Thursday, November 21, 2002

New Arrival

Here is the first lamb of the season, doing her best to have a meal in spite of the silly man with the camera.
I blithely (and somewhat flippantly) said in my last post that "there is always a 'better' if you know where, or how, to look." For what that means in depth, go to this cry of joy and gratitude from the Soviet Gulag, a place that, like the Nazi death camps, was as close as we humans have come to a scale model of hell. This is faith without false sentiment, paid for at great price. Thanks to Bishop Seraphim for posting it.
Committing to life on a farm is not unlike committing to a marriage, you take it "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish," till death (or your banker) do you part. These last few weeks have brought us a little of everything. Last season's lambs brought better prices at the sale earlier this month than we had hoped for, even if the older ewes and bucks we sold to cull the flock did not. It was hard to see some of them go, but, looking at the newly reduced flock, I admire the quality I see, and admire Susan's good judgement in deciding who to keep.

The "worse" this week has been the sudden illness of Leroy, one of our llamas. He was laying down in the field this morning, too sick to rise. Susan covered him to provide some protection from the weather and I made an emergency run to the vet after getting out of Court at lunchtime. Leroy has a bad temper, even for a gelded guard llama, but did not even have the energy to spit on me as I shot paste down his throat, pushed pills down him, and injected him with an array of needles. When I checked this evening at sundown, he was no better, but also no worse. As I left, he was still unable to stand, but was eating the grain I had put out with a good appetite. We will keep fighting and, we hope, so will he.

The "better" (and there is always a "better" if you know where, or how, to look) this week was the arrival of the first lamb of the new season. A little early, but very welcome. Susan found her in the field next to her mother, still wet from birth. With a cold rain in the forecast, she brought them into the barn and set up a pen. Both mother and daughter are doing well, and I will post a picture as soon as blogger and my internet provider settle down and play nice again.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Fellow Appalachian blogger Fred1st was out himself this morning watching the Leonids. His reflections are here.
I was up early this morning, out on the lawn with the boys to watch the Leonid Meteor Shower. We live in a small valley surrounded by mountains; a bowl of mountain below, hiding the lights of town, the bowl of the sky above, filled with stars and moonlight. Too much sky to take in at a single glance. We stood, back to back, facing outward and looking up, crying out as another piece of comet dust streaked burning across the sky.
Robert Brady offers a haiku on his Notes From Pure Land Mountain site that includes crows, persimmons, and an entirely awful but appropriate pun. My own introduction to persimmons came as a boy living in Japan. Wonderful fruit, but my first bite into an unripe one taught me the invaluable lesson that, sometimes, timing is everything.

While you are visiting his site, page down here for an essay about an encounter with a handmade chair. If you ever have encountered old quality, hand-crafted furniture, you know of what he speaks. It is a great loss that this experience is not more readily available. The problem is that good craftsmanship depends on the presence of a good craftsman. They were perhaps more common in earlier days than now, but they were never just dropping off trees. If your local furniture maker (or you yourself) did not have the gift, then you sat on furniture that was ugly, uncomfortable and expensive to obtain. The same with cooking. However much we decry fast food, it is hot, filling and reliably edible. Many households in an earlier age were not so blessed in their diet. One of my great-grandfathers was an Episcopal minister in southern Virginia at the turn of the century. In his memoirs he recalls shocking a diocesan meeting by holding up a biscuit, actually green in color, and saying that what his people needed more than anything else were missionary cooks. An inadequate diet, and poor handling of what foodstuffs were available were as much a feature of the rural landscape as the classic vision of the farmhouse kitchen, tables overflowing with fresh, well cooked food.

Our mass production techniques have one great virtue, which should not be underestimated. They provide adequate goods and services for people for whom the alternative was not hand made goods, but no goods at all. The great vice of mass production is evident in Brady's essay. There is a quality about the best hand work that goes beyond computation. As Brady puts it: "This was a chair that had been made by transforming the beauty of trees through the beauty of hands into the beauty of chairs." There is evidence in the best work of something that can only be called grace. As an Orthodox Christian, I would say that it bears witness to the uncreated energies of God, that fill and uphold all things. A Calvinist might prefer the term "Common Grace" to get at the same point. The virtue of our mass-production economy is that we can fill the bellies and furnish the houses of people who in previous ages went hungry and lived in destitution. The vice is that in the quest for the adequate, we have ruled out in advance the possibility of grace in the work of human hands.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Here is a page I've been meaning to link to for a while, the online record of Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin's interdisciplinary seminar on the Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism. Some of the work here is meant for the specialist, other parts can be read profitably by anyone. Father Alexander's two part essay, Liturgy and Mysticism: The Experience of God in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a good place to start. (Requires the Adobe Acrobat reader.)
In China and Japan, almost to the present century, an educated man could both paint and write poetry, as the occasion called for. It was a custom to show a new painting to a friend, who would compose a poem in reaction, and inscribe it in the margin of the work. Being no painter, I compensate with a digital camera. Being no poet, I blog. Fortunately, there are some folks who are keeping the tradition alive. I thank Huw at Doxos for the fine haiku, written in response to today's view of Hogback Mountain. They should be inscribed on the picture itself, but I will settle for linking them here.
Last week was a slow one for blogging. Lots of work and family commitments. By way of apology, here is the morning view of Hogback Mountain. Yes, that is snow, our first of the season for the higher altitudes. Down here where I sit, it is crisp and cool, with just the barest remnant of frost on the ground.

