I push open the door to let a dog outside, and feel the cool humidity of a spring morning. The sunny days of the previous week hinted that we were really heading out of winter, but it’s not until this moment when I inhale the smell of condensed snow, wet bark, and the remnants of yesterday’s rain that I realize the scent of spring has infused itself into the air.
Yesterday, a flock of birds lifted from a tree and burst through the air, dipping and rising and propelling themselves in an arc through the sky. I stood still for a moment watching them before I got into my car to drive to work. Only one more week before I leave my seasonal job and stay on the farm instead, though watching the birds I feel a tug of freedom and wildness and want nothing more than to follow them over the hillside.
This morning, before I got out of bed, still sleepy as Waylon crawled back and forth over my body, the cooing of a mourning dove drifted through the yurt walls and gently welcomed me to the day. Now a dog barks and a crow caws and Waylon and Edge bumble out of the door to stoke the greenhouse fire.
All morning, I’ve stolen into seconds of silence: sipping tea in the rocking chair, standing at the open door and staring at the fog-covered mountains, sneaking up to the lofted bed while Waylon and Edge do dishes. I don’t want to leave this foggy morning, though the twilight’s mist has already risen from the fields. Isn’t that spring’s lesson though–that waking up ins’t always a matter of our mind’s readiness, that the day breaks open whenever it does, and we can break open, too.
Birch seeds cover the snow this morning, speckling the white ground like freckles on sun-kissed skin.
The seeds have little wings and tails, stretching out like birds flying across the snow. As I stand looking down at the wash of seeds, a flock of birds lights in on the birch branches above.
Their song reminds me of lace somehow, a high pitched chorus sifting through bare branches down to my ears, and suddenly it feels like spring is arriving.
How fitting to find these two, birch seeds and birds, scattering themselves out along the world on the first day of spring.
I always feel the tug of spring when March begins. We still have four feet of snow outside, and though we plunged below zero under the full moon last night, Wednesday’s above freezing temperatures melted the thick crust of ice and snow from the yurt roof. The day’s thaw was enough to make everyone smile more, to go outside without a coat on, to remember the re-discovery of warmth that spring brings.
All seasons extend invitations for discovery in their own way, but spring’s invitation always sounds the loudest to me. It comes in the calls and songs of birds returning: the honk of Canadian geese, the caroling robin, the high whistle of red-winged blackbirds, the rhythmic drumming of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Spring, more than any other season, announces itself in song.
I can’t get ahead of myself, though. The mornings here are still quiet and cold, and when the sunrise hits the Worcester Range across the valley, rather than waking us up into a new season, the light seems to amplify the mountains’ stillness.
We’re in the edges of the seasons now, between stillness and growth, and I take this time to read more, to set conscious rhythms for my days, to stop and breathe in gratitude every so often and ground myself. Soon, the greenhouse will be heated, seeding will be in full swing, the snow will melt, and the pace of the farm will go from a stroll to a sprint.
These are my experiences, though, my small discoveries. I love sharing them with you in hopes that you will share yours as well, and perhaps to encourage you to go outside and discover more. As Wendell Berry says, “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”
I sit outside in the morning and listen. Close by, birds jump between branches and fly from tree to tree, gliding, dipping and rising in the open space between the sugar-woods and white pines in this small protected clearing where we live. They all sing: tweeting, chirping, whistling. Birdsong flies around me, gentle and alive, calling me to this day. I remember the bobolink I saw in the field yesterday, and the bright yellow bird with black wings, and I almost stand to get my bird book so I can learn its name. But I don’t. I stay sitting outside, watching the birds here right now, wondering if I even know the bobolink, wondering if naming something actually brings knowledge, wondering if knowledge without experience is worth anything at all.
I have a friend, Kathy, who told me the story of her daughter’s birth. After two days of intermittent contractions, an exhausting night, and the final push, a baby lay on her chest, and Kathy and her husband looked at the child in awe. After a few moments, someone said, “would you like to know the sex of your baby?” And they learned they had a daughter. But imagine those moments before—those moments of knowing another being so intimately, of knowing another being out of raw experience, of knowing another being without naming it, and therefore knowing it purely, void of expectations and assumptions, knowing it purely and letting yourself be known as well.
