When August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

 

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending, particularly when the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires in the north, the east and the south.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

 

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Stitching Together the Edges of Life

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“I make them warm to keep my family from freezing;
I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.”
–From the journal of a prairie woman, 1870
To keep a husband and five children warm,
she quilts them covers thick as drifts against
the door. Through every fleshy square white threads
needle their almost invisible tracks; her hours
count each small suture that holds together
the raw-cut, uncolored edges of her life.
She pieces each one beautiful, and summer bright
to thaw her frozen soul. Under her fingers
the scraps grow to green birds and purple
improbable leaves; deeper than calico, her mid-winter
mind bursts into flowers. She watches them unfold
between the double stars, the wedding rings.
~Luci Shaw “Quiltmaker”
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It could be the world was made this way:
piecemeal, the parts fitting together
as if made for one another~
disparate and separate,
all the edges
coming together in harmony.
The point of its creation
to be forever functional,
a blanket of warmth and security
but its result is so much more:
beauty arising from scraps,
the broken stitched to broken
to become holy and whole.
(all quilts here are on display this week at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden)
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Fair Well

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The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden begins today and our Haflingers aren’t there on display.  I feel wistful as I wake up too early on a foggy Monday morning, remembering the twenty years where I would gather up our sleepy children and their friends and head into the fairgrounds to clean stalls, walk the ponies and prepare for the day.  We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, and I’m just a little bit sad about that.

BriarCroft had been a consistent presence at this fair for nearly two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well  decorated display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We petitioned the Fair Board for 5 years in the late 1980s to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But our children are all grown up and moved away so are no longer available to help “man” the horse stalls.  Our other long term helpers are now adults with “real” jobs and obligations, and our faithful trick riders Kelsy and Chesna who performed daring feats on their Haflingers in front of the grandstand crowds have moved on to other careers.   I miss spending that intense one week time with all of the several dozen “kid” helpers from over the years, many of them now with children of their own.

Every year since 1992, we evaluated whether we had the energy and resources to do it  again–for the initial 6 years when Dan and I were the sole Haflinger farm doing the display, it meant a week of vacation from work, and very very long days, juggling our small children as well as several horses. Then, with the help of two other Haflinger breeding farms, we were able to rotate shifts, still work at our “real” jobs part days, share duties and expenses together. The older kids watched the younger kids, the in-between kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sat and shot the breeze.

Did this help sell horses for us? Nope. But it sure did create good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes.

We continued to do this so long because our horses represented what dreams are made of.

Countless times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some  10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

He was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games of being the starter, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I hope someday to see Gary again–it would be great to see this tall accomplished young man who so recently was a shy quiet little city boy of 6, draped across the broad back of a Haflinger, and lost in his dreams of a “someday” Haflinger of his own. This is why we’ve done what we have at the fair all these years. It was for people like Gary who made a connection with a horse and never ever forget it. I’d like to think that a little bit of who Gary is is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

So on this misty foggy Monday morning, instead of heading to the fairgrounds to clean stalls, I’m going to turn our dusty, unbathed Haflingers out in the field as usual.  They don’t even know all the excitement they are missing.

I do hope the fair-goers will miss the friendly golden horses with the big brown eyes that help make dreams come true.

 

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thank you to Lea Gibson and Emily Vander Haak for many of these photos

 

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Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?

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(As a child, I well remember our rural community’s party line — this was what social media was like 60 years ago, only you couldn’t choose your friends and you certainly couldn’t “unfriend” or block anyone from knowing all about your business.  Privacy was a relative concept during those days, so I decided to write this little story about how a “typical” neighborhood party line functioned) 

 

Two longs and a short is for the Williams farm,
Two shorts and a long is for Abner and Gladys, retired down the road,
A short and a long is for Aunt Bessie who lives nearby with her cat,
One long is for the Mitchell family of ten next door,
One short means it’s for me, alone since my son got married.

Most of the rings are for the Mitchells as four of their girls are over thirteen,
But when I pick up the receiver, it is Aunt Bessie’s voice I hear most,
As she likes to call the ladies from church and find out who’s sick,
Who’s not, and who’s maybe not going to make it through the week
To be sitting in their pew come Sunday.

