Friday, December 28, 2012

Clearing the Leave Fresh Footprints

As a child one of my favorite toys was the Etch-A-Sketch, that technological marvel that looked something like a primitive red iPad with two white knobs at the bottom.  The knobs directionally controlled some kind of an internal stylus that drew lines on the gray screen.  With careful and practiced maneuvering the aspiring artist could draw all kinds of shapes -- not only the straight lines superficially offered by the knobs, but faux-curves as well.  The possibilities seemed endless.  But the "magic" promised by the label at the top of the toy was that the entire image -- masterpieces as well as mistakes -- could be erased with a simple, vigorous shake.  The slate thusly and summarily cleaned, the aspiring artist was ready to begin afresh.

It's been a week since the blizzard blustered its way through central Iowa leaving white-faced trees and a foot-deep blanket of snow on the ground.  In the ensuing days the road crews have done the best they could to restore the county's mobility; power crews have reconnected downed lines, and after more than a year of anticipation I finally had the chance to put our own snow blower through its paces.  For folks like us the "White Christmas" was a sentimental treat, though travelers had some grumbles.  It has been beautiful, quieting in a way -- centering.

But the blanket has grown worn.  The landscape still looks white, but a closer gaze reveals the traffic.  Deer passing through every morning and evening have tracked the lawn into a herring-bone pattern of comings and goings; bare patches betray the hoof-thrashes in search of food.  A herd of nine were clustered around the garden yesterday morning; a handful again last night.   When Tir and I stepped out front this morning in the not-yet-gray of dawn we first heard the scuttle of feet and then the flip of the white tail of the deer we had disturbed beneath the trees.

The imprints of activity leave a beauty of their own -- the etches and sketches of life.  I think about all the lines and curves, the patterned foot prints and the worn patches we have left on this first year at Taproot Garden.  While considerable life had been lived here before our coming, we arrived with a fresh, clean page.  In those months we have explored, we have hiked, we have cut paths of our own extending the ones inherited; we have trimmed and cleared, we have plowed and planted and weeded and dreamed; we have watered and harvested and planted some more.  Not permanent ones, we hope, but we have left our mark on this land to which we've come.  And though there is much still to learn, to experience, to practice and to dream, I am proud of our efforts.

 All that said about the last week and the last year, there was something magically compelling about the pristine smoothness of the fresh snow.

Appropriate, then, that it is snowing again this morning, here inching toward the birth cry of a new year -- creation's Etch-A-Sketch of both the calendar and the land.  For a few fleeting hours the ruts and bald places in the landscape will be filled in and smoothed out, and the unwrapped calendar, still devoid of entries, will be hung.  Everything clean and clear -- a panorama of the pristine.

The deer, I'm sure, will be back this evening tracking through the crystalline meringue; and we already have things to do and places to go and a New Year's worth of experiences to gain and memories to make.  But for just a few hours in the silence of falling snow, here at the benediction of a closing year and the invocation of a fresh one...

...all is beautiful, evocative...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Born Afresh in a barn for a Stable

To be sure, there is much for which to be grateful in a Christmas-time centered around the farm instead of the church’s activities.  We cleaned the house at a leisurely pace in anticipation of family time together instead of making sure the candles and correct bulletins were laid out for the congregation’s time together.  We double-checked recipe notes for the evening meal rather than sermon notes for the service.  We walked around the snow-covered field looking for animal tracks instead of circling through the sanctuary looking for miscellaneous trash and liturgical detritus otherwise out of place.  There was no anxiety about time constraints, no wistful apprehension about the size of the crowd, no nervousness about “how it all would go.”

The kids arrived, we honored, deepened and massaged well-established traditions, we loaded into the car for the trip into town and then loaded into a common pew from which to hear the readings and sing the carols, and then returned home to share the gifts we had to give -- chief among them the sentiments, the considerations, and the hours in each others’ keeping.  We hugged, thanked, voiced our love, and bade goodnight -- full in more ways than one.

But one thing was lost in this vocational transition.

In that previous life, the exclamation point of Christmas Eve -- quietly but movingly punctuating the evening’s long and celebratory sentence -- was the 11 pm service.  Each year, after the kinetic and frenetic grandeur of the early service with its choirs and crowds and children, after family time with kids, Lori and I would bundle back up and return to the church for the night’s quieter conclusion.  

Always an intimate gathering, we never knew who to expect; typically it was a small cluster of strangers huddled in from the neighborhood, along with a Mom or a Dad weary of assembling toys.  A few dozen at the most.  And having dismissed the rest of the staff to their families, the two of us would alternate the readings, harmonize the carols, and wink with love across the chancel.  Candlelight would be shared, Silent Night would be sung, a hushed “Merry Christmas” would be exchanged, and then, the last to leave, we would turn out the lights, lock the doors, and cross the emptied parking lot from which we would drive into Christmas morning.

