Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Home By Another Way

We pushed our way a little further on Sunday into the brush toward the back of the property.  It was a spontaneous expedition mounted primarily to get Tir a little exercise out of the house.  We navigated the paths to the southeast of the house, waving at the alpacas grazing across the way, and then headed north around and behind the garden site.  We spoke little, and that largely appreciative amazement that on Christmas Day the weather still permitted such excursions.  The sky was blue, the temperature brisk but mild for the season, and the wonder of the nativity still full within us.

The mowed path led us alongside the prairie grass dome, back to where the landscape begins to descend toward the spring.  Trees, and the underbrush that almost webs them together, here create a natural fence line that I have only breached once -- and Lori, never.

She pushed on, brushing back and breaking off intruding twigs and branches.  I picked my way more cautiously, reticent to snag the sweater I still wore from church that morning.  Curiosity finally blunted by the impeding thicket, even Lori finally turned back toward the way from which we'd come; I promising to gas up the power trimmer one of these days and clear some of this entanglement away.

The prairie grass having thinned for the winter, we, like the magi, returned home by a different way -- off the cleared path, through the field and along the western edge of the property.  Deer paths, we could discern, created a criss-crossing highway system of comings and goings, and we stumbled across more than a few deer-sized matted places where it has apparently been common for them to bed down for the night.

It was a bucolic stroll, welcomed and even cradled by habitable land seemingly content to make room for our new roots here.  I will, indeed, eventually get busy with that power trimmer, though I'll admit to some reticence.  It isn't so much laziness or my clumsiness at the intimidating device as it is a sense of humble deference and respect.  It feels presumptuous, after all, to scarcely get unpacked before whacking away at what we have found here, imposing my particular vision of how this place should be before we have listened and sought to understand its own.  Our own fingerprints will eventually be felt here -- we will participate in the shaping and the nurturing and, to be sure, the trimming -- but for awhile we will walk, trace, observe the movement of the winds and the patterns of the animals, the bending of the grasses, the sentry points of the evergreens, and the squirrels' disposition of the fallen nuts and hedge apples.

If ours is to be a relationship with this land of participation rather than imposition, we have much to hear,
           ...and see,
                     ...and touch,
                               ...and learn.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Emerging Leaves of Spinach and Self

The spinach is maturing.  Savoyed leaf, winter hardy.  Since sowing the seeds several weeks ago I have daily sprinkled the soil with reserved rain water, checked to insure the heater was moderating the winter cold, and, I'll admit it, spoken encouragingly to the nascent sprouts.  While the arugula and the mustard were quick to break the surface, the spinach had its own sense of timing.  Eventually, however, the planter boasted two dense rows of green.  My critical side might observe that it certainly hasn't looked like spinach -- more like bermuda grass if the truth be told -- but I have tried to be optimistic and patient.  I hardly know one seed from another, but I trust the package and its mail-order purveyor.  So, I have watched and watered and waited.

And then yesterday I noticed a change:  rounded leaves amidst the blades.  I can't yet discern whether the latter are morphing into the former, or if these new manifestations are simply emerging into an environment made habitable by the old.  Perhaps the answer is still growing and will be made plain in the days ahead.  Perhaps not.  What I do know, however, is that the emergent growth is teaching me more than I first recognized -- the importance not only of patience (hard enough for my particular temperament) but also of paying attention; looking slowly, carefully and observantly at the nuances of movement and change and color and turgidity.  I am learning how easy it is skim along at the "macro" level, unaware of the micro-movements of life teeming more slowly and just below the surface of interest and awareness.

It's a lesson I should have already learned, living as I do in a "fly-over state", ignored by the really busy, really important, really preoccupied people of the coasts, living their lives at 30,000 feet.  Perhaps the spinach is also teaching me that the priority in life is to thrive, grow, leaf and green, whether or not anybody happens to notice.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Sound and the Silence and the Colors of Transition

"So do you miss it?" someone recently asked again.  By "it" the questioner was referring to life as a congregational pastor.  I get that question a lot.  I've not been into this new life very long, after all.  And almost from the beginning my answer has been that I don't miss the organizational work -- the meetings and the handwringing over budgets; responding to water leaks and boiler repairs and brick-and-mortar malfunctions of almost infinite variation. But I miss the people and the almost routine conversations about matters of ultimate significance.  I miss lighting the sanctuary candles with a child each week, and I miss making music with other instrumentalists.  I miss collegial  interactions with staff and, though not the inevitable complication of an already crowded calendar, I miss preparing funerals with grief-rocked families groping for meaning and comfort and memory and some new center of gravity.  I miss precious and pregnant moments like these.

