Spring is in the air…

We’ve experienced some of the coldest winter days over the last weeks of February and the first one of March. By this time of year, winter has lost its charms. Trudging out to the barn first thing on a bitter cold morning, carrying buckets of water because the pipes in the barn have frozen shut, and having to pick away at slabs of ice just to get the barn door open…well, this is just not an acceptable way to begin the day any more. But, Mother Nature seems to have a way of stepping up just when you most need her to, and suddenly the first signs of spring blow in and to lift one’s spirits and give one hope of warmer, greener days.

My winter gear felt just a bit too much during early morning chores, by midday I had lost most of it, and by early afternoon my flannel shirt and fleece vest were all I needed while hanging out with Bowie and the flock. Snow and ice was melting all over the farm, and the pastures and gardens began to slowly shed their winter wear as well. The crisp, almost antiseptic scent of winter began giving way to whiffs of sodden earth. Spring, at last, felt near.

This evening, I spread out packets of seeds I’d bought on a January evening when planting season was still in the distant future. Varieties of beets, kale, tomatoes, and blossoms of every color and height: the promise of this year’s garden bounty was the perfect sight.

A pandemic year…

(Photo above is of the Smith kids, gathered for a siblings’ June birthday, last year.)

In speaking with my youngest on her birthday, March 1st., she mentioned a poignant memory: she had gone out with friends for dinner and a late night out in their Brooklyn neighborhood. “That was the last time for eating out, being out…the day later, it was lockdown for Covid.”

The world turned upside down for all of us last March, but I feel it’s hit the young the hardest. The teenagers I taught at summer camp last year (masked and socially distant) were just beginning to feel the loneliness and isolation of distance learning and not being able to be with people their own age; my own kids faced the trials of living in small city apartments, and having to live and work within the same four walls, day and and out. Hovering over everything, of course, was the anxiety we all felt when we had to run those essential life errands from grocery shopping to a visit to the doctor.

Underlying all the conversations I have with my children, is a sense of reservation they have about looking toward the future, of making plans to change jobs, travel, fall in love. I can offer little new in terms of reassurance: vaccines are on their way, after all, and we will be able to return to whatever will be the “new normal”. Still, I wonder what the long term effects on our young will be, thanks to this pandemic year. The young, they say, are resilient.

We Look With Uncertainty – Anne Hillman

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

Snow moon

Our local nature conservancy sponsored a “snow moon hike” this past Saturday evening. It was the first time I’d ever heard this of this particular term for a full moon, and had to reach for the Old Farmer’s Almanac in order to learn the following:

“The explanation behind February’s full Moon name is a fairly straightforward one: it’s known as the Snow Moon due to the typically heavy snowfall that occurs in February. On average, February is the United States’ snowiest month, according to data from the National Weather Service. In the 1760s, Captain Jonathan Carver, who had visited with the Naudowessie (Dakota), wrote that the name used for this period was the Snow Moon, “because more snow commonly falls during this month than any other in the winter.” 

Saturday proved to be a day of grey clouds and sleet, but, having made plans with friends and not wanting to disappoint, Scott and I tossed our snow shoes into the boot of the car and set off and the pre-arranged time of six in the evening. Bringing the sheep back into the barn had been a messy business, and they were wet and grumpy. The same could be said of the barn cats and the farm dog, Bowie. My flannel-lined jeans were caked with mud here and there, and their cuffs were still sodden from their barn-chore time, and the sky showed few signs of ever clearing enough to catch even a glimpse of the moon, but we persevered.

Our hosts had created a path through their pasture and woods, and the path was lit by votive candles in little paper bags. Our little group trudged through the deep snow, pausing every now and then to take measure of the sky, still hung with clouds. The moon had begun its rise, evidence of which laced each cloud in shades of silver. Off in the distance we could hear owls hooting and the rush of wind through pine trees.

The resident farm dog greeted us at the end of the walk, and we followed him back to the ‘cheerful bonfire gaily blazing away in the pasture. We stood huddled around this much-needed warmth, sipping warm cider, and chatting quietly. Suddenly, someone called out, “There she goes…” and we all turned towards her as she cleared the last bank of clouds and began to rise.

She was absolutely stunning, this snow moon.

“Manna” by Joseph Stroud

On Friday, slipping and sliding through troughs of ice and snow while carrying bags of hay and buckets of hay, I decided that I was DONE with winter. Even mud season was more welcome.

