Archive for 2009

Souvenir of the West Country

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

I never dreamed a month could pass so quickly.

20090925_153226.JPGThe very fleetness, of course, as I have had occasion to learn over and over again, is the levy time imposes on our happiest hours. There’s always a stern little claw-like hand grasping for a toll at the passage to fairyland, and we pay it with alacrity, straining for a glimpse at the enchantments that lay beyond, assuring ourselves that the price really isn’t all that steep, and that the rate of exchange is doubtless more in our favor than the last time we traded in such currency.

But no matter how the individual days of our sojourn may seem to stretch forth into eternity itself, no matter how many timeless moments they may contain that suspend us between this world and the next, they are still bounded by the laws of the world in which we live. One of which is the disagreeable fact that a month of holiday is simply going to fly in contrast with a month of trouble or worry or over-commitment or grief. I’ve known both sides of the coin, and can see the value in both—but that doesn’t make it the least bit easier to leave England behind.

It only gets harder.

I’ve been home now as long as I was gone. September is a lovely dream which I’m still waking up from most mornings and which occasional dips into my journal and wistful perusals of my husband’s wonderful photographs have often to substantiate in the stern light of day. Was the water really that blue in Cornwall? Could you really feel the wild restlessness of Devon’s stormy past up there on the moors and down in the perpetual twilight of the wooded combes? Is Oxford as golden as I remember it? And were the Cotswolds really that glad to see me again—as happy as I was to see them?

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The Roseland, Cornwall, near Towan Beach

But the words I scribbled down in such joyful haste and the images that Philip preserved back me up. They testify that it was more beautiful than I could dare to let myself remember; that though I often despaired at my inability to do it justice and capped my pen with a sigh, that though Philip often turned his camera off and laid it aside just to sit and stare with me in silence, that it’s all there and that it’s real. Even the little Devon violet I pressed and glued into my journal has a voice, and the translucent red and green seaweed I lifted from a rock pool on Towan Beach and dried on stiff paper. The snail shells and pebbles on my kitchen windowsill and the tiny collection of Caribbean shells and sea glass we gathered near Woolacombe (and which I wet down to show my mother what the entire beach looked like)—these all remind me, with trustworthy persistence, that the verities they represent actually exist.

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The Parterre, Lanhydrock, Cornwall

My very soul has been steeped with the intoxicating freshness of English air. I’m haunted by the songs of robins in the hedgerows and the wild, eerie shrieks of pheasants in the darkening woods and by the music of the sea coming in an open window at night. My imagination has been quickened by crumbling ruins and seaside castles and walled gardens and ancestral estates.

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Exmoor, North Devon

And I am more in love with England than ever…

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The Gribben Head, Cornwall

A Day in the Life…

Monday, August 31st, 2009

My post in the YLCF series on typical days of the members of our team. I chose Monday. 🙂

Monday at the Farm-in-the-City

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photography copyright Griffin Gibson 2009

A lovesome thing

Monday, May 11th, 2009

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After the heartbreak of last summer’s drought, I let it be known far and wide that I had officially become a three-season gardener: winter, spring and fall. After all, I reasoned, there are plenty of things that can be grown in the South over the winter; plenty of things that need a good dose of the best cold we’ve got to give. Plants and seeds that love to be tucked into a good leaf-mulched October bed for a long winter’s nap; sturdy little lettuces and cabbages that toss their green heads at January’s worst.

It was easy to say that in August, when everything was dead or dying and the refreshing bloom of autumn’s bright color had not yet awakened the tired and dusty world. “Maybe a few tomato plants,” I told my friends, because how could I ever do without a basket of home-grown tomatoes on my kitchen counter all summer? But for the rest it was cool season crops: the very name sounded like water to my parched soul. A few zinnias and cosmos for good measure. But I just didn’t have it in me to battle the heat and the drought and the squash vine borers and the Japanese beetles and the mosquitoes and the unidentifiable spiky-backed black and red things that seem to live for sweet peas that mean gardening in the South in the summer.

Or so I thought.

