Thursday, March 31, 2005

Today is the third anniversary of this blog. The very first post went up on March 31, 2002:

Greetings on a rainy Easter morning. This site will contain periodic comments on things that interest me. I am a full-time prosecuting attorney in a small town in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. I am also a part-time sheep farmer, living on property that has been in my wife's family for the past hundred years. The intersection of those two lives will provide most of the material for these posts. In addition to the weekly farm report, there will also be comments on books, music, movies, politics and religion. As to the last, I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity. Periodically I may try to share some of the wealth of that tradition. By doing this, I make no claims to special insight or sanctity. In describing my own spiritual condition, I can do no better than the little girl in Flannery O'Connor's story "Temple of the Holy Ghost"; "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick."

Most of that is still true, except that I am now an attorney in private practice, occasionally showing up on the other side of the Courtroom from my former colleagues in the Commonwealth's Attorney's office. And I would still put better odds on getting through a quick martyrdom than the slow slog to sainthood.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

In keeping with Monday's post about living in place, here are some interesting comments from fellow Ortho-blogger The Light Fraction. Page down to the entry for Saturday, March 5.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


While searching through the archives for my "top five" selections, Susan suggested this as her favorite, which was originally posted with the caption "A Narrow View of the World."

Monday, March 28, 2005

Between blogger and laptop problems, this week's posts are going up late.

Gideon's third question is "How has several generations of being farmed by the same family made your land a good place?" The most obvious answer is that the land is still here. It is easy to overlook the importance of that simple fact. Land, in our contemporary economy, has become another item of commerce. There is a tendency to treat it as something as fungible as iron ore, scrap metal, computer chips, soybeans or bananas. The only special quality it has in the marketplace is the quality of "location." Location does not mean some inherent geological or even geographic virtue. It refers to the land's relationship to other factors in the economy. Is this particular patch of ground close to an interstate highway? What is the average household income? Is there a school nearby? What are the tax and zoning policies of the local government? Is it located within commuting distance of employers and shopping? If a patch of ground has the proper virtues of location, then it has value. What kind of land it is is almost irrelevant. If it is hilly, we can flatten it out. If it is swampy, we can fill it in. Fertility of the soil is irrelevant, since dirt is simply what goes under asphalt and building foundations.

The importance of family ties to the land is that it makes values other than those of the marketplace part of the discussion. Farming our hillsides will never bring the return that selling the place in five acre subdivision parcels will. There is a certain ascetic quality to the life of any long time farm family within commuting distance of the the urban sprawl. You conciously agree to ignore the potential fortune under your feet in order to be a steward of something beautiful and irreplacable.

The sycamore tree that towers over our barn goes straight up and then branches out wildly. I know that it does this because when it was a sapling, and my wife's grandfather a boy, he knocked the top off it one day while walking along the fenceline. I do not know of any way of putting a price on that knowledge.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Today Western Christians celebrate Easter, the great feast of the Lord's Resurrection which, due to the complexities of competing church calendars, we Orthodox will celebrate on May 1st this year. For the Catholics and Protestants out there, I offer the following excerpt from an Easter homily by the great Serbian preacher (and recently canonized saint) Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, which harks back to the sermon of Saint John Chrysostom read at each Paschal celebration.

Come then, all you my brethren who fear death. Come closer to Christ the Risen and the Raiser, and He will free you from death and the fear of death.

Come, all of you who live under the shame of your open and secret sins. Draw nearer to the living Fount that washes and cleanses, and that can make the blackest vessel whiter than snow.

Come, all of you who seek health, strength, beauty and joy. Lo, the risen Christ is the rich Source of them all. He awaits you with compassion and yearning, desiring that no-one be lost.
Bow down before Him, in body and soul. Unite yourself with Him with all your mind and thoughts. Embrace Him with all your heart. Do not worship the enslaver, but the Liberator; do not unit yourself to the destroyer but to the Saviour; do not embrace the stranger but your closest Kinsmen and your dearest Friend.

The risen Lord is the Wonder of wonders, but He is, while being the Wonder of wonders, of the same nature as you are - of real human nature, the primal nature that was Adam's in Paradise. True human nature was not created to be enslaved to the irrational nature that surrounds it, but to govern nature by its power. Neither does man's true nature consist in worthlessness, sickness, mortality and sinfulness, but in glory and health, in immortality and sinlessness.

The risen Lord has torn down the curtain that divided true Godhead from true humanity, and has shown us in Himself the greatness and beauty of the one and the other. No man can know the true God except through the risen Lord Jesus; neither can any man know true man except through Him alone.

Christ is Risen, my brethren!

