Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Buck Mountain, Christmas Morning 2002
Dear Friends,
After a long hard day traveling back from a visit with my parents, I find myself too tired to write anything new, so I offer you this by way of a Christmas greeting, written several years ago, on another Christmas eve here on our hillside farm:

It is a cold, clear night here in the Valley. Orion is rising in the
southwest over the new barn, bright in a moonless sky. The sheep flock is
quiet inside. I was tempted, briefly, to walk down at midnight to see if any
of the animals would talk, as the old tale says they do on Christmas eve. It
is very cold though, and the house is warm and quiet. It is lambing time for
part of the flock. There are now at least two dozen newborns in the barn,
small high cries mixing with the deeper voices of their mothers when we go
down to feed. A newcomer myself to this rural life, I am surprised to
realize that a manger is no longer something in a Nativity scene on a lawn
or found in miniature on a table, but a fixture I toss hay into daily. As we
fed today I recalled an Orthodox hymn, sung in preparation for the feast of
the Nativity, that compares Mary to a ewe lamb, like those we have in our
own barn: "Make ready, O cave for the Ewe Lamb comes, bearing Christ in her
womb. And do thou, O manger, accept Him who by his word has loosed us
dwellers on the earth from acts that are against reason. Ye shepherds
abiding in the fields, bear witness to the fearful wonder. And ye, Magi from
Persia, offer to the King gold, frankincense and myrrh: for the Lord has
appeared from a Virgin Mother." I look over the barnyard and, with the words
of the hymn in my mind, see our own nativity scene. There are some
differences though. If I were to go to the barn now, there would be no Magi.
My two sons, though they grow smarter by the day, are not yet wise men and
their father would be a poor third if they were. If there have been angels,
we have entertained them unaware, as the apostle says in Hebrews, in their
guise as strangers and guests. So, our home-grown nativity scene is
incomplete. We do, though, have a camel of sorts, for color, who can double
as the census taker in Luke's Gospel. Caesar, on our farm, is the name of a
guardian llama who sticks his head through the barn door at night and looks
over the new lambs. He appears to be counting, or at least conducting an
imperial inspection. Thinking of all this reminds me of a poem by Wendell
Berry, which, now that I look at it again, says it all better than I could.
Here is part of it:

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night's end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning's light, the air
around them joyful as a choir.
(From: A Timbered Choir; The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997)

Since I can put it no better than that, I will only add, Merry Christmas.
Christ is born, Glorify Him!

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Orthodox Churches that follow the revised Julian calendar are celebrating the Forefeast of the Nativity in preparation for Christmas. Here is Archimandrite Ephrem's translation of one of the hymns for Matins on the Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity:

Strange, wonderful and dread mysteries! The Lord of glory came to earth, and as a beggar in a cave he put on flesh, seeking to call back Adam, and to deliver Eve from her pains.

By your swaddling bands you loose the cords of offences, while by your poverty, O Compassionate, you make all rich. Laid in manger for unreasoning beasts, you free mortals from irrational wickedness, O Word of God ever without beginning.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in exploring the strange and wonderful mystery of the incarnation, which is the real "reason behind the season" to spend some time at Archimandrite Ephrem's page with his translations of the varied services for the Feast.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Small Matters of Life and Death

With the nighttime temperature below freezing, we try and get the ewes close to lambing into the barn at night. Monday night two stayed away. Susan was in Winchester doing some last minute Christmas shopping. I was caught late at the office making a last ditch effort to salvage a case that was doomed from the start. (Me: "You mean your only evidence against this guy is the testimony of a juvenile who himself is a thief as well as being a lying sack of [insert rude term for organic fertilizer] and who will plead the 5th if I put him on the stand?" Officer: "Yep, that's about right." Me: [insert colorful barnyard metaphors] ) What with one thing and another, I did not get home until well after dark. I called the ewes from the lower field in and thought I had them all. Just after sunrise Tuesday, I saw two ewes standing by the barn with something small walking between them. After putting the dog in the house, I went back to let them in and found the lamb I had seen before, plus two more I hadn't. One was frozen, laying lifeless where he was born. The second was still breathing, stretched shivering on the frozen mud, her skin covered with a delicate layer of frost. After alerting the rest of the family, I brought the survivor up to the house where a box with a heat lamp was ready. Last night Susan took her down to the barn and put her in a pen with her mother. The past two nights we have been careful about counting heads. They are so fragile, yet sometimes unexpectedly resilient. Why did one live and one die? I don't know, but here is a picture of mother and daughter, reunited, warm and sheltered.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

I tend to write far less about my work as a prosecutor than I do about life on the farm. Most of the good stories from work are told over meals, or after dinner, to friends curious about the oddities and tragedies seen in the practice of criminal law. A lot of what I do I simply don't talk much about. Some material is confidential, some of it is simply too sad for this forum. Some involves people who's right to privacy or anonymity I feel bound to respect. Nonetheless, there are a few tales that I have told and retold over the years. Perhaps I will tell them here in the coming months. In the meantime, here is a photo of the site of the other half of my life, taken the day of our recent snowstorm.

