Thursday, April 28, 2022

Viriditas Comes Home

 The seed was sown in Italian soil, in the Umbrian village of Assisi.  We had read about a bronze sculpture in the Upper Basilica of that storied village, and nearing the end of our visit to a neighboring village six miles away, we hastily arranged an exploratory expedition.  The sculpture depicts Saint Francis receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit – a common enough theme.  But unlike the usual depictions in which Francis’ hands are extended towards the heavens to receive the descending dove, this characterization positions Francis on his knees reaching downward to receive the Holy Spirit emerging from the soil.  That made sense to us in a way so compelling that our spiritual and agricultural imaginations kept returning to the idea.

And then we met Hildegard.  

Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century German polymath – an Abbess, an herbalist, a physician, an artist and musician, a blunt critic of religious leaders who grew accustomed to her scorn when she deemed their actions contrary to the gospel, a preacher, writer and mystic.  She was, in a phrase, a spiritual force of nature.  

I rather think she would smile at the label.  

Central in her writings was a special attention to the presence and activity of the Spirit in the world/nature. The Latin word she frequently used to refer to a central element in her thinking and approach to life was “viriditas” - often translated as “greening”.  As one contemporary disciple of Hildegard noted, “Viriditas was a key concept that expressed and connected the bounty of God, the fertility of nature, and especially the presence of the Holy Spirit.”

And with that, the seed sown in Italy sprouted in Germany, and blossomed in Iowa.  A friend connected us with a Belgian artist living only a few miles from us – significantly named “Hilde” – who accepted the commission for an outdoor sculpture that would integrate these two inspirations.  Click here to see more of her amazing work.

Early in the process, we sent an email to her that shared our thoughts about this intriguing Latin word, “Viriditas:  Holiness, health, vitality, nature and fertility - all wrapped up into one lovely Latin word; all central to a European mystic whose name reminded us of you.  Delightful. It could name the piece.

And so it has.  And Viriditas came home to assume its place today on the farmstead, framed by the garden, the chicken yard and the tall grass prairie.  She’s magnificent.  With wings inspired by oak leaves and a gentle spiral evoking upward movement, the corten steel piece subtly incorporates the taproot that names our farmstead, on a base that hints at the labyrinth that highlights our acreage’s western edge.  The color of the bare metal will evolve with the elements and time, much like the farmstead itself.  

And already we gather around it, or pause as we pass; acknowledging in fresh ways that we are accompanied here in our daily work by winds exhaled from lungs holier and more instrumental than our own; evocative breezes stirring life in freshly incarnational expressions, at once grounding and elevating, centering and expanding…

…into ever-new life.

I somehow think that Hildegard is smiling at Hilde's work - singing, even - while Francis kneels and reaches toward it to receive, yet again, the Spirit that is the very creative impulse of God.  

Here.  Now.  In this very place.


Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Overturning, Enlivening Breath of the Wind

 


The wind has been a wearisome neighbor this week.

Gusting and blowing, first from the north and then turning to return from the south as if to retrieve something forgotten behind.  Like keys.  Or a wallet.  As I age I increasingly know this kind of problem.  The wind, however, has been neither embarrassed nor quiet about its comings and goings.  It has blown, with gust and gale; wearying, and withering.  


The trash dumpster, emptied by the road, relented in the face of the unrelenting and toppled over on its side.  

The greenhouse door tested its hinges as the handle wrenched from my hand.  

The deck chairs slid in a patternless ballet.  

The chickens huddled in the sheltering calm of the run.  

Trees swayed like concert fans in the mosh pit.   

The prairie grasses leaned into an italicized landscape.  


Everything feels it, responds to it, succumbs to it.  However reticent, however pliant and resilient, the wind has us all, and does with us what it wills.


And then stillness, as if pausing to take a breath that, in exhalation, becomes yet another force to be pressed against.  


I don’t have explanation for why the simple experience of wind is so exhausting - how simply standing in place while the force of it presses and insists can weary.  Perhaps it is that the act of simply being suddenly requires an effort not demanded in stillness.  Neither do I understand why the alternation of its absence can feel so relieving.  But there it is:  the compelling, propelling sweep of its presence, and the centering peace of its absence.  


Or so it seems.


