Soil has worked itself deep into the crevices of my skin, along the outside edges of my forefingers, where I grab at knotweed and plantain, twist the roots of grass and pull them from beds.
It colors the half-moons of my fingernails and stains beneath the tips.
On my palms, three callouses rise on each hand, trailing from the base of the middle fingers in a slant to my pinkies. I didn’t notice their summer return until a chef-friend (with impeccably clean hands) pointed them out as he looked at the engraving of the arctic landscape on my wedding ring.
That was a month ago. Now they rise from soft valleys, blunt peaks born from hoe and shovel.
Enough scrubbing could clean my fingernails for one night, though the next day the soil would again find its place on my body.
And the callouses–what else is there to do but celebrate the mirror of mountains on my palms.
There are times when the roads of my inner landscape are covered with rocks, and my ankles feel weak, and I’m not sure which way to go, until a note of beauty strikes my ears and I gulp in the sounds directing me aright. There are times when life is so full that the smallest ounce of beauty brings me to tears.
Beauty doesn’t hide in the realm of joy. That’s it’s power–it’s ability to catch us as we stumble, it’s ability to wake us from blindness, to hold us in sadness, to guide us through pain.
There is so much beauty in this world. Why can’t we bathe in it, share it, spread it?
That’s what I’m after now, to share beauty with you all. So I share with you this song, A Clearing in the Wild, by Red Tail Ring, which struck a chord in my heart and re-awakened a longing that pulls me to the wilderness:
“let yourself go
sigh like the rapids
breathe down your body
let the dam overflow
and release the day like a thunder of sparrows
and lie in the stillness when everything’s gone.”
It’s high summer, when computer time dwindles and the fields keep me outside. I turn my posts now to frames of beauty, to moments of stillness and moments of wonder and moments that rush through my heart, beating me alive.
A certain quality of light infuses my days, and I can’t help but fall into it.
These mountains we live across from pour the evenings over us, wash us in mists and sunsets, reflect the first light of each new day’s dawn.
This is summer, this letting go of extraneous matters and responsibilities, this filling up of light, this wordless pull to the outside that quiets the core of my being.
Some days I feel more than I think.
This morning is overcast with intermittent rain, as if a shower head is being turned on and off and on at random intervals. It’s a morning I want to turn a shower on, rather than pump water into a pot, heat it on the stove, take it out to the sauna, scoop it with a yogurt cup, and pour it over my head.
On most days, I love this. I look down at my feet in the small black tub, meant by its manufacturer as an animal watering trough, and see how little water my bathing requires. I stand alone in the sauna and breathe in the solitude of an enclosed space dedicated to one thing, so different from the open circle of our yurt, where there are no lines or doors between bedroom, kitchen, living room, playroom, and office.
But today I feel the clouds moving overhead, and I can’t put into words the vulnerability and power that pushes against each other within their deep gray forms stretching across the sky. It’s a day I want everything to be easy and a day I know nothing will be if I hold to this desire. It’s a day I feel vulnerable for no particular reason. A day I feel emotion and creativity and power well up inside me from that vulnerability.
It’s a day I want to tell you that it’s okay to take pictures of things that aren’t pretty. It’s okay and good and beautiful to sit with the things that slow you down, the things that make you vulnerable, the things that for whatever reason make clouds billow up in your chest.
I don’t have any pictures for you today, just these words and the wind blowing diagonal up the field, which will perhaps reach you, wherever you are, to tousle your hair and pull you from somnambulism into presence.
A heavy rain last night, and now a cool morning. Tall grasses adorned with seed heads give indication of the slightest breeze, as they dip and swirl as if in conversation. It’s a language I can’t decipher in words, yet I feel their gentle contentment in the burgeoning sun and the drips of water sliding from their slender leaves.
There is birdsong, as usual these mornings, but I cannot tell you what birds are singing. After 28 years of living, I can identify only the songs of chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, crows and ravens. I can hear the high screech of hawks overhead, but do not know what type of hawk it is. For a few years I knew the sound of saw-whet owls and the different beats of woodpeckers, but they are memories of my memory now, and I am in need of a new lesson.
In a recent essay titled Landspeak in Orion Magazine, Robert MacFarlane writes about the deletion of nature-based words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and the way human relationship to nature changes as we lose the ability to interact with nature through language. He writes:
“A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP [Oxford University Press] deletions removed the ‘euphonious vocabulary of the natural world—words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.'”
