Smells That Speak

October

 

 

The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice;
talked of warm kitchens,
of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings,
of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings,
when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender;
of the purring of contented cats,
and the twitter of sleepy canaries.

~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

 

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I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel.  One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode.  I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, tastes, feels everything just as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure.  Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen full of rising breakfast rolls, roasting turkey is my mother’s chaotic kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during those years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training.

Sometimes I have the privilege of holding infants whose skin smells of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvet of my own childrens’.   The newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own.  My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, mint, lemon verbena and lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes wafting through open bedroom windows in my childhood home.  And of course the richness of petrichor: the fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell after a dry spell.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit available includes my most favorite farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer,  I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then and remind me of all I’m grateful for.  It’ll take me back to a day just like today when I cooked in the kitchen, held a friend’s sweet infant, moved hay to the horses and cleaned the barn:

I’ll breathe deeply of the smells that speak to me with no uncertain voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Shining Moment

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When I work outdoors all day, every day, as I do now, in the fall,
getting ready for winter, tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods, doing the last of
the fall mowing, pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…

when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…

when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—then, and only
then, do I see the crippling power of mind, the curse of thought,
and I pause and wonder why I so seldom find
this shining moment in the now.
~David Budbill “The Shining Moment in the Now”

 

 

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I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work – clearly not enough – as most of my waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.

It is too much “internal” time, to be sure.  My body needs to lift and push and dig and toss so I head outside on the farm twice daily to do farm chores.  This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” happening mostly in my head.

I’m grateful for some tenuous balance in my life,  knowing as I do that I would not make a good full time farmer. There is comfort in the glow of those moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.

Let it shine.

 

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Nostalgic For What is to Come

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Toward the end of August I begin to dream about fall, how
this place will empty of people, the air will get cold and
leaves begin to turn. Everything will quiet down, everything
will become a skeleton of its summer self. Toward

the end of August I get nostalgic for what’s to come, for
that quiet time, time alone, peace and stillness, calm, all
those things the summer doesn’t have. The woodshed is
already full, the kindling’s in, the last of the garden soon

will be harvested, and then there will be nothing left to do
but watch fall play itself out, the earth freeze, winter come.
~David Budbill “Toward the End of August”

 

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As the calendar page flips to September this morning, I feel nostalgic for what is coming.

Summer is filled with so much overwhelming activity due to ~18 hours of daylight accompanying weeks of unending sunny weather resulting in never-enough-sleep.  Waking on a summer morning feels so brim full with possibilities: there are places to go, people to see, new things to explore and of course, a garden and orchard always bearing and fruiting out of control.

As early September days usher us toward autumn, we long for the more predictable routine of school days, so ripe with new learning opportunities. This week my teacher friend Bonnie orchestrated an innovative introduction to fifth grade by asking her students, with some parental assistance, to make (from scratch) their own personalized school desks that will go home with them at the end of the year.  These students have created their own learning center with their brains and hands, with wood-burned and painted designs, pictures and quotes for daily encouragement.

For those students, their desks will always represent a solid reminder of what has been and what is to come.

So too, I welcome September’s quieting times ushering in a new cool freshness in the air as breezes pluck and toss a few drying leaves from the trees.  I will watch the days play themselves out rather than feeling I must direct each moment.  I can be a sponge.

I whisper hush … to myself.

Goodnight August, goodnight farm, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.

 

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Mrs. Bonnie Patterson’s fifth graders’ handmade desks at Evergreen Christian School, Bellingham, Washington

 

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Sunlight and Shadow

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A girl comes out
of the barn, holding
a lantern
like a bucket of milk

or like a lantern.
Her shadow’s there.
They pump a bucket of water
and loosen their blouses,

they lead the mare out
from the field
their thin legs
blending with the wheat.

