I tried to paint the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat.
~Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to Paul Gauguin
There is nothing here but wheat, no blade too slight for his attention: long swaying brush strokes, pale greens, slithery yellows, the hopefulness of early spring. All grass is flesh, says the prophet. Here, there are no gorgeous azures stamped with almond blossoms, no screaming sky clawed with crows, no sunflowers roiling gold and orange, impasto thick as Midi sunlight. His brush herringboned up each stalk, the elemental concerns of sun, rain, dirt, while his scrim of pain receded into the underpainting. He let the wind play through the stems like a violin, turning the surface liquid, a sea of green, shifting eddies and currents. No sky, no horizon; the world as wheat.
~Barbara Crooker, “Ears of Wheat, 1890” from Les Fauves
I come from this – these green-ripening-to-amber wheat fields.
My mother was born nearly a century ago in a house built in a swale of these Palouse hills, where grain rose prolific each year from the soil. Her father used horses and harvester over hill and dale to bring in the wheat, and piled it high in the local elevator until the train could pick it up.
My grandfather, grandmother, uncle and my mother are no more, now but dust, yet this land continues to produce and yield without their help.
When I return for a visit, I listen for what Van Gogh must have heard and seen in his own fertile land: the sound of the wind in the ears of wheat, the grain moving in waves across the landscape, the complexity of color of each individual stalk blending together to become an unending carpet undulating over the earth.
Yet to really take it in and not be overwhelmed, (to get out of the weeds, so to speak), I go high on the butte to see the world as wheat from above. I then can imagine God’s own view of our grassy flesh which withers and fades away, as we shrivel in the sun and fall – yet the harvest of His Word endures forever.
It is looking at things for a long time that ripens and gives you a deeper understanding… Everything that is really good and beautiful, of inward moral, spiritual and sublime beauty, in human beings and in their works, comes from God. ~Vincent Van Gogh
I have a small grain of hope–
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.
I need more.
I break off a fragment
to send you.
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.
Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.
Only so, by division,
will hope increase,
like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source–
clumsy and earth-covered–
Last year my sister-in-law brought several paper bags full of iris roots resting quietly in clumps of dirt–dry misshaped feet and fingers crippled with potential. We were late getting them into the ground but their grace was forgiving. They took hold and transformed our little courtyard into a Van Gogh landscape. They will continue to gladden our hearts until we divide them someday to pass on their gift of beauty to another garden. This act– “by division, will hope increase”–feels radical yet that is exactly what God did in sending His Son to become earth-covered.
A part of God was broken off to put down roots, grow, thrive and be divided, over and over and over again to increase the beauty and grace for those of us limited to this soil. Our garden will bloom so all can see and know: hope lives here.
Recent rains have melted the potato vines flat to the ground, nearly indistinguishable from the dirt where they lie strung out and dead spider-like. It is time to dig before there is no trace left of where the potato harvest can be found. Weeds still thrive in the cooler autumn weather, green and strong, but the potato vines had given up several weeks ago, dying back as summer waned.
Armed with basket and pitchfork, I go to work, sinking the tines into the soil to loosen it, then lifting up gently to see what I might find underneath. From a waterfall of dirt tumbles smooth egg-size ovals of red and yellow and white. I pan the dirt with my fingers, sifting through the clumps to discover nuggets to brush off and set aside in the basket to take to storage in the root cellar.
Within each unearthed hill of potatoes rests the old mother “seed” potato, so fertile and firm, eagerly sprouting when planted only 4 months ago. I stumble upon her, noticing her vigorous nurture of multiple offspring, sometimes as many as twenty coming from one original planting. Occasionally I find her shrunken to only a dry floppy skin, her flesh spent and dispersed. More often she is still recognizable, though spongy and softened, wrinkled and withered by her immense effort to propagate. Most poignant are the hills where there is nothing left but residual gooeyness in the center. It adheres sticky to my palms as I unexpectedly grasp her glutinous remains, and it gums up deep under my fingernails.
The seed gives all of herself. As she must.
The new potatoes are spread on the drying shelves, color coded into gold, red and white, waiting in the dark root cellar to become a feast of dreams born of sun, rain and soil. I return to the kitchen to wash their dirt off my hands, scrubbing to remove what still clings to my skin. Even so, my fingernails stay hopelessly stained and brown, and I don’t mind.
Within my hands I will carry the memory of the mothers.