Early on Saturday morning, however, I was mesmerized once again by the gifts winter brings:

Manna by Joseph Stroud

Everywhere, everywhere, snow sifting down,
a world becoming white, no more sounds,
no longer possible to find the heart of the day,
the sun is gone, the sky is nowhere, and of all
I wanted in life – so be it – whatever it is
that brought me here, chance, fortune, whatever
blessing each flake of snow is the hint of, I am
grateful, I bear witness, I hold out my arms,
palms up, I know it is impossible to hold
for long what we love of the world, but look
at me, is it foolish, shameful, arrogant to say this,
see how the snow drifts down, look how happy 
I am.

Soon enough, the landscape will be varieties of brown; pasture paths will be treacherous with muck and sludge; and the clean, crisp smell of winter will give way to earthier and less pleasant ones. For a long stretch of months, we will be once again awash in the seasons of color; winter’s stark whites and blacks, downy snow and biting cold, will recede from memory without any sense of regret or loss. After all, winter will be back here in the North Country before too long.

But, this one morning, I celebrate its manna once again.

Lilac trees in winter…

It’s a pity that lilacs, like peonies, bloom for such a short time, because I do love them so. Unlike peonies, which must be cut down at the end of their season, lilac trees keep their green leaves until the first frost, and their branches wear winter gifts with grace.

We first moved to the farm in summer, so the lilac trees here were past their bloom. Still, I recognized the remnants of their spring glory and worked hard to prune their overgrown and droopy branches that fall. Big mistake I learned later, for pruning their branches in the fall would sacrifice spring blooms. That was just one of the many gardening mistakes I made when I was first learning about what had been planted here once, and where.

Most of the lilac trees sit around the corner of one of the barns here, a stroke of gardening genius in my opinion, because their leaves and blooms contrast so beautifully with the regal red of the barn. And in winter, these branches take on such elegance while wearing ice and snow. It’s another one of the gifts this farm has yielded – beauty in unexpected places, and the time to pause and take note.

Jasper

The saying around these parts is that if one chooses to have livestock, sooner or later one will inevitably also have dead stock. Nevertheless, I did not anticipate actually having to confront the issue for some time yet, since the oldest member of my flock is only three years old. So, when Jasper, one of the Wenslydale twins I had bought from the set of quints born on Carole Foster’s farm, started to first show signs of being in trouble, I thought there would be time and opportunity enough to nurse him back to good health.

After all, Jasper was the true bellwether of the flock, even though it’s Auggie who wears the actual bell. Shy and skittish when he first arrived, he came into his own by the first winter at the farm: the first in line for everything from getting out of the barn, to getting to grain and hay. By this winter, his second, I looked to him to get the rest of the flock moving, and he did not disappoint.

One Friday morning about three weeks ago, I noticed that Jasper tarried in the barn long after the others had hustled off to the pasture hayrack. He made his way out eventually, and seemed his normal bossy self, shoving the lambs out of his way and leading the flock up to their “office” among the rocks at the very top of the winter pasture. That evening, he was the first back into the barn, and I allowed myself to feel relieved: after all, even sheep have “off” days.

Saturday followed the same pattern – a slow start and then back to normal. It was a lovely winter day: brilliant blue skies and nothing but sunshine. The flock went about their normal routines of feeding, and finding comfortable places to sunbathe and ruminate until evening when the barn door was opened again. That evening, Jasper did join the flock in their mad dash back inside for the night. He remained immovable on his rock, until Bowie and I were able to persuade him to get up and get moving. He seemed a bit shaky, but there were no other signs of trouble – no fever, no bleeding, no difficulty in breathing. I called the vet, and felt a bit reassured when she felt her visit could wait until the morning.

Late in the evening, Jasper began to tremble wildly. I held him as best as I could; the flock and Bowie gathering around and watching quietly, until he was still again.

Jasper’s sudden illness, it turns out, was copper poisoning. The vet had surmised this when she performed the necropsy here in the barn, which was both diagnostic as well as instructive – I learned as much as I will ever know about the structure of a sheep’s digestive tract and how copper poisoning affects it. Further tests revealed that the batch of grain I doled out to the flock had higher traces of copper than normal; dear Jasper’s propensity for being greedy at the trough proved to be his undoing.

The weeks after were consumed with worry for the rest of the flock, who had been similarly exposed. So far, so good. I still walk into the barn every morning expecting to hear the sound of Jasper’s impatience. And I still expect to feel him sidle up for a chin scratch the moment I sit down for a visit or pause in the pasture. I expect I always will.