We loved those services; treasured those quietly simple, spiritually and maritally precious moments.  And we miss them -- all the commensurate joys of Taproot Garden notwithstanding.

And so we had an idea.  

Last night, after church time with the family, after mealtime and gift time and all the joy of Christmas Eve tradition -- after we were once again alone -- just before midnight we shivered across the driveway to the barn, just the two of us, turned on the heater, plugged in the Christmas tree lights and nativity scene, and with hymnals in hand called ourselves to worship.  We remembered the Divine’s intention, we read the prophets’ expectation and the angel’s annunciation, we dueted the carols of the season and, having already shared with the larger congregation bread and wine, considered the other ways we had communed with Holiness throughout the day.  

We weren't, of course, truly alone.  We were circled by the memories of loved ones lost and deep gratitude for loved ones near.  We were fed by traditions that had shaped us, and in note and word and flame and story were, in the twinkling silence that followed benediction, palpably aware of the Word-made-flesh among us -- the light the darkness can't overcome.  

And with a tear in our eyes, we turned off the lights, locked the door, and gratefully, mindfully, reverently, and happily crossed the snowy driveway into Christmas.  

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Strength Would Be Nice -- and the Structure

I should be reading.  Or something.  These, after all, are quieter days.  The mercury is hovering around the single-digits, there is snow on the ground and even the chores set aside for “slower times” are forgiven until it warms.  Except for the greenhouse plantings this is the garden’s fallow season when the earth’s instinctual calisthenics quietly rejuvenate toward spring.

  And I should be doing the same -- learning about seed selection, soil amendments, bug prevention, watering requirements, and why the cabbage leafed last summer but never formed a head; why not a single brussels sprout seed germinated despite 2 separate plantings.  Or I could simply ponder the grace-filled wonder of the carrots -- seeds that were a free gift accompanying the varietals I had actually ordered -- planted and then largely forgotten, that became the surprise bounty of the fall rediscovered only as I was bedding the rows down for the winter.  Or the tenacious generosity of the okra plants that never reached their bushy stature but nonetheless insisted on offering up their spiky fruitfulness from their gnomic twigs.  Or the kindness of the deer who thoroughly inspected the garden confines up until the time I planted, and then disappeared, returning only after the harvest was completed.

Instead I flit around the house like a hummingbird with ADHD, reading headlines but seldom the stories beneath them; returning books to the library only partially read; jumping into this while jumping out of that; eschewing complex sentences for mere subjects and predicates; sustaining an extended thought only under duress.

Perhaps it is the holiday season.  Perhaps my abbreviated attention span is tracking with the shortness of the days.  All I know is if I were Morse Code I couldn't spell anything of consequence -- all “shorts” and no “longs”; dots without dashes.

In pasta and bread making, we’ve been taught, there is the measuring and the mixing, the rising, perhaps, and even the resting; but eventually there is the kneading -- folding the dough onto itself and then pressing into it with the heal of the hands; stretching, rolling, folding again and then pressing.  Over and over again -- the tactile paradox of gentleness and forcefulness -- until the dough becomes itself, elastic but integral; firm but responsive.  It is the kneading that forms the gluten strands that give the dough structure and strength; it’s what holds the pasta or the bread together.  The proteins that are the gluten, of course, are already there; the kneading simply draws them together and develops them into long and resilient strands that lend the dough the character desired -- that make fine pasta or bread truly “fine.”

Perhaps, then, it’s kneading I’m needing -- some imposed and methodical stretching to lengthen my constitutional strands.  I don't quite know how to go about it, but I know there is a rhythm to it, a determined physicality, a rather disconcerting but satisfying stickiness, and a willingness to clean up the mess.  

Those, and the enticing capacity to anticipate the results.  It seems like good winter work.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Trimming, Risking, Exerting, and Learning

I am choosing to call it "management," although I concede that's a debatable point.  Perhaps I have mentioned before in this space that I don't know what I'm doing.  Having resettled our comfortable urban existence out onto 10 acres of rustic, dirt-roaded bliss, I am learning as I go.  My threshold for risk is high; I hate the thought of screwing something up -- especially something as precious as living land.  The result is that I am slow to intervene.  Though I have been twice visited by arborists helping me with identification and interpretation of the flora surrounding us, it still feels like a precarious and near-inscrutable line separating horticultural murder from stewardship of the land.  Who am I, after all, to be powering up my blade trimmer to impose my bucolic aesthetic?