It has always struck me as interesting that in scripture the words “breath” and “wind” and “spirit” are all translations of the same Hebrew word.  The animating breath that brought Adam and Eve to life; the wind that drove back the Red Sea waters allowing the Israelites to safely pass through; the forceful wind that stormed into and revitalized Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones; the mind of God that Isaiah saw lacking in the people; the Spirit that gives life in the Gospel of John’s Greek translation of the word - the Comforter that Jesus promised; the Spirit that the risen Christ “breathed” on his disciples; the transformational wind of Pentecost.  


Wind, Breath, Spirit.  The compelling, propelling movement of the Divine.


Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century German mystic, latched onto the Latin word “viriditas” to refer to this enlivening, animating force at work among and through us.  Typically translated as “greening”, the word signified for Hildegard that divine movement - force - that is the source of all flourishing and growth. 


 It’s easy to see this greening activity this time of year in coloring lawns and garden bed emergence.  And yes, that is viriditas.  


But emerging stems and greening grass could inure me to the truth that this inspirited movement is a force, pushing and rearranging, toppling over and breaking through.  


Like the wind.


This morning it was still when I stepped outside to perform the morning chores.  Righting the overturned glider in the yard, I lift my face to the quietude of the rising sun.  It is peaceful after the relentless bluster of recent days.  But I smile with the recollection of that old biblical word and Hildegard’s Latin equivalent, and wonder if this momentary calm is just Divine inhalation - the Creator pausing and gathering oxygen for the next billowing gust of transformational, generative, and quite possibly disrupting greening.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

While Anything is Possible

The day began, crisp and sunny - sunny enough that the brightness upon the greenhouse was already blunting the crispness inside.  Stepping inside, into this wholly other world of moist and evocative fecundity, I stood for a moment once the door closed behind me to simply inhale the air of promise.  And to be encouraged by it.  Removing the lids protecting the trays we populated yesterday with seeds, I had to reassure myself that despite the naked appearances, just slightly beneath that surface of potting soil are, indeed, nestled the promissory notes of harvest - tiny packets of DNA and know-how already beginning to soften with the rainwater I sprinkle on; already stirring with the warmth and the dark; already aching to stretch upward into the light.


Just beneath the surface.


I can’t get too carried away.  I know from sobering experience that not every seed grows; not every promise is kept; not every potential grows to fruition.  Some simply smolder in their dormancy, and remain there beneath the soil -


-like words unspoken;

-notes unplayed;

-letters not mailed.


Perversely, it’s tempting to focus on them - the blank blocks in the tray - rather than those out of which a stem, tiny and fragile, is already protruding.   There is yet time.  It's still early.  Seeds, after all, exist in a time beyond my own - “kairos”, the Greek word for that intangible and inscrutable “right time”, rather than “chronos”, that metronomic click of “clock time.”  I can manage the externals - the water and warmth and light - but the internals are beyond my reach.  We might wince at the comparison, but like the gardeners who sow them, not every seed realizes its potential.  


Even then not all is lost.  The unsprouted seed simply dissolves into the soil where it becomes part of the nourishment for other seeds.  


Having tended, then, indiscriminately to both the stretching and the silent - unable at this stage to assess what is won and what is lost - I refill the water jugs for next time and latch the door behind me, stepping back into the sunny crispness of the morning.  Midway back toward the house I pause with a nagging provocation, and take another lingering look behind me and consider again the wonder of what is happening inside that nurturing space.  


Coaxing.

Nurturing.

Protecting.

Germinating.


And I ponder what all might be stirring in those other fertile spaces of these days...


...in the opportune conversations;

...on the blank pages;

...in the quiet moments;

...in the prayers of the day;


...in the seeds, just beneath the surface;


...in these moist and fecund days while anything is yet possible.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Urgent Awakening of Now

Wendell Berry once commented about the season of deep winter as the time when, “the present has abated its urgencies” (The Long-Legged House).  

For the past ten years especially I have enjoyed that to be true.  That, in the same way that spring has come to be the season when the urgencies of the present re-engage.  


It was less than 2 weeks ago that we were yet again shoveling snow from the porch and driveway.  Five inches of heavy, wet flakes had fallen along with the temperature after an unseasonably warm week.  Even still the nights, as often as not, drop below freezing. But it is undeniable that the seasons are changing.  Warmer days are gradually arm-wrestling winter to the table despite the latter’s occasional bursts of strength.  And suddenly the tasks present themselves.  


