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Dormancy

The brilliant snow and frigid air remind that this is the season of dormancy, that virtually all that is stirring is under a blanket of snow and a frozen few inches of soil, where roots rest and wait, earthworms burrow deep, and microbes and fungal hyphae bide their time.  Dormancy does not mean nothing is happening: it means, rather, that things are happening that we cannot control or see. Like the daily sleep of humans that restores our brains, this sleep of the earth pauses and prepares for the great work to come.  The sunny winter days are a particular kind of feast for the eyes: delicate shadings of snow, long blue shadows of trees at each end of the day, exposed textures of tree trunks and their subdued hues, and the subtle variation of bare trees at the woodland’s rim in restrained beauty.  The sunrises and sunsets color the sky in pastels, or more bold, flaming, yellow and orange, and the sun sparkles on the new snowfall.

In the cold when plants are dormant, animals need special attention.  Wild birds appreciate the sunflower seed we put out.  Hungry hawks and owls, whose regular fare is hiding gratefully in snowy tunnels, are more avid about our chickens, so the dogs need to be watchful of them.  Chickens can’t scrounge under the snow and need additional grain; the frost free pump for the cattle freezes after all and water needs to be pumped each day.  The early calves that come just as the weather turns coldest need fresh dry hay, a good licking right away by the Dam to dry them off, and to be watched after birth to be sure they find a teat.  The dogs huddle more and sleep more in any warm spot, as well as tussle and bark for warming exercise. We bring old and arthritic Abby, the best guardian of the five farm dogs, in at night so she is able to be more active and agile in the daytime.  My own arthritis helps me remember this kindness.

This season we pay attention in a different way.  The growing season offers the particular kind of attention that comes from serving, from active engagement; dormancy allows pausing to learn by seeing. We watch the wild birds and the hawks and the cavorting dogs.  From the window before sundown we watch those calves that have found their footing, that race earnestly back and forth across the pasture without other object than dutiful response to an overwhelming urge to move. We watch the new snowfalls and the colors of the sun’s progress and the movement of other farm residents.

Mornings, and especially at sunset on clear days we ski.  We have trails around the farm perimeter and through the woods, and this year we also ski through the hedge row to our neighbor to the west, through the meadow and across the soy bean field.  We have a loop around her woods  enclosing the massive Burr oak and along beside the big sycamore.  

We slow down.  After the hurry and urgency of the growing season, I think it’s nice to have do-nothing time in winter, to read and plan and write in the long evenings. We work on essentials and we work shorter days. 

We are now past the winter equinox; the daylight is shifting toward the ends of days that grow perceptibly longer.  I suddenly realize it is mid February and time to start seedlings.  There is much yet to do before the work of spring preparation and planting: inside projects that there is no time to do in summer, both maintenance and creative endeavors.  I have more time for  music and writing and visits.  

The dormancy of nature in winter in this zone is an inevitable occurrence, but in a world that focusses on keeping busy, on validation by accomplishment dormancy has its challenges as well.  Humans tend to chafe at inactivity after a while.  The ego quickly demands more to chew on and begins to distract and fragment.  Restlessness and lack of focus creep up on us, and the temptation is to prematurely return to continuous activity.  If we are overly attuned to the cosmos, the human created construct, it can be a real challenge to accept the stillness and unseen operations of dormancy.  The Judeo-Christian concept of Sabbath is surely dormancy’s near relative with its emphasis on  enjoying what is provided for which we do not labor.  We need the periodic reminder that all things come from God, that we do not, cannot, make the world that we need for life.

Rampancy

Late summer is defined by rampant growth. Everything is moving into the blousey, expansive, desperate mode of the approaching end of the growing season. The weeds seem to have grown several feet and put on seeds overnight. The tomatoes are sprawling out of their cages and leaving red fruits strewn everywhere. The cardinal vine is clutching everything within its reach and the dogs return from our walks covered in small burs. It’s a time when everyone wants to acquire all the resources available and ensure survival or at least the survival of its species.

