An Earth Day Lament

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I’m still groggy every morning when I step out my front door onto the porch to make my way down a  gravel driveway to get the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat, (as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and the 3 stray cats) predator that she is, leaves behind certain remnants of her prey’s….uh, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of the little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat.  Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  This is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff.  Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals.   Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes for dissection instruction.  These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its  two stomachs for a number of hours.  Bird barf.   It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the  dozens to local schools) are great teaching material.  It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good.  There is fur and there are feathers.  Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of my barn.  Owl litter.  There should be a law.

Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing.  The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is  indigestible and passed on, so to speak–like part of a tail wrap, the branches from the dogwood tree, that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a  Haflinger represents on earth.

This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of  grass/hay/silage to chew it  again in a state of utter (udder?) contentment and pleasure.   If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously.   So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen?  Probably as many as purple cows.  I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.

In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I dump unceremoniously that I don’t want, don’t need,  can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot.  Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills,despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 30 years.  Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind what they don’t want or need and clearly don’t give a rip about Earth Day.

I now need to figure out that cud thing.  I can go green and just might save on the grocery bill.

Feast for the Eyes

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There are two reliable things that happen on our farm in April besides taxes being due: the Haflingers start serious shedding of their worn winter coats and the huge pink dogwood tree in front of our house bursts into bloom as consolation over the taxes.

We’re still currying hair from the horses–it will be another 2-3 weeks before it all lets go, as the nights are still cool and that hair feels mighty nice in the cold breezes. The summer undercoat is shining beneath that old winter hair, and glistens as it is revealed–hair flies everywhere, sticks to our sleeves and gets in our noses and mouths. As the horses groom each other they end up with hair-lined teeth and furry tongues.

Breeding for next year’s foals has begun and the dance between mare and stallion is a rash and hurried affair, with little subtlety or mystery. Two minutes and it is done, and nearly a year later, a new life to show for it. I never cease to be amazed at how extraordinarily profound and completely primitive it is at the same time.

Our dogwood tree, some 30 feet tall, in silent coordination with every other pink dogwood in our community, is about to bloom, and it seems now that everywhere I go there are brother and sister dogwoods that I notice only this time of year. We neighbors all share this common bond in our pink dogwoods–10 days of show before the leaves come and the pink petals rain down and the trees resume ordinary status.

These brilliant blossoms are profound in their pink glory–a feast for the eyes — perfection of colored petals tipped by white, but in the middle, this volcano dome-like center that seems so primitive and out of place in something so beautiful. Yet it is that center that lasts long after the petals have melted into the ground and disappeared. There would be no future blooms otherwise. The petals are transient and soothe my eyes, but the knobby core of the blossom is the essence of the dogwood.

Profound can be found in the most primitive if we remember our origin. After all, we were once dust. There is nothing more primitive than that.

And the fact we exist is the most profound of all.

dogwood13 months ago, the dogwood in an ice storm…

and now…

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Grounded Rainbow

Skagit Tulip Fields photo by Tricia Hitchcock

Skagit Tulip Fields--photo by Tricia Hitchcock

Skagit Tulip Fields --photo by Tricia Hitchcock
Skagit Tulip Fields photos by Tricia Hitchcock

Fifty weeks of dirt rows
Plain and unnoticed.
Could be corn, could be beans
Could be anything;
Drive by fly over dull.

Yet April ignites explosion
Dazzling retinal singe;
Hues make me cry
Grateful tears for such as this
Rainbow on Earth

Transient, incandescent
Brilliance hoped for.
Remembered in dreams,
Promises realized,
Housed in crystal, then shattered.

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The Scents of Spring

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I admit it.  Right this minute, I should be doing our taxes.  We’re down to the last minute and I have all the paperwork stacked on the desk beside me, but I’m not doing it.  It is too miserable a task to even contemplate.  Instead tonight I went outside to capture spring.

The last few mornings, when I have risen just before dawn, I have gone outside to breathe deeply of the scents that hang heavy in the cool moist air.  The perfume from thousands of orchard blossoms on our farm is heady and intoxicating.  There is nothing quite like these two weeks each year when our farm becomes a mass of snow white and pink scented flowers, busy with honey bees and eventually showering petals to the ground as the fruit starts to form.