That said, one truth is unimpeachable:  though I had my problems with tomatoes and peppers -- to say nothing of the stillborn brussels sprouts -- certain trees seem to spring up at will.  If those were oaks or maples or redbuds or the like I could hardly be happier.  As it is, the prolific varieties are osage orange and cedar.  The former spawn lecherous branches with thorns along with those prehistoric looking hedge apples; the latter, though evergreen, simply look ragged and have therefore drawn the ire of my lovely bride.  I am convinced that I could whack down every one of them on the property and overnight they would miraculously reappear.

In that confidence, this morning I gassed up the trimmer, positioned the ear covers and safety glasses, and pulled the starter cord.  Together the roaring blade and I improved existing paths, began the clearing of a new one, and then forded the prairie grasses in pursuit of saplings whose generating seeds had exercised the poor judgment of sprouting in inopportune locations.  My field travels eventually took me northward toward the putative spring.  Deep into the woods -- territory I have traversed only a couple of times at the cost of torn clothes and ripped skin -- is a slender waterway of questionable origin.  Deer and who knows what other wildlife have found it by the signs trampled into the area, but it isn't much for human passage.  Threading through the brush only gets the curious to a couple of drop-offs usually exacerbated by muddy terrain that never seems to dry.  That could be evidence of a spring, or it could simply mean that the sun rarely gets all the way to the ground.

I made a beginning; that's about the best I can claim.  Overarching, but low-hanging branches complicated by thrusting saplings made for slow work.  Eventually the trimmer sputtered to silence having thirsted through a full tank of fuel.  And so I began the trudge back to the barn, remembering that this is the constant work of a lifetime -- like trimming fingernails -- not merely a winter morning's exertion.  Another day I will fill the tank and pull the rope and roar my way back into the woods... manage this land we are calling home.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Enough Experience to Be Dangerous

Last year the problem was getting it out.  This year, of course, it was the opposite problem.

When we were in the swirl of buying this acreage, Lori looked dismissively at the 30-foot by 40-foot metal building perched off the driveway to the south and west of the house and wondered aloud how difficult it might be to tear down.  "What use do we have for a barn?"

"Well," we eventually concluded together, "we could always use it for parties."  It is, after all, heated and has a simple but functional enough bathroom.  And we have come to enjoy hosting.  Party prospects, then, saved the barn, but it has been the rapid accumulation of equipment and tools that has  turned it into a godsend.  Chainsaw, power trimmers of multiple specialization, an air compressor to fill things, a power wagon to carry things, a commercial size diesel lawn tractor to mow things, when it isn't trans-fitted with an industrial snow blower to clear things in the opposite season.  And, of course, the requisite pickup.  I'm still not sure why we need a pickup, but everyone said we had to have one, and we are nothing if not compliant.  And fuel cans.  My heavens, do we have the fuel cans!  There are cans for diesel, cans for gasoline, and cans for a gas/oil mix.  And then there are the lubricants and the stabilizers and...well, you see my point.  All of these necessities have to go somewhere.

The problem -- or the blessing -- is that we still choose to have parties.

In the barn.

Which means plotting a grand evacuation in the days preceding such an event.  It works out fine; a few tarpaulin curtains to veil the miscellany pushed into huddles against the wall, a few hours with a broom and then a mop (did I mention the drips and drops of some heretofore unidentified petroleum product staining the floor?) with a heavily Pine Sol-laced solution.  Of course all the major equipment must be backed out and parked for the night under a tree to make room.  That's no problem for the truck or the power wagon.  Frigid winter or blistering summer, neither seems daunted by the effort.

But the tractor has a mind, temperament and biorhythm all its own.  Last winter, on the afternoon of the party, nothing could persuade it to start.  Maybe the diesel had turned to pudding.  Maybe it was simply in one of those moods.  Whatever, neither key nor crank nor coaxing nor cursing would beckon it to life.  Just to punctuate its defiance, the battery moaned itself into an neutered silence.  A desperate call to a friend with knowledge of such things summoned eventual rescue, arriving armed with a jump starter for the battery, some miracle aerosol for the engine, and a fresh presence of optimism and patience.  As if sizing up the odds and crying "uncle" the Kubota quickly roared back to life and the party was saved.

This time, as if to forestall eventual panic, I started the day ahead...without a hitch.  The space was readily cleared, cleaned and decorated, and at the appointed hour some 24-hours hence, a good time was had by all.

But of course by then the weather had changed.  The mercury had dropped, a dust of snow had fallen, and the two nights in oak's shade had not been kind to the Kubota.  The truck returned to its cozy space inside, as did the power wagon, but nothing could convince the tractor that anything could be gained or enjoyed by cranking.  Once again the battery suffered the consequences.  It was morning, and it was evening, a third night spent outdoors.

This time, however, I did not panic.  And of course this time I had my own jump starter, and my own reserve of patience.  I've dropped a coin in this jukebox before.  I had time, a few new ideas from my knowledgable friend, and a warming forecast.  By lunchtime the engine had started, a few recharging laps completed, and its rightful place in the barn retaken.

