I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.
O hushed October morning mild, Thy leaves have ripened to the fall; Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild, Should waste them all. The crows above the forest call; Tomorrow they may form and go. O hushed October morning mild, Begin the hours of this day slow. Make the day seem to us less brief. Hearts not averse to being beguiled, Beguile us in the way you know. Release one leaf at break of day; At noon release another leaf; One from our trees, one far away. Retard the sun with gentle mist; Enchant the land with amethyst. Slow, slow! For the grapes’ sake, if they were all, Whose leaves already are burnt with frost, Whose clustered fruit must else be lost— For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
~ Robert Frost
The first weeks of October are so lovely here in upstate New York. The day begins and ends with a bracing chill, but the hours in between are still warm enough to warrant little more than a flannel shirt. The grass is still green, but leaves everywhere have shed their greenness in favor of yellows, russets, and reds: Nature’s final burst of color. Leaves float to the ground all day, and some trees are already bare.
Frost’s poem speaks to my longing for Fall to tarry just a bit, to let those yellows, russets, and reds hold on to their trees perhaps a day longer than planned…slow! slow!
Now’s a good time, before the night comes on, To praise the loyalty of the vase of flowers Gracing the parlor table, and the bowl of oranges, And the book with freckled pages resting on the tablecloth. To remark how these items aren’t conspiring To pack their bags and move to a place Where stillness appears to more advantage. No plan for a heaven above, beyond, or within, Whose ever-blooming bushes are rustling In a sea breeze at this very moment. These things are focusing all their attention On holding fast as time washes around them. The flowers in the vase won’t come again. The page of the book beside it, the edge turned down, Will never be read again for the first time. The light from the window’s angled. The sun’s moving on. That’s why the people Who live in the house are missing. They’re all outside enjoying the light that’s left them. Lucky for them to find when they return These silent things just as they were. Night’s coming on and they haven’t been frightened off. They haven’t once dreamed of going anywhere.
On this first day of October, I pause at these September photographs, the last gifts of my Summer garden. The sun is moving on here in the North Country, where the sun dips away into the horizon at an unsettlingly early hour by the day.
I find myself holding fast to the season past: the stray flower still in bloom, the rosemary bush straining to keep going. And then my eye catches the sumac trees here and there on our pasture lines, crimson now. The tree under which I usually park at the grocery store is beginning to look like a ripening apple – less green than shades of almost red. The maple tree in our front yard shows signs of gold. And the hostas have lost that last violet bloom – they hang their heads now, spent and ready for winter’s rest. I understand that, I feel the same way.
I love summer, but every season has its gifts, and I am forward looking to what Fall offers.
The Battenkill River wends its way from Vermont to just south of Saratoga, where it feeds into the Hudson River. In our neck of the woods, it is often visible from the road and open for kayaking and swimming at various points along the way. Over the years, the river has been part of our life, a favorite source of comfort in those sweltering summer months.
This Saturday, Scott and I joined other volunteers in the annual Fall cleanup effort. It’s been a very wet Summer, and the river has been running high and fast; it’s also been a busy Summer, and though we’ve meant to throw our kayaks in the truck and head out for some river time on many a weekend, farm chores and weather conditions seem to have got in the way. So, the clean up was the perfect opportunity to get back on the river one last time.
We had the perfect day: blue skies, and quite warm for this time in September. As we set off to comb the riverbank for whatever trash we could find, I could tell that the current was very strong. Rainstorms had brought down quite a few trees, which had to be carefully maneuvered around or under; the put in and pull off points I could previously recognize were now under water, and the river itself seemed vaguely unfamiliar. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be back and I gave myself into the experience of being on the water.
Pretty soon after we’d begun, and perhaps because the mission of the moment (cleanup) was forgotten for the sheer pleasure of the moment, I found myself ahead of the group. A grey heron seemed to shadow my journey, soaring over the river from one hiding place on to the next. There were families of ducks, of course, flitting from one cove to another and taking off in flight and skimming back. At one point, I spotted a pair of deer grazing in the woods, utterly oblivious to the sound of my paddle dipping through the water.
At some point, I realized that I was too far ahead of everyone for comfort. I had passed under Route 22, the usual pull off point, but had not seen the small beach and path up to the roadway. The river had picked up speed as it came around a sharp bend, where I saw several soda cans caught in the branches of a downed tree. As I was reaching out with my paddle to extricate them, it was ripped right out my grasp, and GONE in a flash.
Up a creek and without a paddle, literally, I pulled myself up to the bank, wedged the kayak into some suitable tree roots, and sent my location pin off to my husband Scott, hoping that he’d manage to somehow find me.