Unfortunately, I’m allergic to tree pollen.  I breathe deeply and… sneeze and wheeze.  Even the best medicine can’t stop my reaction. So much loveliness causes so much misery.  So I retreat back to the house and look out the window and enjoy the view from afar, dabbing my dripping nose.

Ironically, this is the same time of year our dairy farm neighbors start to empty their manure lagoons and begin to spread their thousands of gallons of liquid manure on the surrounding fields, readying the ground for the hay or corn crop to come later on this summer. That scent hangs heavy in the cool moist air as well, pungent and unforgettable, penetrating even into our clothing so we carry the smell back into the house with us.  Of course I’m not allergic to manure.  In fact, as nasty a smell as it is, it’s invigorating in a perverse sort of way.  I know where it comes from, I know what its potential is, and I know the crop it yields.  It is, in itself, as treasured as the blossoms that yield fruit on our farm.

Taxes are the manure in our lives.  They are pretty stinky too.  Just like manure, an inevitable part of our daily existence, just as disagreeable.  Yet, spread out where needed, those collective taxes fertilize and grow our communities, our schools, our roads, our health care (and a few other things we may wish would not be funded).

So I must get to work spreading numbers across my desktop in the hope they may yield fruit of their own, sometime, somewhere.  The Cents of Spring.

Hay Bale Pews

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Where His people gather, He is.

On the road to Emmaus, men walked alongside Jesus without recognizing him, their hearts “burning within” them as He spoke, yet did not know Him until he broke bread and fed them. Worship and wonder does still take place in unlikely places alongside country roads.

Our farm is along such a road amidst rolling hills of evergreens and fields, next to a crossroads where 100 years ago sat the village of Forest Grove. This small settlement boasted a one room school house, a general store, a saw mill and a small Methodist church. Families would travel by horse and buggy to attend Sunday morning services, and during good weather, would picnic together on our farm’s nearby hill top to enjoy the expansive view. And every Easter, the small congregation would gather on the hill for a service at sunrise.

When the sawmill closed 80 years ago, the village shut its doors as well. The buildings were dismantled; the beams and timbers were transformed into our large hay barn and the humble little church became our farm’s chicken coop, long and narrow with smooth fragrant cedar lined walls and rough fir floors. Hens lay their eggs to the echoes of sacred hymns still resonating in those walls and floor.

Formal worship moved to nearby towns, yet the Easter Sunrise Service tradition remains alive on our farm. Cherished by local families and neighborhood folk, some of whom have attended since they were children, this service is never canceled for any reason–not rain, not northeasters, not even the occasional Easter snow shower. If it is too stormy to be outside on the hill, the service takes place in the big red hay barn. In either setting, a tiered row of rough stickery hay bales, theater style, creates a semicircle of seats ready and waiting for the intrepid faithful who come annually to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, huddled together for warmth under blankets.

Each year a different Resurrection theme is explored through Bible readings and hymn singing. One year, it was noted how God has walked with His people since the beginning of time. First, in the Garden, He is “walking… in the cool of the day”  looking for Adam and Eve, but after the Resurrection, Jesus walked with the men to Emmaus. Because of Jesus, we go from hiding from God as He walks in the garden, ashamed of the forbidden meal we have eaten, to Emmaus where we walk alongside Him, invited to join Him as He shares with us the Bread of Life.

We are called to worship Him: from knowing dread to being fed.

Hay bale pews don’t create the most comfortable seating for worship. They poke us where we are most tender. Yet it is good to be reminded from where true comfort arises. Even when in shame we hide from Him, even when we do not recognize Him as He walks alongside us, our hearts burn for Him.

And He feeds us wherever we gather.

Amen!

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Not Playing Possum

Painting of our old barn by our friend Dick Laninga
Painting of our old barn by our friend Dick Laninga

We are preparing for the Sunday Easter Sunrise service our farm has hosted for most of the last 30 years.  Ordinarily, this gathering of neighborhood families takes place on our hilltop open field overlooking the Canadian mountains to the north, the valley reaching out to Puget Sound to the west and to Mt. Baker and the Twin Sisters peaks to the east.  However, every few years, the weather is foul enough to drive us into the hay barn to worship, so we need to always plan for that contingency and have the barn ready if we wake up to rain Sunday morning.

