Bringing Autumn Home

If I had a blog, today I would write about the way fall arrives in our home on The Greenwood.

Yesterday fall arrived at The Greenwood. Following a forty-seven year tradition, Mom and I put up our autumn decorations. This may seem like a fairly bland occurrence, but for me, it is wrapped in a thousand memories of happy autumn days.

Kids_0013Our tradition started when my siblings and I were toddlers. In those days, we lived in a little ranch style house just outside Rolla and Mom wanted to fancy up (or cover up) our classic 1970’s brown refrigerator and equally attractive cabinet doors with something that honored her love of the natural world. To that end, she started saving calendar pictures and carefully cutting photos from magazines like Farm and Ranch, National Wildlife, and Missouri Conservationist. Mom changed the pictures every month and we anticipated the changing of the photos with great excitement.

As we grew, so did the tradition. When David and I were in school, our artwork was added to the mix as were more substantial items like silk flowers, seasonal figurines, and fragrant candles in vessels painted with seasonal decor. By the time we were in grammar school, coming home to find that Mom had put up the next season’s decorations was as exciting in September as putting up Christmas in December.

090116_2152Over the years, I’ve picked up on Mom’s idea and now my part of the house changes with the seasons as well. I honor each part of the year, but I have to say, putting up my fall adornments is my favorite ritual. Whatever the weather outside, once my home is wreathed in leaves and silk mums, fall has arrived.

We need traditions to mark the transitions in our lives. In today’s largely virtual world, it is easy to get disconnected from the cycles of nature, even from the flow of the day. We no longer break our fast together, pause at noon to gather and say grace, or sit undistracted at the dinner table, sharing the news of the day. Our lives are lived together, but apart. The technology that, in one sense, unifies the world also tears at the fabric of family life. We scarcely notice the weather unless it inconveniences us and the change of seasons are marked solely by a change of wardrobe. It is no wonder that the world is in chaos.

090116_2154Will hanging pretty pictures on the refrigerator stop global war? Will putting out the Ghost Lamp (now almost 50 years old) at Halloween stop suffering and human greed? No. But imagine what would happen if we all slowed down long enough to care that we are moving from one season to the next. If we took time to look for the change in the autumn light, the coming of migrating birds, the silence that comes with the first flakes of snow. If we took time to cherish the world we live in, perhaps we would be less cavalier about its destruction. By the same token, if we took time to cherish our family, to look into one another’s eyes and share the joy and pain that resides within us, perhaps we would stop the senseless abuse, neglect, and violence that escalates with each passing day. I can’t make any promises, but I know the peace of heart and mind taking part in my family’s traditions gives to me and it is something rare and beautiful; something that makes a difference in my world at the very least.

Late this afternoon, after my little piece of the planet glowed with the fires of autumn, I settled into my reading chair, my Labrador Gus snoozing on the bed, and listened to the rain beating a gentle tattoo on the roof. Soft light glowed from every corner and shades of burgundy, gold, and ochre called me to settle in and enjoy this perfect start to my favorite season. I have peace. I have love. I feel part of something greater than myself and it is all because I know where I belong and I have a path to follow that will always lead me home.

 

For the Love of Little Chickens

If I had a blog, today I would write about my love of the farmstead chicken.

06092005_223627I met my first chicken in an ambulance. I was twelve and newly diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes. I had the flu and, back then, in the late 1970’s, if I couldn’t eat, I had to go to the hospital for IV’s. My doctor was two hours away (the joys of rural living), so away I went with Mom by my side.

Just as we were going out the door, the phone rang. It was Dad, calling from nearby Rolla to say my baby chickens had just been delivered to his dental clinic and were cheeping away in his private office. I was bereft. I’d waited for two months for the arrival of my baby Buff Orpingtons and I couldn’t believe I was going to miss this sacred moment because of the flu. The EMT wheeled me out to the ambulance and Mom followed a few minutes later. I was weeping quietly when I noticed we weren’t on the Interstate. We were in Rolla, pulling up to the back door of Dad’s office. A few seconds later, Dad appeared, bearing a box full of twenty-five cheeping fluff-balls. The EMT’s all gathered ’round as Dad handed me one of the chicks. I was crying again, but this time it was for joy. I thanked Mom for this gift, but she told me it was the driver’s idea. He’d said once my IV was in, we had time for a stop. I wanted to kiss him, but instead I handed him a chick. He was crying too.

