A Residual Celestial Heat

grumpyfinch

 

“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 from “A Swallow in the Hand”

 

 

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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, coyotes yipping, 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, another dies of lymphoma, 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,  an old dog passes during an afternoon nap, 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 the end of life.  The stillness of death permits a full appreciation of who this individual is, the remarkable care that went into creating every molecule of its being.

The sudden presence of absence is a stark and necessary reminder of what I myself want to leave behind.

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 unique work of His Hands, and what we do with what we are given is the stuff between our first God-given breath and our last, handed back to Him.

May we not squander our particular role in the history of the world.

 

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The Golden Amber of Her Eyes

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photo by Tomomi Gibson

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them.
But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

 

 

 

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Bobbi arrived on the farm 14 years ago after living a life of luxury in town.  She couldn’t accompany her owner to life in the big city so moved in complete with a van full of her own cat furniture, a personal chair, toys, and special cuisine.  When she strode out of her cat carrier, took a look around and climbed into the nearest tree, she never looked back at the accoutrements of her former full time indoor life.  She became queen of the farm, undisputed and regal, watching the goings-on from a carefully calculated and royal distance, never interacting with her subjects unless it was absolutely necessary.

She tolerated other cats, but barely.  They scattered when she came in view.  She thought dogs were a waste of fur covering empty skulls, but when they met her needs, like on a chilly night, she would happily bunk down with them.  They were astonished but grateful for her royal blessing when she decided to sleep among them: a two-dog and one-cat night.

She chose only one person to be subject to: our daughter-in-law Tomomi.  On Tomomi’s first visit from Japan, Bobbi approached her and decided then and there they were meant for each other.  During Tomomi’s annual summer visits, Bobbi brought her mice on the welcome mat and followed her like a puppy, coming only when Tomomi called, and deigned to allow her to touch her calico coat.

Earlier this year, nearly 16 years old, Bobbi took over the front porch bench when our black cat Jose died.  She liked to stay a bit closer to us, but seemed thinner and less disdainful.  When two kittens arrived to live in the barn this summer and within a week formed a coup and took over the front porch, Bobbi retreated again to her other quarters on the farm. I worried a bit that she had given in too easily with no yowls or flying fur.

Yesterday morning she lay still on the grassy slope out front – she was never one to take her naps where her subjects could see her.  I knew her long life was over.

Long live Queen Bobbi.  May you forever reign in our hearts.

 

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

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photo by Nate Gibson

The North Wind Dying

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Outside, the north wind,
coming and passing,
swelling and dying,
lifts the frozen sand drives it
a-rattle against the lidless windows
and we may
dear
sit stroking the cat stroking the cat
and smiling sleepily, prrrr.
~William Carlos Williams

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José is our front porch cat. That is as opposed to our garage cat, our upper barn cat, our lower barn cats and those that come and go on the farm because we’re a hospitable place where food is always on the table.

But he is the king of the farm cats.  No one questions him (usually) and no one occupies his front porch bench without his express permission. His Majesty shows mercy to any who show proper submission, and every once in awhile, that includes the dogs.  He’s trained every pup here over the years.

He is the official front porch farm greeter, rising from his pillowy bench throne to investigate any newcomer up the sidewalk, mewing his cheerful little “chirp” of a meow in welcome.  Then he turns around and returns to his perch.

José also is a performance cat, having been trained in his younger years to ride on a bareback pad on our Haflingers, walk, trot and over jumps (sorry, no pictures).  This once again proved his ability to get any creature, large or small, to submit to his will.

The love of his life is our daughter, Lea.  José  arrived on our farm 13+ years ago from a city home where he had been adopted as a stray of indeterminate age, and was too intimidating to the other resident cats.  José needed his own kingdom and his own queen so he set his eyes on her and decided he was exactly what she needed.  They have had many happy snuggles together over the years whenever she returns home, including only a month ago during the holidays.

The winter weather was brutal over the past month with weeks of bitter northeast wind blowing right over José’s front porch bed.  Usually during northeasters he picks up and moves to another of our farm buildings until the storm is done, and then reclaims his favorite spot when he deems it cozy enough to be worthy of him.

Only this time, when the wind went away, José didn’t return.

I’ve looked, I’ve called, I’ve left goodies out.  But no José. No chirpy meow, no yellow eyed gaze, no black velvet fur to stroke, no rumbly purr to vibrate in my lap.

I fear he has left for warmer quarters far far away from here as the north wind was dying this winter.

I think he was dying too, and somewhere on the farm — I just haven’t found it yet — there is a black coat that he left behind.

He doesn’t need it any more.

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She Gazes Back

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At the old Polish gardener’s
There’s a young cat
A calico
Living half-wild
Under the potting shed
Where she was born

Her face is decorated
With daubs and smudges
And streaks of black
As if she were made up to be a clown
In some mysterious carnival

I gaze at her in wonder
She gazes back
With her clear golden eyes.
~Anne Porter “A Village Cat”

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photo by Nate Gibson

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photo by Nate Gibson

Our stub-tailed calico Bobbie came to live here eleven years ago when her physician owner needed to move out of the area and couldn’t take her along.  She arrived with a van full of cat furniture from her luxurious indoor house cat existence — a cat house, a cat tree, a cat bed, her own large chair and lots of toys.  I gently explained Bobbie would be living the life of an outdoor farm cat from here on, but her stuff was unloaded and after a tearful goodbye, her mom left.

Bobbie took one look around the farm and claimed it as hers, much to the chagrin of several long term resident farm cats and corgi dogs.  She has been the Queen here ever since, greeting any new visitors with royal demeanor and occasionally allowing a stroke of her colorful fur only if it is offered with proper respect and deference.