But being outside so much with the animals and in the barn has made me a little sturdier, as well, I guess. I don’t quail as I once would over tramping outside in a frosty dawn with my Wellies and the chunky wool sweater I bought in the Lake District eleven years ago (and which always seemed such an overkill for my mild little winter insulation in the house). A driving rain is no longer an excuse to stay in, for the sheep must be let out and the chickens fed whether it’s pouring outside or not. (The goats, for the record, would much rather sleep in of a rainy morning, curled up together on their green blanket in their stall. But with the instantly-cozy sound of rain drumming on that tin roof, who can blame them?)

So the ‘elements’ have become rather more friendly acquaintances than foes to be avoided. And spending half my time out of doors has given me a much keener appreciation of the seasons, and all the gentle undulations of change and renewal within them. No matter how busy the days become, there is always that early morning ramble across the pasture with the sheep and goats in which daily developments of leaf and bud and blade are scrutinized and appreciated. Never before has the re-emergence of the fescue grasses been such a matter of rejoicing, or the tender new growth and fragrant white fountains of the dog roses been greeted with such wholesale delight. Puck and Pansy would rather eat them, of course, and would surely tell me that I am missing out on a greatly-anticipated seasonal delicacy. But I much prefer to merely drink in their scent on a dew-wet May morning.

And so all of the color and perfume abroad have quickened a yearly madness in me, and I have fallen prey to the raptures of antique roses in full bloom and the enticements of an awakened flower garden. So many of last summer’s seemingly failed attempts have plucked up the courage to give it another go, and so have I. I guess I am such an incurable gardener that even the all-too-vivid memory of August’s ruin is a thing to be scoffed at in this triumphantly leaf-bright world. The peach trees, which I ran out of time to prune properly, have more peaches than ever. (Now, if I can just keep the squirrels away!) The aforementioned roses, which now comprise the sacred precincts of the bee yard and which received nothing more than a good barnyard mulch—compliments of the sheep and goats—are at their loveliest. And the potatoes, which I thought killed off by a late frost, are all beginning to flower, and there are dozens of little round red ones under their blanket of hay—I peeked.

My proclaimed summer tomatoes have become eleven in all. And they have grown to include peppers. And eggplant and zucchini and cucumbers and pole beans and arugula. And squash, of course. (My one consolation in that never-ending battle is that there won’t be squash vine borers in heaven.) I also planted the seeds of a lovely vine called Queen Anne’s Pocket, an heirloom melon that my sister-in-law gave me and which is reportedly so fragrant that Victorian women used to carry them as a form of perfume. There were two herb beds that were just asking to be replanted, as well. And I just had to add some more bee balm to the flower garden. Of course. For the girls.

So it looks like I have a summer garden, after all. And if the weather continues its merciful pattern of rain, I expect more of a jungle to contend with than a desert wasteland. Which is fine with me—I’ll take on mildew any day over a frizzling heat. It broke my heart last summer to see my gorgeous summer phlox hang their blossom-crowned heads and give up in despair. Even the notoriously dominant four o’clocks cringed and held their places in the garden as if marshaling their reserves.

I was walking in my friend’s garden the other day, greeting her flowers with her and being introduced to some new additions in a spring twilight so fair and fresh it made the heat of summer seem nothing short of implausible. And yet we moaned over it a bit, anticipated a few disasters. Worried over watering restrictions or the inverse of mildew and slugs. But we both spoke with such a quiet joy, bending over a full-blown peony or expounding upon the merits of a Graham Thomas rose. “Aren’t they sweet?” she said, with a loving look at the tall spikes of delphinium flanking her arbor. “We’re just trying to enjoy our garden this year, not stress out about what makes it and what doesn’t make it. That’s all we can do, you know.” She looked at me intently with eyes as blue as the flowers we had just been admiring. “God wants us to enjoy our gardens, Lanier.”

Such simple words. And yet, it’s the simple things that are the most profound in the end. I have thought of this so many times the past few days, as I have nestled plants into the ground with a hope and a prayer, drawing the mulch back up around them like a mother tucking in her children. She was so right, poignantly, penetratingly so. My garden is a place where I can commune with God with a mind unencumbered with less fundamental things. I can partner with Him in the joy of creation and enjoy the two-fold fruits of beauty and sustenance. I can literally read the parables of life before me in these dying seeds and growing things.

