Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
This morning springs in beauty, in hope for a new day and I am grateful again for another chance.
That could be me bent and broken on the hard ground, as defenseless as the baby swallows tumbling helpless out of their crowded and soiled nests in our barn rafters, left to die cold and featherless and alone.
Thank God for His brooding breast keeping me safe. Thank God I am still in the nest waiting to test my wings.
“Somehow the question of identity is always emerging on this farm. I found the body of a barn swallow lying just inside the barn the other day. There was no telling how it died. I noticed the intense particularity of its body, its sharply cut wings, the way its plumage seemed to glow with some residual celestial heat. But it was the particularity of death, not the identity of life, a body in stillness while all around me its kin were twittering and swooping in and out of the hayloft.” Verlyn Klinkenborg
Stumbling across death on the farm is always startling. The farm teems with life 24 hours a day: frogs croaking, dawn bird chorus, insects buzzing and crawling, cats stalking, raccoons stealing, dogs wagging, horses galloping, owls and bats swooping. Amid so much activity, it doesn’t seem possible that some simply cease to be. An ancient apple tree mysteriously topples over one morning, a beloved riding horse dies of colic, an old cat finds her final resting place in the hay loft, another old cat naps forever under a tree, a newborn foal fails to break free of its amniotic sac, another foal delivered unexpectedly and prematurely lies still and lifeless in the shavings of the stall, a vibrantly alive dog is put to sleep due to a growing tumor, a predator raids the dove cage and leaves behind carnage, our woods bears its own tragic history.
Yet, as often as it happens, there is a unique particularity about death. The stillness of death permits a full appreciation of who this individual is, the remarkable care that went into creating every molecule of his being. The presence of absence is a stark and necessary reminder of our mortality.
In truth, we will glow with residual celestial heat, still warm even after our hearts cease to beat. We are distinct individuals in our own particularity–living and dying at a particular time and place as a unique creature, given a chance in the cosmos of infinite possibilities. The Creator knit us together specially, every feather, hair, bone and sinew a work of His Hands, and what we do with what we are given is all the stuff between our first breath and our last. Particularity is a good reminder not to squander our brief time as part of the history of the world.
A guarantee of particularity is the presence of His Holy breath, though momentarily stilled, yet still filling us forever.
The usual peace and quiet on our farm has been anything but the last few days. The time has come to wean foals from their mothers and they are all protesting loudly about the separation, day and night. This is always a difficult time every year, rattling my senses more than usual because I am in the process of being weaned as well. Their cries echo deeply in my unsettled heart. As the mares stand at the field gate calling to their babies stowed safely in the barn, I know they want them back for their own comfort–mostly to relieve swollen painful udders. They also need to know their babies are safe and content. This feeling I know all too well.
We’ve recently delivered our second child back to college, even farther from home than our first child chose to go. It was a difficult leave taking in many ways, primarily because I wasn’t as prepared as I hoped to be. I still want that comfortable feeling of knowing my children were tucked safely under my wings. It just doesn’t seem possible they don’t fit there as easily as they used to. My children certainly understand that better than I as they are the ones feeling crowded and anxious to leave, ready to embark on independent adult lives.
An unexpected preparation took place recently when we took several of our Haflingers to a regional fair for a week’s stay. We moved into covered outdoor stalls that stand empty 51 weeks of the year, but for this one week, the stalls are decorated and built up with fluffy shavings, and the horses shined to a gloss. The night before the fair was to open, I was sweeping the area in front and discovered a barn swallow’s nest had been built in the rafters right above where the public would be standing to pet our horses. The pile of bird droppings had heaped high on the cement and the nest was full of chirping fledglings all prepared to produce more where that had come from. It was an inconvenient and potentially messy spot for a nest’s front porch so I carefully lifted it and its chirpy contents from the front rafter and placed it on a back rafter above one horse’s stall. It was a minor move of about 10 feet, but that proved to be a major obstacle for two dedicated swallow parents who had five noisy hungry mouths to feed. I hoped I had not completely disrupted this little family’s world.
It took about an hour for the swallow parents to decide they couldn’t bear to listen to their displaced babes’ cheeping any more, so they swooped into the stall with insects to feed five gaping mouths, putting aside their indignation at the semi-eviction and the objectionable human and horse smell all over their home. They felt compelled to care for those offspring, no matter what the dangers may be.
It became quite the show stopper during the week as people leaned over the stall gates to pet our horses and a swallow would swoop right past their ear on its way to the nest. We watched those five babies grow fluffier over the course of the week, and several times had to rescue one or another from a horrible fate under a horses’ hoof as the birds bumped and jostled each other out of the crowded nest. By the end of the week, they were not yet flying but they were able to sit independently next to the nest on the rafter beam and a few days later when I went back to check on them, they were already gone, the nest feather-lined and poop filled, looking a bit forlorn and terribly empty, no longer a comfortable fit for a family that had outgrown it.
A barn swallow is more resilient than I am about letting their offspring go. Even my mares are slowly settling into the knowledge their youngsters are now on their own and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves in the big world. I am not nearly so settled with my children’s transition to adulthood. Yet I know it must come. It’s not just about the inevitable resolution of the uncomfortably swollen udder, but in time to feel the calm and quiet fullness in the heart of the wholly weaned.