Sunday, March 30, 2003

As the saying goes, what a difference a day makes. A sudden cold front, moisture in the air, and we have snow again. The first flakes fell just after sunrise, precursors of those still falling outside my window as evening approaches. It is a wet snow, falling on to ground warmed by a week's worth of spring weather. The gravel road is mostly clear, but the pastures and trees are covered, the snowflakes temporarily winning the see-saw battle between freeze and thaw by sheer force of numbers. In sheltered spots, the new grass still shows through, looking almost emerald green by contrast. On the lower hills, the dogwoods are in bloom, white flowers bending under white snow, springtime delayed until the storm passes.

Here is today's view of Buck Mountain:

Fenceline and Clouds, 3-29-03

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Sunset, 3-26-03

Sunday, March 23, 2003

I have had a request for an update on our Houdini lamb. Susan finally caught him yesterday and succeeded in getting his tail docked. She and a helper went through the flock three times before they found him. She had seen him earlier outside, but he managed to vanish for over half an hour inside the barn itself. It is just not that big of a barn, and being the only big lamb with a tail, he should have stood out, well, like the only big lamb with a tail. The third try was the charm, and she grabbed him. This time she was ready for him and he went straight into a pre-prepared "high security" pen. When I came down, he was still there, trying to wriggle through the bars. He is now back out with the rest of the flock, no doubt plotting further mischief.

I think he has been talking to Tippy the llama. Tippy is one of our four guard llamas, and is, frankly, not very good at his work. Sheep bore him. He thinks he was intended for grander things than life on the farm, and heads out to see the sights at the first opportunity. When the mood is on him, he jumps like a deer and dances across cattleguards like Baryshnikov. Not being sympathetic to his urge to travel, we have been keeping him in the one part of the pasture where the fencing is too high to jump. We were going to open that field yesterday to move some sheep around, so I tracked Tippy down and put a lead and halter on him so we could tie him up until the shifting was done. I secured his lead to one of the rails on the yard fence using my best Boy Scout clove hitch and stepped inside for a quick lunch. When I came back outside, not only was Tippy missing, so was the middle rail of the fence. I found him fifty yards away, down by the barn, the fence rail still tied to the end of his lead. I think he may have gotten farther still, all eight feet of rail in tow, if he hadn't gotten his foot tangled in the lead. My older son and I got him loose and put him back in his pasture, not, I'm afraid, any wiser for the experience. If anyone wants a halter-broke but free-spirited llama, give me a call. I've got one for sale.

You can tell
from the outline of the hills,
the way it's hazed over --
from this morning on
we'll have springtime dawns


(trans. Burton Watson)

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Looking towards the Sheep barn, 3-22-03

March 20th marked the beginning of Spring here in the Northern hemisphere, day and night balanced almost exactly for the first time since autumn. The snows earlier in the month left an abundance of water for the pastures, which, together with the lengthening days, has given us green grass again. We let the rams out of their winter lot onto pasture today, and they jumped and ran like lambs.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Last Saturday we rounded up this year's lambs to date for vaccinations and tail docking. We thought we had them all until Sunday evening when I discovered a stray lamb over the fence on a neighbor's property. My younger son caught him in a thorn bush, and I returned him, slung across my shoulders, to the rest of the flock. This Saturday we put up some temporary fencing to block the more obvious escape routes. When we went to catch the stray for the treatment he missed last week, he was nowhere to be found. Being the only lamb still having a tail, he shouldn't have been hard to pick out from the crowd, so we gave him up for lost. This morning, Susan found him in the crew that came in for feeding. Relieved, if a little baffled, she put him in a pen for safe-keeping. When I walked over to look at him, he was gone again. This afternoon, we looked out and discovered the gate out of the fenced off part of the pasture by the barn was open, and ewes and lambs had scattered over the larger field outside. It is a pleasant day, so we will let them stay until the evening feeding. I can't help wondering though, if the Houdini lamb is behind it all.
Here is the view from home, Sunday, March 16, 2003:

The first hints of spring arrived this weekend. We walked outside Saturday morning like prisoners out of jail, feeling unacustomed warmth on our faces, worried that it may all be a fraud, and winter is waiting for us to let our guard down and break our hearts.
Irina Ratushinskaya was, for a brief time, fashionable in the west; a bold young woman, sentenced in 1984 at age 28 to seven years hard labor by the Soviet state for the crime of writing poetry ("anti-Soviet agitation"). Her case drew the attention of Amnesty International, International P.E.N., and other institutions of the educated and well-meaning. She spent four years in a "strict regime" forced labor camp until international pressure, together with the early beginnings of Glasnost, resulted in her release and forced exile to the west. Her citizenship finally restored by Yeltsin in 1998, she now lives in Russia with her family.