It is a gorgeous privilege to grow a garden, and I would not be complete without it. Even the discouraging parts. God knows that, thanks be to Him, and reminded me of it in time to get my summer garden in. And come July, when hope starts to droop a little bit, I imagine He’ll remind me of leeks and cabbages and lettuce and carrots. For I fear I have not become the three-season gardener that I pronounced myself last fall. I’m a year-round gardener. And a hopelessly optimistic one, at that.

My garden is a lovesome thing—God wot!

Rose plot,

Fringed pool,

Ferned grot—

The veriest school

of peace; and yet the fool

contends that God is not.—

Not God in gardens! When the eve

is cool?

Nay, but I have a sign!

‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.

Thomas Edward Brown

My Garden

My own patch of sky

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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With a bound she leaped to the top of a hill and looked down into a dell carpeted with bluebells. She checked and paused, still poised on her toes with her arms stretched out. The bluebells ran down the sides of the dell in rivulets and gathered at the bottom into a pool of azure. The sun that smote through the trees overhead gathered up their scent, so that it brimmed the dell like wine in a cup, and when the wind blew the slender stalks near Henrietta leaned all one way, bending their blue heads.

Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

With that one passage, encountered not many weeks before our pilgrimage to England two years ago, I promptly fell in love with the bluebell. Imagine my delight, then, to find in a bit of travel reading a few days later that we were slated to alight on British soil at the very heady blue peak of the famed woodland bloom. From almost the first moments after our arrival, as the refined pastoral scenes of Surrey began to flash past the windows of our newly-rented car, I began to perceive the azure pools and glimpses of inimitable blue beneath the trees and along the roadsides. By the time we reached Herefordshire a few days later, I had learned to anticipate them, detecting just which settings and scenes they most seemed to favor. From a rocky, seaside descent in Devon to the byways of the Golden Valley, they accompanied us on our ramblings, and became the sweetest symbol of an unforgettable Maytime in England.

Last fall, my husband planted me my own little pool of woodland blue. We chose the site with care, remembering all the loved the places we’d found the bluebell growing most happily. Philip planted the bulbs with the random care required for naturalization: scattering them lightly and then nestling them into the earth where they fell. Early in the spring he was obliged to build a little fence around them, low enough for us to cross but high enough to prevent the inquisitive nibbles of goats and sheep, or the indiscriminate padding of a huge Pyr paw. It meant the world to me, from the planting to the preserving, and I look forward to the spreading carpet of those swinging bells on their graceful stalks each spring.

The first bloom was a small celebration, and as I knelt upon the decaying leaves and moist earth and took the first long breath of my own bluebells, I was back in England, if only for a moment.

At the top of a hill, gazing down into a dell carpeted with bluebells…

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The Lord God Made them All

Monday, April 27th, 2009

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I simply cannot believe that it has been one year since we brought all these lovely animals home to live on our farm-in-the-city. When I go down to the barn in the morning, or leave it at night, I often pause and look around me, just trying to remember what it used to look like—even feel like—before the occupation of the ‘friendly beasts’ that reside there now. Truth be told, there always was something just the least bit uncanny about that old barn before it came to life again last spring. I’ve always felt intensely, almost eerily, aware of the agricultural past of this place, and of the long-ago presence of people that originally loved and worked it, out there among the stalls and hay drops and the leftover implements of a once-thriving farm. The house has been reclaimed in every corner: the hearths are haunted with the memories of my own friends and nights of stimulating conversation; the dining room has seen ten years of book club meetings and Christmas Eve celebrations and dinner parties; the parlor where, as the story goes, family wakes were held, has rung with music and laughter and song. We’ve even sanctified the precincts of the front hall with a wedding.