By his Resurrection, Christ conquered sin and death, destroyed Satan's dark kingdom, freed the enslaved human race and broke the seal on the greatest mysteries of God and man. To Him be glory and praise, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit - the Trinity consubstantial and undivided, now and forever, through all time and all eternity. Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Gideon's" second question, "what is your favorite very short poem?" is a particularly tough one. My favorite very short poems come from classical Chinese and Japanese literature. I like them because they capture something, a scene, a season, a feeling, a truth about the transience of life in the fewest lines possible. They have the immediacy of a joke with the depth of a telling anecdote from a wise friend. As much as I love them, my very favorite poems do more, offering a glimpse of something eternal within the fragments of created being. These are by and large are longer works, and not quite what the question asked for. I would have to say that my favorite very short poem is the one that speaks to the view in front of me at the present moment, an ever changing criterion. To demonstrate what I mean, here are the two first "very short" poems I posted on this site one April morning three years ago when I looked out on an unexpected spring snowfall. I have copied the posts for context:

Snow this morning! Only a dusting, and that disappearing quickly, but more on the mountain. Susan's car is covered, and the front porch is frosted over, snow between the boards. Here is a haiku by the Japanese poet Issa (translation by Stephen Addiss):

Stickily stickily
clinging to everything---
spring snow


This is the second month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The following by the Japanese poet Kodojin (1864-1944) seems particularly appropriate this morning:

Things Seen

Second month, and still spring chill:
only the plum blossoms open their faces.
This morning, I'll just try opening the door--
light snow falling over green mountains.


(translation by Jonathan Chaves)

There it is; a moment, a mood, captured in just a few words by poets who lived in different centuries half a world away describing perfectly the view out my front door one spring morning in the Shenandoah Valley.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Today is Good Friday for Western Christians. Over at Pontifications you can find a series of well chosen excerpts and images for fruitful Holy Week meditation.

The Japanese artist Hokusai created a series of prints showing different views of Mt. Fuji, the great dormant volcano that is the most identifiable image in Japan. The artist said once "It struck me that it would be good to take one thing in life and regard it from many viewpoints, as a focus for my being, and perhaps as a penance for alternatives missed. " I once thought of titling this blog "365 Views of Hogback Mountain" for the same reason. In this, the fifth photo in answer to Gideon's question, Hogback sits cloud-covered with the hint of the mysterious found in all mountains.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Our life is lived in the company of other creatures. This is Redsox, once a near lifeless lamb revived by my wife and raised on a bottle. She is now a ewe of mature years with many lambs of her own, but I still remember her as a lamb herself, nibbling on the remnants of the back yard roses. This picture was from an early summer afternoon a couple of years ago. I was out in the yard and she ambled over to say hello. She adapted to life with the other ewes quite well, but still thinks of us as her first flock. I found this shot while reviewing the blog archives and thought I would add it to the list as number four in answer to Gideon's question.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

There are quite a few people out there who engage in an activity I refer to as "blogging in place." In the long delayed revision to the links on the right, I will list some of my favorites, many of whom are gracious enough to link this site. North Ontario blogger JoJo's Jelly has a list that includes this site for a blog from a place as far away from our farm as you can get without actually leaving the planet. Love the penguin pictures.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


It is hard to read the Old Testament without running accross the concepts of blessing and abundance. We tend to think of abundance as a piling up of manufactured goods. As they say, "The one who dies with the most toys wins." Since moving out to the farm, I have broadened my definition. Clean skies, lush grass, trees in full leaf. Here are blessing and abundance illustrated in the third picture for Gideon's top five.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The latter part of the twentieth century was remarkable for the new flowering of Orthodox monasticism. As much as I appreciate the restoration of the great monasteries on Athos and the introduction of traditional monasticism to America and around the world, I have a special affection for those in the monastic life who follow a less conventional path, usually alone, without great fame or prestige. One such person was Mother Gavrilia, or to more properly anglicize the name, Mother Gabriel. I will not attempt to summarize her life, but instead will refer you to an excellent article at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site. There is also a good page at the web site of St. Gregory Palamas Monastery. For a selection of her sayings, go here. Since I still owe Gideon Strauss an answer to his questions, I will quote one that he may appreciate:

Someone said that a Christian is he who purifies love and sanctifies work.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


The sky over our farm is a source of endless fascination. Here is picture number two, taken at sunset with a rising moon. Rain clouds were clearing off and the quality of light was something beyond the ability of my little camera to capture. Someone linked to this photo when it was first posted, captioning it "God showing off."

