Saturday, January 28, 2023

Cashmere Petals of Chill

Snow was falling as I trudged out to the chicken yard.  It had begun in the darkness, already carpeting the front porch by the time first light sparkled the fresh descent.  My booted footfalls crunched across the lawn’s accumulation, while the flakes fluttered and played and found their rest on bristled evergreens and hydrangea remnants, an uninhibited bird nest, and finally my eyelashes and nose.  Celestial cashmere petals of chill.

It was cold, but the temperature was hard to notice amidst the atmospheric magic.  In these moments the eyes were in charge moreso than the skin - apart, that is, from the shivers of delight.  

With my opening of the hatches and lowering of the ramps, the chickens were free to descend and range the yard, but none seized the opportunity.  Dwayne the rooster was crowing the sun up, but preferred to welcome the morning from the comfort of the wood shavings bedding the coop and the surrounding nestled warmth of the communal quarters.  They will come down eventually - they get hungry, after all, and curious - but this morning they are happy to take it slowly.  I can almost picture them inside lazying together with the poultry equivalent of a cup of coffee and the Saturday edition of The New York Times, in no rush to trouble the new day.

Returning indoors and stripping my coat, I found my place fireside with my own cup of coffee and copy of The Times, in no hurry of my own... 

...Happily content to sit, to be, to count flakes through the frosted window, and smile at the memory of more than a few of them dancing on my nose, and settling in my lashes like pines.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The Conviction of Things Unseen


"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for..."
(Hebrews 11:1)

We haven’t seen an egg since before Thanksgiving.  There are multiple reasons.  Trauma was a factor.  Throughout the weeks of August and September and into October, our happy little flock of 35 was steadily whittled down to 15 by the persistence of predators I proved helpless to forestall.  However devastating to me was the demise, to the sisters who watched the carnage and had every reason to expect it to include them, it was paralyzing.  They hadn’t recovered by the time molting season commenced - that annual period of feather shed prior to winter’s repluming.  Throughout the molt, inner resources are shifted from egg creation to feather fabrication.

And then winter, itself, descended.  It’s understandable to assume that hens simply find it too cold to lay eggs in winter, but in reality the constraint is light, not temperature.  Chickens require 12-15 hours of light per day to generate eggs, and in winter the sun is simply not that generous.  Through the solstice, darkness veils 16 of the available 24, incrementally yielding minutes thereafter.  It takes awhile.

The hens contend with all these biological and celestial constraints, while Dwayne the Barred Rock Johnson, our foster rooster has...let’s just say “other impediments”.  He'll not be laying any eggs.

As the new year has ventured deeper into January, however, I’ve been watching.  Searching.  Hoping.  But not finding.  They eat, they drink, they alternately scratch in the yard and huddle for warmth.  But they do not lay.

And then this morning, releasing the flock for another winter day, I glanced inside the nesting boxes where one hen lingered.  Slowly she rose and descended the ramp to join the others for a sip of water and a bite of food, leaving behind...

...the first green glimpse of spring.  An egg, still warm and as fresh and promising as the morning sun rising in the eastern sky.  The “assurance of things hoped for,” the foretaste of the feast to come.

Deep down, I suppose I knew that the nights of winter did not hold the final word - that spring would find us as surely as the dawn.  But like Noah’s dove returning with an olive branch testifying to the reemergence of dry land, the fresh egg is a joyful confirmation that hope is not in vain.  Spring is coming.  And who knows what other gifts of new life?  Perhaps it is too much to hope for that the winter of our political discourse will yield and warm to a more gestational climate; perhaps it is too much to suppose that we might awaken to the truth that our surroundings are our siblings rather than our plunder, or that our own flourishing is linked to our cooperation rather than our domination; that fertility, as nature teaches, depends on diversity rather than sameness.  


But this morning, in the midst of January - against all odds - I found an egg.  

A blessed and delicious - and promising - foretaste, indeed.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Mary, Once More Beckoning

The day started cold, as winter mornings in Iowa are prone to do.  Even the chickens were reluctant to emerge from the hatch I dutifully opened, or descend the lowered ramp.  Indeed, the only incremental movement anywhere apparent was the fog, thickening the air into opaqueness, whiskering the bare limbs with hoarfrost.  The hive boxes show no signs of bees.  The remaining patches of snow, caught between melting or glistening, simply harden into crusts.


This is the season when, by all appearances, nothing at all is happening, or thriving, or moving.  But yet again appearances are deceiving.  Mary has moved.  Indeed, she has fallen.


Friends, in recent years, gifted us with a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Standing perhaps two feet tall, she has thereafter graced the gateway to the garden – a maternal, gestational welcome to any who would pass inside; implicitly blessing hoes and hods and harvest crates passing by, or simply those with an appreciative appetite.  She is facing down, eyes firmly on the soil; perhaps in prayer, or simply and knowingly of the mind that good things come from that direction.  There she has stood throughout the seasons – remembering, blessing, anticipating; silently lending her prayer to the garden soil and the furrows inside for a fecund submission of their own:  “Let it be to me according to your will.”


