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.
It has felt like summer this past week – temperatures in the high 80’s, and a humidity that is oppressive. Bowie and the sheep lie very still in the shadiest spots they can find, and gardening tasks require frequent breaks to hydrate and allow one’s shirt to dry. Weeds seem to spring up the moment the beds have been cleared, and all the tulips and daffodils droop, their brilliant colors faded and tired out. The air is heavy with the scent of sweet lilacs, but even they look to be on the verge of glory spent.
But the green is as green as can be, it is lush and varied, intense and soothing. It seems hard to believe that just a few weeks ago all was brown and grey; and, just a few weeks before that, snow was still on the ground. Grey rainclouds are scudding up our valley as I sit here on the porch, taking in the hills and pastures. The cornfield below our bottom pasture has just been plowed and seeded; before long that, too, will be green with growth.
The Carrying by Ada Limón
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees that really gets to me. When all the shock of white and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath, the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin growing over whatever winter did to us, a return to the strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then, I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
“The more one gardens, the more one learns; And the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.” ~ Vita Sackville West
I feel as though I need to have the above tattooed across the inside of my arm, visible every time I head out with my gardening bucket of supplies, my head filled with grand ideas about what to plant and how.
This year, all the tomato plants and half the flowers I tried to grow from seed were non starters – not even the the tiniest of green shoots have emerged. The kale seems rather listless compared to what had grown by this time last Spring, and so are the radishes and beets. True, Spring was late to come, but I am disappointed. I had counted on my experiences from last year to guarantee a better outcome; surely I had learned all I needed to know in order to ensure success this year? Apparently not, going by what Vita said…
“The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied…No gardener would be a gardener if he did not live in hope.” ~ Vita Sackville West
And so this morning I will stop by various garden centers in search of optimism and hope; seedlings grown elsewhere (i.e. by more practiced gardeners) will take the place of my sorry lot. I will humble myself by sharing my unhappy experience with the aim of learning what went wrong, then file away that knowledge for the Spring to come.
Once home, I will clear away the disasters in the greenhouse. I’ll add more compost, re-aerate the soil, plant, and water. Then, I can return to the rest of the garden, to water, weed, and plot my next move. After all, as Vita said:
‘There is always something else to do. A gardener should have nine times as many lives as a cat.” ~ Vita Sackville West
The CDC has lifted mask requirements, and here in rural upstate New York, Trump country, we’ve started noticing lots of folks now happily doing just that: happily wandering around in public spaces, mask free. This, after it took all kinds of mandates and very visible notices to get folks to wear masks (properly) in the first place. We’ve been vaccinated, as has every person in our little social circle. But, surprise surprise, most of the people who live in these parts do not believe in the Covid vaccine. So…here we are, back to square one again.
On a recent episode of The New Yorker Radio Hour, Drs. Atul Gawande and Siddhartha Mukherjee discussed this state of affairs, and were distressed about what the effects of this proportion of non-vaccine inclined Americans would have on the eventual desired outcome for all of us: a Covid free nation. They, along with host David Remnink, circled back to the idea of public service and patriotism: why couldn’t a country that puts so much weight on the idea of patriotism and flag waving, get behind the idea of vaccination as a patriotic duty of every American citizen?
Mulling over the issues raised in the podcast, I thought about the larger community in which I live, where the prevailing notion is very much us vs. them: liberal vs. redneck (Trumpian) conservative, recently moved here from cities vs. always been here. That kind of compartmentalization makes us destined to move around always worried about who has been vaccinated and who has not. And, in that spirit I offer this poem for Poetry Friday:
Where We Are Headed ~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
At first we just say flower. How thrilling it is to name. Then it’s aster. Begonia. Chrysanthemum.
We spend our childhood learning to separate one thing from another. Daffodil. Edelweiss. Fern. We learn
which have five petals, which have six. We say, “This is a gladiolus, this hyacinth.” And we fracture the world into separate
identities. Iris. Jasmine. Lavender. Divorcing the world into singular bits. And then, when we know how to tell
one thing from another, perhaps at last we feel the tug to see not what makes things different, but
what makes things the same. Perhaps we feel the pleasure that comes when we start to blur the lines—
and once again everything is flower, and by everything, I mean everything.