Crack a green kernel
in your teeth.  Mist
in the fields,
along the clay road

the mare’s footsteps
fill up with milk.
~Franz Wright  “Morning”

 

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Each morning as I rise to let the horses out to graze for the day,
I’m once again that girl who woke early
to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn,
with mist in my hair and dew on my boots,
picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.

The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose
until I knew it was time to turn around, each hoof step taking us home
to clean barn, do chores, hang the laundry, weed the garden until sunset.

Sunlight creates and erases all that is shadow.

 

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Just In Case

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All day he’s shoveled green pine sawdust
out of the trailer truck into the chute.
From time to time he’s clambered down to even
the pile. Now his hair is frosted with sawdust.
Little rivers of sawdust pour out of his boots.

I hope in the afterlife there’s none of this stuff
he says, while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked
with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks.
I hope there’s no bedding, no stalls, no barn

no more repairs to the paddock gate the horses
burst through when snow avalanches off the roof.
Although the old broodmare, our first foal, is his,
horses, he’s fond of saying, make divorces.

…he says
let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset

and off we go, a couple of aging fools.

I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot
less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools.
~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”

 

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They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now…
~Wendell Berry from “They Sit Together on the Porch”

 

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We know that comfortable silence when all that needs to be said is said and the rest is shared without words.  And so it will be.

Two weeks from now, you’ll pack up the files in your desk, box up the legal books, take down the diplomas from your office wall, and close the door on a long lawyering life. The next day you’ll pull on your worn-thin coveralls, lace up your work boots, grab your cap and head out to the barn and wonder what needs fixing next.

There is so much to be done yet, so many tools to use, so much more to be lived.

Let’s walk up the field to catch the sunset, just a couple of aging fools.

 

 

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So Then, My Brethren, Live

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It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall,
driving horses, sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory if being in his grace
you do it as your duty.

To go to communion worthily gives God great glory,
but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dung fork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give him glory too.

He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should.

So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from Seeking Peace

 

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Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place.   As an act of worship, we must keep cleaning up after ourselves.  The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend over an hour every day year round through all seasons and weather, carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork and moving manure down this barnyard lane because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes.

In so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship our God with dungfork and slop pail and wheelbarrow.

It is my privilege.  It is His gift to me.

It is Grace that comes alongside me, helping me to live out each day,  pitching the muck and carrying the slop and making me clean again – spring, summer, fall and winter.

Amen.

 

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photo from Emily Vander Haak

When Worry is a Terminal Disease

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Considering myself a Dr. Doolittle of sorts, always talking to the animals, I reached out to pet a stray cat sitting quietly outside our barn one evening while doing barn chores.  This is a grayish fluffy cat I see around the barns every few months or so–he doesn’t put in frequent appearances and reminds me of a kitten we raised on this farm a few years back, though his markings are a bit different,  so I know it is not our cat.

We have 6 cats to pet here who claim “us” as their home and family, so there is no lack of fur balls to love.  There are probably that many more who hang out,  now and then,  considering our farm fair game and looking for an occasional free meal.  This cat just seemed to need a reassuring pat at that moment or maybe I needed the reassurance.  Wrong.

I found myself with a cat attached to my wrist by teeth and claws.  It took a bit of an effort to shake him off and he escaped into the night. I then surveyed the damage he inflicted and immediately went to wash my wounds.  They were deep punctures near my wrist joint–not good.  Lucky for me I was up to date on my tetanus booster.

By the next day the wounds were getting inflamed and quite sore.  I know all too well the propensity of cat bites to get badly infected with Pasteurella Multocida, a “bad actor” bacteria that can penetrate deep tissues and bone if not treated with aggressive antibiotics.  After getting 6 opinions from my colleagues at clinic, all of whom stood solemnly shaking their heads at my 12 hour delay in getting medical attention,  I surrendered and called my doctor’s office.  I pleaded for a “no visit” prescription as I was up to my eyeballs in my own patients, and he obliged me.  I picked up the antibiotic prescription during a break, sat in the car ready to swallow the first one and then decided to wait a little longer before starting them, knowing they wallop the gut bacteria and cause pretty nasty side effects.  I wanted to see if my own immune system might just be sufficient.