Before long, it became clear that no one would be able to find me as long as I hung out by the river, kayakless, paddleless, and also running of power on my phone. It must have been that thought which gave me the adrenalin I needed to somehow clamber up the vertical incline and onto safer ground. Any relief I might have felt at being able to do so evaporated at the sight of the cornfield that stretched before me. Now what?! One end seemed to end by woods, so I took the other and prayed that it was the right call, which it was, thankfully.
Unfortunately, I now needed to walk up the two other sides of the cornfield if I was to ever find another living soul who could point me homewards. Still clutching my life vest, and still sopping wet from the waist down, I trekked past more corn than I have ever been so up and personal with. At last, the field gave way to an enormous barn full of dairy cows, eyeing me with placid curiosity as I trudged on to the farmhouse I hope existed beyond.
It did. The farmer was so kind and sympathetic, and he didn’t laugh. I used the last 1% of my phone’s charge to call Scott with a more precise location than “somewhere on the riverbank”. Scott before too long, smirking at first and then right out loud laughing.
I was too tired to muster any shred of affronted dignity. It will be a long while before I kayak again, and then I intend to carry an extra paddle.
We’ve had lovely, clear nights as the moon waxed into its fullness. On nights like these, the valley lights up in a beautiful, mysterious way. All that is so familiar and predictable, and all that feels so known and safe, slides into something quite different.
I am always conscious of the fact that we have coyotes living in the woods around the farm. They are rarely heard during the daytime, unless a kit wanders too far from the pack, in which case the entire pack takes up a keening call so that the errant kiddo can find its way back to the den. However startling this may be, I find comfort in the sounds of tractors, sheep, and roosters that are also part of daylight soundscape.
On most nights, I rarely hear the coyotes as they prowl the valley and hunt. I know they are there, of course, and am grateful for the spotlights we have put up in strategic spots around the farm so that I can go about night time chores feeling (somewhat) safe.
As the moon reaches her fullness, some ancient instinct leads coyotes to howl in some sort of unified praise of moonlight. It’s a different sound, the kind of sound that sends shivers up my spine even when I’m in the house or barn; all of a sudden, I am conscious of how close really they are!
Before Bowie came to guard the farm, before I had a flock of sheep, I would listen from the comfort of my bed, and somehow manage to drift off into sleep. Not any more. Bowie answers each and every howl with her own bark of warning: you shall not pass this farm’s way. I may be in bed, but sleep is out of the question. I worry about Bowie, a lone guard dog against a pack of hungry coyotes. I worry about my sheep, hoping they have given up their favored sleeping place high up on the pastures for the greater safety of their pole barn. Not even the fact that our fences are secure can reassure me. Sleep is impossible.
And here I am, greeting this sunny day with bleary eyes, in need of a few hours of dark and quiet, and sleep. Bowie lies stretched out by the barn, sleeping off her long hours of patrolling and barking, while I go about farm chores with daydreams of napping at some point.
Yesterday was buggy and muggy in the extreme; the flock was miserable and there was little I could do make those nasty swarms of gnats and flies stay away. Then, it rained in torrents.
This morning, it feels clear and brisk. I walked the sheep up to the ridge line, where the pasture is fresh for the grazing. As they wandered off to make the most it, I scanned the valley beyond; any day now, the cornfield that stretches below will be cut down. All that green will give way to rows of gold, then grey and brown. Snowfall will blanket these fields for a long while, as well as these pastures, where my sheep so contentedly feast at the moment.
My thoughts swing back to the present – the cusp of Fall. Be present in the moment, I think to myself…and I am.
Lunch time has always been work time for me; I eat as I do things, and only so that I have the energy to continue to do things. In other words, I have neither the imagination nor the inclination for an actual sit-down-and-eat-with-friends kind of lunch time.
Last Thursday, however, I threw old habits to the wind, traded my barn clothes for an actual dress, and drove into the green Vermont mountains for lunch with my friends Caridad and Sally (who had kindly extended the invitation). We could not have had a lovelier day endless blue skies and miles and miles of every shade of green. Sissy’s Kitchen, our destination, was equally idyllic. We ate in the shade of magnificent hydrangeas and goat’s beard, and shared the stories that women do when in the company of like minded women.
Surrounded by all that beauty and the fellowship of my friends as I was, it still took a while to let go of the notion that what I really ought to be doing was one of a seventy five “to do’s” back at the farm. Old habits die hard. On the drive back, Sally pulled her car aside at a crook in the road just so that we could fully take in a valley of gold tipped corn nestled beneath a steep forest of pine trees. For those few moments, time stood blessedly still.
“But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also all the good attachments to that origin that we can keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.
