(And wait to watch the water clear, I may): I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young, It totters when she licks it with her tongue. I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too. ~Robert Frost “The Pasture”
We all need an invitation to work together about now. In these times when it feels like everything is going to hell in a handbasket, we all have some picking up and cleaning and clearing to do — and we can accomplish more if we do it side by side.
The world is continually trying to renew itself despite our attempts to destroy it so we need to pay attention. The air and water can clear if we put in some effort, there is new life all around us ready to thrive if we tend it lovingly like a mother.
Come with me to do what needs to be done. You are invited. We sha’n’t be gone long.
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The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows. My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make. ~Robert Frost in “Mowing”
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.
A scent of ripeness from over a wall. And come to leave the routine road And look for what had made me stall, There sure enough was an apple tree That had eased itself of its summer load, And of all but its trivial foliage free, Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan. For there had been an apple fall As complete as the apple had given man. The ground was one circle of solid red.
May something go always unharvested! May much stay out of our stated plan, Apples or something forgotten and left, So smelling their sweetness would be no theft. ~Robert Frost “Unharvested”
Our trees are heavy-laden — the dropping fruit thuds to the ground with such finality, it wakes me in the night and reminds me how far I’ve fallen.
“Fall” is just that: nothing will remain as it was. Autumn replays our desire for an apple that smelled so sweet, tempted with shiny sheen and lured with such color that we fell hard and fast for just one taste.
We ignored the worm hole.
And ended up in a hole ourselves, unharvested, hoping one day for the sweetness to return.
Brushy fencerows are in a sense a gift from man to nature — at least if, after the posts are dug in and the fence stapled to the posts, nature is given some free reign. Birds sitting on the fence and posts will pass undigested seeds in their droppings. Some of these seeds of blackberry, wild cherry, elderberry, bittersweet, sassafras, mulberry, and unfortunately, in some areas, multiflora rose, will take root in the loose soil around the posts and later in soil dug up by woodchucks. Chipmunks scurrying along the fence will bring and bury acorns and hickory nuts, while the wind will deliver dandelion, milkweed, and thistle seeds — all ingredients for a healthy fencerow. ~David Kline from Great Possessions
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence.
He will not go behind his father’s saying, And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
~Robert Frost from “Mending Fences”
I maintain, in my haphazard and often ineffectual way, our farm’s wood rail and hot wire fences to keep the horses confined, preventing them from wandering into the adjacent orchard, corn field, or most risky of all, the road. As utilitarian as a fence is for that purpose, the fence row itself is the hospitality center for all sorts of diversity of flora and fauna. It doesn’t repel; it invites.
As one travels in the United Kingdom and across the plains and mountains of North America, old fences are everywhere. Some fences were built painstakingly of stone centuries ago, some of old barbed wire, now falling and decrepit, no longer effective, but still testimony to a determined farmer’s desire to section off his barren land from another’s barren land, or perhaps the requirement borne of the homesteading laws of the time. Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Mending Fences” that a fence spans the balance between man’s sometimes irrational desire for barriers, acknowledging the order that they bring to an uncertain and sometimes unpredictable world that lays beyond our walls.
Political fences continue to exist in many parts of the world today, created primarily out of fear. Indeed, new walls have been proposed, absurdly ridiculous in their scope and expense. Much celebration accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall after its years of imposing testimony to the lack of trust and understanding between people who were once relatives, neighbors and friends. The Great Wall of China still stands, now primarily tourist attraction, no longer serving any other useful purpose other than to illustrate the lengths to which man goes to barricade himself off from others.
So why maintain life’s fences, even if the building and maintaining of these fences seems a futile and foolish task when they are pushed down, blown over in the winds, with trees fallen over them, and overgrown with brush and wild blackberries?
Fences, like rules and laws, define order and structure. They can bite back if they are breached. If crashed and broken, they are hazardous in and of themselves, not withstanding the potential dangers that lay beyond them. Remove them altogether and we risk losing the diversity represented in the fence row itself.
So, in the best of times, we are mending walls out of continuing need for contact with our neighbors. We meet across the barriers to shake hands and visit while we repair the fences together, leaving the barriers standing and strong, and the space in the fence row becomes even more diverse and welcoming. In the worst of times, we fortify and hide behind the walls, making them taller, wider, deeper, creating greater and greater gulfs between us and eventually losing touch forever as the walls themselves deteriorate without the necessary mutual “mending”.
So we must not love walls themselves, but must maintain them with our neighbor. We don’t worship the walls themselves but instead respect the foundation they rest on and the life they protect within the row itself.
We accept such boundaries with humility, recognizing their necessity is due to our own imperfections, as we too are full of prickles and barbs that too easily draw blood when breached.
Well-away and be it so,
To the stranger let them go.
Even cheerfully I yield
Pasture, orchard, mowing-field,
Yea and wish him all the gain
I required of them in vain.
Yea and I can yield him house,
Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse
To dispute possession of.
These I can unlearn to love.
Since I cannot help it? Good!
Only be it understood, It shall be no trespassing If I come again some spring In the grey disguise of years, Seeking ache of memory here. ~Robert Frost from “On the Sale of My Farm”
From the road, each of the small farms where I grew up look nothing like they did in my childhood. When I drive past now, the outbuildings are changed and unfamiliar, fences pulled down, the trees exponentially taller, the fields no longer well-tended. Instead the familiarity is in the road to get there, the lean into the curves, the acceleration in and out of dips, the landscape which triggers a comfort and disquiet deep in my cells.
I have never stopped to knock; instead I drive slowly past to sense if I feel what I used to feel in these places.
One clinic day, I glanced at the home address of a young man I was about to see and realized he now lived in my childhood home. When I greeted him I told him we had something in common: we had grown up under the same roof, inside the same walls, though children of different generations. He was curious but skeptical — how could this gray-haired middle aged woman know anything about his home? He told me a bit about the house, the barn, the fields, the garden and how he experienced it felt altogether strange to me. He and I had shared nothing but a patch of real estate.
I worry for the fearsome ache if someday, due to age or finances, we must sell our current farm ~ this beloved place our children were raised, animals bred and cared for, plants tended and soil turned over. It will remain on the map surely as the other two farms of my past, visible as we pass by slowly on the road, but primarily alive in the words I have harvested here, that sweet ache of seeking it out on the map of my memory.
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf, So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day Nothing gold can stay. ~Robert Frost “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.” ~S.E. Hinton from The Outsiders
Man’s innocence was lost
the moment we chose
knowledge over obedience.
The gold in our creation
sinks to grief as
we make the same mistakes
again and again;
each dawn reenacts our beginnings
and each winter our endings.
Our only salvage is a rescue
borne of selflessness,
an obedience beyond imagining.
He stays gold for us
so we are illuminated.