Autumn's third month-snow on the banks, the flowers
first blossom white;
a whole night of frost in the forest--
the leaves have all turned red.

WEN T'ING-YUN (Trans. Jonathan Chaves)

Monday, November 11, 2002

Another View of Hogback Mountain, Morning Fog and Cloud

I read somewhere that the Appalachian mountains are cousins to the peaks of eastern China, separated with the drift of continents. I can believe it on a morning like this. Where is a Chinese watercolorist when you need one?

Saturday, November 09, 2002

Some months back I linked to Michael McClellan's pictures of monks and monasteries. Here is an equally luminous gallery of black and white photographs from a monk-photographer at the ancient Valaam Monastery in Russia. The monastery, vacant from 1944 until the fall of the Soviet state, is now being restored and repopulated by Orthodox monks. The monastery's web page is here.
Morning Light and Shadows, A View of Hogback Mountain

Today was one of those rare days where you cannot turn your head without seeing something beautiful. A warm breeze better suited to September than November, leaves past their peak, but still a riot of color to be seen.

Seated in fallen leaves
watching mountains from the
bank -- Indian summer

Kodojin (1898) (Trans. Stephen Addis)
Buck Mountain 11/09/02

Llama Update

Tippy and McKenzie did it again. The morning after I blogged about their last adventure, they found their way back to Browntown Road. They were snoozing on the lawn when I woke up on Wednesday. Later that morning, as I was walking the dog, I looked for them and they were nowhere in sight. Immediately heading for the road, I heard to my horror a long, steady honking car horn. As I got to the end of the driveway, they were leaping back across the cattleguard, ahead of a kind soul who was herding them back with his pickup truck. The pair are now banished to a field with no road access, behind the barn. Their replacements in the front field are Avery and Leroy, both white with brown spots. At night, they look like ghosts walking in the moonlight. So far, they have shown no signs of itchy feet, or an urge to see foreign parts.
I was out walking Skid, our border collie, last night after the moon had gone down behind Buck Mountain. After a week of much needed rain, the skies were clear, the band of the milky way shining in an arc over my rooftop. To the east, the constellation Orion was just sliding up over Skyline Drive, tilted sideways. The sight brought to mind a favorite poem by Robert Frost, The Star-Splitter, which begins;

You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion's having caught me.

Being a part-time farmer, too much of my work gets done at dusk, or after dark. Sometimes the warm house is so much more inviting than the cold barn that daylight escapes while I linger, changing from coat and tie into mud-spattered denim. Today was blessedly, unseasonably warm and, being a Saturday, chores were done in time to enjoy, rather than race, the setting sun.

Looking the the archives of my weblog, I ran across this entry about a cold, but clear night this April where Frost's poem made another appearance. If you are interested, you can click here and scroll down to Sunday, April 7.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Southern expatriate Huw at Doxos has some fine verse in haiku and tanka form inspired by photos of our Appalachian mountains in fall color.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Leapin llamas! Tippy and McKenzie's Big Adventure

The gentlemen staring back at you from our driveway are Tippy and McKenzie. Tippy is on the left, Mckenzie is the dark faced fellow on the right. They are llamas, a South American animal, that looks, as you can see, like a camel crossed with a deer, and then dressed up in a thick wooly coat. They are supposed to be working for their living, guarding sheep from dogs, coyotes and other neighborhood ne'er do wells. Instead, they have discovered how to jump the cattleguard into our yard, where the grass is tastier, and there are rose leaves for dessert. You can find them on a sunny afternoon stretched out full length on the lawn, idly chewing, looking for all the world like sunbathing Eurotrash waiting for the cabana boy with the next round of drinks.

