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.


The Rhythm of Furrowed Ground

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Well I know now the feel of dirt under the nails,
I know now the rhythm of furrowed ground under foot,
I have learned the sounds to listen for in the dusk,
the dawning and the noon.

I have held cornfields in the palm of my hand,
I have let the swaying wheat and rye run through my fingers,
I have learned when to be glad for sunlight and for sudden
thaw and for rain.

I know now what weariness is when the mind stops
and night is a dark blanket of peace and forgetting
and the morning breaks to the same ritual and the same
demands and the silence.
~Jane Tyson Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

 

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Our garden is over-producing so we freeze and dehydrate and give away and compost what we cannot eat now.  It is a race to the finish before the first killing frost in less than a month.

Carrying dirt under fingernails is a badge of honor for the gardener.  The soil that clings to our boots and our skin represents rhythm and ritual in every move we make – we know what is expected of us when we rise first thing in the morning and later as we settle weary under a blanket at night.

May there ever be such good work as we rise in anticipation every morning.
May there ever be such good rest as we sleep in peace, forgetting the demands of the new day.

 

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“Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

 

 

Dusty

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God – the God who made the dust,
who made the stars,
who made the elements of which we are composed –
that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us,
to live for all time like us, as a servant of the soil.

I am the dust of the earth,
but God declares that he is not too good,
not too proud,
for my dustiness.

~Daniel J. Stulac from Plough Quarterly No. 4: Earth

 

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What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” 
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

 

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This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell its significance.

Only the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored
can breathe glory
into the plainest of ash.

And I am plainest of the plain.

 

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Overrun By Weed Creep

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…all I know is that we must cultivate our garden…
~Voltaire from Candide

 

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This year, once again, we’re late getting our garden in — there have been too many other things happening in our work and home life to even think about getting the garden in.  Starting a garden in June is not something I recommend to anyone.  It requires bushwhacking to make a suitable bed for the seeds.

Thankfully, my now newly retired husband — normally part-time farmer now full-time — was up to the job.

The weeds, never discouraged by cool rainy weather, have instead been emphatically encouraged. They grow with exuberance, happily seeding themselves, thank you very much. The garden plot had become a veritable forest to contend with before the soil could be prepared for seeding.

My husband set to work on the jungle on hands and knees, digging into the turf of weeds, loosening their grip, pulling them out, shaking off the clinging clumps of dirt from their roots and turning over fresh soil to dry in the sun under a fresh dressing of warm composted manure.  Along with creating multiple trenches for our vegetable seeds and starts, we planted prayers that there was still enough time left in the growing season to actually bear a harvest.

I admit there are plenty of times my life feels like our neglected garden plot.  If not kept tended, if not exposed to enough warmth and light, if not fertilized with the steaming loam from a well-composted manure pile, if not kept clear of the unwanted weeds that take hold and grow no matter what the weather conditions, there can be no harvest of value whatsoever.  I will accomplish nothing other than sustaining self-sowing weeds for the next generation to battle.

I leave behind a life unrecognizable as a source of nurture as it is overrun by weed creep.

Each year we’re determined to do better but we know we’re running out of time and gardening seasons. It isn’t just the resultant sore back and dirty fingernails that serve as reminders of the hard work of tending one’s life like one’s soil.  It is that burst of sweetness that comes from eating the first fresh peas, the sharp tang of a radish straight from the ground, the bowl of greens unsullied by chemicals, the onions, potatoes and squash stored away in the root cellar for winter consumption.

Most of all, it is the satisfaction of knowing we accomplished something wonderful with our own hands — guided gently by the ultimate Gardener who won’t allow a few weeds to overrun us.

 

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Green and Glorious

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I wished to wade in the trillium
and be warmed near the white flames.
I imagined the arch of my foot
massaged by the mosses.
This field immersed in gravity
defying growth.  Green and glorious.
It let me know that out of the
soil came I, and green I shall be.
Whether an unnamed weed or a
wild strawberry I will join in
the hymn.
~Luci Shaw from “Spring Song, Very Early Morning”

 

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Spring is finally in full swing here on the farm.  Grass grows so fast that mowing could be a twice a week activity,  dandelions are dotting the fields in a yellow carpet, the flowering plums and cherries are peaking, the daffodils are spent and the tulips are bursting forth.

 

The koi and goldfish in our pond have decided to surface from underneath all the winter debris and have grown to another 6 inches over the winter and now are busy feasting on mosquito larvae as the insects have awakened as well.   At times I feel so overwhelmed by the accelerated pace of growth and activity that I sheepishly long for the dark quiet gray days of winter, if just for the respite of a nap.

Instead of a nap, I hunt for trillium.  They are the traditional harbinger of spring and without them, it all seems like just so much pretending.  These are somber plants that will only grow in certain conditions of woods and shade, with leafy mulched soil.  Once established, they reliably spring up from their bulbs every spring with their rich green trio of leaves on each stem that are at once soft and slightly shimmery, and at the top the purest of three white petals, one per leaf cluster.  The blossoms last a week or two, then turn purplish and fade away, followed weeks later by the fading of the foliage, not to arise again from the soil until the following year. 