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When I came home from the hospital a few days later, Mom let me move their brooder-box in my bedroom. I spent hours at a time sitting next to my little flock, caressing the golden carpet of chick-dom that would now be the center of my life. Our yellow Lab, Michael, often sat with me and together, we got to know the baby Buffs as individuals.

 

Julie and ChicksThe first chick I named was called, “Friend.” It was a simple name but it said it all. From the start, this little hen sought me out and enjoyed sitting on my shoulder, cuddled up against my neck. I often wondered if she was the chick I held on the day of their arrival, but regardless, she remained my companion for the rest of her long life.

As time progressed, other chicks made names for themselves. There was Moshe, who only had one eye. I named her for Moshe Dyan, the Foreign Minister of Israel who was also partially blind. There was Crocus, who grew into the most maternal hen I ever had. She would accept any chick from any hen and one year, when several hens failed to be good mothers, Crocus ended up with twenty-one chicks. She was determined to get them all under her wings at night and as the chicks grew, they lifted Crocus off the ground when they settled in for bedtime.

Old Farm House0012Over the course of my life there have been many special roosters and hens, of all sizes and of all breeds and they have made my life complete. Chickens are gentle creatures who radiate happiness. Listening to a mother hen calling her chicks to a juicy worm, watching my happy girls scratch in fresh straw, or sitting in the twilight, listening to the lilting night-song of chickens going to roost has lifted my spirits on even the hardest days.

10162012 164625 webI have been without chickens for almost a year now and it has been a long haul. My hen house sits quietly on its grassy lawn, waiting to see whether we will stay or go. For a time, we thought we wanted a change, a life after farming with leisure time and freedom from the routine of daily chores, but, as it turns out, farming is hard to get out of your blood and we’ve decided to stay.

Tonight I will go down and tell my chicken house to make ready, for the girls are coming home, and the song of the hen will resound from her walls once again.

 

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Blue Jay Weather

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds, the blue jay.

web 10022009_042742It was chilly this morning. The Canadian cold front that came through over the weekend brought in brisk, autumnal air on the wings of the north wind. It was fifty-two degrees this morning and walking was, at last, a treat rather than hard labor. The drying leaves shimmered in the breeze and carried one of my favorite sounds: The call of blue jays as they went about their morning work.

Web 09132007_195921 (1)I have always loved blue jays. Their wings, with windows of blue and white outlined in deepest black remind me of stained glass windows and their antics at the bird feeders only hint at the deep intelligence that is part of the family corvidae. Most of all, I have warm feelings for blue jays because, here in the Ozarks, they are the voice of autumn. During the nesting season, they are largely silent, but once the kids are out on their own, the woodlands ring with their raucous calls and brings forth memories of crisp days, frosty nights, and the smell of woodsmoke on mellow, restful afternoons.

I am fond of all the species of birds that make up the corvid family. I love jays, crows, and ravens with equal passion for they are the true intellectuals of the avian world. Blue jays use their large vocabulary not only to communicate with one another, but also to deceive other birds. They are great mimics and often make the cry of a red-shouldered hawk to clear the birdfeeder of competition for the choicest morsels. In captivity, blue jays can also imitate human voices and the calls of domestic cats. Blue jays also have quiet, almost subliminal calls which they use among themselves in proximity. One of the most distinctive calls of this type sounds like the swinging of a rusty gate or a rusty pump handle going up and down. The blue jay (and other corvids) are distinct from other songbirds for using their call as a song.

Blue Jays are tremendously loyal to their family members. They mate for life and defend their nestlings with the ferocity of a mother lion. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching Mom trying to get a baby blue jay back in its nest. Mom bravely climbed a rickety ladder, propped against a tree, wearing a hard hat and gloves to protect her from the attacking parents. The mission was a success, but after that, blue jay nestlings were left well enough alone.