There is something to be said for experience, even if that pool, after only one year, is shallow.  I even put newspapers down to catch the drips.  I wouldn't say I'm feeling cocky, but the squash bugs better watch out this summer.  I'm on a roll.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Breaking the Ice to Offer the Growing A Drink

I'll admit to apprehensions.  Last night was the first serious freeze since the seeds went down in the greenhouse, and as watering time arrived I entered with trepidation.  I had it on good authority that the new row cover fabrics I exchanged for last year's space heater would keep the emerging little stems protected, but I had my doubts along with my hopes. Sixteen-degrees, after all, is colder than I would want to be out there trying to grow.  Clumsily opening the door with gloved hands, I found no encouragement in the frozen jugs of rainwater stored inside.  It wasn't hard to see my breath, even with the full sun high over head.  Gingerly, I pulled back the covers expecting wilted, frost-bitten devastation.

Instead, I found lush and vibrant leaves, stems more than holding their own.  Even the wispy scallions seem no worse for the wear, their tendril-like shoots standing tall and upright.  The kale, at first rounded and smooth, is developing the crenellated edges for which it is known; the sorrel, slower but holding its own.

It is an amazing thing to watch -- forces of nature competing.  A tug-of-war between temperature and photosynthesis; growth and decay; quite literally life and death.  On Christmas Eve, with a fistful of candlelight in an otherwise darkened space, it is customary to hear the biblical testimony that, "the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Perhaps the greenhouse is occasioning a new metaphorical witness:  "the life grows on in the coldness, and the coldness has not overcome it."

It is a hopeful promise, in the face of almost certain coldness still to come over the course of these winter months.  Snow will no doubt eventually blanket the roof and Tir and I will have to clear a path to the door.  In the face of it, I will nevertheless more optimistically apply my gloved hands to the balky latch and push inside.  And with a sturdier confidence, push back the fabric to offer the living -- the intrepidly thriving -- a drink.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dreaming and Drooling While Turning Down the Pages

I am old enough to remember the enormous Sears and Roebuck catalogue that routinely arrived through the mail each year, but young enough to have missed out on all the associated excitement that arrival once carried with it.   At once a toy, hardware, clothing, musical instrument and even house plans store, that original catalogue brought entire malls into one's living room.  It's not that we no longer shop through the mail.  The tonnage of specialty catalogues that pass from my mailbox directly into my recycling bin each month evidences that someone is doing it.  And what is except a virtual version of the old all-purpose catalogue?  In the last year I have purchased everything from books to automotive supplies, garden tools to kitchen tools from this friendly online retailer, and doubt that the new year will be any different.

Some of us don't mind the wait; others of us hate fighting the mall crowds and the parking lots; still others are confined to their homes but explore -- and shop -- the world online.  But the lure of the immediate killed off the door-stop catalogue.  Target and WalMart and Home Depot are just down the street, and even if I can't find exactly what I want there, "close enough" is usually "good enough."

But some gratifications are necessarily delayed -- especially when it comes to gardening.  Winter is the gardening season of imagination, of anticipation, of vicarious salivation, above all...waiting.  It will be months before the seeds are started in the greenhouse under lights; months beyond that before the first soil is turned; months still further out before the first pepper or tomato is picked.  Winter, for the gardener, is the season of dreaming, planning, and waiting.  The dormant preacher in me recalls that there is a lot of that going around this time of year.

Advent, in the church's alternative ordering of time, is the season of waiting.  As the four weeks leading up to Christmas, it is the season reaching back into the soul and psyche of the Hebrew prophets who watched and waited for -- and pointed toward -- something better.  The first reading of this first Sunday of this year hears Jeremiah anticipate "those days" when "a righteous Branch" will spring up, implicitly calling attention to what for all the world looks like "dead wood" surrounding us these days.

Paralleling the story of Mary's pregnancy, Advent is the season of waiting (as one of my teachers cleverly put it, with a nod toward every pregnancy) for what never seems to come.  Days are short.  Nights are long.  The end seems nowhere in sight.  Depending on one's attitude about such things, the chilly air nudges us to "cozy" or "huddle" or "close" in beneath layers of whatever keeps us warm.

And as best as we are able, we wait.  Sometimes aching, sometimes dreaming, sometimes doggedly slogging through; looking forward when we aren't looking down.

And so it is that in what has to be the perfect Advent symbol, the first two seed catalogues arrived yesterday in the mail.   Pages and pages of colorful photos of ripened vegetables and fruits -- anticipatory savories and sweets -- beckoning the imagination spring-ward.  Seeds for this bean and that herb; this brassica and that allium; this cucurbit and that nightshade.  Heaven's harvest complete with an order form.

I've already begun to dog-ear pages.

And salivate.  Happy Advent.