This morning they discovered they could use their jumping skills on the cattleguard at the end of the driveway on Browntown Road. I was moments from getting in the shower when a neighbor showed up to tell us that we had llamas on the loose. The pair had made it down the road to the house of another neighbor on Gooney Run and were munching on his grass. This was not satisfactory to us, the neighbor, nor to the morning commuter traffic nearby on Browntown Road. If you live off a two lane stretch of asphalt like we do, you soon realize their are only two types of drivers; old folks plodding down the road no faster than twenty-five, and younger types making an attempt on the sound barrier. The thought of two llamas in the road as a Ford F-150 rounds the turn at sub-orbital velocity was too grim to contemplate. One son and I chased them up out of the yard and across the road while Susan played crossing guard. I followed them down the in-law's driveway in my own truck until we could route them through a gate in the fence, some 50 acres away from where they started. After going through the gate, they began to recognize their own field, and looked at us like we had performed some kind of magic trick. Since they were in the same pasture as the sheep they were supposed to be guarding, we figured it was a job well done. This evening they were waiting for us, back in the front yard.
Bishop Seraphim describes his drive through a "New England festival of color . . . One could do worse than to imagine Heaven in terms of a New England, or Hudson Valley village in the Fall". Here further south in the Appalachians, we have our own, smaller, festival; in my eyes no less beautiful. It is customarily greeted by lines of cars from the D.C. suburbs backed up waiting for their turn on Skyline Drive. I don't mind. As the Chinese Poet, Po Chu-I put it;

"Beautiful places basically have no established owners;
in general, mountains belong to people who love mountains

Oh to have a home
In such a quiet leafy spot,
Yearns the city man;
Yet he never builds a hut in mountain country.

Okuma Kotomichi from Donald Keene's Anthology of Japanese Literature

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Two blogs I read, Orthopraxis (a.k.a. and Xavier+ have recently mentioned the victory of Constantine (Saint Constantine for us Easterners) at Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D.. The victory followed a vision (or so the story goes) where Constantine saw a vision of the Cross, together with the words, IN HOC SIGNO VINCES, "In this sign you shall conquer." The legalization of the Church that followed changed everything. In some protestant circles it is customary to think of Constantine's embrace of Christianity as the beginning of the end of the real church and its replacement by an official, imperially endorsed counterfeit. Many writers speak of our age as "Post-Constantinian," and this is almost always regarded as a good thing. There is a truth to that. Secular power's embrace of Christianity often results in a too intimate embrace of secular power by Christians. But there is also another truth, that trying to embody Gospel truths in law and culture is itself a not unworthy goal. Let me give an example. When an ambulance comes up behind traffic with lights flashing and siren wailing, the cars in front give way or pull over. The passenger in the ambulance might be a drunk, fallen in a gutter, it might be a thief, injured while committing a crime. It might be a person of no importance, with no claim on any worldly power, nonetheless, cars pull over to let him pass. The only requirement for this special treatment is that the passenger be a person in pain and in need. If the Chairman of General Motors is ahead of an ambulance, his car pulls over. The same for a Senator. Your family name doesn't exempt you. Your religion or your ethnicity doesn't privilege you. It doesn't matter, rich or poor, famous or unknown, if you are in that ambulance, by law and by custom, all give way to let you pass. We give the sick and suffering a prerogative and privilege reserved in cultures untouched by the Gospel solely for the powerful. This is what "Constantinian" Christianity at its best is about. This is also why I have mixed feelings when I hear the phrase "Post-Constantinian."

Friday, November 01, 2002

In an entry on the LiveJournal for Orthodox Christianity, Bishop Seraphim Sigrist asks about what icon touches you. By way of an answer to that question I present the clumsily photographed image on the left, an icon made by a friend of a friend. Before becoming Orthodox, I met a Russian couple, Mark and Lena Khaisman, then living in Front Royal. Mark was working as a stained glass designer for a local studio, but had trained in Russia as an iconographer. I had seen icons before, under glass from a distance at museums, or as prints in books. When I saw his works for the first time, held them, really looked at them, there was a quality I had never before imagined. It is a cliche these days to call icons "windows to heaven." I did not see heaven, but when I looked through these "windows", there were depths that looked back, judging, and comforting. It was the kind of encounter with the Spirit I thought possible only in prayer and reading the Scriptures. This was unexpected to say the least. In my mind icons were simply another form of religious art, instructive when used properly, idolatrous when abused, but totally understandable within my Anglican/evangelical world view. Standing before Mark's icons I felt like a wading pool swimmer shown the ocean for the first time. To my regret, I never purchased one of his before he and Lena left Front Royal for Philadelphia. My wife Susan did buy me as an unexpected present the icon displayed here. It had been carved by a friend of Mark's back in Moscow, blessed, and sent to America in hopes that it would send back some hard currency to help his family survive in the worst days following the Soviet collapse. I had admired it at Mark and Lena's home, and it took my breath away again when I unwrapped it in mine. It would be overstating the case to say that I became Orthodox to make a proper place for this icon in my life, but it would not be a lie either. For the curious, the icon is a bas-relief, carved in wood and lightly lacquered, of the "Vladimir Mother of God." The Orthodox Church in America web pages have a history of the place of the "Vladimir" icon in Russian piety here.