But somehow yesterday it struck me that I miss something else.  I miss the sound work of preaching.  To be sure, I am still very involved with words.  I am rolling them around in my head even now, and clattering them onto the screen.  But at least since my high school endeavors in tournament speech I have been intrigued with the realization that there is an aural quality to words and the sentences they develop elusive in written form -- that third dimension beyond the almost mathematical formulation of subject/verb/predicate.  Poets have always understood what the more prosaic of us struggle to discern:  that words have colors as well as meanings, and colors are as auditory as they are visual.  Good writers can capture that subtlety, but the rest of us struggle to evoke the taste and smell and smooth or scratchy feel of words that are really thoughts and ideas and emotional expressions.  The voice can convey what the letters of a word cannot except in the most linguistically deft of hands.  Oral expression understands that words are not merely the straightest and shortest distance between ignorance and understanding -- or boredom and entertainment --  as if language were merely the human form of digital's vocabulary of zeros and ones. 

Writing for preaching is different from simply writing -- the former intended for hearing and the latter essentially for seeing.   And I miss that playfulness with sound.  It isn't the narcissistic sound of my own voice that I miss; rather it is the sound of the words themselves -- shaping them; stretching or compressing them; stacking them in lasagna layers of rich excess, or parceling them out one by one by one in the dramatic austerity of...

And I miss the occasional lump in the throat that is my own particular symptom that something larger than information has been conveyed -- one of those awe-filling, unspeakable moments ineffably merging speaker and listener, transcending those different roles and the space between pulpit and pew. 

I love the feel of the earth and I look forward to entrusting to it the seeds I have carefully selected, and tending the tendrils that emerge.  I love the space and the time and sense that this, too, is holy vocation.  I don't look back and I have no regret.  I am awed by the opportunity and the obligation of this new vocation.

But it is not adulterous to confess, alongside this love for the feel of the earth, my enduring affection for the sound of the words.  It simply confirms what a wise person counseled me as I prepared for this change of life:  that it would not be purchased without price. 

Maybe that means Tir, our one-year-old Welsh Corgi, will have to get used to being not just a playmate around the house, but a congregation of one.  We'll see if he can learn to laugh at the right times, and maybe even bark out an encouraging "amen."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Growing the Good Community

"A Declaration of Food Independence such as I suggest would foster and be dependent upon a deeper and more profound declaration of interdependence - and a new economy. A nation made up primarily of garden farms would mean a realignment of people into smaller and more local trade complexes. This "distributive economy" to use the phrase popularized in the 1930s and 1940s when many people began questioning both capitalism and socialism, would be based on personal contact between consumer and producer, and upon biological technologies more than on machine technologies -- the economy of Eden, in other words. Then humans would understand that people mattered, and not only people, but all living things upon which people depend. Common interest and self-interest would become one, and that is the definition of a real community." (Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening, pp. 3-4)

 When Lori and I became interested in locally grown produce a few years ago, we liked the idea of "shaking the hand of the farmer" who was feeding us.  In the case of one of those farmer families, we have done more than simply shake hands.  We have sat in their living room, eaten around their table, and most significant of all, have learned from them.  In the course of such interactions, we digested more than their harvest; we took into ourselves something of their passion for the goodness and healthiness of their labor.  They go to bed each evening tired, but with the satisfying clarity that what they are doing is important.  And they, along with many others, have convinced me.  

This small farm work is, I believe, important not only for nutritional reasons.  To be sure, locally grown vegetables are simply better.  Their taste is certainly superior, and I don't mean to discount the fact that, having been allowed to mature "on the vine" instead of "in the truck," their nutritional value is, indeed, richer and more mature.   It is, however, this human dimension that has moved me more than the physiological one.  I am intensely conscious of the fact that I am indebted.  I have come to know them and their labors.  I have come to understand their reasons for farming the way they do -- the logic of it; the history of it; the intent of it.  And I have come to employ much of it in the still smaller emulation of their work I have begun in this new endeavor on land of our own.  It is, however, less the science of it that compels me than the humanity of it.  The humanity, and indeed our interdependence on everything around me.