Several volumes of her poems were published in English translation, but, with nothing being so unfashionable as last year's cause, most are now out of print. There are also two volumes of memoirs, Grey is the Color of Hope, and In the Beginning, as well as a novel for the interested reader to explore. Cornerstone Press, a small Christian publisher, has put out a new volume of her poetry. You can read selections at their web-site by following the link. More excerpts can be found, along with a short article, at the Books and Culture magazine website.

Ratushinskaya is a believer. Some of her poems are explicit about her faith. In others, it is a quiet background, the horizon behind the observations and word plays in even her more seemingly secular work. Here are two shorter poems. The first, uncharacteristically direct, was written the day after her release. The "Small Zone" of the second poem is Zone 4 of corrective labor colony number 3, where Ratushinskaya was imprisoned.

Believe me, it was often thus:
In solitary cells, on winter nights
A sudden sense of joy and warmth
And a resounding note of love.
And then, unsleeping, I would know
A-huddle by an icy wall:
Someone is thinking of me now,
Petitioning the Lord for me.
My dear ones, thank you all
Who did not falter, who believed in us!
In the most fearful prison hour
We probably would not have passed
Through everything - from end to end,
Our heads held high, unbowed -
Without your valiant hearts
To light our path.

Kiev, 10 October 1986

So tomorrow, our little ship, Small Zone,
What will come true for us?
According to what law --
Like an eggshell over dead waves?
Covered in patches and scars,
On the word - the honest word - alone -
By whose hand is our ship preserved,
Our little home?
Those of us who sail to the end, row, live to the end --
Let them tell for the others:
We knew
The touch of this hand.

Small Zone, 18 September 1983

If you can find her poems, whether in a library, used book store, or in one of the volumes still in print, I recommend her as a companion through Lent. Here are a few more lines from the Cornerstone Press collection, Wind of the Journey, as food for the journey:

In our hearts we're not waiting
For April but growing toward it.
Oh, 'tis joyful and hard
Like all journeys we make for Your glory.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Over the next few days, I will post my own idiosyncratic suggestions for Lenten reading. To start with, I like to draw your attention to three writers whose work came out of the experience of the long Lent of the Russian Church in the twentieth century. While we all know intellectually that the Church was persecuted under the Communist regime, it is hard to grasp what this really meant. Bishops died in the hundreds; priests in the thousands, executed or condemned to a lingering death in the camps. Ordinary believers had their churches closed, and faced loss of jobs, housing, even their lives for a simple profession of faith. Some survived by compromise with the State, some suffered in silence, some kept the faith in heroic fashion. After the worst of the persecution, the Church was allowed a kind of shadow existence, like a child chained in a closet. The threat of imprisonment was always there for those who grew too vocal. I venerate those who spoke out and suffered. I do not judge those who compromised or remained silent, having only the slightest idea what they faced. The Soviet system of prisons and forced labor camps, most familiar to Westerners from Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, swallowed generations of believers. The first two writers, Sergei Fudel, and Irina Ratushinskaya, are both survivors of the camps. Fudel (1901-1977) lived through the beginning of the darkness. Ratushinskaya, from a younger generation, lived through to the end of it, surviving prison and exile to return to Russia in the 90's, where she lives today.

There is only one work by Sergei Fudel available in English, a sampling of meditations, anecdotes, memoirs and short essays collected under the title Light in the Darkness. I first read the book in a sitting. I re-read it a little at a time now, skimming to find a story or a word that catches me, and then ponder it, seeing what I missed at first reading. Here are two passages selected almost at random, both in their own way appropriate for the Lenten season:

Everything in Christianity is determined and checked out by love. We should know some of the definitions of fasting given by saints:
Saint Isaac of Syria says: "Your spirit will not submit to the cross unless your body submits too" (This means effort, fasting).
Saint Paul writes: "You were called to freedom, bretheren, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for flesh" (Ga 5:13)
An elder said to his disciple whose fasting lacked love: "Eat everything, but do not eat people."