I’m tired. There is so much produce to preserve by blanching and freezing, or canning, or drying; but I must still water, and keep on top of weeds, as well as plant fall and winter crops, solarize harvested areas and put in cover crops. My house is dirty and disorderly, there is no where to put the produce we store in a cold room yet: no dry cold room. And there are odd other jobs that need to be done. Even without covid virus we haven’t much time to go anywhere else. I was in pure survival mode for a few weeks, putting one foot ahead of another, not thinking, not choosing anything, just in the flow of taking care of all that needed care and losing nothing to negligence, falling into bed at night exhausted and starting again next morning.

I’m grateful for a morning pattern in the summer that consists of some quiet time before chores, then a little work in the cool of the day before breakfast and tea midmorning. Then our household reads prayers and poetry together and sometimes a Gospel of Thomas Logion. The household now consists of John and I, Ben who works for us and has his own commodities to market, and Cathy, a friend who needed a place to be for a few months. In summer we tend to work while there is evening light, which on DST means 9:30 or later, so some time in the morning is good. The intensity is only for a few weeks and then my work lightens up and moves into the slower quiet days of winter. I like the pattern over all. Just wish sometimes there were more hours in the day.

This evening we had our first afternoon farm yoga session. Ben is bartering cello lessons for yoga instruction and we met with his student Sheila on our mats in a flat place under the trees, somewhat away from highway noise. It was very nice. The routine was chosen for balancing muscles, calming down, and easing backs and hands particularly. I got into quite a nice place of looseness and presence just lying under the clouds that scudded across a blue sky fringed with waving treetops.

The garden was pretty satisfyingly productive. I grew literally hundreds of brassicas, more tomatoes than we can use or can, lots of big onions, garlic and shallots: nearly enough to take us through spring. I harvested lots of peppers, okra and eggplants thanks to the hoop house Ben raised and shared with us. We had the usual few weeks of melons before they got the fungus they get every year. We are still having many pickings of green beans and I have frozen enough that John is complaining I am taking up too much space in the freezer with them. We got good asparagus and strawberries earlier. The peas were a disappointment, a problem of the very long cold spring and late frost I think. Broccoli also bore late, many are just now putting out the first heads, also due to an oddly cold spring followed immediately by a heat wave.

It’s a good feeling to be nearly done with so much to show for my work. Fall is always a beautiful leave-taking (in more ways than one) but the work of summer makes it quite welcome, thank you. Welcome to some rest and dormancy.

What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you.

Jesus

This is a hard saying of Jesus in the face of contemporary turmoil.

I find myself needing to strategize to maintain spiritual equilibrium in these days of political and social conflict.  We have so much access to ‘news’ and so much of it is invariably distressing, that my spirit can grow hopeless and then hardened.  And having strategized, I need discipline to do what I know is good for my spirit and not get caught in literal or metaphorical click bait.  Sometimes it seems the reverse is true; that what I consume indeed defiles me.  What I meditate on becomes what I am and then all manner of unrighteousness comes out of me. But it is also true that the problem is not found outside but inside me.  This  selfish and suffering world is not the locus of my distress:  the locus is inside of me, in my anxiety, in my misguided expectations, and in my lack of trust that all is as it needs to be; that all will be well and I will see it.

I know what I need to do and frequently I can do it:  

-Maintain a practice of silence/meditation.  

-Focus most on the people and work in my real life, not the offerings of mass media.

-Avoid hooks to my pain body, that anxious and hurt place within me:  not by ignoring the external world of systems, but by choosing sources that are not anger laden already.

-Draw on my helpers/lovers regularly: singing, poetry, Nature and the pleasant company of friends;  gratitude and beauty and exercise and fresh air.

-Call for aid, in these words from the Psalms, “Oh God Come to my aid; Lord make haste to help me.”

It is serenity within that can touch and comfort a hurting world.

