Forgiving the Scythe

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To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
~Robert Frost in “Mowing”

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Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field

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The grass around our orchard and yet-to-be-planted garden is now thigh-high. It practically squeaks while it grows. Anything that used to be in plain sight on the ground is rapidly being swallowed up in a sea of green: a ball, a pet dish, a garden gnome, a hose, a tractor implement, a bucket. In an effort to stem this tidal flood of grass, I grab the scythe out of the garden shed and plan my attack. The pastures are too wet yet for heavy hooves so I have hungry horses to provide for and there is more than plenty fodder to cut down for them.

I’m not a weed whacker kind of gal. First there is the necessary fuel, the noise necessitating ear plugs, the risk of flying particles requiring goggles–it all seems too much like and act of war to be remotely enjoyable. Instead, I’m trying to take scything lessons from my husband. Emphasis on “trying”.

I grew up watching my father scythe our hay in our field because he couldn’t afford a mower for his tractor. He enjoyed physical labor in the fields and woods–his other favorite hand tool was a brush cutter that he’d take to blackberry bushes. He would head out to the field with the scythe over this shoulder, grim reaper style. Once he was standing on the edge of the grass needing to be mowed, he would then lower the scythe, curved blade to the ground, turn slightly, positioning his hands on the two handles just so, raise the scythe up past his shoulders, and then in a full body twist almost like a golf swing, he’d bring the blade down. It would follow a smooth arc through the base of the standing grass, laying clumps flat in a tidy pile alongside the 2 inch stubble left behind. It was a swift, silky muscle movement — a thing of beauty.

I’ve yet to manage anything nearly as graceful. I tend to chop and mangle rather than effect an efficient slicing blow. I unintentionally trample the grass I mean to cut. I get blisters from holding the handles too tightly. It feels hopeless that I’ll ever perfect that whispery rise and fall of the scythe, with the rhythmic shush sound of the slice that is almost hypnotic.

Not only am I an ineffective scything human, but I have also learned what it is like to be the grass I am unintentionally mutilating, on the receiving end of a glancing blow that misses the mark. I bear plenty of footprints from the trampling. It can take awhile to stand back up after being knocked repeatedly to the ground.

Sometimes it makes more sense to simply start over as stubble, oozing and bleeding green, with deep roots that no one can reach. As I grow back, I will sing rather than squeak, and I’ll forgive the scythe every time it comes down on my head.

 

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Green and Glorious

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I wished to wade in the trillium
and be warmed near the white flames.
I imagined the arch of my foot
massaged by the mosses.
This field immersed in gravity
defying growth.  Green and glorious.
It let me know that out of the
soil came I, and green I shall be.
Whether an unnamed weed or a
wild strawberry I will join in
the hymn.
~Luci Shaw from “Spring Song, Very Early Morning”

 

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Spring is finally in full swing here on the farm.  Grass grows so fast that mowing could be a twice a week activity,  dandelions are dotting the fields in a yellow carpet, the flowering plums and cherries are peaking, the daffodils are spent and the tulips are bursting forth.

 

The koi and goldfish in our pond have decided to surface from underneath all the winter debris and have grown to another 6 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 hunt 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 arise 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.

There are trillium blossoms to be found on our farm, a few 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 to be green and glorious.

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 our thoughtless actions.

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, yet still fragile in the everlasting soil of life.

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As If the Only One

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Yesterday’s Easter morning sun halo — photo by Rachel Vogel

 

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us to love.
~Saint Augustine

 

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When I am one of so many
there can be nothing special
to attract attention
or affection

When I blend into the background
among a multitude of others,
indistinct and plain,
common as grains of sand

There is nothing to hold me up
as rare, unique,
or exceptional,
worthy of extra effort.

Yet it is not about my worth,
my work, my words;
it is about His infinite capacity
to love anything formed

by the touch of His vast hand,
by the contraction of His immense heart,
by the boundlessness of His breath
reaching me
as if
as if
as if
I were the only one.

 

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Pressed Like a Flower

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I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

 

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More snow predicted before winter is done with us.
Despite my fervor for spring, lit by the appearance of a snow drop here and a crocus there, I still want to acknowledge this winter for the adventure it has been:

like a momento snowflake preserved between two pages, it fades quickly from memory but the damp spot remains behind.  It is not lost — simply a mere wrinkle in time.

 

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An Indecision of Weather

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…step outside into an indecision of weather,
night rain having fallen into frozen air,
a silver thaw where nothing moves or sings
and all things grieve under the weight of their own shining.
~ James McKean  from “Silver Thaw”

 

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Freezing rain needs to happen once a decade just to remind Pacific Northwesterners that regular rain isn’t such a bad thing.  We’re in the midst of just such a silver thaw right now. Trees and heavy branches are crashing everywhere, the power is off, the farm generator is on and life as we know it comes to a standstill under an inch thick blanket of ice.

We webfoot Washingtonians tend to grouse about our continuously gray cloud-covered bleak dreary drizzly wet mildew-ridden existence. But that’s not us actually grumbling.  That’s just us choosing not to exhibit overwhelming joy.  They don’t call Bellingham, the university town ten miles from our farm,  the “city of subdued excitement” for no good reason.