Saturday, March 19, 2005


The answers to Gideon's questions will have to trickle in as the week goes on. With sick family members and a busy week at the office, blogging will get wedged into spare moments over the next few days. I have been browsing through the archives, looking at photos posted over the past three years to answer Question One. Here is my first candidate for the top five. Go here for the original post with the story behind the picture.

Friday, March 18, 2005

The on-line world is a peculiar mixture of the personal and the superficial. I now have long-standing acquaintances that I would consider good friends except for the simple fact that we have never actually met. I don't chat or engage in instant messaging, so my on-line interactions are limited to reading the works of others and exchanging a few quick notes. Rather like swapping post-cards with the author of an article you liked. Gideon Strauss recently invited his readers to answer five questions in an interview format, a way of finding out a little more about the man or woman hiding behind the blog. Self-reflection being one way of observing Lent, I sent in my request to participate, and Gideon forwarded the very good questions you see below. I will be reflecting on them over the weekend and will post answers as I get the chance. In the meantime, if any regular readers have a favorite photograph from the archives, or if you have a favorite very short poem, leave a note in the comment section or drop me a line at john.bell@gmail.com .

1. What four or five farm photographs on your blog would first want to show to new friends?
2. What is your favourite very short poem?
3. How has several generations of being farmed by the same family made your land a good place?
4. What is the most significant influence of the liturgical year on the life of your family?
5. What are the deepest connections between your Orthodoxy, farming, and lawyerly practice?

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Farm life from the ground up.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

For those of you who check daily, yes posts have been going up a day late. My home laptop and Blogger have both been having difficulties, hence the late postings. Blogger's troubles seem to have made the comments feature almost unusable. If you want to leave a note, send it on to me here. I will be happy to post any comments you would like to share with the rest of the readership. Just let me know if it is for public consumption or not.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Monday, March 14, 2005

The fellow attorney and Orthodox seminarian who blogs as Minor Clergy has a fine post on Forgiveness Sunday in his parish. Recommended reading on this first day of Lent.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


A small sheep takes a big drink of water.
Today is Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox calendar, the last stop before Lent begins tomorrow. I drove into the city this morning to St. Mary's, my "home" parish where I was introduced to Orthodoxy, to join the congregation in asking each other for forgiveness, beginning our repentance with reconciliation. Here is an excerpt from Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent on the meaning of this Sunday:

Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of "this world." And the Gospel lesson of this last Sunday (Matt. 6:14-21) sets the conditions for that liberation. The first one is fasting -- the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh and matter over the spirit. . . . The second condition is forgiveness-- "If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you." The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between me and my "enemy" the radiant forgiveness of God Himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless "dead-ends" of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a "breakthrough" of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen world.

We begin our fast with an act of reconciliation, a return to unity with those around us. The fast itself teaches us another lesson as we struggle. It should be simple enough; eat this, not that. No real sacrifice, just a demand for a little effort and a modicum of attention to the daily routine. Soon enough, I know, I will start looking for excuses, exceptions, exemptions. Worse still, I will simply forget and have that cheeseburger half eaten before I give a second thought to what I am doing, or why. As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." The fast makes me realize that, not only am I divided from those around me, I am divided within myself, walking about in a kind of daydream constructed of appetite and ingrained habit. Again in the words of the Apostle, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"

So, is Lent simply an annual run into the brick wall of your own failures and finitude, a reminder that one is, in fact, a sinner? No, or, if there is some truth there, it is only a half truth. The final word of Lent is spoken not in Lent itself, but just after midnight as Holy Saturday turns into Easter Sunday. Who will deliver me from this body of death? The answer comes as we sing triumphantly, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." Despite all appearances, there are no "dead-ends" in ourselves, our lives, our relationships. At any moment the Kingdom is poised to break in and our Lenten disciplines teach us to wait with hope, and with great expectations.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Today we got the whole family down to the barn for one of my least favorite parts of the shepherd's job; tail docking and castrations. If you go down the page to some lamb pictures, you will notice they are born equipped each with a nice long tail, quite unlike the small appendages on their mothers. So, why take them off? Unfortunately those cute little tails become muddy manure clotted messes as sheep get older, a path for disease and fly infestations. So, off they go. I will not describe the process for the faint of heart except to say that the the little critters are all fine and properly docked. About the castrations of the ram lambs not destined for breeding, the less said the better. Susan does it quickly and efficiently with utter disdain for the squeamish males surrounding her, wincing in shared horror and sympathy.

Here is a the classic nursery rhyme, on the subject of lambs and their tails and the travails of a young shepherdess who needs to get with the program:

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And doesn't know where to find them.
Leave them alone, and they'll come home,
Bringing their tails behind them.

Little Bo peep fell fast asleep
And dreamt she heard them bleating;
But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
For they were still a-fleeting.