“People think that when they turn their eyes from the earth to the sky they see the heavens. They set the orange fruit apart from the green leaves and say they know the green of the leaves and the orange of the fruit. But from the instant one makes a distinction between green and orange, the true color vanishes,” writes Masanobu Fukuoka in One Straw Revolution. He goes on to say, “People think they understand things because they become familiar with them. This is only superficial knowledge. It is the knowledge of the astronomer who knows the names of the stars, the botanist who knows the classification of the leaves and flowers, the artist who knows the aesthetics of green and red. This is not to know nature itself—the earth and sky, green and red. Astronomer, botanist, and artist have done no more than grasp impressions and interpret them, each within the vault of his own mind. The more involved they become with the activity of the intellect, the more they set themselves apart and the more difficult it becomes to live naturally.”
In college writing classes I learned that it is the job of the writer to put into words the things that are impossible to describe. As a writer, I must always reach further into expression until I find that one combination that elicits an unnamable feeling. I love this challenge. I love the way words can bend or stay strong. I love how the subtraction or addition of a single word can change the meaning of a sentence. The most amazing thing, though, is how the most powerful part of a written piece is often what is left out— not written, not described, not named at all.
I sit outside in the morning and listen, surrendering my desire to know. I watch the birds fly from tree to tree and see how the branches bow so slightly to catch them, how the play of the breeze moves along their wings, how the sun exposes the color of their feathers, and how the dappled shadows of leaves hide them. I sit outside, anchored to the ground, a maple tree behind me, a field of buttercups, dandelion, clover, fleabane, and grasses before me, all of which have been named, none of which can be known singularly, for they grow together in a shared landscape, and I am here, too, unraveling the knowledge of twenty-five years so I may know this one moment here and now.
“How is a child to find her own beliefs, unless she can stuff her pockets with all the truths she can find?”
I’ve been stuffing my pockets all my life, and now it’s time to empty out. I’ve been watching birds in flight, how they carry nothing as they glide. It’s time now to join them, to give up my pockets all together and to play in the wind with my hands stretched open, greeting a truth too big and too free to be held.
Today I wake to the sounds of cows mooing for their calves. It is 6:00 am, and soon the heifers will be brought in from the field to be milked and reunited with their babies. I’m not on for chores this morning, so I’ve slept in a bit. Edge left a fresh pot of coffee on the stove and took our dog Nobee for a walk.
Yesterday the sky stayed clear and heat settled in, but now thunder is banging overhead again and rain is falling. The sky looks light, though, and I’m hoping it will pass quickly. In the past week we’ve had longer, harder storms than I’ve ever seen. The rivers swell and rise, flooding more towns. Last Wednesday the wind started swirling as I was bringing the cows in for evening milking. I looked to see the northwest sky darken and send down bolts of lighting. Within minutes it was upon us, and just as the cows turned the corner around the barn, the wind whipped dirt into the air and our eyes. Edge, who had been doing skid-steer work near the barn, parked next to the tie-stalls and we ran in to take cover. We spent the next thirty minutes in the milk house waiting for a break in the weather so we could run back to the yurt. The wind kept up, the rain dumped like a waterfall, and the thunder and lightening struck so close together it was as if they had become one entity.
But the break came, and we sprinted back home.
The next morning brought more rain and news of floods and evacuations in near-by towns. A few panels had ripped off the barn roof, a chicken house was blown over, and the hay wagons were on their sides in the road, but all the animals were okay. The rain continued off and on, and until yesterday it felt like it might not let go.
There have been reprieves, though. Through it all calves have been born, chickens have laid eggs, and grass has grown. I’ve stumbled into moments of contentment and delight despite the persistent storms:
Pigs sucking up milk, munching food, and letting me scratch their backs;
Calves running up the sawdust pile and looking up with a sawdust mask on their faces;
A bobolink singing in the field while I moved fences;
Barn swallows flying in and out of the llama paddocks to their nest, which I found tucked in a corner beam inside the barn;
Walking out to the fields and seeing mist rising up to a clear sky;
Baking brownies in the yurt while rain sounded on the roof.
Through it all, our soils have drained well, so we have not been flooded here. I wonder how much more will come, how often we will see the extreme, or if we have even seen the extreme yet. Vermont feels more secure than other parts of the country right now, but still there are farmers who have not been able to plant because of floods, and others who cannot sell produce for 90 days after a flood because of the debris left on fields from the river.
