Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Springtime's Indoor Bridge

It’s not hard to account for potted houseplants.  There is something compelling about bringing some essence of the outdoors inside.  Blossom and leaf.  The green of living things.  Nature’s nourishing aesthetic brought near.  Houseplants, sure, but trees – as in Christmas trees?  Isn’t that a bit of space-consuming overkill?

Innovative decorators, no doubt trying to modernize and amp-up the accessory, once-upon-a-time reconceived (ill-conceived?) the tree in silver foil colored by a rotating wheel on a spotlight, but that proved a passing fad.  Given the fact that nature can be so natural, we allergy sufferers are grateful that some creative genius came up with the idea of a more-or-less authentic-looking artificial tree.  But faux, foil or real, why a tree at all?

The story is often remembered and told about how Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, was walking home one winter evening and became enchanted by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens.  Wanting to recreate the scene for his family -- and apparently not wanting to bother them with coats and gloves for a walk outside -- he cut a tree, set it up in the main room and, in an act that screams "fire hazard", wired its branches with lighted candles.

Other sources suggest that the Christmas tree tradition goes back much earlier, to the Roman observance of the Winter Solstice during which homes and temples were decorated with evergreens to mark their trustful anticipation of the approaching but still-distant time when farms and orchards would again be green and fruitful.  Supposedly the Druids asserted a similar confidence in nature's resilience with evergreen decorations in the depth of winter.

As have we.  In addition to the fancier version in our Great Room, a quite stately, if simpler, companion graces a corner of the barn, keeping the nativity set company -- or perhaps providing additional shelter.  The objective rationale for its installation out there was the holiday entertaining we hosted earlier in the season in that austere setting.  We drape off the miscellaneous tools hanging on the walls and back out the heavier equipment to make room.  The concrete floor is easily swept and no one worries about spills on the grease/hydraulic fluid/oil-stained floor.  The tree seemed requisite decoration.

But we have left it up – neglectfully, perhaps, but in a broader sense appropriately.  There is, I think, something right about nesting a promissory tree in that space to which the equipment of garden and lawn and brush have been returned.  Dormant, for the most part now that winter is the prevailing reality, the tree stands alongside tractor, mowers, chainsaws and carts as a trustful reminder that the green blades of spring will return, along with saplings reaching for light and compost ready to haul and spread.  The tree in the corner of the barn anchors our confidence that the tools will once again have their day.

The day is inexorably approaching – my least favorite day of the year – when the decorations must come down.  The ornaments and special candles will be sorted and boxed.  The wreaths will be stored along with the baubles and bows.  We’ll stretch the use of winter dishes awhile longer, but their day, too, will eventually come. 

But the tree’s stately assurance -- a kind of psychological bridge across winter -- will linger, even once its branches have been stripped of shiny things and dangling memories of celebrations past and its sections have been boxed and stored away.  There are, I know, more theological symbols associated with its boughs, but just now -- on a morning that began at 4-degrees -- this subtler one is both reassuring and compelling:  spring, and the fruitful life it both beckons and occasions, is coming; indeed, is never that far away.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Don't Mess With My Eggs

The electric fence has been cold for the past several days.  "Cold" as opposed to "hot", as in not charged.  I have no real explanation for this.  It could be that grassy ground contact or fallen leaves or rolled hedge apples have shorted out the system.  It could be that cloudy, misty days have delivered insufficient light to interest the solar charging cell.  I'll work on that.  In the meantime the chickens are "protected" by this flimsy mesh fencing, which accounts for the possum.

Recent evenings I have headed out to the coop at dusk to close the run's outer door to be greeted by beady eyes and gray fur.  Subsequent reading has asserted that possums are serious predators, but so far there has been no sign of aggression.  The chickens allow it wide space, but otherwise seem unperturbed.  Me?  Not so much.  It makes me shiver.  Armed with a flashlight and an egg basket I represent very little threat, but apparently the mere fact of my presence is ample incentive for the invading little marsupial to exit.  Chicken feed, rather than the chickens themselves, have seemed to be the extent of its appetite.

Until yesterday.  Well before dusk I headed out back to check for eggs.  Dropping the laying box trap door to see how many treasures I might collect I was greeted by a furry white triangular face with egg yolk dripping from its chin.  The little bugger had strolled into the run, made its way up the ramp and into the box and settled in for an early supper.  It's one thing to be scared.  It's another to be mad.  Eggs, after all, are precious!