Gladys is usually listening on the line real quiet-like and I know that
Because I can hear her sniff every once in awhile
Due to her allergies, kind of a little snort which she tries to cover up
But it does no good as we know she’s there and everything we say
Will be spread to town by tomorrow anyways.

Which reminds me the Williams’ are having money troubles
Because the bank is calling them about their overdue loan payments
And the crops are poor this year so there is worry about foreclosure.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Mrs. has made a doctor’s appointment in the city
Because of a new lump she found just yesterday.

Wouldn’t you know one of the Mitchell girls was talking about running off
With that Howard boy but I can’t imagine how word got back to her daddy
Who has put the phone and the boy off-limits for the time being
Until summer is over and she can be sent to the city to be a nanny to a wealthy family
And maybe meet a rich city boy who will keep her occupied.

Of course we’ve all offered solutions for Abner’s hemorrhoids
And his itchy scalp, even when we aren’t asked for our opinion.
Then when the youngest Mitchell was refusing to sleep through the night
Aunt Bessie suggested a little blackberry cordial might help but
Mrs. Mitchell was properly horrified and hung up then and there.

Last night the phone rang one short ring, sometime after 1 AM,
I woke with my nerves all a-jangle, wondering what bad news I would hear,
Four other people were on the line listening for my bad news too.
When I heard my oldest boy back east shout  “Mama, it’s a girl, you’re a granny!”
My heart swelled and my tears flowed for this answer to my prayers.

In the morning, when I went to walk down the driveway to get the mail
There was a bright bouquet of pink dahlias from the Williams’ on my front porch,
A drawing colored up real nice from the Mitchell kids “to our favorite new granny”
And a still warm fresh loaf of bread from Gladys waiting in the mailbox
Which made for a real fine party for Bessie and me sipping on her blackberry cordial.

 

 

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Sliding Home

 

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Our small church, Wiser Lake Chapel,  once belonged to a summer co-ed softball league, along with 8 other churches and a few local businesses.  This was a traditional Thursday evening summer activity for the past generation or longer.  Couples met for the first time on the ball fields and eventually married. Babies attended games in back packs and strollers and eventually were catching at home plate.  Relatives going to different churches found themselves on opposing teams yelling good natured insults.  There were a few bopped heads, abrasions, sprained fingers and one broken leg as part of the deal.  Hot dog roasts and ice cream sundaes were the after-game rewards.

Yet nothing was quite as wonderful as how a team recreated itself year after year.  It was thrown together by our coach Brenda in a mere two weeks prior to the season starting, with the youngest members needing to be at least age 14 with no upper age limit; we’ve had our share of 70+ year olds on the team over the years.   Some ball players were raw beginners having never played catch or swung a bat outside of school PE class, and others have extensive history of varsity fastpitch in school or other community league play so meant business when they strolled out on the diamond.  It was the ultimate diverse talent pool.

A different dynamic exists in church league softball compared to Little League, Pony League, minors or majors when you watch or play. Sure, there are slow pitch teams that will stock their ranks with “invitation-only” players, reserving the best and most athletic so there is a real chance at the trophy at the end of the summer.  Churches like ours, a mere 150 people average weekly Sunday attendance, had a “come one, come all” attitude, just to make sure we avoided forfeiting by not having enough players week after week.   We always did have enough.  In fact we had more players than we could find positions for.  And we had a whole bleacher full of fans, dedicated to cheering and clapping for anything and everything our players did, whether it was a pop-up foul ball, a strike out swing, a missed catch, or an actual hit.  We loved it all and wanted our players to know they were loved too, no matter what they did or what happened.

I think that was why the players and fans came back to play week after week, though we hadn’t won a game in years.  We rooted and hollered for each other, got great teaching and encouragement from our fantastic coach, and the players’ skills did improve year to year despite months of inactivity.  We had a whole line up of pre-14 year olds eager to grow old enough to play, just so they could be a part of the action.

Why did it not matter that we didn’t win games?  We were winning hearts, not runs.  We were showing our youngsters that the spirit of play is what it is all about, not about the trophy at the end.  We were teaching encouragement in the face of errors, smiles despite failure, joy in the fellowship of people who love each other–spending an evening together week after week.

We are family; family picks you up and dusts you off when you’ve fallen flat on your face during your slide to base while still being called “out.”

