Monday, January 27, 2003

My father-in-law keeps a flock of peacocks on the farm. They mostly stay over near his house about forty acres south of us, roosting in the Chinese chestnuts and stealing food from the cats. At the end of the summer, the males drop the tail feathers they have spent a year growing, leaving a kind of iridescent trail as they walk around the farm. Some blow away, some we pick up and pass on as gifts to friends and visitors. A few end up in odd corners around the in-laws' house and ours, forgotten until you run across them in the dead of winter while searching for some lost item. Living with peacocks is not always easy. They will eat almost anything, and the presence of one-eyed cats at the in-laws' house gives credence to the speculation that birds are the final descendants of the more aggressive small dinosaurs. No one who has lived through their calls at evening during nesting season will forget the experience. Flannery O'Connor wrote a magazine piece about the flock at her family's place in Milledgeville Georgia titled King of the Birds, anthologized in the Collected Works from the Library of America and in Mystery and Manners, an earlier collection by Sally Fitzgerald. She writes of the peafowl's evening voice:

The peacock perhaps has violent dreams. Often he wakes and screams "Help! Help!" and then from the pond and the barn and the trees around the house a chorus of adjuration begins:
Lee-yon lee-yon,
Mee-yon mee-yon!
Eee-e-yoy eee-e-yoy,
Eee-e-yoy eee-e-yoy!

The restless sleeper may wonder if he wakes or dreams

I have always, less poetically, described the sound as rather like a cat being crushed under a giant rusty hinge. Nonetheless, they are glorious creatures in their season, and finding one of those forgotten feathers in the dead of winter is like finding a flash of summer sunlight, preserved and radiant. What brought on these reflections was discovering the following poem in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002: Ninety Years of America's Most Distinguished Verse Magazine, newly arrived at the local library. The poem is by George Scarbrough, a Tennessee poet born in 1915, and still writing today. I had not heard of him before, and the loss was mine.


The old poet loves peacock feathers
And gathers them as they fall, one
By one, from perches in the trees
Near his house.

First, he caressed
Them with a dry writing brush, oh, so
Carefully, lest he separate the delicate
Spines, knowing the colors are interlocked.

Then, he looks for a place to stand them
In his cramped little house. Proper
Location, he says, is half of any art.
Near his bed he keeps a jarful of
These planetary pertubations.

In the egg-yolk light of his lamp,
He sees universes scintillating in blue
and gold like his beloved Saturn,
And hears from close by roosts, the dry
Clattering of galaxies being re-arranged.

And then the cry of damnation comes:
He sleeps and reams of starfalls
And all the rumpus of dragons.

The link above on Scarbrough's name will take you to a small press keeping some of his work in print. They have a sampling of his poems on-line together with a short biography. The Poetry Anthology is also well worth a look; a hundred years of poems, all workmanlike in their various fashions, some simply splendid. In addition to the names you find in any anthololgy, there are some wonderful discoveries waiting for the dedicated reader.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

...Wind chill advisory tonight...
Overnight low temperatures will fall to between 5 and 10 degrees
above Zero in the Shenandoah valley overnight. While winds this
evening will be light...By morning...Winds are expected to Increase
to around 10 mph. This will produce wind chill values between Zero
and 10 degrees below Zero

The ewes with lambs are in the barn; the newest in pens, the most fragile with heat lamps hung overhead. When Susan got home from teaching this afternoon, she went over to my in-laws to pick up a lamb born out in the cold today and rescued by a neighbor bringing hay. She is warming in a box in the basement before returning to her mother in the barn. Her sibling was no so lucky, and froze in the afternoon wind before the neighbor came by. If last year went by without a real winter, this year we are making up for it. The snow of the past few weeks has been in its way a blessing. The bitter cold of this week has not. We fill every trough to the brim when we can, unscrew the hoses from the faucets, and hope they drain down the hillside before the remaining water turns solid. We keep a hammer handy in the barn to smash the ice on the water troughs so the sheep can drink. We watch the ewes carefully, and try to get them in the barn when they look like lambing. Susan keeps the intensive care box ready and waiting in the basement. We watch the news, waiting for warmer weather.

These temperatures are nothing for folks in New England, or anywhere within shouting distance of the Canadian border. For us in the Shenandoah, they are a cruel surprise. Not that we don't get one or two truly frigid evenings each winter. The shock is having one or two weeks where forty degrees seems like a tropical dream.

The melting snow brought a little green back to the pasture. The cold has turned that back to monochrome. Here is a different sort of weather report from the Japanese poet Saigyo, written a little over 800 years ago:

Fields we saw
blooming with
so many different flowers,
frost-withered now
to a single hue

(Trans. Burton Watson)

Saturday, January 18, 2003

I have had a request for more lamb pictures. That is harder than it might sound, as the little beggars are perpetual motion machines. The only time you can get one to stand still is when it is sleeping or eating. The one pictured below was still a little shaky on its legs, being only fifteen or twenty minutes old. Susan found mother and daughter in the field just before the evening feeding, the lamb still warm from birth, moisture steaming off her wool in the cold.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Two brief snowstorms have swept through since Sunday. The second is melting this afternoon after leaving two inches of dry powder. Earlier, a stiff wind was blowing loose snow over the pasture, a soft hiss in the background during the morning walk with the dog. The weather gave Susan and the kids a day off from school, and since the Courthouse is closed for Virginia's Lee-Jackson holiday, the whole family was down at the barn this morning. I took along the digital cameral and offer you three photos from this morning;

Apres Ski at the Haybale


Waiting for his share

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Our see-saw weather left snow on the ground the morning of the Feast of Theophany. By Wednesday, it had melted, leaving marshy places and running water. We have been living under drought conditions the last few years here in Virginia, and this is most welcome. There is a small spring south of the house on the other side of the little run that cuts through the farm that has been dry for some time. To tell the truth, I had forgotten it was there until I found myself stepping over inches of water on my morning walk with the dog. It is flowing again, out from under a large rock as if struck by Moses himself.