But this morning we found Mary toppled.  It’s not that she was anchored in any reinforcing way – no cement or bolts or braces – but she is cement heavy and settled in a recess, frozen into place.  Nothing has moved her before, neither wind nor bump nor time.  Something, however, had dislodged her.  

Perhaps it was a vigorous curiosity of the groundhog who has taken up residence underneath the garden shed nearby, or nudging inspections by the deer nuzzling for food.  Perhaps it was simply the heaving of the earth below, variously freezing and thawing, swelling and contorting and tilting.  


All that’s clear is that the illusion of stillness is simply that:  illusion.  Mary will testify that something is happening; something is moving – motion that provoked her own…


…which provokes me to wonder what else is pulsing, pushing, heaving and nudging in the night, or nuzzling just beyond my sight?


Mary, for the record, is once again righted – once more standing hospitably by, prayerfully beckoning whatever may…


…to grow.

"Let it be to me..."

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

What is a “Real” Christmas Tree, Anyway?

I've never had a "real" Christmas tree - the kind found cut and bunched in a parking lot and sold by a church youth group or a scout troop or high school band as a fundraiser.

As a child our family annually erected that most oppositional of alternatives, the aluminum tree, complete with circling color wheel light set off to the side. A silver tinsel-like tree glistening in the front window's sunlight by day, and filling the living room walls and ceiling with rotating colored spots by night like a silent holiday disco. I suppose part of me envied my friends with their sap-oozing, needle-dropping, pine-scenting trees.  Allergies were our default rationale for the "artificial alternative", though I suspect expense and nuisance were the likelier reasons in a household with a tightly managed budget.  Nonetheless, I loved our silver tree. I loved positioning its broom handle-like trunk in the base and assembling the tree, branch by branch, each inserted into its pre-drilled hole. In the weeks that followed I remember creeping into that magical space alone while family members busied themselves with other things. I would lie down on the floor and be mesmerized by the rotational sparkle. Wrapped gifts eventually occupied the space beneath the silvery boughs, but I wasn't drawn to shake the packages and fantasize about their contents. I was there to be caught up in the graceful pirouette of the tree, the swirling of the colored spots, and the motorized rotation of the wheel from blue to red to yellow to green. That was Christmas, then, to me - the tree and the songs, the candlelight Christmas Eve service and the Christmas morning drive to visit grandparents.

In adulthood I have sustained the aversion to potential allergens and, with aluminum trees now out of fashion, have annually retrieved from the attic or basement or barn the green, more familiar style of artificial conifer. In more primitive times the decorating began with the ultimate tedium of stringing lights in some artful draping, before moving on to balls and stars and tinsel and bows, but having reached the zenith of holiday convenience and expedience, we now simply assemble the pre-lit layers and plug it in. Voila!

There are yet, I'll admit, those occasional and wistful moments when a "real" tree sounds romantically appealing, but the thoughts are as fleeting as Christmas cookies. I rather like our representational specimen.

That, and the sudden ambiguity about what is a "real" Christmas tree in the first place? Is a truncated, now lifeless cadaver of wood still a tree, and by extension any more "real" than a fabrication of bristly plastic and wires? Or cut, has it ceased to be a tree but become, instead, a product - a derivative like lumber or paper or utility pole or mulch? Is nature any more honored by a tree destroyed than by a tree imitated? Is the spiritual dimension of the symbol any better expressed by the evergreen turning brittle and brown and raining down on the floor than by the literally evergreen artificial branches from the box - or for that matter by its aluminum antecedents?

Could it be, instead, that a "real" Christmas tree isn't defined by its material composition at all, but by the life it invites me to ponder, the creation it points beyond itself to celebrate, the birth it's lighting symbolizes and its decorating reveres? Could it be that the "realness" of the Christmas tree is what happens around it?

Could it be that the Christmas tree is like a pancake which is less of a culinary star and more of a simple and unobtrusive conveyance for the sweetness that covers it?

Resuming the Christmas playlist through which Bing and Perry and Andy and Nat serenade us into the season, and plugging in the lights on the tree and sidestepping the corgi snoozing on its skirt, I finger the adorning ornaments accumulated through the years and contemplate all the sweetness they convey.

And it is real. Whatever all the accoutrements are made of, it's the sweetness - spiritually, relationally, sentimentally - that is real.

I'll go outside for the trees.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Transitioning to the Cold and Quiet Season

The kale is all that remains.

The other garden beds have been cleared, raked, seeded with green manure, and covered with a layer of compost. The garlic cloves, in anticipation of summer, have been nestled under ground. The garden has been put to bed.

Except for the kale. Like curled ribbons tying closed a wrapped gift, the rich green leaves stretch a line of residual giggles across the garden. Little horticultural alleluias punctuating the season's end.

We should clip the lot of them - blanch them, squeeze away the excess water, and freeze them for later use. And we will. It's too good to waste; too nutritious to neglect. But we procrastinate, reticent to erase this last echo of summer, this resplendent beauty, this resounding testament to the sweetness the cold can evoke. Indeed, this hardy brassica is actually improved by the frost.