I have thought before how animals seem to spend each day only working to find food and eat. I have thought how repetitious that seems, but as a farmer I am reminded that it’s what we all do. Whether we raise animals, grow vegetables, or work in an office, we eat. We must eat, and we must work for our food. The weather, be it rain, drought, tornado or sun, affects us all because it affects our food. What can we do to work with the weather? For so long we have fought against the environment, molding it into roads and buildings, asking it to support the luxuries of the western world.
I have changed my ideas of luxury.
Now convenience is going to the garden, not the grocery store. It is working with the soil and feeling the grit rub into my skin. It is drinking raw milk from the cows I help tend. It is paying for food in sweat and understanding the worth of money in this way. These luxuries may not seem to make life easier to some, but they do make life more meaningful. When the rain stops, as it just did, I notice the luxuries of beauty and peace that the world offers up for free.
We made it back in a 1988 Subaru DL wagon, all the way from Alaska to Vermont with no GPS (not really a problem since we drove on the same road for half the trip) and no cruise control (a bit more of a problem since our right butt-cheeks got sore from continual pressing on the accelerator). Besides the engine’s tendency to overheat, causing us to always have the heat on and the windows rolled down a bit, the trip was smooth–especially after buying two new tires in Whitehorse.
The day before we left Fairbanks, we decided to honor our love through marriage, so on the morning we left the Viking Lodge, we drove back through Tok and, with the town librarian and judge’s assistant as our witnesses, we said our vows and became husband and wife.
The road trip turned into our honeymoon, and as we traveled through the yukon, Jasper and Banff, Idaho, down into Southern Utah, across Colorado and Kansas, and all the way to the east, we reveled in the landscape and sank deeper into our love.
As we drove we saw birds: osprey, bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, geese, arctic tern, grouse, magpies, ravens, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, swans, ducks, a boreal owl, peregrine falcons, gray jays, blue jays, woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, and more we left unidentified.
We saw animals: buffalo, moose, elk, caribou, deer, a black wolf, gray fox, coyotes, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and wild horses.
At night we sought out campgrounds, or took a few turns down quiet roads to hidden pull-offs where we could park for the night. In the morning we made chai, ate granola, and packed the car again for the next leg of the journey. Our days were casual with steady driving and spontaneous stops to look at birds, take pictures and stretch our legs.
We spent two days in Southern Utah hiking and climbing before making the final push home, aided with chocolate and maple syrup.
Now we are back in Vermont, living and working on Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park. In the first week we have milked cows, witnessed the birthing of calves, been pooped and peed on, put up a yurt, planned our bean and corn plantings, waited out the rain so we can plow the field, and become part of the daily chore rotation. As the season progresses, we will also be helping to develop the farm’s educational programs, sell food at markets, work in the 2-acre vegetable garden, and of course, with all this milk, we will make ice cream.I am happy. I am so happy. To be living in a yurt. To be living on a farm. To be living with my love~
This morning I saw wild turkeys in an open pasture, the males all puffed up, displaying their copper fanned-out tails and putting on their mating show for the females. It was warm enough for sap to flow again at 8:00 this morning, and I almost believed the projected storm to be false. After all, on Wednesday afternoon—just two days ago—I saw a skein of geese fly, the dark torpedoes of their bodies standing out against the blue sky. Black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, mourning doves, red-winged black birds, crows and robins all flew about between trees, feeders, bushes and grass. Now it is raining and snowing at once. I hear droplets on the roof, but look out and see only heavy flakes falling, white static in the air. Where are the birds now?
Down here in the valley no snow has accumulated, and the soggy brown fields still dominate the scene while the white blankets that are left linger on the fringes where field turns to forest. South of me in Barre, where my parents live, an inch of snow grows on the ground. The meteorologists say the storm is moving north.
“April Fools,” says spring.
But only those with expectations can be fooled. The crocuses have popped up, but the buds on trees have not even begun to form. It is a concert, then, and we must listen not just to one voice, not just to the birds, but to the trees, the streams, the bears and snakes as well. Listen to the music. Look at the score. The last notes of the winter movement are stretching out to an end. We are only at the beginning of the springtime crescendo.