A Bright Sadness: Blessed By Doubt

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law,
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.
~Richard Wilbur “April 5, 1974”

photo by Nate Gibson

As the ground softens with spring,
so do I.
Somehow the solid winter freeze was comforting
as nothing appeared to change and stayed static,
so did I,
remaining stolid and fixed,
resisting doubt and uncertainty.

But now, with light and warmth,
the fixed is flexing,
steaming in its labor,
and so must I find
blessing in giving ground
and giving birth
to what will follow.
Flowers will come of it.


A Mosaic of Leaves

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And then in the falling comes a rising, 
as of the bass coming up for autumn’s last insects 
struggling amid the mosaic of leaves on the lake’s surface. 
We express it as the season of lacking, but what is this nakedness
— the unharvested corn frost-shriveled but still a little golden 
under the diffuse light of a foggy sky,
the pin oak’s newly stark web of barbs, the woodbine’s vines 
shriven of their scarlet and left askew in the air 
like the tangle of threads on the wall’s side 
of the castle tapestry—what is it but greater intimacy,
the world slackening its grip on the veils, letting them slump
to the floor in a heap of sodden colors, and saying,
this is me, this is my skeletal muscle, 
my latticework of bones, my barren winter skin, 
this is it and if you love me, know that this is what you love. 
~Laura Fargas “October Struck” from Animal of the Sixth Day

 

 

 

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Something about the emerging nakedness of autumn reassures that we can be loved even when stripped down to our bones. We do make quite a show of shedding our coverings, our bits and pieces fluttering down to rejoin the soil, but what is left is meager lattice.

But when the light is just right, we are golden, illuminated and illuminating, even if barely there.

 

 

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An Unblinking Gaze

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Of all the beasts that God allows
In England’s green and pleasant land,
I most of all dislike the Cows:

Their ways I do not understand.
It puzzles me why they should stare
At me, who am so innocent;
Their stupid gaze is hard to bear —

To country people 
Cows are mild, 
And flee from any stick they throw; 
But I’m a timid town bred child, 
And all the cattle seem to know.
~from “Cows” by T.S. Eliot, published long after his death

 

 

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Raised with Guernsey and Jersey cows
outside my back door,
I sat dreamily
on their bony backs
while dad milked by hand twice a day,
the rhythmic
swoosh swoosh
filling the metal pail
as barn cats circled and purred.

Giving up the dairy,
we raised Scottish Highlanders
of long horn and shaggy hair-
wild and skeptical creatures
who barely tolerated a curry comb
or rub behind the ears.

I know well the unblinking stare of the cow
as they chew their cud and lick their nostrils;
I love their unending interest
in the absurdity
of people,
watching what we do.

I fall
into the deep pool
of their brown eyes
and drown
there willingly,
anchored
by their curious gaze
and why they should choose to care
about me
at all.

 

 

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Dent in the Ground

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All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
~Donald Hall, “Names of Horses”

 

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As a child,  I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in 1965 in an open clearing of our woods where our little chestnut mare, Dolly, rested in the ground.

She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. I had returned to the house, unable to watch, but could not help but hear the gunshot as if it had gone through me as well.

At first her grave was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see.

When my tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear.

Later it became the sanctuary where I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.

Her bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.

No one but me remembers you.

 

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The Heart of the Field

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

 

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Remember that meadow up above the ridge
where the dog ran around in circles
and we were tired from the climb up
and everything was tilted sideways
including the running in circles
of the ecstatic dog his bright tongue
lapping at the air and we were
leaning into the heart of the field
where no battle ever took place
where no farmer ever bothered
to turn the soil yet everything
seemed to have happened there everything
seemed to be happening at once enough
so we’ve never forgotten how full the field
was and how we were there too and full
~Tim Nolan “The Field”

 

 

 

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This hill on our farm is for running, for sunning, for lolling, for rolling, for pondering, for wandering.
With dogs or without them, our time spent here is full and fulfilling.

 

 

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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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Get On With Work or Take It Slow

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Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.
Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.
Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,
we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.
Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.
~Rachel Hadas from “The End of Summer”
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In observance of Labor Day:
I did not grow up in a household that took time off.  Time was redeemed by work, and work was noble and honorable and proved we had a right to exist.
Vacation road trips were rare and almost always associated with my father’s work.  When he came home from his desk job in town, he would immediately change into his farm clothes and put in several hours of work outside, summer or winter, rain or shine, light or dark.
My mother did not work in town while we were children, but worked throughout her day inside and outside the house doing what farm wives and mothers need to do: growing, hoeing, harvesting, preserving, washing, cleaning, sewing, and most of all, being there for us.
As kids, we had our share of chores that were simply part of our day as our work was never done on a farm. When we turned twelve, we began working for others: babysitting, weeding, barn and house cleaning, berry picking.  I have now done over 52 years of gainful employment – there were times I worked four part-time jobs at once because that was what I could put together to keep things together.
The thought of “retirement” is anathema for me but that time will come for me when I am ready to take it slow. I know I’ve missed out on much of life being a “nose to the grindstone” person.
I wish there had been more times I had taken a few moments to be more like the cows I see meandering, tranquil and unconcerned, in the surrounding green pastures. Part of every day now I pull myself away from the work to be done, the work that is always calling and staring me in the face, and try a different way to redeem my time: to notice, to record, to observe, to appreciate beauty that exists in the midst of chaos and cataclysm and neverending portents of war.
Life isn’t all about non-stop labor, yet we get on with our work because work is about showing up when and where we are needed. Not being cows, we may feel we have no choice in the matter. Just maybe, like cows, we can manage to slow down,  watch what is happening around us, and by chewing our cud, keep contemplating and digesting whatever life feeds us, the sweet and the sour.
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