This is a prayer I have learned to love saying frequently that comes from J. Phillip Newell’s Celtic Benediction:

Oh Sun behind all suns;

Oh Soul within all souls,

grant me the grace of the dawn’s glory;

grant me the strength of the sun’s rays,

that I may be well in my own soul and part of the world’s healing this day.

That I may be well in my own soul and part of the world’s healing this day.

Midsummer

At the end of a lovely late June day the permanent and current residents of Restoration Farm gather as scheduled to raise the blueberry net, an annual project. It has been quite dry and we know that soon the moisture in those green berries will start to become very attractive to the robins and starlings. We have become efficient at putting the net up, the area is freshly mowed and our work takes about half an hour once begun. Getting starting is slow as people chat about the work of the day and other things. We only meet outside during the covid pandemic, but occupation with family visits, the schedules of residents who are back to jobs, and farm work mean we are happy to have occasions to gather and catch up.

We are pretty well settled now and are initiating new activities according to our dreams and the needs of the land. We got our second set of pigs a few days ago. Everyone appreciated last years’s pork despite having to wait long for a processing date (resulting in lots of lard). This year we will process it ourselves, as the covid virus has ensured that there are no open opportunities for meat processing right now. So we have another activity and opportunity to learn and friends to guide us.

Dan and Suzanne got their fiber sheep as scheduled upon their retirement. There are six Cheviots: two ewes, two yearling females and two lambs. Their adjustment was not without incident, including one escape, and one tackling and haltering for a vet visit. The sheep, as well as Dan and Suzanne, have settled into familiar routine at this point. The piglets on the other hand are not yet comfortable, never before having seen the light of day or open spaces. They have finally begun eating now after huddling together under the brush in their small corral.


A few days ago a new queen bee arrived for my hive that survived the mild winter. Though the hive looked good coming into spring, I eventually realized that no new brood was being laid and I would soon be without bees. So I got a virgin queen and a frame of brood. They are all together now and I have let the queen out after a few days of waiting for the workers to do it. In time I will see if she is alive and laying.
Ben, the Weavers, and the Hertzler-Scarsellas got 200 broiler chicks, beginning our annual broiler venture. We will get some twenty more later in the summer. The Weavers also have silky pullets that are nearly full size. Sadly most appear to be roosters so they added some less exotic pullets out of which they hope to have a decent new laying flock. The others of us have luckily had broody hens for restocking and Dan and Suzanne stuck a duck egg under their hen and have five chicks and one gangly duck. The hybrid duck is not a good sitter. She and the drake parade around the farm, scattering new-laid eggs and clutches and occasionally checking in on a clutch and sitting for a few hours before abandoning it again. The puppies are awed when they sometimes come across her sitting on a handful of eggs, blowing herself up and making strange noises and motions with her bill at them. They know to leave her alone but are fascinated with her odd mannerisms.
John and Ben are working at making cattle dogs of the two border collie puppies. They are only puppies by behavior now having surpassed Abby and Sheila in size. They still tumble and tussle together and play with Ben. Abby and Sheila sometimes try to entice them to play but it always seems a bit awkward. Ah! what age does to us.
After the lovely, lovely days of mid- May through June we are moving into 10 days of heat and humidity when the word is maintenance: keeping flora and fauna alive and helping them to thrive. These are dog days, the time in summer when the dogs show us the way to live. Get your activity in early (puppies) and then find or dig out a cool place to be from midmorning until late afternoon, not even emerging to announce the comings and goings of people and squirrels and moles. I have to struggle to keep plantings intact and holes from appearing everywhere. Early exercise is key and early coaxing to cool places that suit me as well. Then they lay around trying to mitigate the effects of an abundance of fur preferably for them, under a porch, preferably for me, the large curving north oriented front porch where they won’t disturb my flowers.
Evenings we feast on the seasonal parade of scents: from peonies and cherry blossoms to wild roses and honeysuckle, then locust blossoms, garden roses and a bush I can’t yet identify, and now milkweed (a heavenly scent) and elderberries; and now the nicotiana is opening. I planted a mock orange which won’t bloom this year but will reward us with fragrance in years to come. The huge old maples on the west side of the house provide cool shade in these hot days; we have a good well to keep man and beast hydrated, and strategies for keeping the house reasonable and plenty of ceiling fans. The pandemic and ensuing disruption of the system of business as usual has made us even more grateful for the kind of security self sufficiency can provide. Grateful as well to Mother Nature, including the whole panoply of creatures and living things, seasons and the movements of wind and water, the synergies and interactions of the vibrant living earth.