Already we are filling seed trays and nestling them into the greenhouse.  It won’t be long until the garden soil is workable, opportunistically between the frost and the mud. There will be beds to reclaim and refresh, irrigation tapes to reestablish and realign, seed plots to allocate, and, with breathtaking speed, weeds to attack.  The rain barrels will need to be positioned and the downspouts reconfigured to feed them.  The compost will need to be spread.  The snow blower on the tractor will need to be unhitched and moved aside on behalf of the mowing deck whose labors will soon be called upon.  


And when it all commences in earnest - when it thunders toward us like an oncoming train - it will feel to us like it needs to all happen at once.  All with the urgency with which we have ached, these recent months, for spring itself.


Rabbits are already exploring the open spaces along the edge of the woods, and birds have resumed their familiar music.  


Life, in ways both airy and earthy, is stirring.  

Slowly.

Quietly.

But with startling acceleration.


And it’s good, these palpable signs of greening, given the iciness that so tenaciously grips and paralyzes the world’s relational fecundity.  We need the crocuses and daffodils and robins and buds to teach us again how to swell, fat, with vigor.  We need role models of thawing and softening and turning toward the light.  We need tutors in daily song; coaches in the calisthenics of breaking through the crusted earth and stretching upward and outward.  


We need the dangling promise of harvest, even if the ripe juice of it is still months away.


But for now it is work enough to acknowledge the shift of the equinox, and submit to its coaxing.  Just the hint of it emerging - the tiny glimpse of the green of it - is enough to get us moving...


...with the urgency it demands.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Silence of a Sobered Morning

The local meteorologists were tracking the storm path with their usual euphoric chatter. The television was on, and then it went dark.

 

The cell phone tornado warnings alarmed in our hands, and then went silent. 

 

The air was eerily still, and then it wasn’t. 

 

The lights glowed beneath the angry sky, and then they didn’t. 

 

The generator kicked on. The chickens huddled inside their coops, not unlike us in our basement. 

 

The rains sheeted down, the winds snarled, and just beyond our reach, the tornado knifed its way through town, across the county, and then beyond.

 

And missed us.  But we were among the fortunate.  Nearby, seven people lost their lives.  I have to sit with that for a moment.  Lives.  Lost.  From a storm that passed perhaps a half-mile from our home.  We’ve since seen the power lines draping the roads; the carcasses of trees tracing the line.  We’ve since heard of horses moved from barns deprived of their roofs, businesses invaded by the elements, homes battered.  Families displaced.

 

Morning confirmed that Taproot Garden passed the night unscathed.  Not even broken branches.  We awoke to power restored, blue skies – a blank-faced, mischievous morning trying to act like it had not misbehaved in the night.  

 

I released and fed the chickens who were happy for the daylight.  I walked the dogs.  I watered the seed trays in the greenhouse and tried to pretend that this was simply another ordinary day.  But the pretense was deafened by the echo of the hollowness.  

 

I know otherwise.

I know the truth.

This is not simply another ordinary day.

 


Line crews worked through the night to retrieve dangling cables and to restore electrical service.  Road crews worked through the night to bulldoze trees off the roadways.  People picked through their rubble to reclaim the precious, the salvageable.  Insurance adjusters arrived early on the scene to begin the grim assessment of destruction.

 

And families, scissored by death, sat in silence, facing into the disbelief and the inexpressible, untraceable future.  

 

A half-mile away.

 

Anything but just another day.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Patient Pleasure of Knowing

Knowing this valley, once one has started to know it, is clearly no casual matter. Like all country places, it is both complex and reticent. It cannot be understood by passing through. It does not, like Old Faithful, gush up its inwards on schedule so as not to delay the hurrying traveler. Its wonders are commonplace and shy. Knowing them is an endless labor and, if one can willingly expend the labor, an endless pleasure.

(Wendell Berry, “The Nature Consumers”)

 

I have more pruning to do today, weather permitting.  It is that time of year, while the trees are dormant and the air is cold enough to suppress infections in the wounds I inflict for the sake of health and growth.  Part survey of the larger shape, and part intimate discernment of the nuances of growth patterns, pruning is a deceptive finesse.

 

I came by coercion to this annual practice.  I don’t mean that someone thrust shears into my hands and compelled me to the orchard; rather that the experts overwhelmed my instinctual resistance.  The books, the classes, the simple weight of evidence finally clipped away at my intuitive resistance to this seemingly counterproductive practice of cutting off perfectly good, fruit-bearing branches.  What I’ve learned is that too many can create problems.  Pruning allows the remaining branches more access to the sun, more airflow to prevent diseases, fewer abrasions from branches rubbing against branches, greater concentration of resources and, in short, greater capacity for the fruit to flourish into better fruit.