A few weeks after reading MacFarlane’s essay, I heard a commentary on Vermont Public Radio, titled “Documenting the Decline,” in which Vic Henningson notes MacFarlane’s writings, and says:
“As the number of botanists declines and words relating to nature disappear from dictionaries, the evidence suggests we’re becoming strangers to the natural world, victims of self-inflicted ecological illiteracy. And when we no longer understand nature, no doubt we’ll finally stop worrying about climate change. We’ll still enjoy looking at nature, but as novelist and naturalist John Fowles noted, landscape alone is a “bare lifeless body” without the flora and fauna that give it speech, movement, and dress. ‘Without natural history’ hewrote, ‘the world is only a fraction seen. [Imagine] not knowing any flowers, any birds. [T]o so many, they are meaningless hieroglyphs.'”
It took me 19 years to begin learning the names of trees, plants and wild animals in a meaningful way. As a student on the Adirondack Semester, I was immersed in nature, and our ecology class gave us the language to enter the landscape. Six years later I took lessons in the language of Vermont’s natural landscape through the Wisdom of the Herbs School, and I opened myself to a new world of wild edibles and medicinals. I learned that the natural world is always open to us; transforming our understanding of nature from a “fraction seen” to a whole web of living beings is a matter of transforming our own relationship with the life around us. It’s a matter of opening ourselves to the wonder of learning and the mystery of the natural world.
Now I can tell you about the differences between cultivated plant varieties you grow in your garden, and how to increase your yields with organic growing practices, but on the edge of the garden the field begins, and beyond that the forest spreads like a waves over hillsides and mountains. At the chatter of a squirrel or the call of a bird, my son stops and listens, his mouth forming a perfect circle, his eyebrows lifting his eyes wide open in exclamation as he points toward the sound–Mama, did you hear that?!
I see in him our natural place in the layers of the world; how we are constantly drawn to nature, to learning those layers and becoming a part of the landscape around us, how this is wired within us. His curiosity wakes up my own, and I realize the joy and responsibility of teaching him this language. It means I have to learn it, too, and for that I am grateful.
I circulated the room with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, weaving through bridesmaids, groomsmen, and guests. The social hour was winding down, and by my fifth or sixth pass through the crowd, I knew who the vegetarians were—who to offer the stuffed mushrooms to, who to pass by with the pulled pork.
The pulled pork had gone fast, and as back up, the caterer I was working for that night provided pulled rabbit to take its place.
“What’s this?” guests asked.
When I answered, “Pulled rabbit with sweet potato,” hesitation came over their faces…
read the rest at Vermont’s Local Banquet.
I began writing a bi-weekly column called “Millennial Farmer” for the Burlington Free Press in January. Here’s last Sunday’s article, about perennials and the roots of community:
For years I dreamed of perennials: raspberries and blueberries, an orchard of pears, plums and apples, slightly wild and sprawling flower gardens with curved pathways and benches to stop and sit and breathe it all in. It seems surreal now, as I witness spring unfurling for a third year on our land, that the rosebush is greening at the base of the stems, that the dicentra are flowering into their bleeding hearts, that the peonies are actually stretching up out of the soil.
Read the rest at Burlington Free Press online
“A seed is a conveyance system for information. It is words taken wing–words written in the language of adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine, ancient instructions clasped between hard covers, everything needed to carry a story to a new place where it can take root. Long before writers figured it out, seed-bearing plants had found a way to convey to the next generation wisdom accumulated over millions of years. A samara is wisdom with ailerons. A dryas seed is a set of instructions with hair as wild as Einstein’s. A dandelion seed is an epic on a parachute. A sander seed is a poem stuck to a sock. An elm seed is a prayer book: This way is life. This way is rootedness.”
~Kathleen Dean Moore, quoted in Seedtime by Scott Chaskey
I’m reading Seedtime and am more amazed with seeds than ever, so I’m celebrating them today with a collection of photographs: dandelions gone to seed; calendula in flower and going to seed; a maple seedling; milkweed in flower; and pasture grass going to seed.
Seeds are the basis of life and so much beauty in this world, and we get to be part of the story. Plant a seed, and you become part of a regenerative process. It’s a simple act, but the most important acts almost always are.