 

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When the temperatures drop in our moderate climate and things start to ice up, or the snowflakes start to fall, we celebrate the diversion from rain.  Our children are out building snowmen when there is a mere 1/2 inch of snow on the ground, leaving lawns bare and green with one large snowman in the middle.  Schools start to cancel at 2 inches because of the lack of snow removal equipment and no bunkers of stored sand for the roads.  We natives are pitifully terrible snow drivers compared to the highly experienced (and at times overconfident) midwestern and northeastern transplants in our midst.

But then the weather gets indecisive and this little meteorologic phenomenon known as freezing rain with its resultant silver thaw happens.  It warms up enough that it really isn’t snowing but it also really isn’t raining because the temperatures are still subfreezing at ground level, so it spills ice drops from the sky–noisy little splatters that land and stay beaded up on any surface.  Branches resemble botanical popsicles, sidewalks become bumpy rinks, roads become sheer black ice, cars are encased in an impenetrable glaze of ice and windows are covered with textured glass twice as thick as usual.

In the midst of this frozen concoction coming from the sky, we delay farm chores as long as possible, knowing it will take major navigation aids to simply make our way out the back steps, across the sidewalk and down the hill, then up the slick cement slope to open the big sliding barn doors.  Chains on our muck boots help, to a degree.  The big rolling barn doors ice together when the northeast wind blows freezing rain into the tiny gap between them, so it is necessary to break foot holds into the ice on the cement to roll back the doors just enough to sneak through before shutting them quickly behind us, blocking the arctic wind blast.  Then we can drink in the warmth of six stalls of hungry Haflinger horses, noisily greeting us by chastising us for our tardiness in feeding them dinner.

 

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Wintertime chores are always more time-consuming but ice time chores are even more so.  Water buckets need to be filled individually because the hoses are frozen solid.  Hay bales stored in the hay barn must be hauled up the slick slope to the horse barn.  Frozen manure piles need to be hacked to pieces with a shovel rather than a pitchfork.   Who needs a bench press and fancy weight lifting equipment when you can lift five gallon buckets, sixty pound bales and fifteen pounds of poop per shovel full?  Why invest in an elliptical exerciser?  This farm life is saving us money… I think.

 

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Once inside each stall, I take a moment to run my ungloved hand over a fluffy golden winter coat, to untangle a mane knot or two, and to breathe in sweet Haflinger hay breath from a velvety nose.   It is the reason I will slide downhill, land on my face pushing loads of hay uphill to feed these loved animals no matter how hazardous the footing or miserable the weather.  It is why their stalls get picked up more often than our bedrooms, their stomachs are filled before ours, and we pay for hoof trims for the herd but never manicures and pedicures for the people residing in the house.

 

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The temperatures will rise, the overwhelming ice covering will start to thaw and our farm will be happily back to drippy and overcast.  No matter what the weather,  the barn will always be a refuge of comfort, even when the work is hard and the effort is a challenge for these middle aged farmers.

It’s enough to melt even the most grumbly heart and therefore the thickest coating of ice.

 

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A Lingering Season

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Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour.
~  John Boswell

 

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As temperatures rose 40 degrees from a snowy/icy first half of January to a balmy third week, it feels like our winter isn’t going to linger long after all.  As much as my frozen fingers appreciate the reprieve while during barn chores, I am wistful that winter may have already decided to pack up and move on for another year. It seems its departure was a bit hurried from the scattered reminders left behind — a bejeweled owl feather here, a molding leaf there, crusts of melting ice everywhere.

We need a little more of this season of bare bones and stark landscapes, of time for remembrance and restoration.  I won’t bid goodbye yet, hoping it may yet linger a while longer.

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A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands.
~Marilynne Robinson from Housekeeping

 

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Preparing the Heart: A Wretched World Blurred Soft

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In time,
the sons of men filled the earth
with their evil deeds.
And God beheld the desolate wastes
the soiled streets
the bitter brown of barren fields
and the sin of the world
cut him to the heart.

“I will blot from the earth
the memory of these things.
Behold, I will make all things new!”
So he gathered up clouds
from the four corners of the sky,
billows pregnant with promise.
He gathered them in great, dark piles
on the horizon of hills
while the weathermen watched
grandmothers gazed
schoolchildren pressed their noses against the glass.

And God said,
“Let there be snow.”

First, small white flakes
like lace, drifting.

Then—wind
driving snow before it, a blizzard
hiding hills from view
(and the tops of church steeples
and street lights, too).

 For forty days
the land was covered in white,
the wretched lines of a wretched world
blurred soft overnight—
buried, forgotten
as God birthed grace upon the earth.
~Sara Arthur “Advent in Michigan”

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I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

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…Then how his muffled armies move in all night
And we wake and every road is blockaded
Every hill taken and every farm occupied
And the white glare of his tents is on the ceiling.
And all that dull blue day and on into the gloaming
We have to watch more coming.

Then everything in the rubbish-heaped world
Is a bridesmaid at her miracle.
Dunghills and crumbly dark old barns are bowed in the chapel of her sparkle.
The gruesome boggy cellars of the wood
Are a wedding of lace
Now taking place.
~Ted Hughes from “Snow and Snow”

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Out of the bosom of the Air,
      Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.
         The troubled sky reveals
         The grief it feels…
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “Snow-flakes”

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I’m roused by faint glow
between closed slats
of window blinds
at midnight

The bedroom suffused
in ethereal light
from a moonless sky
as a million tiny stars fall silent

The snow lights all that is broken,
settling gently while
tucking in the downy corners
of a snowflake comforter

as heaven comes down to
plump the pillows,
cushion the landscape,
soften the wretched,
illuminate the heart.

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