 

Less, it turns out, is more. If you want to bear fruit.

 

But it isn’t indiscriminate diminishment.  It does not serve the tree to whack branches willy nilly.  There is attention to be paid; careful observation of branch and bud and fork and direction.  More will be cut than seems needful, but there is a point beyond which is too much.  Care, then, and patient observation; reading tree and listening for what it has to say.

 

As with the very land in which the trees are rooted.  Alexander Pope (1688-1744) once advised those who would invest themselves in a particular locale:

 

Consult the genius of the place in all;

That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;

Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,

Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;

Calls in the country, catches opening glades,

Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,

Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;

Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

 

Less poetically, perhaps, but no less elegantly, David Abram asserts that, “A particular place in the land is never…just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences. Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there.” (Spell of the Sensuous)

 

Which is simply to note, with Wendell Berry, that “knowing” this place, once one has started to know it, is no casual matter.

 

We have lived in this place now 10 years – an almost imperceptible tick in the sweep in time, but a long and settled season in the course of our lives.  Indeed, it is the longest we have lived anywhere in our adulthood.  We have observed the seasons – how the sun strikes the land differently in winter and summer; where the snow hides and lingers and where it early disappears.  We have noticed how leaves fall and which berries persist; which birds catch us by surprise and which become neighbors in their reliable familiarity.  We have grown familiar with the rolling slopes; made peace with the hard-packed clay, and learned patience for the gradual and coaxed improvement of it through compost and nature’s own interventions.  We have sought not to control, but to participate; to contribute as much as we receive.  We have, with varying degrees of success, slowed enough to nature’s pace as to notice its various deaths and resurrections, its vivid evocations and its silent reclamations; its extravagant generosities and its prudent frugalities; its constancy and its lithe adaptability.  

 

And yet we are but newcomers here – here in this place whose “wonders are commonplace and shy. Knowing them is an endless labor and, if one can willingly expend the labor, an endless pleasure.

 

There is a particular tree on our eastern edge behind which and ever so gradually above which the sun rises this time of year.  Walking out into the early hours this morning to release the chickens, I paused, despite the cold, to watch the wonder of it yet again unfold.  I’ve seen it before, of course, but for all its commonness it is, along with the day it heralds, a holy generosity. 

 

The sun, the rooster’s crow, the greeting wave of the prairie grass, the shy flip of the retreating deer’s tail, the fruit trees waiting to be pruned. Seeing, listening, learning, knowing – an endless labor.

 

An endless pleasure. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Among the Gifts of Winter

It was brisk this morning as I walked around the house to release the chickens – “brisk” being a euphemistic gloss on the truth that it was bitterly cold.  A few wisps of snowflakes fluttered in the light breeze, and then a few more until, by the time I finished my morning ministrations, the world around me looked like the playful cascade from a pillow fight somewhere up in the mottled sky.  As quickly emptied, however, as it had been torn open, the downy flakes thinned and soon disappeared.  Only the cold and the bluing sky remained.

 

Our afternoon trail walk through the woods behind our house was intermittently lovely and scary; repeated thawing and refreezing transforming the fluffy snow into glacial ice.  We held on – walking stick in one hand, neighboring branches in the other – all the while smiling at the beauty despite the peril.  Deer prints – along with less desirable evidence of their passing – mark the clearings.  Bird nests, exposed now in the leafless branches, sway in the upper reaches of the trees.  Fallen branches and twigs – the fruit of nature’s pruning – carpet the ground and we occasionally pause to clear the woody obstructions.  

 

This is the readying way of the woods:  autumn and winter’s descent prefiguring spring and summer’s ascent.  Life, become death, become decay, become soil, become food for life reborn.  Life as circle, not line.  Living as both constant rehearsal and perpetual performance.  Resurrection as the way rather than the exception – all of our days an undulation of dyings and risings.  

 

Kicking aside another fallen branch, I wonder what is being pruned in me?  Studying the nest high overhead, I wonder what eggs are being laid in my soul and how to nourish the nascent stirrings that will crack and emerge from them?  What breezes and rains will green them like the prairie grasses we skirt as we pick our way home?

 

Who knows? 



It’s winter still, and the composting past is yet doing its gestational work.  

But color, I’m confident, will one of these days emerge from it.  Beauty, nectar, fruit perhaps, and fecund strength.  

 

These, among the gifts of winter.