Bishop Seraphim has been writing about Mother Maria Skobstova in his LiveJournal. At various times in her life a student, a poet, a revolutionary, a wife, a mother, a social worker, and a professed Orthodox nun, she worked among the destitute and mentally ill in Paris between the wars. Mother Maria died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, sentenced for the "crime" of protecting Jews in Nazi occupied France. It is perhaps too early to tell whether her life is a precursor of new kind of sanctity in the Orthodox Church, or simply a unique and glorious aberration. There is a growing movement of devotion to her life and memory, as witnessed by this web site, which (somewhat prematurely) contains material for veneration of her as a canonized saint. There is a fine biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price by Sergei Hackel, which appears to be out of print (temporarily one can hope.)

In a second post on Mother Maria, Bishop Seraphim includes a sketch of her with Fr Dimitrii Klepenin. Fr Dimitrii worked alongside Mother Maria, and died in Ravensbruck as well. He has been a hero of mine since I read the following exchange with Hofmann, his Gestapo interrogator, recounted in Hackel's book:

Fr Dimitrii was interrogated for four hours. He made no attempt to exculpate himself. Later, at Lourmel, Hofmann was to describe how he was offered his freedom on the condition that he helped no more Jews. Fr Dimitrii had raised his pectoral cross, shown the figure on it and asked, "But do you know this Jew?" He was answered with a blow to the face. "Your priest did himself in", stated Hofmann. "He insists that if he were to be freed he would act exactly as before."

Friday, December 13, 2002

Wednesday's ice is turning to slush and mud. A slight rise in temperature, a round of rain mixed with sleet, and the remaining snow is suddenly looking threadbare and moth-eaten. The dampness puts a chill in the bones worse than the single digit cold did. I shouldn't complain. This would probably qualify as a mild spring day in Vladivostok or Baffin Bay. Siberians would be shedding layers and complaining about the unseasonable heat. Even here in Virginia, I can think back to a blizzard a few years ago to remember what real winter weather is like. We were stuck on the farm for days, drifts blowing too deep even for the four wheel drive. Winds so cold that my sweat-soaked pants froze into knife edges, cutting into my legs as we walked back from hauling hay bales to stranded cattle. The days of snow were interrupted by a fast moving front of warm air, raising the temperature by 40 degrees in a matter of hours. Frozen water reverted to its liquid state almost instantaneously. Water filled the storm drains and shot out of the manhole covers in town, giving each street its own miniature fountains. Streams overflowed. The piles of snow remaining in the pasture vanished, leaving puddles and temporary marshes. A day later, the temperature dropped, and we were hit by an ice storm. One cow, confused beyond bearing, simply dropped dead in the field. The rest of us survived just fine, a few pictures of man-high drifts on the porch the only permanent record of the experience.

Yesterday morning there was a small break in the clouds at sunrise, illuminating the ridges to the south. Here is my attempt to capture the result:


Wednesday, December 11, 2002

This morning brought a steady fall of freezing rain. The drive into work was tricky, the drive home worse. Trees encased in ice bowed, and in some cases broke over Browntown Road. Some branches were so low that it was like driving in a crystal tunnel. Halfway home, a tree fallen across both lanes of the road send me back the way I came. A thirty minute detour, and I was home in time to help with the evening feeding down at the barn. Sheep have an unerring instinct for bad weather, and one ewe marked the occasion by having twins in the barn. Susan had locked the more pregnant sheep up last night expecting just this. Susan hung a heat lamp to take the chill off the new arrivals, and then had to wait five hours for the power company to get fallen limbs off the lines. Nonetheless, mother, son and daughter did well, and are now resting in a warm pen. By sunset, the falling ice had turned to drizzle, with low clouds and fog rolling in off the mountains. The temperature is predicted to rise tomorrow, and none too soon. As I was walking the dog tonight, I could hear branches breaking under the weight of ice. Some would groan, creak, then snap. Others would go at once, with a sound like a shotgun blast, followed by the oddly musical cascade hiss of ice down the hillside.

Here is the view at home after the ice just before dusk:

Monday, December 09, 2002

I accumulate books the way a ship accumulates barnacles. They just seem to attach themselves as I go about my daily life. Where do they come from? Chain stores, independents, used book stores, discounters, library sales; who knows. I look on my shelves these days and wonder in surprise, when did I get that? I've been trying to work the backlog of odd books acquired and then shelved unread. This weekend I pulled out a paperback edition of the Selected Poems of the late Australian poet, Gwen Harwood. I had never encountered her work before the book showed up on the library discard shelf. A quick check of shows that her work is out of print, or of "limited availability." This is a shame. She has a unique voice; erudite, passionate, cynical, sentimental and wise. She is also a master of form. Born in 1920, it is hard to think of many other poets of her generation who are as unselfconsciously at home with the stresses and rhythms of traditional verse. Yet, she is unmistakably modern. Let me bend fair use by typing out a poem from one of her later volumes. It is probably not one of her best, but it does capture some of what appeals about her work.