But the barn remained rather aloof to me, untouched by the warmth of daily living. A pulse unquickened; a melancholy witness to a once-useful past. Even after we had cleaned it out and began wiring it for electricity and preparing it for its yet-unknown tenants, I just never felt quite like it was mine. And I never was too keen on being down there by myself. 😉

Something happened, however, the night we installed our baby goats, Puck and Pansy, out there with their Great Pyrenees babysitter, Juno. Even though the said babies stood at the door to their stall and screamed in protest at being left behind when their Mamma went back to the house, even though I stood at the window with tears streaming down my face at their distress, there was a quiet, almost brooding joy. Life breathed once more in that rugged old barn, weathered by a century-and-a-half of life-giving labor. The people who hewed those massive timbers and hammered together those hay drops and fashioned that hand-carved manger in one of the stalls—all the generations of them—would probably smile in bewilderment at our utterly indulgent approach to animal husbandry and all these pet goats and sheep and chickens. But I like to think that they didn’t love their beasts any less than we love ours, and that for all the life-sustaining work the original occupants of that old barn once knew, they received in equal measure a gentle hand and a tender eye. I know that the people who built this house were good, God-fearing Methodists. Surely they caught the significance of the verse in Proverbs that I’m longing to paint somewhere as a motto in the barn:

A righteous man regards the life of his beast.

DSC_0693 - Copy.JPGI had no idea what I was getting into last spring. Something great and tender and terrified rose up within my heart when the one day-old Puck was lifted into my arms for the first time, and I realized that his very survival, and that of his pretty little sister, Pansy, was entirely dependent on me. The bottle-feeding of baby goats is an experience that I wish everyone I love could have. And for all my neurosis over milk temperatures and feeding times and correct angles of the bottle, there was a bonding that took place such as I never could have dreamed of. Those little goats (so big now!) really think that I am their mother. And I am not even going to try and describe how tenderly I love them back. You would be hard-pressed to find a more spoiled pair. And when they come running towards me across a pasture, or caper after me with heels clicking and long Nubian ears flying, I have to marvel that there ever was a time that I knew not the charm and beauty and utter endearing impishness of a goat.

My sheep came home in May, at two months old. Three little rams and three little ewes, snowy-golden white and scared to death of Philip and me. Their lovely eyes registered, if not abject terror then at least a rather alarmed suspicion, and things stayed that way for a good several weeks. It wasn’t until the day that they finally recognized me as their shepherdess that they began to open their lovely little ovine hearts, but once they did we were literally overwhelmed with the compliment of a sheep’s affection. I have always thought that sheep were beautiful creatures, and always smiled over all the Biblical comparisons of God’s people to sheep. But I had no idea that they were such warm-hearted, fascinating animals. Or that they would all come running to the gate to greet us in the evening, or to see Philip off in the morning, with such friendly little nuzzles of velvet noses. Or that you just can’t know what it means to be trusted until a lamb looks up at you from a posture of ruminating contentment with a perfectly untroubled gaze of lucid, limpid confidence. I know that gaze well, now, but it never ceases to move me.

They all have names from Shakespeare: Hermia, Ophelia, Beatrice, Harry (Henry V ;)), Sebastian, Benedick, and, the little sister who joined them last September, Titania. And, yes, I can tell them apart. And, yes, they all know their names.

In the midst of all our preparations last spring, I asked God to send me a Great Pyrenees to be a livestock guardian for our little flock, as we had decided from the counsel we had received and our own study that there was no better, more benevolent guard dog on earth. Well, God didn’t send me a Great Pyrenees. He sent me two, in an inimitable gift of His lovingkindness and wisdom. Our lovely Juno, and her adopted sister, Diana, are an amazing team—with absolutely no livestock experience, they took to their roles with an alacrity that would have surprised me had I not known the breed better. Juno is gracious—as any true lady would be—not to flaunt her exquisite lineage, though you can see it in every line of her face, every inquisitive, thoughtful shade of those speaking dark eyes of hers. But what Di might lack in connections, she more than
makes up for in the beauty of her dog-heart. Once you have looked into the wells of love that are the eyes of a Pyr, you simply cannot doubt the God-endowed vocation of these dogs. It really has, quite literally, blown us away. To see these girls from day one, take to patrolling the fence lines and dividing the pasture guard with a wordless communication has been a miraculous thing to witness. And the gentle, bonding love they have for their charges! They are kindness itself with the goats and sheep, and I have only had to issue one correction about the chickens—and that over a play bow to the rooster (who was definitely not playing!) on the part of the fun-loving Diana. I am so proud of my girls. And I love to remind them of what they already know right well—that they were sent to us by God himself. Of that I have not the slightest doubt.

