A Simple Majesty

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chestnut Tree Blooming
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chestnut Tree Blooming

 

 

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The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers 
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away, 
The doors clap to, the pane is blind with showers. 
Pass me the can, lad; there’s an end of May..

…The troubles of our proud and angry dust 
Are from eternity, and shall not fail. 
Bear them we can, and if we can we must. 
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale. 
~A. E. Houseman

 

 

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Yet in the soft–hung leaves a splendour lies,

As though not from the far–off noon it came

But in themselves a green indwelling flame

Were prisoned. Here unanswered mysteries

Content me, and of peace I want not more,

But feed on thoughts that end

In a sweet pause of mind,

As if from my own being back resigned

To the universal essence of Earth’s core,

Where over me the saps of life ascend. 

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Because you are
only
a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.
~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground”

 

 

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Each May the horse chestnut tree in our front yard transforms for a week into a Renoir painting.   It explodes into hundreds of bright clusters of delicate orchid-like blossoms, forming cone shaped floral candles illuminating the spreading branches.  However, its setting is more peasant than romantic, as the tree stands in common company between a pine tree and a poplar lining the rural driveway into our barnyard.  This is an exceedingly humble spot for a tree bedecked with such majestic lighting, its tender broad leafed branches brushed and broken by passing hay wagons and shavings trucks.

Although its graceful beauty seems more appropriate along the Seine River,  during the summer it fits perfectly in its spot near our haybarn.  Its verdant foliage provides deep cooling shade during hot sweaty days.    The branches that were once lit up with scores of pink and white blossoms become leafy respite for a dusty hay crew gulping lemonade in between loads.   Horses snooze in the paddocks under its shadow.   Birds nest well hidden.   The tree becomes sanctuary within and below.

By fall, the tree forms its fruit within unpretentious capsules covered with spines and prickles, visually spiked yet actually soft and pliable.  There are few natural things  so plain and homely as the buckeye horse chestnut husk.   These are shed by the hundreds  in autumn wind and rainstorms, and they shower down, cobbling the driveway, eventually to break apart underfoot.

Only by leaving the tree can the deep brown nut be revealed from its hiding place, its richness exposed.    From exquisite bloom to shady haven to prickly husk to mahogany harvest,  this chestnut tree’s changing palette needs no canvas, no frame, no museum gallery showcase.  Instead it’s a year round exhibition is for free,  right in our front yard.

 

 

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Earth Day Lament

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More often than not, I’m still groggy every morning when I step out the front door onto the porch to make my way down the gravel driveway to fetch the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat (as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and an average of 3 additional stray cats), predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….um, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat.  Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  The welcome mat is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

 

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So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff.  Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals.   Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction.  These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its  two stomachs for a number of hours.  Bird barf.   It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the  dozens to local schools) are great teaching material.  It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good.  There is fur and there are feathers.  Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn.  Owl litter.  There should be a law.

 

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Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing.  The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak–like part of a tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a  Haflinger represents on earth.

 

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This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of  grass/hay/silage to chew it  again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure.   If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously.   So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen?  Probably as many as purple cows.  I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.

In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need,  can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot.  Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 40 years.  Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind what they don’t want or need.

I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing.  I can go green and just might save on the grocery bill.

 

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Everything is Poised

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Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.
~Stuart Kestenbaum “April Prayer”

 

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The buds have been poised for weeks
and then, as if responding to the Conductor’s downstroke,
let go of all their pent up potential~
exploding with harmonious energy
enough to carry them all the way to autumn
when again they let go
and are gone with the wind.

 

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A Handful of Dust

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April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain…

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

~T.S.Eliot from “The Wasteland”

 

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We do not want to think of ourselves as the dust we were and the dust we will become.  We are living fully right now; we cast shadows before and behind us depending on the time of day and time of life, mere ephemeral reflections of our presence on earth.

Yet the dust we were and the dust we become is as fearful a thing as our transient shadow.

Dust so cruel~
it reminds us
of what could have been,
how life once rose miraculous
from the dead.

We are nothing but a handful of dust…
until the Creator lifts us up in the palm of His hand, and blows on us.
We breathe and pulse and weep and bleed.

We become more than mere shadow.

We are His, part of his Hand, breath of His breath.

 

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What’s a Heaven For?

 

each of us has known the pleasure
of spring, the way it feels for something closed

to open: the soft, heavenly weather of arrival.
~Faith Shearin from “Geese”

 

 

This welcome and painful season of opening and emptying:
from cloistered tight
to reaching beyond our grasp.
Or what’s a heaven for?

 

 

Tree Secrets

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Of winter’s lifeless world each tree
Now seems a perfect part;
Yet each one holds summer’s secret
Deep down within its heart.
~ Charles G. Stater

 

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Enduring the dark and quiet winter months, the trees appear to doze deep while standing stark naked against the sky, roused only by the whipping of the winds and when breaking under a heavy coat of ice.

It is uneasy sleep.

When I look close now, I can tell:
they conceal summer secrets under their skin, the sap flows thick and sluggish, there is a barely palpable pulse in those branches.

A heart pumps within, readying.

 

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In the Family of Things

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snowgeese in Whatcom County = photo by Chris Lovegren

 

…Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~Mary Oliver from “Wild Geese”

 

 

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snow geese in Whatcom County – photo by Chris Lovegren

 

Snow geese are populating the Skagit valley and farm land, as numerous as the scores of colorful tulips which soon will fill nearby fields.  The din of the flocks as they land and feed, then rise again in the air is astounding: a symphony of honks and hollers carried from one goose family to another in a ruckus of joyful abandon.

The Skagit flats become the New York City of snow geese for a few weeks, never sleeping.

Over the past few years, more snow geese wander up north closer to home here in Whatcom County to pepper our surrounding dormant cornfields like salt,  sprinkled half a dozen here and there across the Nooksack river valley.  When there are only a few together, their calling seems so melancholy, almost a disconsolate cry of abandonment carrying over the lonely countryside.

So too am I ensconced away from the clamorous masses,  preferring always to be part of an out-of-the-way rural landscape.  There may be moments of melancholy, to be sure.  Yet here,  as nowhere else, I know my place in the family of things —  of gray clouds, owl hoots, swampy wetlands, frog choruses, orange sunsets, pink sunrises, warm pony muzzles, budding snowdrops, and steaming manure piles.

I give myself up to wild abandon in a world offering itself up to my imagination instead of leaving nothing to the imagination.

Let the cities clamor and clang in their excitement.  They do just fine without me.
Instead I celebrate the relative silence that allows me to seek words to fit the music singing in my soul.

 

Some of  you who may remember a fictional story about a snow goose helping to lead the evacuation of Dunkirk in WWII – here is the link to the original story