It is not, after all, an abstract consideration. Despite the temperate days that have been the norm these autumn days, cold is in the forecast for later this week - lows in the teens and highs just barely above freezing. Cold, and the likelihood of measurable snow. Winter may toy with us, but it will eventually arrive full-throttle. And "sweetness" isn't the first descriptor that comes to mind with the shivers. We are more likely to resemble the Swiss chard that, until recently, joined the sturdier greens in the row - once proud and stately plants now browned, bent and brittled. Thus the kale, in resilient contrast, as inspiration. There, as the garden's final promenade of the season, their leafy curliness reorients, nourishes and beckons. The row stands as our own very green and present expression of Mary Oliver's observation that,

"...​The world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. 'Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment​?'"

The kale is all that remains in the garden. But it is enough to ask the question, and encourage the response of our sweet and curly living.

Friday, September 30, 2022

To Be Here, Home

The darkness dissipates as it does every morning, gradually, glacially, as the sun inched northward, relinquishing someone else's day in pursuit of our own. As I say, it is hardly novel; indeed, this quotidian movement is so ordinary as to routinely go unnoticed.

But not this morning. I sit out on the deck and allow it to unfold me as well as the morning. Yes, the sky - only moments ago full of stars - is clear and permits the emerging glow it's full and unobstructed stage. Yes, the air is crisp, befitting a new autumn day. But singular beauty is not what simultaneously settles and evokes me this emerging dawn. It is simply that I haven't seen it envelop this particular landscape in quite awhile - first, the silhouette of the trees, and then the rounded shape of the chicken coops; the outlines of the leaves in the nearby trees, and eventually the hints, the teasing foretastes, of autumn's golds and reds and yellow and bronze. The morning of a new day. The dawning of a new season. Now the rooster officially announces the fact.

We've been traveling.

First, there was grief work to attend. Emotions, consolations, ruminations, details; simultaneously carrying and being held. Physically we were elsewhere - emotionally, relationally, psychologically, too.

Home, then, for a rapid-fire turnaround during which we scarcely looked around before flying off again.

The hours and the stories and the laughter and the tears, the tasks and the memories and the new experiences forged, first, days and then weeks until finally, long after darkness had settled upon our traveling stamina and Taproot Garden, we arrived home last night. Our travels have been rich. Glorious, even. The distance and the privacy came at a good time. The celebrations we indulged, the landscapes on which we became drunk, the time together to both remember and dream. To simply "be".

I listen now to the stirring chickens, already clamoring for release. I survey the garden from the deck's distance, wondering what gifts might still be on offer after such neglect. Mostly I simply receive the familiar and now beloved landscape, night's curtain raised, accept the sudden lump in my throat, and whisper a prayerful gratitude for being here.


As the poem of this day begins, I recall the observation with which Wendell Berry closes one of his own:

"What we need is here."


It's good to be home.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Together, The Persons We’ve Become


The table is laden with leftover bottles of water, cans of tea, chips, nuts and plates.  The chairs and tables have been folded and returned to the barn.  The microphone cables have been coiled and the sound system ensconced again in its corner of the basement.  The farmstead has quieted again to the usual crowing of the rooster and squawks of the hens and occasional grunts of the alpacas next door, and our routine shufflings here and there.  

And the enduring whispers of memory.


On Friday evening, as this holiday weekend commenced, we hosted the opening gathering of Lori’s high school reunion.  Memorabilia hung from tree branches, and animated tables.  Music from the ‘70’s backgrounded conversations.  An “In Memorium” display sobered one end of the displays, while nostalgia and news and food lubricated the rusty relationships.  There, under the waning daylight and beside the fire pit, the flowers and the expansive sky, a remote season, once again, drew near.  


Memories are mercurial – ephemeral even.  “Do you recall…?” someone would ask from this corner of the gathering, and then another.  And the answers varied.  “Yes.”  “No.”  “Kinda.”


Pictures helped.  Artifacts nudged.  For every anecdote reanimated, two were irretrievable. It has been a long time, and many roads have been traveled. Some things are dearly held, while others are best forgotten.  We don’t agree on which is which.


The evening crackled with laughter and conversation, and stories etched into older faces.  For a few hours we were younger again.  Me, as well, for though these were not “my people”, rooted in a school and a community 1000 miles from my own, their memories reanimated my own; their rapport refreshed the faces in my heart of names and personalities with whom I had shared classrooms, built homecoming floats, made music…and a life.  “Me,” along with the other spouses along for the ride.  We, too, listened and told stories and found our places in narratives that preceded us.  It was nourishing to inhabit, if only for an evening, deeper recesses of my beloved’s life in which I had had no part, and vicariously to retrace a few of the lines of my own.  


And to marvel afresh at the myriad fingers that shape us.  


I have long found evocative the assertion of one of my teachers that, “We are all born human, but we become persons by our associations, our affiliations, our conflicts, our relationships.”  


On Friday evening, it was good to touch our fingers, again, on the cooled forge that formed at least a part of the persons we’ve become.  


And to give thanks for the gift of those days, and this one.