So the barn is alive again. At night, just before we turn out the lights, we love to stand and listen to all the now-familiar evening sounds: the restless remonstrance of a hen settling into her roost and the contented clucks that follow, the munching of hay from the stalls and the occasional happy grunt of a goat or a sheep, the peeping of a brooder-full of chicks, the creaking and settling of the barn itself. All the grueling hours of labor we poured into restoring it are forgotten, along with the nagging fear (at least, on my part) that we really couldn’t take all this on. All that remains, in such moments of quiet enjoyment, with a Pyr nose lifting under your hand and a great white tail calmly thumping against your leg, is the joy at the goodness of God, surpassing even the dream of it.

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English hives and Italian bees

Monday, April 20th, 2009

I did something today that I have never done.

I went to the post office to pick up a very special delivery, namely, a package of honeybees! (Basically, a little screened wooden crate with the bees fully visible and active inside.) We’re officially beekeepers now–and I’m alternating between a dizzy joy and a quaking terror. 😉 Fortunately, Philip and I have been blessed with the friendship and support of several devoted beekeepers, and one of them, a neighbor, has promised to come over tonight and help us ease all these girls into their new home. I really am so excited I don’t know what to do with myself–I keep running down to the basement to check on them, and to assure them that it won’t be long now till they’re happily settled in the pretty house I’ve set up for them. Another long-held dream coming true! And I think it’s safe to say that the humbling insights and everyday miracles of being a ‘keeper of the bees’ will find their way into these pages.

My brother-in-law grinned when I told him about our bees. "So," he said, "you needed a few thousand more mouths to feed?" 😉 But after the first few weeks they will feed themselves, at least until winter. And in the mean time, what a frenzy of pollination will be going on in my garden!  

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 From the archives, the experience (coupled with the reading of Gene Stratton-Porter’s The Keeper of the Bees) that started it all…

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

tkam2.jpgThe old Art Deco theatre in my hometown has recently been restored, and Friday night Philip and I went to a movie there. The fact that it was a favorite of mine, based on one of my all-time favorite books made it even more special: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, set to the screen by Robert Mulligan in 1962. The critic that introduced the film for us that night said that Ms. Lee had already turned down several movie deals, but that after being on the set of this film for just a few days, she was so convinced that the director and the actors had captured the spirit of her book that she went home content.

It’s an immortal book, and it’s an immortal film. We were also told that Lee was so pleased with Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the quintessential Southern gentleman, Atticus Finch, that she gave him her father’s own pocketwatch as a mark of her gratitude, an act significant in the light of the watch’s role in the movie. Some have said that Lee actually based Atticus on her father, and, frankly, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Almost fifty years after the book came out, Atticus is still revered to the status of a living person for his integrity, his “Christ-like goodness and wisdom”, his courage. When I first read the book as a young teenager, I saw my own lawyer Daddy in Atticus (and I still do!). And I have every reason to think that he saw his Daddy—not a lawyer, but the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in South Georgia. And a living witness to the God-given dignity of every man, woman and child.

I pictured the town that my Daddy grew up in when I read this book—the yellow brick house across the street from my grandmother’s was Miss Maudie’s, and the decrepit old Victorian at the end of the block, complete with creaky boards on the porch and a yard full of weeds, was the inevitable lair of Boo Radley. My sister and I used to dare each other closer and closer to it. It was with something of the sadness of a lost era that we watched it be bought, renovated, turned into a respectable business. I can hardly pass it now without a shivering memory of the delicious terror with which we used to loiter past it on our walks, hoping and dreading to see a wan face peering out from behind the tattered curtains.

tkam4.jpgThere is a level in this book to which I feel myself a participant. I can literally feel the dust and heat of those sweltering summers, and identify with the ladies whom, “by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum”. I can hear so many of the characters talking in my head for I have known them—or known their types, and the perpetual slamming of screened doors is like music to me. I know, by long association, what Atticus’ law books smelled like and what those mustard greens he dips out in the movie, limp upon the spoon and dripping with “pot liquor”, taste like.