So the bacterial infection risk was significant and real but I was prepared to deal with it.  For some reason I didn’t really think about the risk of rabies until the middle of the night when all dark and depressing thoughts seem to come real to me.

I don’t know this cat.  I doubt he has an owner and it is highly unlikely he is rabies vaccinated.  My own cats aren’t rabies vaccinated (and neither am I) though if I was a conscientious owner, they would be.  Yes, we have bats in our barns and woods and no, there has not been a rabid bat reported in our area in some time.

But what if this cat were potentially infected with the rabies virus but not yet showing symptoms?  Now my mind started to work overtime as any good neurotic will do.  Last summer a rabid kitten in North Carolina potentially exposed 10 people when it was passed around a softball tournament, no one aware it was ill until it died and was tested.  Lots of people had to have rabies shots as a result.

This cat who had bitten me was long gone–there was no finding him in the vast woods and farmland surrounding us.  He couldn’t be kept in observation for 10 days and watched for symptoms, nor could he be sacrificed to examine his neural tissue for signs of the virus.

I called the health department to ask what their recommendation was in a case like this.  Do they recommend rabies immune globulin injection which should have been done as soon as possible after the bite?   I talked with a nurse who read from a prepared script for neurotic people like me.  Feral cats in our area have not been reported to have rabies nor have skunks or raccoons.  Only local bats have been reported to have rabies but not recently.  This cat would have had to have been bitten by a rabid bat to be rabid.  This was considered a “provoked” attack as I had reached out to pet the cat.  This was not a cat acting unusually other than having wrapped itself around my arm.  No, the Health Dept would not recommend rabies immune globulin in this situation but I was free to contact my own doctor to have it done at my own expense if I wished to have the series of 5 vaccination shots over the next month at a cost of about $3000.   Yes, there would be a degree of uncertainty about this and I’d have to live with that uncertainty but she reassured me this was considered a very low risk incident.

I knew this was exactly what I would be told and I would have counseled any patient with the same words.  Somehow it is always more personal when the risk of being wrong has such dire consequences.  I could see the headlines “Local Doctor Dies From Rabid Cat Bite”.

This is not how I want to be remembered.

Rabies is one of the worst possible ways to die.  The cases I’ve read about are among the most frightening I’ve ever seen in the medical literature. Not only is it painful and horrific but it puts family and care providers at risk as well.  It also has an unpredictable incubation period of a up to a month or two, even being reported as long as a year after an exposure.  What a long time to wait in uncertainty.  It also has a prodrome of several days of very nonspecific symptoms of headache, fever and general malaise, like any other viral infection before the encephalitis and other bad stuff hits.  I was going to think about it any time I had a little headache or chill.  This was assuredly going to be a real test of my dubious ability to stifle my tendency for 4-dimensional worries.

I decided to live with the low risk uncertainty and forego the vaccination series.  It was a pragmatic decision based on the odds.  My wounds slowly healed without needing antibiotics.  For ten days I watched for my attacker cat whenever I went to the barn, but he didn’t put in an appearance.  I put out extra food and hoped to lure him in.  It would have been just be so nice to see his healthy face and not have to think about this gray cloud hanging over me for the next few months, as I wondered about every stray symptom.  No gray kitty to be seen.

Almost a month has gone by now and he finally showed up last night.  I could have grabbed him and hugged him but I know better now. No more Dr. Doolittle.

He is perfectly fine and now so am I, cured of a terminal case of worry and hypochondria which is not nearly as deadly as rabies but can be debilitating and life shortening none the less.

From now on, I’ll be contented to just “talk to the animals” like any good Dr. Doolittle.  I don’t need to cuddle them.

 

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photo by Nate Gibson