By morning at least six-inches had accumulated.  By afternoon another two had fallen without end in sight.  In contrast to the bitter cold of prior days, however, this one had moderated with the snow -- upper 20's instead of near zero.  The invitational snowglobe effect, coupled with the nudging of the day's cabin fever moved us into our snowshoes and outside toward the trails.  

We were not the first to pass this way.  Hoof prints evidenced where the deer make of these clearings a kind of wildlife highway; deer, and who knows what else?  There is plenty of activity in this minor prairie -- on the trails and among the grasses, but also overhead.  Eagles have been soaring in recent days and perching in the nearby trees; a majestic brush of wings that paradoxically grounds and lifts me at the sight.  

Progress is slow with snowshoes, especially in the depths amassed from last night's snow added to the previous foot of earlier days' prior accumulation.  But the pace rewards with the opportunity for a different kind of the lacy snow gathering on the cedar branches; the particular frosting along the naked branches and the elbows of bare trees; the prairie grasses pressed flat where deer have slept overnight; the blue line shadow on the buried beehive platforms; the sound of our own labored breath and the tingle of gentle snow on our faces.  

And there, pausing in the chilly afternoon air and the breathless animation of falling snow, a precious and poignant silence engulfs like a blanket.  After the morning's growl of the tractor engine and its snowblower whirring, the snow shovel's scraping and chickens squawking until I could dig out a wide enough space for them to stretch their legs, the expansive quiet of these anodyne moments held us; centered and evoked us.  It was, in a way, the church service the storm had prevented us from attending earlier in the day.  

Prayer, less uttered than experienced.  
Holiness, enveloping.  

Grace, embracing.  

Blessed silence, within and without.  

If we stood still much longer, however, the chill would begin to speak of a different kind of spirit.  Pronouncing a grateful benediction, we lifted our feet and continued on around the trail toward home, giving thanks for the manifold gifts of this excursion -- 

the physical movement, 

the austere beauty, 

the ephemeral whisper of creation's very breath.