As always after partings, I
get from its place the Oxford Donne,
inked in with aches from adolescence.

Who needs drugs if she has enough
uppers and downers in her head?
Though names are not engraved herein,

who can be literally dead
if he leaps from an underlining
into my flesh at The Sunne Rising?

Lou Salome in her old age: "Whether
I kissed Nietzsche on Monte Sacro
I find I do not now remember."

Young Saint Therese of Lisieux, writing
"When I love, it is forever."
One mistress of half Europe, one

enclosed with a transcendent lover.
Dear ladies, shall we meet halfway
between sanctity and liberation?

Today I leave the book unopened.
Strangely, this farewell's left me joyful.
Can ghosts die? Yes, old ghosts are summoned

back to their shades of ink. My lover
will come again to me, my body
to its true end will give him joy.

Now in his absence let me walk
at peaceful sunset in the pasture
feeding my geese, my latter children,

and when the afterglow is gone
Lou's ravishing forgetfulness
will rock my soul with saving laughter,

and the singlehearted saint will braid
all loves into one everlasting.
Then, if I need a lullaby,

good Doctor Donne, will you attend?

Saturday, December 07, 2002

A few housekeeping changes on the blog today. Since the ratio of photo to text has gotten closer to fifty-fifty, the load time on the page has become a problem. The long term solution is to start writing more, and more frequently. For the short run, I have reduced the number of posts on the main page to what is, I hope, a manageable size for folks with dial-up connections. It means bumping some of my own favorite posts and pictures to the archives, but I suppose they have been out front long enough.

Greetings to St. Stephen's Musings, the new Orthodox weblog on the block, added to the list on the left. I have pruned two sites that have, in one case, vanished after months of inactivity, and in another, been inactive since August.

I am always amazed that anyone not related to me by blood or marriage reads the site, and am particularly amazed that people actually put a link on their own site. In that vein, I have added a few more folks who have linked this site to the list on the left. I wish I could come up with a better name for the cross-links part of the blog, as the folks there are well worth reading in their own right and I check in on all of them frequently. Perhaps it should be called "People I would read even if they hadn't linked me"?

For those who do come for the pictures, here is the view from home this morning:

Thursday, December 05, 2002

The first snow storm of the season arrived last night and stayed around until early afternoon. Remember the old song that went, "So if you've no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!"? On a farm, you always have some place to go and something to do. It doesn't make the scenery any less beautiful, but it does place the whole enterprise in a different light. We were out shortly after sunrise feeding the sheep in the barn who are close to lambing, and bringing in the Hampshire ewes from the field for some grain now that the grass is under eight inches of dry white powder. In addition to the grain, Susan had round bales delivered to have hay on hand for forage during the day. While the sheep may look cold in the following picture, they actually do pretty well in inclement weather. After all, they grow their own wool sweaters. Nonetheless, they were glad to come in for a little extra nourishment

This evening we brought in the commercial ewes from the front field for a grain ration. They had not discovered the hay bale put out for their part of the flock, so after they had eaten in the barnyard, we led them to it. Susan captured the scene below of your author playing Pied Piper with a bucket of grain:


Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Changes in Latitudes

It is hard to believe that this time last week I was walking bare footed in warm beach sand. The sun is still not quite up this morning and the temperature is barely out of single digits. Yesterday I had to use a hammer to break up the ice on the outside water trough. Snow is predicted for tonight, but last night's sky was clear and star-filled. It is the time of the new moon, leaving the stars as the only light outside not made by man. By 10:30 p.m. when I walked the dog for the last time, the ground was already frozen, bits of frost on the grass scattering light from the house, winking back in echoes of the stars overhead. The tropical sunrise was a thing of wonder, but there is beauty here too in the colder latitudes. Stars above, frost glinting below. Night's lantern/ Pointed with pierced lights, and breaks of rays/ Discover'd everywhere. Or so says Gerard Manley Hopkins in a fragment preserved in his collected works. Despite, or perhaps because of, the cold air, the stars were particularly bright. Perhaps the fragment from Hopkins was a warm-up for this great shout at the night sky:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! air abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!--
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

The sun is up now, and time for morning chores. The sunrise here does not have an ocean view, but the light and shadow on the mountains have their own beauties; a little comfort in the cold.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Susan whisked me away for a surprise trip last week with the little extra money she made coaching this fall. She lined up neighbors to care for the sheep, sent the boys to the other side of the farm to stay with the in-laws, and put us on a plane heading south. So, instead of the usual morning picture of Hogback Mountain, here is the view just before sunrise from Fortune Beach, Grand Bahama Island, 11/29/02. (I promise, no more vacation pictures after this one!)