Her favorite person is our Japanese daughter-in-law, Tomomi, and Bobbie greets her affectionately during her summer visits — no one else is allowed such access to her Royal Highness.

Bobbie, in her uncanny wisdom, knows a quality person when she sees one.

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photo by Nate Gibson
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photo by Nate Gibson
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photo by Nate Gibson

Bobbie will frequently accompany us on walk-abouts on the farm – oh, excuse me, your Highness, I’ll correct myself — we and the corgis are allowed to accompany her on walk-abouts on the farm.

Just to make sure the corgis understand her ownership of all things, she will enter the dog pen while they are out doing chores with me and then remain until their return, striking terror in their little inferior canine brains as they try to decide whether to re-claim their territory and food bowls — or not. Until she decides it is time to elegantly stroll in a leisurely manner out of their pen, they are stymied with fear and refuse to reenter.

Bobbie has climbed every tree, explored every building including the roofs, and won’t sleep in the same place more than one night in a row.  No surrogate cat house, tree, chair or toys for this cat.

She is the Queen, after all, and when we are fixed under her golden eyed gaze, we aren’t about to forget:  we are her subjects and forever will be.

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photo by Nate Gibson

Our Eyes Locked…

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The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.

Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls. So.
~Annie Dillard from “Living Like Weasels”

I watch you.  And you me.  Our eyes locked and someone threw away the key.

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A Hot Day on the Farm

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These hot humid summer days have been barely tolerable for a temperate climate sissy pants like me.  I am melting even as I get up in the morning, and our house has been two degrees warmer (93 degrees) than the out of doors.

One morning as I drove the ten miles of country roads to get to work in town,  I was listening to the news on the car radio when I puzzled over why the radio station would be playing cat meows over the news.  I turned off the radio, and realized the meows didn’t go away.

As soon as I was able, I pulled into a parking lot and surveyed my car from back to front, looking under seats, opened the back, scratched my head.  Then the plaintive meowing started again—under the hood.  I struggled with the latch, lifted up the hood and a distressed bundle of kitten fur hurtled out at me, clinging all four little greasy paws to my shirt.  Unscathed except for greasy feet, this little two month old kitten had survived a 50 mile per hour ride for 20 minutes, including several turns and stops.  He immediately crawled up to my shoulder, settled in by my ear, and began to purr.  I contemplated showing up at a meeting at work with a kitten and grease marks all over me vs. heading back home with my newly portable neck warmer.  I opted to call in with the excuse “my cat hitchhiked to work with me this morning and is thumbing for a ride back home” and headed back down the road to take him back to the barn where he belongs.

At that point, my meeting at work was already over so I dawdled in the barn before heading back down the road.   I noticed the Haflinger horses had broken through our electric wire fencing into a more inviting adjacent field so I wandered out to check fence line.   The hot wire must have been shorting out somewhere in the pasture.  As I approached the fence, I heard numerous snaps and pops that I interpreted as hot wire shorting out in the dry grass and weeds, creating a potential fire hazard with the winds whipping up.  I could hear snaps all up and down the fenceline, but could not see sparks to lead me to the problem spot.

As I studied the wire, I heard a little “snap” and a tiny seed pod burst open in front of my eyes, scattering its contents very effectively on the ground below.  It was dried common vetch seed pods that were snapping and popping, not hot wire shorting out.  They were literally exploding all up and down the fenceline in a symphony of seed release.  Not a spark to be seen — at least not of the electrical variety — only botanical.

So I learned practical advice to be content on a hot day on the farm:

Remember to bang on my car hood before I start the ignition, cats do have nine lives, keep the hotwire hot to keep the horses where they belong,  and especially, vetch doesn’t start wildfires, but explodes wildly in its noisy reproductive cycle.  If vetch can find ecstasy on a hot day, so can we all.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Prepare for Joy: The Depth of Our Wounds

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The first time I saw him it was just a flash of gray ringed tail
disappearing into autumn night mist as I opened the back door
to pour kibble into the empty cat dish on the porch: another
stray cat among many who visit the farm. A few stay.

So he did, keeping a distance in the shadows under the trees,
a gray tabby with white nose and bib, serious yet skittish,
watching me as I moved about feeding dogs, cats, birds, horses,
creeping to the cat dish only when the others drifted away.

There was something in the way he held his head,
an oddly forward ear; a stilted swivel of the neck.
I startled him one day as he ate his fill at the dish. He ran,
the back of his head flashing red, scalp completely gone.

Not oozing, nor something new, but recent. A nearly mortal scar
from an encounter with coyote, or eagle or bobcat.
This cat thrived despite trauma and pain, tissue still raw, trying to heal.
He had chosen to live; life chose him.

My first thought was to trap him, to put him humanely to sleep
to end his suffering, in truth to end my distress at seeing him every day,
envisioning florid flesh even as he hunkered invisible in the shadowlands of the yard.
Yet the scar did not keep him from eating well or licking clean his pristine fur.

As much as I want to look away, to avoid confronting his mutilation,
I greet him from a distance, a nod to his maimed courage,
through wintry icy blasts and four foot snow, through spring rains and summer heat with flies,
his wounds unhealed, reminder of his inevitable fate.

I never will stroke that silky fur, or feel his burly purr, assuming he still knows how,
but will feed his daily fill, as he feeds my need to know:
a life so broken, each breath taken is sacred air,
the depth of wounds proof of how he bleeds.

 

…by his wounds you have been healed.
1Peter 2:24b