I hustled back to the house, grabbed a sturdy broom and returned to the scene of the crime.  Partially opening the rear door, I used the bristles at the end of the handle to evict the intruder through the still-opened hatch, watch it shuffle away, and then cleaned up the egg detritus so as not to traumatize the girls.  Securing them inside the run and now fueled by righteous indignation, we loaded up and headed for the farm supply store and returned with a live trap...and...other predator control tools that will remain undefined.  I baited and set the trap.  Darkness fell.  We turned in for the night.

We both rose early this morning -- curious, anxious, horrified by the thought of what sunrise might reveal.  Impatiently we tried one flashlight after another in search of an early glimpse.  It turns out that we are going to need a brighter light.  It finally came about a half-hour later in the form of the sun which revealed...

...one fewer critter that the chickens and I have to worry about.  The Beverly Hillbillies' culinary mouths are no doubt jealously watering.  Me?   I'm just trying to decide if a simple benediction is adequate, or if a full-blown graveside service is required.

For now, in keeping with the Christmas spirit, I'll simply recall the familiar words of Simeon:
"Lord now let your servant depart in peace..."


Friday, December 19, 2014

Home is Where the Heart Is -- and the Feed

I've been lately recalling the education I received from the homeless folk who begrudgingly accepted our church's hospitality in the early years of my ministry in Des Moines.  A death from exposure the previous year had nudged a few urban churches to coordinate a band-aid response consisting of army cots, fellowship halls and donated meals for the coldest months of winter.  The operation rotated nightly among those participating churches, with a van shuttling from a designated spot downtown those who were willing to come in out of the cold.

I say "begudgingly" and "willing" because their acquiescence came as a last resort.  There were certainly exceptions -- the marginally employed and accustomed to better whose turn in circumstances had shoved them over the line into homelessness -- but for the most part these were folks who rather preferred to be independent, unencumbered and out of doors.  They routinely cobbled together makeshift shelters out of discarded tents, scavenged boxes or lumber or whatever might block the wind and divert the rain and snow.  They rigged up heaters using parts from discarded grills that worked reasonably well until a breeze bent the flame too close to the wall and burned the whole contraption down -- too often, unfortunately, with the architect sleeping inside.

And so it was that when we compassionately helpful church folks opened our doors for a few months in the depths of winter even the most hardened outdoor survivalists begrudgingly condescended to occupy a warm, albeit stiff, cot and avail themselves of a free meal.  That, however, only until the mercury climbed a couple of degrees and they could escape the confines of our generosity and return to their preferred environs.  What I'm reporting here is not the interpretation of observation; it's the fruit of direct conversation.  This is what I was told night after night by our activity room residents who were appreciative, as far as that went, but who really didn't want to be there.  Contrary to our estimation, they didn't consider themselves homeless.  They had a home and a community down by the river.  It was simply a home that didn't have permanent walls, utilities, a recognized address, and "appliances" by only the most generous definition.

These past occasional friends have been on my mind in recent weeks as I shuffle my way out back to secure the chickens at night.  The customary routine is that the settling darkness inspires the flock to ascend the little ramp from the run up into the sheltering coop where there is straw and a roost upon which the girls snuggle in for the night.  All I have to do is close the hatch, raise the ramp and secure the outer door.  A few weeks ago I successfully migrated the two newest arrivals from the annex across the yard where they had been duly quarantined over to the main coop with the others.  As far as I can tell they chumley get along -- pecking away side by side throughout the day.  But at night, despite the peer pressure of the older girls who, like clockwork, climb the ramp and put themselves to bed, the twins (our affectionate moniker for these two young Light Brahmas who do everything as a pair) remain down below preferring the night air to the coziness up above.  To be sure, the situation changes on random nights -- perhaps when the temperatures plunge beneath an invisible line -- whereupon the twins troop up and in with the others.  But let the next night be a degree or two milder and predictably I will find them camped out, just the two of them, down below -- airy and a little more free.  It has become a sort of parlor game, guessing each night where I will find them...

...and being educated all over again that neither are we "all the same" nor are our definitions of "home."

It's almost to suggest that we are "wonderfully, fearfully made" as the Psalmist once reflected --
and individually, with our own sense of where we want to be.