Most of all, I see this as a small piece of God’s kingdom in action.  Although we no longer gather for church league baseball — the competition got too fierce and the rules too tight — we do gather for a pick-up game now and then, just to remind ourselves of who we are and what we are about:

Our coach models Jesus’ acceptance of all at the table, and embodies the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

Our players are the eager, the ambivalent, the accurate, the flawed, the strong, the weak, the fast, the slow: chosen for the game even if they were completely inadequate to the task at hand, volunteering to be part of each moment as painful as it can sometimes be.

The cheering from the bleachers comes as if from heaven itself:

Do not be afraid.  Good will to all.  We are well pleased. Amen!

We’re sliding to home plate, running as hard as we can, diving for safety, covered in the dust and mire and blood of living/dying and will never, ever be called “out”.

Let’s play ball.

 

 

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Berries as Big as the End of Your Thumb

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Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe!  You ought to have seen!

I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
~Robert Frost from “Blueberries”

 

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We live in the middle of a county with bountiful berries this time of year, both wild and farmed.

Just as sweet cherries are disappearing from the orchards and strawberry harvest finished a few weeks ago, now raspberries are going strong for almost three weeks and blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief.  Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the wild evergreen and Himalaya wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting.  Local currants are shiny and glistening.  There are only a few cranberry bogs left in our area, hampered by marketing issues that favor New England’s crop.

It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with many of them growing wild in our own back yards and woodlands.

There are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little roundish-shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more savory than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry.  Thimble berries hang from wild bushes – salmon colored, red and black varieties.  Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers.  Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that are ripening on gentle winding vines right now at the edges of the woods and fences, as well as in roadside ditches or around tree stumps.  They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with both wild and domesticated berry vines and bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it.  I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it.  I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound.  For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.

I preferred blueberry picking most of all.  When I now put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighbor’s berry field with pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands.  The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July  sun.  The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail.  They didn’t smush, or bruise, and didn’t harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs.  They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order.   I wasn’t even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells.   In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.

There are now so many raspberry and blueberry fields in our county,  the price per pound has dropped and the market is shaky.  A few years ago one farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick his ripe blueberries at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes.  I stopped by another farm’s roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries.  He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and he hoped the bushes would yield blue gold for his family for a very long time, even if some years are low price years.

Some raspberry farmers aren’t feeling so optimistic this year as their primary corporate buyer backed out at the last minute, and the fragile berries are just falling off the bushes for lack of a place to be processed.  Sadly, it is possible some berry fields will be torn out and converted to some other crop with more certain market potential.

As a fellow farmer, I am aware of how one’s carefully tended crops can go to waste, whether it is due to weather or pests or the vagaries of the market.  I hope our berry farmers can persist through the hard times so the exquisite perfection of a local berry bounty can continue in such variety of colors, shapes and sizes, even some as big as the end of your thumb.

 

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Freedom is Being Easy in Your Harness

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

 

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I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
A definition of freedom:
It’s being easy in your harness.

~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday

 

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

 

 

The past was faded like a dream; 
There come the jingling of a team, 
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain, 
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain. 
Up the slow slope a team came bowing, 
Old Callow at his autumn ploughing, 
Old Callow, stooped above the hales, 
Ploughing the stubble into wales. 
His grave eyes looking straight ahead, 
Shearing a long straight furrow red; 
His plough-foot high to give it earth 
To bring new food for men to birth. 

O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…

At top of rise the plough team stopped, 
The fore-horse bent his head and cropped. 
Then the chains chack, the brasses jingle, 
The lean reins gather through the cringle, 
The figures move against the sky, 
The clay wave breaks as they go by. 
I kneeled there in the muddy fallow, 
I knew that Christ was there with Callow, 
That Christ was standing there with me, 
That Christ had taught me what to be, 
That I should plough, and as I ploughed 
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud, 
And as I drove the clods apart 
Christ would be ploughing in my heart, 
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots, 
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy

 

 

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We shoulder much burden in the pursuit of happiness and freedom,
worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
every tear.

Our heart land is plowed,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow should be straight and narrow.

We are tread upon
yet still bloom;
we are turned upside down
yet still produce bread.

The plowing under brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms now making fertile simple dust.

Plow deep our hearts this day of celebrating freedom, dear Lord.
May we grow what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
everywhere.

 

 

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photo by Joel deWaard

Thank you once again to Joel deWaard, local farmer and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match