 

Picking a trillium blossom necessitates picking the leaf foliage beneath it, and that in turn destroys the bulb’s ability to nourish and regenerate, and the plant never forms again.  I think I have known this from my earliest childhood days as I was a compulsive wildflower gatherer as a little kid, having devastated more than my share of trillium bulbs until I learned the awful truth of the damage I had done.  I have since treated them as sacrosanct and untouchable.

There are trillium blossoms to be found on our farm, a few steadfast survivors, yet completely vulnerable to someone’s impulse to bring the beauty indoors for a few days in a vase.  What a tenuous grip on life when people are desiring to pluck them, with their resulting oblivion. How unknowingly destructive we are in our blind selfish pursuit of beauty for our own pleasure and purposes.  These pure triad blossoms and leaves, representing all that is preciously drawn from the earth and enriched and nourished by sunlight, can be obliterated, never to return, never to bloom, never to rise again from the dust to be green and glorious.

How much more precious is that which rises again to bloom and flourish forever despite our senseless destructiveness?  And He is here, among us, waiting for us, forgiving us for our thoughtless actions.

I look at the trillium longingly, wanting to touch them, wanting to own them and hold them, and knowing I never will.  They are meant to stay where they are, as I hope to remain, rooted and thriving, yet still fragile in the everlasting soil of life.

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Sprout Boldly

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Some of us . . . are darkness-lovers.
We do not dislike the early and late daylight of June,
but we cherish the gradually increasing dark of November,
which we wrap around ourselves in the prosperous warmth
of woodstove, oil, electric blanket, storm window, and insulation.

We are partly tuber, partly bear.
Inside our warmth we fold ourselves
in the dark and its cold –
around us, outside us,
safely away from us;
we tuck ourselves up
in the long sleep
and comfort of cold’s opposite,
warming ourselves
by thought of the cold,
lighting ourselves by darkness’s idea.
~Donald Hall from “Season at Eagle Pond”

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I confess
loving the dark as much as light.
Drawn without alarm clock
away from my pillow,
I awake early
covered in inky blackness
of unlit January mornings.

An uncharted day
before sunrise,
so raw with ripening,
belongs to no one else
until the light comes
to force me forth.
Only from darkness do I
sprout so boldly.

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As the Worm Turneth

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Photo by Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon–University of Idaho 2005

 

My mother told many stories about growing up on a wheat farm in the rolling fertile Palouse hills of eastern Washington state during the Great Depression years.  One was about the fabled Giant Palouse Earthworm, said to inhabit the deep soil of those lonely farms, and occasionally surfacing during cultivation with the horse drawn equipment.

This was no ordinary worm;  this cream colored invertebrate, first described by a zoologist in 1897, could grow up to 3 feet long.  It could move quickly through the loose topsoil, burrowing deep when threatened.  When it was turned up to the sunlight by the plowshare,  all work would cease in the marvel of  such a hidden creature.  This worm smelled like the essence of lilies but when handled, it defended itself through a release of fluid from its jawless mouth–the old farmers said it could “spit” a yard away.

I believed this was yet another of my mother’s “mythical” stories of life on the wheat farm and considered the “Giant Worm” a  fairy tale sharing shelf space with Pegasus,  dragons and centaurs, the stuff of Gary Larsen and “The Far Side”.

However, the Worm turneth “real”.  It actually does exist…we think.

The last time a scientist (University of Idaho) found a Giant Palouse Worm was in 2010.  There have only been a few sightings because the worm can move faster than a shovel, easily detecting the vibrations of humans disturbing the soil. So it has remained elusive, or more likely, adversely impacted due to intensive agricultural practices of the last century.  Environmental conservationists asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to institute protections for the Worm by declaring it an endangered species but it was denied such status.   Somehow the Federal Government is not eager to put resources into a Worm that prefers to stay 15 feet under. Perhaps the Worm shall one day have its day in court.

Actually this modern fable is only partially about saving a fantastical Worm that no one can find; it is also about ever-present environmental battling for preservation of land in its natural state versus development–even modern agricultural development in some of the most fertile soil in the world.  Scientists have put electric shock waves into the ground in an effort to drive the Worms to the surface so we have actual specimens to study and admire and then to call truly endangered.   If I was being shocked out of my comfy little dirt home, I think I’d dig deeper, rather than rise to the surface for poking, prodding,  and photo ops.   And I’d certainly feel like spitting.

I want to believe there must be a whole vital civilization of Giant Worms way down deep, dancing the night away in lily perfume and laughing at all the antics up under the sun.    Some day they’ll rise to make their grand appearance, and like a cross between protected prairie dog towns and a child’s bedroom ant farm, humans in all our wisdom and protective instincts might create Giant Palouse Worm colonies in the soil with underground viewing chambers.

Then we can stare at the underground cream colored marvels, and they can stare… and spit… back at us.

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