I do not understand the suffering of the world. I only understand that the Creator of the world became part of the world's suffering and let His beloved Son share in it. Christianity speaks to us of God who suffers, suffers not because of His guilt, but because of his compassion, because of love. If this is so, then suffering is not to be feared, because it cannot be separated from love, or from God. "God suffers in His flesh . . ." That is why we dare to say "Of Thy sufferings make a participant" (Stikhera on "Lord, I call upon Thee," Tuesday, 2nd week of Great Lent).

To come; excerpts from Irina Ratushinskaya and an introduction to Mother Maria Skobstova.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Here is the view from the barnyard Saturday morning as the thaw began; snow disappearing on the southern and eastern slopes, hanging on to the hills looking north:

This past weekend saw a rise in temperatures into the fifties. The snow piled in the barnyard Saturday morning vanished by Sunday afternoon, seeping into the once frozen soil and leaving a kind of brown soup in its place. There is still snow visible on a few north facing slopes and on the mountain sides, but it is increasingly becoming a memory instead of a present obstacle. Looking around the barnyard, it comes as a surprise to see the odd pocket of white hidden here and there by an overhang or bit of shade. I thought of quoting Robert Frost's "A Hillside Thaw" in honor of the occasion. Instead, the following Frost poem seemed more appropriate:

A Patch of Old Snow

There's a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I've forgotten--
If I ever read it
It is rightly said that Orthodoxy is a Church that celebrates the resurrection like no other. What is often overlooked is that the great outpouring of joy in the Paschal services is built upon weeks of struggle and preparation during the Great Fast of Lent. It is a season set aside for repentance, for facing down all that hinders us as we journey to meet the Risen Lord. Accordingly, the services for Lent contain some of the richest treasures of Orthodox theology and spirituality. The webmaster at has put together a page of Resources for Great Lent which is an excellent place to start. He provides a calendar, selected texts and links to useful commentary on the major commemorations throughout the season. There are several places on-line with selections from the rich liturgical material in the Lenten Triodian (the service book that carries us through to Pascha.) The nuns at Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery post a daily selection from the Lenten Triodian at their website. Archmandrite Ephraim of the Monastery of Saint Andrew in England has translated some of the services and provided them on his website here. As always, David Melling's Arimathea website provides thoughtful material and links for the season.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Today is Forgiveness Sunday, the last day of preparation for Orthodox Lent. In the words of the Vespers service for this evening:

Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the Western church calendar. We Orthodox enter the season a little more gradually. The liturgical book for the Lenten season, the Triodion, begins two Sundays before the start of the Great Fast with a commemoration of the Gospel story of the Publican and the Pharisee. The following Sunday is devoted to the parable of the Prodigal Son. We begin preparing for the full fast with Meatfare Sunday (March 2nd this year), which is devoted to the theme of the Last Judgement. It is called "Meatfare Sunday" because observant Orthodox will give up all meat products until the celebration of Pascha (Easter) some eight weeks from now. This coming Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday, the final preparation before the start of Lent. It also called Cheesefare Sunday, because we now add dairy products to the list of foods set aside until Easter.

This may seem excessive to folks used to giving up chocolate for Lent or going meatless on Fridays, but it used to be a universal custom in the Church, both East and West. To this day you can find "Shrove Tuesday" pancake suppers in Catholic and Episcopal parishes. The original purpose of these was to use up the last of your butter, eggs and milk before the start of the fast. There is of course more to the purpose of the Great Fast than simply doing without. Fortunately there are a number of resources on-line to help explore the deeper meaning of the Lenten observance. In the coming weeks I will try and list a few of them here, as well as suggesting some other materials to aid in the journey.

Monday, March 03, 2003

Behind in the news as usual, I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Fred Rogers. In a time when most children's programs are like fingernails scraping down the blackboard of one's soul, his gentle approach seems better than ever in retrospect. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers is now beyond questions of ratings or cultural decline. We can pray that he is in that Presence where there is no shadow of turning and it is, always, a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Susan arrived home Saturday from ten days visiting my parents in Florida. I think she is still numb from climate shock. Going from semi-tropical sun to slush over the top of your boots in a matter of hours is a rude assault on the system. While I am glad she had a break from the weather here, and glad she could spend time with my folks, I missed her more than I can say. The evening before she left, we walked back from the barn, both tired from the day's chores. We worked our way down to the driveway in the double path made in the snow by a neighbor's tractor tires, I in the right groove, she in the left, stepping gingerly, our fingers linked for balance; each supporting the other as we went hand in hand up to the house. When we went down to the barn together this morning, I walked a little lighter, and stood a little straighter, still tired from the week's labor, but back in balance again.