There still is considerable summer hay stored in our large red barn, so it takes some organizing of the bales to create a seating arrangement for 70+ people.  Once we started moving bales around this week, it became quite apparent that we had a visitor who had decided to make the barn home and ended up not leaving.  Something had definitely died in there. The smell hung thick and pervasive, clinging to us and refusing to be ignored.

We eventually found the source: a dead opossum.  Not just pretending either–no ‘playing possum’.  Truly, utterly, completely, and sincerely dead. Tucking himself between hay bales, he must have gone to sleep and forgotten to wake up.   Having lost his hiding place and his life, we needed badly to find him a final resting place so the air could clear between now and Easter, in case our worship is in the barn.  Somehow the stench of death is just not fitting in the celebration of life on Easter morning.

Yet overcoming death is what it is all about.

Mr. Opossum is now resting in the ground and our noses are no longer assaulted by his untimely death.  Instead we now must prepare for an all-out spiritual assault on our souls this week.  Being reminded of rotting flesh is rather helpful right before Easter.  Death is an overwhelming reality to each of us; how can we begin to imagine its defeat?  Death cannot be faked like some startled opossum temporarily gone floppy.

Where is death’s victory, where is its sting/stink?  No longer in our barn and no longer for us !

We are renewed instead of being unceremoniously disposed of–not buried in the deep pit we deserve.

We are saved, preserved and graciously restored.


On the Trail of Trillium

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Spring is already in full swing here on the farm.  Grass grows so fast that mowing once a week is not sufficient,  dandelions are dotting the fields in a yellow carpet, the flowering plums and cherries are peaking, the daffodils are in full bloom and the tulips are coming up fast.  The goldfish in our pond have decided to surface from underneath all the winter debris and have grown to a shocking 8 or 9 inches over the winter and now are busy feasting on mosquito larvae as the insects have awakened as well.   At times I feel so overwhelmed by the accelerated pace of growth and activity that I sheepishly long for the dark quiet gray days of winter, if just for the respite of a nap.

Instead of a nap, I go hunting for trillium.  They are the traditional harbinger of spring and without them, it all seems like just so much pretending.  These are somber plants that will only grow in certain conditions of woods and shade, with leafy mulched soil.  Once established, they reliably spring up from their bulbs every spring with their rich green trio of leaves on each stem that are at once soft and slightly shimmery, and at the top the purest of three white petals, one per leaf cluster.  The blossoms last a week or two, then turn purplish and fade away, followed weeks later by the fading of the foliage, not to spring  again from the soil until the following year.  Picking a trillium blossom necessitates picking the leaf foliage beneath it, and that in turn destroys the bulb’s ability to nourish and regenerate, and the plant never forms again.  I think I have known this from my earliest childhood days as I was a compulsive wildflower gatherer as a little kid, having devastated more than my share of trillium bulbs until I learned the awful truth of the damage I had done.  I have since treated them as sacrosanct and untouchable and have taught that respect in my children.

There are still a few trillium blossoms to be found on our farm, steadfast survivors, yet completely vulnerable to someone’s impulse to bring the beauty indoors for a few days in a vase.  What a tenuous grip on life when people are desiring to pluck them, with their resulting oblivion. How unknowingly destructive we are in our blind selfish pursuit of beauty for our own pleasure and purposes.  These pure triad blossoms and leaves, representing all that is preciously drawn from the earth and enriched and nourished by sunlight, can be obliterated, never to return, never to bloom, never to rise again from the dust.

How much more precious is that which rises again to bloom and flourish forever despite our senseless destructiveness?  And He is here, among us, waiting for us, forgiving us for what we have done.

Trillium have been legendary symbols representing the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit and I’m reminded of that analogy as our family and larger church family walk through this Holy Week leading to Easter.  We prepare ourselves and our farm for this week’s events–our church’s Thursday evening Bread and Soup supper with communion tonight, then followed by the Tenebrae service Good Friday evening to meditate on the last words of Jesus from the Cross, followed Saturday night by an overnight Easter vigil service around a bonfire on our farm while we “watch and wait”.

Early Sunday morning our neighborhood community meets on our hilltop to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  We are touched and stricken anew, year after year.

I look at the trillium longingly, wanting to touch them, wanting to own them and hold them, and knowing I never will.  They are meant to stay where they are, as I hope to remain, rooted and thriving for years, yet fragile in the everlasting soil of life.

Alleluia!