This blessed, holy work, I am coming to understand, does indeed have the capacity to remind us humans that people matter -- growers and consumers; teachers and students; planters and pickers; cooks and eaters -- grateful, with each handful, notebook, pot and mouthful, for the awe-filling blessedness of the "other" who makes it all worthwhile.  Self-interest and common interest simmered into the broth that is the base of all things good. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Working With My Few Dim Bulbs

It started with a flicker.  Lori first noticed that one of the grow lights in the greenhouse was blinking on and off when she went out on Sunday to harvest some lettuce for our dinner with friends.  Since I am accustomed to "operator's error," I assumed I hadn't seated the bulbs securely in the sockets when I hung them.  Never mind that they have been working fine for weeks.  By this time it was evening and our guests had arrived.  There wasn't anything to do about it until morning.  In fact it wasn't until afternoon that I remembered the malfunction and headed out to see what I could do about the strobing.  By this time, of course, it was three bulbs that weren't cooperating.

I twisted the bulbs, I removed and reinserted them; I turned them around and, when that still didn't work, spoke gentle words of encouragement to the intermittent light.  Then words not so gentle.  The bulbs, I concluded, must be burning out.  They are, after all, the same bulbs I used all last seeding season, back when the "greenhouse" was our townhome's living room window.  Not only had their services been significantly called upon, they had since been unceremoniously moved from their basement storage to barn at our new address.  They had a right, I concluded, to be tired.  The following day I purchased replacement bulbs and eagerly accomplished the switch.  No sooner, however, had I turned my back but the blinking resumed, accompanied by the percussive electric start that kept trying to push out of the bulbs some light.

Now, I don't know the first thing about lights.  Well, I don't suppose that's literally true.  I do know the first few things:  I know it takes electricity in some form, and bulbs.  After that, I'm guessing beyond my knowledge.  I recall hearing mention of "ballasts" that our church custodian seemed to be almost constantly changing out, but what they accomplish and how they are replaced I haven't really a clue.  In the meantime it didn't really matter.  Evening, by this time, was yet again approaching, I wasn't going back into town, and the ballasts I wouldn't have known what to do with anyway I didn't have in the second place.  So, I rearranged the planter boxes on a single shelf beneath the one remaining light fixture, left them to their diminished illumination.  Exiting, even the greenhouse itself looked sadly lopsided in its partial darkness. 

Ever since I have been hoping this light problem is only literal and not metaphorical.  I skitter along fairly well in this new undertaking until some problem -- even the most inconsequential -- punctures my thin veneer of knowledge and know-how, revealing just how shallow and fragile are these accumulating assets.  I am already more darkness than light, though every few days or so I strike a match of progress and see the way incrementally more clearly. 

But I can't afford -- in more ways than one -- any of them to burn out.  I need -- and I am speaking at least metaphorically now -- all the light I can get.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Snow on the Roof and at the Door

The greenhouse door had a threshold of snow from the couple inches that had fallen overnight.  A thin blanket drooped down from the roof line -- some encouragement that the internal temperature was warm enough to loosen the grip of the weather.  Tir and I kicked away the accumulation at the door and tentatively walked inside where I was relieved to be greeted by warm air and the reassuring whir of the heater.  I call it "warm" air, but such is only a reference to relativity.  Even with the heater, it is still cool inside -- 40's, if the thermometer is to be believed; but given that the outside temps are still in the middle teens, it feels almost balmy.

I still have plenty of rainwater stored up in miscellaneous milk jugs and buckets and bottles and tubs, but having already emptied a few of the makeshift containers in my ersatz reservoir, I can see that supply will not likely meet demand.  Sprinkling a drink over the valiant stems, I see the lettuce regrowth making good progress -- encouraging, since we hope to serve salad on Sunday to the friends who helped assemble the greenhouse.  The seeded greens are, thin and wispy, are nonetheless tanding tall, with the spinach now taking the lead.  Among the herbs, however, I discern a disheartening fade in the Mexican oregano.  I can hardly blame it.  Even with the contributions of the stalwart little heater, the environment inside the greenhouse is hardly Mexican.  We'll see.

A colleague yesterday asked affectionately and almost pleadingly if there might be sometime that he could come by and experience what we are doing.  Before I could more carefully formulate a proper response I heard myself, with an air of authority, replying that there isn't much right now to see or experience, but that I would start seeding in earnest in the greenhouse in late February or early March, working soil in April and planting in early May.  Then, the earliest maturity rates are around 45 days, and so sure, sometime after that...

"Where," I suddenly wondered to myself with some measure of satisfaction, "did all that come from?  It almost sounded like I knew what I was doing."

Recalling that conversation this morning, I look again at the Mexican oregano just to regain some proper measure of humility.  Then I underscored the parting observation I confessed to my friend:  "I will likely never be more successful than I am right now -- before I have begun."