Then up she took her little crook,
Determined her to find them;
She found them indeed,
but it made her heart bleed,
For they'd left their tales behind them.

It happened one day, as Bo peep did stray
Into a meadow hard by,
There she espied their tales side by side,
All hung on a tree to dry.

She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye,
And over the hillocks went rambling,
And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,
To tack each again to its lambkin.

Friday, March 11, 2005


Having a little of mom's hay.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Our weather has taken a turn back into Winter lately; snow showers with unseasonable cold driven even further down the scale by brisk winds. Bishop Seraphim, who lives several hours north of our supposedly Southern latitude has coined a new phrase, "Indian Winter," to capture our current climactic variation. On the road just outside of town, frozen daffodils wilt in the median, relics of the warm breezes that came through just a short time ago.

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

From "Little Gidding" Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The "eclectic but orthodox" folks at Eighth Day Books have put together a series of excellent suggestions for Lenten reading. As useful as Amazon may be, we shouldn't forget about those wonderful independents like Eighth Day who operate as much for love as for profit. Owner Warren Farha reflects on his vocation here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


The lamb in yesterday's picture, together with her mother.

Monday, March 07, 2005


In a reversal of the proverb, March comes in like a lamb.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Two new lambs this weekend. I was surprised that they came now, in the relatively nice weather instead of the last snow, but I am certainly grateful. The boys have the new arrivals in pens with their mothers. If I have time, I will post pictures tomorrow.

Today is "Meatfare" Sunday on the Orthodox calendar, marking the last week of preparation before Lent. This week the observant begin abstaining from meat until Easter, followed by dairy products next Sunday. I usually try and post some appropriate Lenten reading suggestions during this season. In keeping with past custom, I will list some books throughout the week, and I will also attempt something I haven't tried before. As part of my own observance I will be re-reading Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent and will try, beginning next Sunday, to post excerpts from and reflections inspired this and other of Schmemann's works as we journey towards Pascha.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


Here is a picture from a few days ago during the snow. As you can see, sheep are very serious about eating.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Another backdated entry; our cable connection has been acting up causing posts to vanish into whatever quasi-metaphysical space there is that houses thoughts attached to electrons gone astray.

I am writing this after rummaging through dresser drawers in search of old glasses. I keep a spare at the office, but here at home I find only one relic from the early nineties, tortoise rimmed and goggle-sized. I wore them about two prescriptions and several turns of fashion ago. What, you may ask, happened to my gold-rimmed bifocals, appropriately styled for the new millennium? Sheep happened. Our barn, like Caesar's Gaul, is divided into three parts. One is our working area together with the four lambing pens. The second part opens into the paddock where the ewes with lambs stay. The third opens to the barnyard and larger pasture where the ewes still expecting come in for the evening feeding. This evening feeding was later than usual as Susan and I had met for dinner at the South Street Grill in town. (Nice place, classic diner food, cheap by big city standards.) So there I was after dark down in the barn. I had put out the feed for the ewes with lambs and let them in. They were in a bit of a rush, as they did not appreciate the delay in dinner. I was putting out grain on the other side of the barn when I noticed a lamb had gotten caught in the press and was upside down under a feed trough. I knelt down and reached through the gate panel dividing the barn, head pressed against the metal tubing as I stretched towards the lamb. Behind me was the gate to the barnyard, the gate chain stretched to the maximum as hungry ewes pressed against it. One ewe was convinced that, if only she could get my attention, food would be forthcoming. She put her head between the bars of the gate and lunged. In a classic illustration of the continuing effectiveness of Newtonian physics on a macro level, her head struck my head which in turn struck the gate in front of me. The vision in my right eye blurred. Disoriented, I started feeling for the incipient lump that signaled an oncoming concussion, and found instead that there was no longer a lens in the right eye of my glasses. Picture a man on his hands and knees in a darkened, dirt floor barn, right eye closed, peering through a left bifocal, trying to find a small oval of glass while sheep hooves are stamping around him. Not much luck there. I did get the lamb upright and out of the crush before walking back to house, squinting like Popeye as I picked my way up the dark hillside.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

I have been reading in the poems and essays of Joseph Brodsky lately. One surprise, at least for me, was the discovery that Brodsky considered himself a disciple of W. H. Auden. While I cannot match Brodsky's devotion, nonetheless I am also an admirer of Auden's. Here are the opening lines of an early poem of his which have always moved me.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

For the rest of the poem, go here.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


The white line just below the ridge is the snowpack on Skyline Drive. The view from home, looking east a little before sundown.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Waiting for dinner.

Tuesday afternoon, just before sunset.