But there is another level altogether in which I can merely receive and digest some very heart-breaking and devilish facts. I grew up in a world in which, thank God, segregation was a thing of the past; a historical fact that I could hardly conceive had ever been a reality in a free nation. But I see the scars of it yet upon my beloved Southland: ugly, jagged wounds that sometimes can hardly seem to heal for all the probing and revisiting of institutions many steps removed from humanity. The scars will and should remain, lest we forget, but I hope and pray that the world in which my children grow up in will find even this day’s painful reminders hard to believe.

Harper Lee did her South and her nation a great service in the gift of this beautiful book. Everything in it is not beautiful, certainly, but there is a beauty in the truth that no amount of sugar-coated moralizing could ever approach. And I believe that only the eyes of Love could look upon a loved land with all its charms and sorrows and faults and paint such a dispassionately accurate picture of a time of such great innocence and such great injustice. I really think it a shame that To Kill a Mockingbird has become such standard fare for high school English classes, subject to all the critical analysis which should only be reserved, in my humble opinion, for dissections in the biology lab. This book is so honest, so straightforward and truthful, that a thirteen year-old girl can stumble across it and open her heart effortlessly to the appeal of it. And twenty years later, still be moved to tears by it.

tkam3.jpgWhen we walked out of the theatre that night, I sensed an extraordinary vividness in every little thing: in the spent storm clouds tearing and shredding across the sky and the benevolent moon shining down on our old-fashioned Square; in the wet bricks of the well-known sidewalk, glinting in the sheen of the street lamps and the brisk wind the storm had left behind. Such is always the hallmark of great art upon my soul, this keenness, this love for the things around me, all the more remarkable for their familiarity. Be it film, novel, poem, painting or song—anything that has the gift of life in it, escorted into being by a human creator and yet bearing the stamp of divine originality—they all have a life in them that is re-creative. That, in turn, yearns and pleads for expression.

I suppose that is what is meant when someone says that a book ‘lives’. For me, in that little hometown theatre Friday night, To Kill a Mockingbird lived all over again, in glorious black and white upon the silver screen. And in even more glorious black and white upon a printed page.

I was to think of these days many times. Of Jem, and Dill, and Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson, and Atticus. He would be in Jem’s room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Spring Quiet

Monday, April 6th, 2009

00014065 - Copy.JPGIt doesn’t feel like Spring this morning. I woke to the wind rattling about the eaves of the house and to leaden clouds, so unlike the mild sweet May-like weather we had on Saturday to make it seem almost laughable that we were able to have our first meal on the patio and that Philip had said that it was too hot for a fire in the fireplace that night—but indulged me anyway.

But I know that Spring is more than a promise. The tiny green berries in my strawberry patch declare it, as does the ecstatic mockingbird who sings his matins and his vespers in the hollies outside the kitchen door every day. The blackberry and raspberry canes, undaunted by the forecast of snow flurries, all have sturdy green clusters of leaves just getting ready to shoot off in all directions, and my much-loved flowering cherry has been opening its fluffy pink ballerina skirt-blossoms before my very eyes, it seems. I can’t believe that after this last cold snap of aptly-named blackberry winter, that it will be time to nestle the seeds of summer flowers in their waiting beds, to set out little tomato plants with their cages seeming all ridiculously out of proportion, to start watching for aphids on my roses. I hardly feel ready for it, and all its heady joys.

Perhaps it’s because Easter hasn’t come yet. This hint of winter today is like the holy pall of Lent upon my soul. Gentle, solemn, not unwelcome. I have a living picture before me in this sudden hush of growing and rejoicing, this pause in all the mad exultation, that seems to befit the remembrance of this most Holy Week. It’s as if my heart is saying, No, not yet—it isn’t seemly to celebrate the resurrection of creation until its Creator is resurrected.