Well, like I said before:  we'll see.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Trusting the Deeper Growth

"Everything is gestation and then bringing forth."
---Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Responses are starting to come back to us from recipients of our Christmas letter expressing surprise -- and perhaps a small measure of envy -- at my "retirement" and our move to the country.  It is all warm-hearted, with the playful disapproval that I should take this step at my young age.  I don't tell them that the stiffness in my body each morning as I hobble out of bed doesn't feel all that young.  I simply try to clarify the larger truth in our move:  I can't have retired; my Pension Fund tells me I'm too young to do that.

The point, I try to explain, is not what I have stopped doing, but what I have started doing.  I also try to interpret how I don't feel like I have left the ministry, but have instead begun a ministry with a very different congregation, in response to a call every bit as powerful as the one that led me into pastoral ministry 30 years ago.  I understand that it is a clarification hard to comprehend; I'm not sure I get it all of the time, myself.  It is a distinction made even more difficult during this winter time when the only soil to cultivate is in containers on the shelves of the greenhouse.  Many days there is very little to show for my time apart from having dinner ready when Lori arrives home from work. 

But I am grateful for the quietness of these days, now that most of the boxes have been unpacked and the essentials made generally accessible.  I feel my own taproot pressing deeper into my soul, confident that just as important things are happening out of view beneath the surface of the ground out back, important things are happening within me.

Everything, after all, is gestation, whether or not we realize what all might have been planted.  Sooner or later -- perhaps even when we least expect it -- there will be a bringing forth.  Perhaps that's why I like the new logo we had created to graphically represent our new endeavor.  It's focus is on all that is transpiring beneath the surface, regardless of what might be showing above ground -- the deep roots and the peripheral initiatives emerging from them.  The focus is on the grounding, in recognition of the conviction that the sweetest fruit emerges from the deepest roots.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Few Seeds More

The dangerous joy of a gardener's winter -- especially a gardener whose optimism and imagination far outpace his knowledge and experience -- is getting lost in the flutter of seed catalogs newly descending as the new year approaches.  "New this season" joins with "perennial favorite" to entice one indulgence after another.  Over the weekend I three times clicked on the "checkout now" button of the seed companies' online catalog sites; heirlooms, open-pollinated, and all manner of saved seeds, from the familiar asparagus ("Purple Passion" and "Jersey Supreme") and beans ("Taylor Strain", "Black Jet" ) and Brussels Sprouts ("Nautic"), to the ever curious kolrabi ("Korridor" and "Azur Star"), the thematically obligatory rutabaga ("American Purple Top"), the reliable Swiss Chard ("Fordhook Giant" and "Bright Lights"), and the essential peppers, squashes, tomatillos and tomatoes (too many varieties to count).  I even managed to find seeds for the Padron peppers we enjoyed as an appetizer at a restaurant in Napa Valley. 

It is a "dangerous joy" because the "joy" part of the phrase can get expensive.  Sure, the packets of seed aren't much -- from around $3 to just over $5 -- but, alas, it adds up.  Like pushing your tray through a cafeteria line, everything looks good, and you came hungry.  I put some novelties on my tray -- like the striped Asian eggplant, the Christmas lima beans, egg yolk tomato and the round tomato shaped pimento -- along with some aesthetics -- like the zinnias and strawflowers.  A Texas gardener wouldn't want to try and make it through without a couple varieties of okra and a good stand of collard greens.  I can already taste the poblanos and anchos, and my mouth waters in anticipation of a softball-sized Brandywine tomato.  All of which is to say that my purchases were broad and deep.  But, hey, they are seeds -- the promise of things to come!

It's not without some reticence of realism.  My garden will never be more prolific, I know, than it is in my imagination, right now before a single seed is sown.  It is, I understand, a labor-intensive risk to actually go through with the project.  It's easier, after all, to just talk about it -- grandly, sweepingly, philosophically, nobly.  It gets dirtier, sweatier and more exhausting from here. 

And yet this is what we came here for.  In fact, it almost seems redundant to order seeds, in this place where everything about this endeavor has to do with seeds already planted.  Dreams, imagination, lives, Spirit -- seeds of a very different variety carefully and naively palmed and carried to this new beginning and thumbed into what already feels like fertile soil -- at least for the soul's prosperity.  With all of this abundance, why not a few hundred seeds more?