The other dog—the one that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk—is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life. Such dogs can remind us of nothing large or noble or mysterious or lost. They cannot make us sweeter or more kind.
Only unleashed dogs can do that. They are a kind of poetry themselves when they are devoted not only to us but to the wet night, to the moon and the rabbit-smell in the grass and their own bodies leaping forward.” ― Mary Oliver, Dog Songs
There is a particular hour at dusk, just before the sky turns from deep shades of indigo into ink black, when I see a shift in Bowie. No longer is she content to lope around my feet as I go about farm chores, no longer is she interested in belly rubs or ear strokes, and no longer (quite frankly) is she interested in any of the two legged creatures still hanging about in her company.
Instead, she takes up her night time post – the one from which she can see the house, the barn, and both pastures – back erect, and eyes scanning up and down our farm. At a second’s notice, she can leap up and race to wherever she senses danger, her booming bark echoing down our valley and up into the hills beyond. Often, that is the last sight I have of Bowie at night: a lone white wolf, flying from one end of the pasture to the other, keeping steadfast watch over her sheep and her people, poetry in motion.
Somewhere in the grey depths of March, I sowed rows and rows of sunflower seeds in plastic trays with clear covers. I placed them where I could find sunlit windows, watered them a little, and watched hopefully as each lid bubbled with tiny drops of condensation. By April, shoots were clearly visible, and I moved the trays to the greenhouses behind the house, where they soon doubled in height.
The day after frost warnings were past, I planted my collection of sunflower plants all around the house and barns. All Summer they have towered into the sky, shouting their delight in her sunshine and warm weather. I brought them into the house, too, and sat them on window sills and tables, beside books and alongside summer vegetables from our farm and farms all around. Its never possible, I believe, to have too many sunflowers around.
All that sunflower jubilance, after all, is short lived.
This week, I’ve been going about the sad task of cutting down stalks and carting them off to the compost pile. I can’t bring myself to harvest the few blossoms that still remain, as joyous and open to the sunshine as ever – Summer’s last hurrah.
Saturday dawned bright and clear and dry – perfect for the task at hand: shearing the flock. It’s been such a rainy summer, that every one of them has a dirty fleece, even the little Romneys with their coats of chocolate and caramel.
Colin, the sheep whispering magician that he is, enticed and cajoled each reluctant sheep out of the pen and onto the shearing space without much ado. Afterwards, there was the usual “who the hell are you?” reacquainting out in the pasture; much head butting and shoving as each came to terms with their fleece-less appearance.
I’ve sold the last three shearings to Tammy White at Wing & A Prayer farm, mostly because I haven’t had the time or the dedicated space to devote to processing the wool myself. This time, I intend to hang on to a few and try my hand at this myself: washing, carding, and even spinning a few skeins for hand dyeing.
It is a most satisfying thing to watch as each fleece is sheared off to fall into a luxurious pile of crimp and curl. As I gather, label, and bag these gifts of the season, I can’t help but marvel at their beauty and reminisce over moments spent tending to each one of my flock as Spring became Summer, which has now edged towards Fall.
There was a seasonal routine to my past life as a teacher, too – a somewhat predictable structure around which to organize my new farming life. I’ve learned that structure and predictability are to be much appreciated in these uncertain and chaotic times.
Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale by Dan Albergotti
Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days. Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals. Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices. Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you. Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart. Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope, where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all the things you did and could have done. Remember treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
September is here and with it arrive the harbingers of Fall. All my summer blooms have given up the ghost, and their drooping, wilted presence is all I have to remember their summer glory. It’s cool enough in the mornings and late evenings to reach for a layer of flannel before heading out for farm chores. Sunset arrives earlier and earlier, which is always disorienting – there is so much more to pack into daylight hours. The shearer messaged me this morning, reminding me that tomorrow is shearing day. And the last a hundred and fifty bales of hay are due to be brought in for winter’s putting up today.
Having been “in the belly of the beast” this past summer, I feel myself emerging back into the rhythm of my life here at the farm. July’s journey to care for my mother, while her caregiver took a much needed break, was much more difficult than I’d imagined. It is hard to be unfailingly kind, patient, and forgiving with someone who has never shown those characteristics in return. Old wounds, ones which I thought fully healed, gaped open once more, and new one appeared. All of which goes to prove, I suppose, that no healing is ever complete when the wound cuts deep into one’s soul.
But, now the season begins to shift, and with it so do my spirits. A box filled with daffodils, tulips, and irises is due to arrive this afternoon. And the barn will be filled with sweet smelling hay by sunset. The days ahead will be filled with all the good work I love in the garden and among my flock. I listen to the sound of my heart, swallowed with all hope, and thankful that I am here.