Poetry Month in Quarantine

For the third consecutive April I have participated in poetry month by writing a poem a day. My nephew Ben invited me to write with his friend Becca and him the year I was recovering from hearing loss. It was a great gift that year and the next. This year, there were four of us writing and reading each other’s work; we invited another nephew/cousin to write with us as well. Ben and Becca have been writing seriously for several years since college. I think they might say writing is their main work, though not their means of financial income, and they have both had poems published. Christopher teaches English, including creative writing, at the University of Belize. So I am outclassed. But never mind. Ben’s first invitation surprised me but I was in a place where little daunted me, so I gladly and mostly unselfconsciously participated, even when I figured out that they were really good: thoughtful and skilled, and my poetry writing had, up to that point, been pretty casual.

I find it a daunting task to write a poem every day. The rules are simple. Write something; and expect your output to be pretty uneven. Mine certainly was. April is a busy time for me, especially at its end when preparing and planting the garden suddenly becomes urgent, and I wrote a lot of Haiku to keep up.

We have quite different lives: Becca and Ben live in the city; Christopher and I both homestead in more rural areas: I’m in the midwest, he’s in Central America. They are millennials aged 25-35. I just became eligible for medicare. So the gamut of life experiences jibes and diverges in interesting ways.

This year because of the pandemic, my sisters, Chris and Ben’s mothers plus one more, decided to do their own poetry group; (maybe me writing with their sons was additional incentive? ) We sisters exchanged poems and Chris’s wife also wrote with the women’s group. Soon Chris’s son, 10, and daughter, 6, were writing poems too.

Omar, 10, writing

All in all it was a good exercise for everyone involved. Even when I am dissatisfied with my own poems, the act of writing helps me to read others’ work more attentively. Seeing comments and suggestions from others does that as well. And the best thing is to see the lives and thoughts of other people through the special vector of poetry which, at the least, slows us down and helps us to pay attention in particular ways. I saw decided growth in the ability to describe and communicate, in the skill of turning meaning into experiencing and experience into meaning. I heard from a wide range of voices even within our small, mostly family circle. For the most part the writers had more non-earning time available and poems were a positive outlet during this long sheltering in place. It diverted us from the unsettling news of the day which tended to become obsessive for some, and grounded us in realities we take for granted but pay little attention to. I would guess, to a person, this exercise made our home quarantine desirable rather than a mere confinement.

While my own writing was more difficult this year, there were a few poems I would gladly share. After a few days of frustrated attempts and discards, I wrote something for April 30 that pleased at least one reader and was balm to my own soul.

To descending trill of thrush
in the hastening night;
to the last white blooms that shine
in the failing light;
to the whoosh of feathered wings
in nocturnal flight,
let our yearning turn.

To brisk autumnal air
as the light amends;
to brightly colored leaves that
after frost descend;
to abundant harvest given
and brought in again,
let our yearning turn.

To twirling winter flakes
that dampen sound;
to streak of cardinal red
across whitened ground;
to the snow clumped arms of trees
and their lacy crowns,
let our yearning turn.

To earliest shoots of green
that the eye drinks in;
to the softening line of trees
at the woodland’s rim;
to the rising of the grass
after warming rain,
let our yearning turn.