Friday, December 2, 2011

While Visions of Marinara Danced in My Head

On the occasion of our first anniversary, Lori and I returned to Vermont where we had honeymooned the year before.  We didn't retrace exactly the same ground, but we did return to the small community of Waitsfield where we had met Elisabeth von Trapp and her husband.  Waitsfield is one of the quintessential Vermont villages that had aesthetically insisted that we park and walk around as we were driving through the year before.  On this second trip we stopped again into Kenyon's Store, one of those general purpose variety/farm/ranch/hardware/etc. stores that are so hypnotic.  One of the souvenirs I couldn't resist was a black and red checked wool jacket.  OK, and yes I also bought the matching cap with ear flaps.  For the record, I am the only one in the family who holds them special.

Today was a day that cried out for the Vermont wool.  During the night temperatures had fallen to 16-degrees, holding in place the dusting of snow that had fallen earlier in the afternoon.  On this day forecasted to reach 40-degrees, morning broke full of brisk sunshine...and frost.  Since tomorrow is supposed to enjoy steady rains, followed by snow through the night, today of course was the day necessary for planting the garlic.

Last week, after clearing the Thanksgiving table, brother-in-law Steve filled a bag of cloves from his own supply for us to use in our first garden season.  Unlike me, Steve knows what he is doing -- planting and actually harvesting an ample supply each year to extend through the winter.  So when he assured me it wasn't too late to get them in the ground, I gratefully accepted the gift with good intentions.  Now a week later and very possibly too late, I ran up against the calendar wall.  It was now or never, never mind the temperatures in the teens and snow on the ground and my general ignorance on the subject (beyond Steve's cursory coaching).

Pulling on my thermal underwear, the fleece lined corduroy shirt, the Carhartt bib overalls given to me as a parting gift by the church, and my beloved Vermont wool jacket, I headed with Tir, a shovel and the garlic out to the garden.  I chose an area just inside the intended inclosure, just beyond the beaten path worn by the movement of deer.  Taking a deep breath and preparing for a fight, I heaved my energies into the shovel.  The truth is I received better than I deserved.  The ground, despite the icy temperatures, was actually quite willing and receptive, turning over with little effort.  The wriggling earthworms whose hiding had been so violently shoveled give me some optimism that the bulbs and subsequent seeds that will be joining them in this soil will find a habitable space.

I dug the trench to what I hope is an appropriate depth, lodged the cloves along the bottom evenly spaced, retrieved the ones that Tir had pirated and sampled, and replaced the soil.  Mulching matter from my autumn efforts completed the covering, and now -- as with virtually everything related to this project -- we wait.  And pray -- that the garlic will come up, and that Tir's breath will return to normal.  For the moment, he is smelling more Italian than Welsh.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In the Classroom of the Fallow Field

One could say that it was an odd time to take up gardening full-time -- autumn, when everything is winding down in anticipation of winter.  To be sure, there have been projects to complete -- a greenhouse to build, fruit trees to plant, a garden plot to demarcate -- but there is precious little "gardening" to do.  Yes, I have established some greens and herbs in the greenhouse, and they require daily tending -- watering, examining, offering some encouraging words -- but those essential demands consume precious little time.  The tools are stowed, the water barrels are emptied and stored, the hoses are wound and deposited in the shed. 

Horticulturally speaking, it is the slow time.  The land is quieting, and there is little for this entering farmer to do but walk around, noticing the grasses, peering through the brush opened by now-naked branches to see what only weeks ago was obscured.  The trees look different, stripped of their imposing wardrobe -- vulnerable in a way that is true of any living thing.  The grasses, so recently tall and undulating in the wind like a dry land ocean, now prone as if hibernating for the winter -- which, I suppose, is precisely true.  The lawn that seemed hopelessly carpeted by fallen walnuts and hedge apples has largely been cleared by the squirrels -- or whatever.  Brittle branches, broken by wind and the weight of an early snow last month, litter the pathways and call for attention.

I can only imagine what is happening beneath the surface.  Do the worms and microbes press deeper as the  soil hardens with the freezing?  Do the roots essentially take a deep breath and hold it for the next four months?  Those details are out of my reach.  I am confined to monitoring what happens in plainer view -- the deer venturing out into the open field for food -- the herd of does and the couple of adolescent fawns, and only occasionally the more reticent buck; the rabbits, hidden in the grass in plain sight, jumping away from the step of my foot; the occasional cardinal on a branch.

There is little to do but walk around...and pay attention.  But surely that is important -- essential and even reverential -- work; seeing, watching, hearing, noticing.  This is the time to get acquainted, intimately, with this place that has already become, in an anticipatory way, my teacher; and I dare not neglect my studies. 
This, in other words, is my book work in this quietly encompassing classroom of the fallow field.