Web 03012015_093520But now nesting season is over and the blue jays and I move into the autumn season together. As I forge ever deeper into the middle years of my life, I appreciate the blue jays’ determination as they put away their stores for winter. They are caching acorns in hollow trees and I am caching memories. The summer season of my life was rich and I don’t want to mislay a single golden afternoon or moonlit night. I want to remember it all, journal it all, treasure it all before winter takes its inevitable toll. Blue Jay inspires me to keep storing my thoughts, come what may. Some will fall on fallow ground, some will feed my soul, and perhaps a few will grow into mighty oaks – a magnum opus, a legacy for all to share.

 

 

Lighting the Lamps of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of Autumn Light.

09192011_041320 webI’ve been waiting for days now. Waiting for the moment when the sun would shift just enough to replace the brassy summer light with a mellow autumn glow. I keep track of this day in my journal and some years it has happened as early as August 8th. This year it arrived on August 17th. I was in my reading chair, finishing a chapter of Sigurd Olson’s Reflections From the North Country when I saw it: Streamers of gold filtering through the blinds on my French doors. I took up my journal and penned, in all capital letters, “THE LIGHT HAS COME!” And my heart rejoiced.

At first, the Lamps of Autumn are most noticeable in the late afternoon and it brings back memories of walking home from school. My brother and I walked almost two miles from the bus stop to our little farm. We complained about it, as kids are wont to do, but in truth, memories of ambling along the gravel road in the waning light on a chilly autumn afternoon ranks as one of the best remembrances of my childhood.

web 09292009_034631The coming of autumn light signals an end to the frenzy of summer. The harsh call of cicadas is replaced with the gentle chirp of crickets along the lane. Birds return to our feeders and fill our days with their winter-songs: A chorus performed simply for the love of singing, now that the rush of parenting is through.

 

This time of year slows me down too. My daily walks are easy rambles now that I am not in a race with the heat of the day or the biting bugs of summer. My dog and I stop often and drink in the rare beauty of the changing landscape as it changes from green, to gold, to grey. We take time to watch for the arrival of the first white-throated sparrow, the fall warblers, and the juncos. This is the season for reveling. The season of peace.

 

 

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my totems: The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn.

06032014_182856 webIn the early 1990’s my spiritual path took an unexpected turn. While I had always loved nature and respected it as a seat of mystical power, it wasn’t until I was in college that I began to explore Native American spirituality as a way of worship that could be my own.

My first introduction into this reality was a book by Ed “Eagle Man” McGaa, simply titled, Mother Earth Spirituality. It related many traditional Lakota tales with which I was familiar, but it also encouraged me to find my own place in the Sacred Hoop, based on the animal totems that appeared in my dreams and in my waking life.

One of the first totems I identified was the dragonfly – particularly those that appeared in late summer. These, the Lakota called The Blue Dragonflies of Autumn. Of them, Eagle Man relates:

Dragonfly (Tusweca) is the Indian’s answer to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Plato taught us that the life we understand today is but a mere shadow on the wall compared to the complete reality that lies beyond.

Dragonflies have this great power because they are walkers-between-worlds. Born in the water, dragonfly nymphs split their skin and emerge from ponds and rivers on gossamer wings, on which they soar into a new reality. The Lakota believed this change was analogous to a human rising up and entering the spirit world: Seeking knowledge in a reality that was utterly inconceivable before the metamorphosis took place.

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn reminds us autumn is near and the time for contemplation is at hand. Although the dragonfly moves through life quickly, he heralds the time of slowing down, when we transform from creatures of doing to creatures of being.

I am ready to draw inward and sit in the mellow sun, pondering the Great Mystery that is life. Like the dragonfly, I am ready to emerge from the world of my youth and embrace the coming of the autumn years of my life. Dragonfly encourages me that although my new reality may seem foreign at first, my life will open up and reveal the deepest magic yet. I eagerly await what lies ahead.

Free At Last: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would share some more of my journal from my trip to Ely, Minnesota in the fall of 1998.

September 3, 1998

Sometimes life is just too good. I had the most wonderful, peaceful, relaxing day. I followed my heart instead of my mind. No agenda, no goals, just what felt right at the moment.

I got up at sunrise, then went back to bed. I read and wrote and loafed. I went into town around noon and moseyed in and out of stores, soaking up the rich conversation inside and the glorious fall day outside.