Until the ever-risen One is greeted once again with the blissful Alleluias so poignantly excluded during Lent, and upon them that sit in a darkness of indifference or apathy or mere complacency, His light shines once more, undimmed by two thousand years’ worth of shadows. I love the combined immediacy and expectation of the liturgical year, blended with such fitness of proper times and places. The translating of heavenly things into the human sphere strikes a particular chord with me, be it the wine-soaked bread of communion or the olive branch handed me by an old woman in a church in Italy. There’s just something in the tangible-ness of it all that resonates deeply and is as refreshing in its turn as the merciful variety of the seasons’ change.

A couple of weeks ago we had the joy and privilege of attending a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. To say that it was wonderful or exquisite or sublime seems kind of impertinent, for few things in this world can even approach it for sheer perfection. High, holy, transcendent, incandescent, call it what you will, it really is so futile to try and throw a cloak of words about its noble shoulders. I just sat with my eyes closed and let the music wash over me and buoy me upon its majestic waves. And that was sublime. I was particularly struck by the blind soprano in the chorus who literally felt the music, anticipated every note, and sang with the most rapturous smile on her face. I still have that image before me, and doubtless will, any time I ever hear the Requiem. But I’m so glad. She has become such a symbol to me, among all these other hints of heavenly things this season is so redolent with. For she is us. Or what we can be, when faith is dearer than sight. We’re all blind, really; we’re all looking ‘through a glass darkly’, thinking that we see the realities as they really are and all the while walking past mercies and stepping over parables in our path. It’s only when the blindness is acknowledged, the sightlessness embraced by love and surmounted by faith that the eternal verities begin to pierce the scrim twixt heaven and earth.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes—

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Here’s my favorite movement, the immortal Lacrimosa, so particularly suited to this Lententide—which is almost over. And then, come Easter Sunday, we can join with the angels in a chorus which will never die out.

The winter of waiting is nearly over. And all creation, it seems, can hardly contain itself with the joy of it…

Pied Beauty

Monday, March 30th, 2009

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Glory be to God for dappled things—
        For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
            For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
        Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
            And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

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All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
        Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
            With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:
                                                Práise hím.

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 Gerard Manley Hopkins

 (1844-1889)

Just call me Shepherdess

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

This piece, originally published last spring on YLCF will hopefully give an account for my long silence around here…a condition I hope to remedy!

I love how Catherine Marshall put it:

Dreams carried around in one’s heart for years, if they are dreams that have God’s approval, have a way of suddenly materializing.

And I can definitely say that this has been a Spring of ‘sudden materialization’. So sudden I feel I’ve hardly had a chance to catch my breath before one beautiful change follows on the heels of another. Spring itself is a season of change, of course: new things stirring to life; old, spent growth disappearing under the inexorable greening of bud and leaf and blade. Here in the South our Spring flirts for a while, courting us with balmy days in mid-February and then turning a diffident shoulder of frost and gloom again till one hardly knows whether to trust in the promise of April or not. But there can be no doubt on this gentle afternoon, soft with the sweet pale haze of awakening trees and scented with apple blossoms: Spring has really arrived. And with it, a fine crop of heart’s desires.

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Ever since Philip and I set up housekeeping here on our farm-in-the-city we have dreamed about the animals we’d love to welcome and raise. That is, in addition to our five cats, fourteen hens, rooster and best-Australian-Shepherd-in-the-whole-wide-world. We’d entertained the notion of cows because Philip’s grandfather had been a cattleman and we wouldn’t be so completely in the dark. Highland Cattle received more than a passing consideration, owing to the fact that one of the shining points of our vision is promoting historical or endangered breeds. We installed good, sturdy fencing and sketched out a plan for our barn, an original structure and sorely in need of renovation. We started scrutinizing the Market Bulletin for animals and supplies. We entertained our Aussie with glowing descriptions of his life as a real farm dog. And then everything began to slow to a halt. For a couple of years, something always seemed to waylay the plan: trips and travels, droughts, sprained ankles, surgeries, unexpected expenses. I really began to wonder at times if it wasn’t just a pipe dream after all.