On a farm, it is impossible to ignore the fact of water. We pump our household water from a well drilled when the house was built. Some of house water gets shared with the sheep in the barn. Out in the pasture, they drink from the run that bisects the property, flowing down into Gooney Run, which itself flows into the Shenandoah River. We know where our water comes from, how it is used and where it goes. I find that, in this area at least, knowledge only increases mystery. No amount of learning about the hydrological cycle can erase the basic wonder, that rains grow grass, and grass, through a kind of biochemical alchemy, turns into the lambs that play outside over the fence. During the worst of our drought, the grass stopped growing. The grass feeds our sheep, and rainfall brings the grass. No rain, and not just our lawn, but our life dries up and blows away. It makes it harder to take for granted this most basic of blessings. When we pray in the Liturgy "For favorable weather, an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and temperate seasons," I may perhaps pray a little harder than some of my fellow parishioners, and have a little different idea of what constitutes "favorable weather."

A key moment in the celebration of the Feast of the Theophany, the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus, is the blessing of the waters. As he blesses, the priest plunges the cross into the water, making water, which gives natural life, an icon of the living water which gives eternal life. As Dumitru Staniloae put it, "all things found in the middle between God and the human person call out for the cross." The presence of the cross in the midst of the waters reminds us of both of the fragility of our natural life, and the hope that our "natural" life will be taken up and transformed into something greater. It is customary for Orthodox homes to be blessed by the same water consecrated at Theophany. I reprint here one of the prayers said at that blessing, with the hope that each of you find salvation in your own house, and that you may have an abundance of the water of life:

0 God our Savior, the True Light, Who was baptized in the Jordan by the Prophet John, and Who did deign to enter under the roof‑tree of Zacchaeus, bringing salvation unto him and unto his house: do You, the same Lord, keep safe also from harm those who dwell herein; grant to them Your blessing, purification and bodily health, and all their petitions that are unto salvation and Life everlasting; for blessed are You, as also Your Father Who is from everlasting, and Your All‑Holy, Good and Life‑creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

The new year has brought a full display of all the weather options for January in these parts. In the space of a week, we have gone from a foretaste of Spring back to Winter's ice and snow. The kids were delighted to have an extra day tacked on to Christmas vacation, as local schools thought twice about sending the buses out. Through all the changes, lambs have continued to arrive. I think I lost count somewhere around the twenty fifth. We lost two this week, killed by pneumonia as the weather cycled from balmy to frigid. When I walked up the driveway this evening after parking the truck at the bottom of the luge run that parts of the driveway have become, I could see Susan and one of the boys still in the barn, later than the usual evening feeding. Stopping in to see what kept them, I found that two of the Hampshires had lambed, the first from that part of the flock. Ebony, my black Hampshire Ewe, had two fine big lambs. Number twelve, herself a big ewe, had twins from our new stud ram, Prejudice. The buck lamb did them both proud, but his sister looks weak, and may not make it. Susan gave her a little extra from a bottle and from there we wait and hope for the best.

I tried to capture a little of the transformations brought by light, cloud and snow this last week with the digital camera. Here, as they might put it in the East, are three views of Hogback Mountain:

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

We are in the middle of an unexpected bout of warm weather. Fifty degree temperatures followed by steady rains today have banished the last bit of December's ice and snow. Here on the farm, this is not an unmixed blessing. Temperatures heading towards single digits present their own challenges, but they have the advantage of giving you a firm surface to work on. If you have ever walked across a well-used barnyard in a thaw, you know what I mean. My sister-in-law gave me a new pair of tall, insulated rubber work boots for Christmas. This morning, trudging through the mud and manure Slurpee that until twenty four hours ago was a hard frozen surface, it dawns on me; I love those boots. It may seem petty, but getting through the morning chores with warm, dry feet can be a thing of wonder in and of itself. I have noticed over the years that having the right tool for the job makes all the difference. The proper size screwdriver, a sharpened set of blades for the sheep shears, a good pair of boots; all can be in their own way a foretaste of grace. What was difficult suddenly becomes possible, perhaps even easy. The right tool opens new possibilities for good work. Good work, that is, work done to sustain life, provide for yourself and your neighbor, and to heal the damage around you, is a chief part of our vocation as humans. The late Romanian theologian, Dumitru Staniloae, teaches us that malleability of nature to human action is part of the gift of God in Creation, and that men and women do not work out their salvation apart from their stewardship and transformation of nature. The second volume of his systematic theology, recently published in English, has a sustained meditation on this theme, which I would commend to the interested reader. All this rapidly gets above my head. Back in the barnyard, away from the heights of theology, I am content to find small traces of grace in a new pair of boots.
Bishop Seraphim in his wonderfully eclectic fashion, posts on Woodchucks, topology, and emblematic animals within, finishing with Adam's naming of the beasts. This last brought to mind a poem by John Bennett. I know his work only by a few selections published in the Anglican Theological Review in the 70's and by a small volume of verse based on themes from Moby Dick I ran across in a local library. I have mislaid the xerox copies I made of his poems, but still have this one, calligraphed for me by a friend back in 1976, a gift which I treasure still. I offer it by way of a New Year's greeting:

Old Adam, father, poet, priest, you stood
in human splendor once in Eden wood
and dreamed the holy names; your dreaming spoke
the beasts alive with that first poetry.

So now, Old Father, stranger to an age
when poems are thin knives or bitter smoke,
stand softly at the center of my skull
and chant your early metaphors of love
and set their joy against the bent world's rage.