Poetry Friday:Love After Love By Derek Walcott

I over think everything, and so it was with a poem to choose for Poetry Friday, which also happened to be the first day of a brand new year. Over breakfast this morning (already a day late, not a good omen for a new year), the much thumbed through poetry anthology I thought to leaf through fell open to this poem:

Love After Love By Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

And there it was: the perfect poem. When I first read this poem, these lines thrummed over and over:

“Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life whom you ignored
for another…”

They spoke of that journey we make towards understanding ourselves, and how hard it is to learn to trust our own intuitive wisdom, buried beneath layers of expectations, norms, conformity, self-doubt, mistrust. They spoke, directly, to me. And, I think, it’s just the right one with which to begin a new year.

Poetry Friday:Hold Out Your Hand by Julia Fehrenbacher

We awakened this Christmas morning to find that waist high snow banks and pastures had vanished with the night’s Spring-like temperatures and heavy rain. The children are all home and under our roof again, and although we are ever conscious of the larger world and all that remains perilous and uncertain in the new year ahead, it’s been joyous to be together.

For a brief time, here in the middle of nowhere, we are content to make of the most of this holiday week, each moment feeling like “a downpour of gifts”.

Hold Out Your Hand by Julia Fehrenbacher

Let’s forget the world for a while
fall back and back
into the hush and holy
of now

are you listening? This breath
invites you
to write the first word
of your new story

your new story begins with this:
You matter

you are needed—empty
and naked
willing to say yes
and yes and yes

Do you see
the sun shines, day after day
whether you have faith
or not
the sparrows continue
to sing their song
even when you forget to sing
yours

stop asking: Am I good enough?
Ask only
Am I showing up
with love?

Life is not a straight line
it’s a downpour of gifts, please—
hold out your hand

It’s Christmas time…

Christmas is just around the corner, and I am feeling a sense of impending joy and sustaining hope which this season invariably makes me attuned to and grateful for. Which is really odd, because I am not a Christian…I am not of any faith I believe in, really.

I married a man, however, who believed. And this man loved music and sang beautifully. Eventually, we were gifted with three children who inherited both qualities; Christmas for our family centered around our church choir. And what a church and choir it was!

West Side Presbyterian Church…circa 1970’s (I think)

We had a formidable music director – formidable for her musical gifts, her demeanor, her ability to make everyone rise to her high standards and expectations. Under her, my musical family flourished, so much so that no one expected anything of me, which was just as well since I have no musical skill to speak of. So the Christmas season, from the herald of Advent, to the joyous celebration of Christmas Eve, was one of listening to the music my family practiced and then presented at church.

I found the music of Christmas, the hymns that is, powerful. And I found the story of Christmas itself redemptive and healing. Who among us has not been moved by the way children redeem us, heal us, make us hope? This story, as I listened to it year after year, watching my family in their various robes of black, blue, green, and red, brought the story to life through melodious hymn after hymn, grew on me as an allegory of redemption and hope. The service of lessons and carols, in particular, was the one that spoke to the deepest reaches of my soul.

As a survivor of child abuse and sexual abuse, I see the world through a particular filter: there is very little to truly have faith in, and children know the way to truth. The story of Christmas is, to me, a story of a child showing the way to truth, as children ever do. So, come Christmas season, the music that calls me is the Service of Lessons and Carols, preferably sung by the combined choirs of West Side, or, since I am far removed from that these days, the choir of King’s College, Cambridge (via YouTube):

My favorite is the 1997 service, which begins with this invitation to its theme: “…love came down at Christmas, love shown to the unlovely that they might be lovely, love that calls us to a common love and to unite our hearts and voices in love and in love’s praise.”

Christmas, to my heathen soul, is a celebration of love – through music, through words.

So, we had some snow…

Forecasts can be wrong, so we went to bed on Wednesday night expecting some snow on Thursday. Being an insomniac, I was up often that night, and I could see that our blasé attitude was going to be proven wrong: it was snowing hard.

By morning, the snow was deep…31 inches, and still snowing. Winter in the North Country. I had seen photographs of my husband and his family in the upstate New York winters of the ’60’s and ’70’s; the enormous snowbanks of Scott’s youth seemed a thing of the past, as I had never seen anything like it in my as yet short tenure at the farm. But…here it was again.

The last few days were all about clearing pathways to the barn, the pole barns, anywhere where access was vital. The town snow plow broke down a fourth of the way up our hill, and our driveway remained untouched for two days. Hardly anything seemed to be moving at all, even the skies were silent.

There was something healing about that silence, about the intense but quiet physical work just to enable daily life, and the satisfied exhaustion which followed. It’s been such a noisy year – full of distractions, anxiety, stress. For a brief moment in time, here on this remote farm, I felt completely at peace, these lines of poetry echoing a quiet beat:

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.”