Since Christmas, however, my heart has been stirring on this theme more ardently than ever, and towards the end of January I determinedly ordered a whole box of books on farming and livestock. And thus it was that Philip came home one day and found a lovely volume lying on the kitchen table: Living with Sheep.

I came upon him after he’d been reading it for a while, leaning against the counter, completely engrossed in the engaging text and gorgeous photographs, very much as I had been not a few hours before. He looked up at me with shining eyes.

“Let’s get sheep!”

I blinked back at him as if it were the first time it had occurred to either one of us. As if we hadn’t started dreaming about it on the first day of our Scottish honeymoon. As if we hadn’t longed for it as an unattainable wish all throughout our sojourn in England. Truth is, we’d been scared off by our own ignorance, not to mention the simple fact that we didn’t know of a single other person in Georgia that raised sheep. And for a super-cautious, obsessive-compulsive little soul like me, that spelled terrifying, no matter how much I wanted it.

But suddenly, standing there in the kitchen, grinning back at my husband, I knew that we could do this. That old familiar flame of aspiration began to glow and spark within me; Philip’s eager enthusiasm sealed the deal. God’s timing on this dream seemed to materialize right there between us. And so I devoted much of the month that followed to reading and educating myself, talking to shepherds on the phone, emailing like mad—basically scratching up all the information I possibly could. And literally, within the span of a few short weeks, we went from the germ of a dream to the cusp of fulfillment. Through an intensely exciting series of events—interesting only to me, I am sure—I made the discovery of a marvelous breed of sheep native to our area, historically important from a heritage point of view and remarkably hardy and tolerant of our climate due to hundreds of years of ranging feral in the Southern fields and forests. A flurry of emails, a frenzy of waiting—and, suddenly, six lambs, yet unborn, had my name on them. Quite an honor when you consider that there are only around 2000 registered such animals in existence!

It’s in the details that I know my God is in this, and blessing this dear, crazy undertaking. I’ve seen Him guide and provide in countless ways—I could fill several posts with the recounting but I’ll spare you!—and I know that He’s working out some purpose of His, even if it’s only the stretching of my own faith. I’ve been forced to trust Him at every turn—the path we’ve set our feet to is uncharted territory, and there’s a very scared little girl deep down inside of me that shrinks from change of any sort, even that for which I’ve longed and prayed. But it has been so endearing to see how He cares about these dreams of ours; how He plants such lovely and challenging goals in our hearts and then provides all we need to attain them. Even when we’re cowering in the folds of His garments like frightened lambs ourselves.

This time last year I was becoming an expert on punting options in Oxford and driving distances to obscure literary places of pilgrimage preparatory to our journey abroad. This Spring I am a connoisseur of pasture grasses and organic fertilizer options, having our soil tested and discussing the results at length with our extension agent, and basically betraying my ignorance to every clerk at every Feed and Seed north of Savannah. It’s been very humbling, and I can’t tell you all how many times I’ve had to swallow my pride and say, “I have a really dumb question…”. But my prayer this April is the same as it was a year ago: The Lord grant you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed…

My lambs come home in May; the two little bottle baby Nubian goats that Philip promised me are sleeping out in the barn with their tummies full of warm milk; the lovely, majestic Great Pyrenees dog we brought home to be a livestock guardian is patrolling her barnyard and lingering by the fence for loving words and ear scratches. Down in the basement a host of newly-potted starts are dreaming of a whole garden to grow in, and out in the yard roses and grapevines and brambles are sending forth tender, tentative growth in prelude to an absolute explosion of fruit and flower. Even the hens are clucking among themselves of the new quarters we’ve promised them in the barnyard…

Change is sweeping, and it’s good, for the Lord is good. There will be a lot to adapt to in the coming weeks and months, but soon these changes will seem as if they have always been and new changes will be looming. Through every change He faithful will remain…

I wish you all the most blessed of Springtimes!

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