MN Backroad (6) webLater on, I drove to Hegman Lake for an evening paddle and to see the pictographs. The drive out the Echo Trail was beautiful. The sunlight sparkled on Burntside Lake and the aspen leaves danced in the breeze and the colors of red maples and golden birch blazed in the forest.

The portage to Hegman was long, but once on the water, my aching muscles eased with every paddle stroke. Loons called from a secluded inlet and the only sound was my paddle along the gunwale. Coming and going, I met the nicest people and I visited a long time with everyone I met. Some light human interaction is good even for an introvert’s soul.

 

Hegman Lake Pictographs webThe pictographs themselves were fascinating. The Chippewa who made this their home lived here as long as 9,000 years ago and it is estimated that the pictographs were painted 500-1000 years ago. The Native Americans used hematite to dye their paint red, soot for black, and white clay for white. These particular pictographs were red and depict a moose, a wolf or dog and a man-like maymayguayshi figure. They are higher above the water than many other pictographs in the North, the artist sitting on a ledge high above the lake. Archaeologists think this may be why they are of such high quality.

As I sat below these ancient works, I marveled at how many generations of we mere mortals they have seen. What stories they could tell! Tales of voyageurs and trappers, Chippewa and Cree and those like me, who simply come to honor what has gone before. There is something awe inspiring about such things.

The light was fading when I reached the take-out, yet I felt completely unhurried. Somehow, my tendency for speed is tempered here. I walk slower, drive slower, paddle slower, LIVE slower. In so doing, I taste much more of life. I savor the present instead of always rushing ahead into the future. What a lesson to remember and take home with me.

Damp, dirty and blissfully happy, I got home just at moonrise. and the sun’s pale sister called me to linger outside, to join her at the lake. Camera in hand and adrenaline pumping, I headed into the moonlit forest. Images of glittering eyes and low growls made me step lively, but the forest remained dark and silent.

At last I left the trees and the lake lay before me in all her glory. The moon rose high above the trees in a black satin sky and her reflection danced on the water like pale, liquid jewels. A beaver swam through the moon-path, his wake two silver threads. I wanted to fall to my knees in reverence to this wondrous hour. All fears calmed, I stood on the shore a long time, soaking it all in, making memories to carry with me.

At last, filled to the spiritual brim, I turned and started back. Once in the darkness of the trees, I felt a need to travel swiftly and the light from my cabin was a welcoming sight. It felt good to be inside, to bathe and dress for bed and at last settle down with a cup of coffee and my journal.

The loons are calling much tonight, perhaps preparing for their long flight to the sea. Or perhaps, like me, they are simply overcome by the beauty of the moonlight. Amen.

Free At Last

If I had a blog, today I would write about my first solo trip to Ely, Minnesota, in August and September 1998. A journey where I experienced The Wild for the first time.

September 2, 1998

Jules Chopping WoodIt takes time to heal from the taint of the world. But at last I am back in balance. Three days of healing in this mystic place have peeled away the facade. I am real again. I remember who I am.

It has taken me a few days to shed the ball-and-chain of responsibility that I wear back home: The need to accomplish, to prove, to meet the expectations of others. Now I am here for me for my renewal. I feel light, unburdened.

For this short span of days, I am Emerson, Thoreau, and Sigurd Olson: Lovers of The Wild who have inspired me to take this trip. I am here to bathe in the sunrise, dance in the moonlight and sing with the loons. The hikes to Bass and Ennis Lakes, canoeing on Johnson Lake at sunset, that’s what it’s all about. I don’t belong out there, in the shadowlands of fast-track careers, I belong here, among the birches and pines. This is my place.

Tonight I walked to the lake to watch the sunset. A beaver swam to and fro, gathering twigs for his winter store. He swam noiselessly until I moved, then he slapped the water and dove with a great splash. I sat on the rocks and watched the moon rise over the cathedral spires of fir and spruce. A late-day fisherman cast into the lily pads near the shore, hoping for one last tangle with a northern pike. He was as silent as I, for noise would be sacrilege in this holy hour.

07122011_224001Then, from across the lake, came the holiest sound of all: The evensong of the loon. One clear note rose in the chilly air, echoing in the Great Silence.Then came the haunting tremolo, the signature sound of wildness. The loon called again and again and chills ran up my spine. Tears came to my eyes for one cannot help but weep in the presence of The Divine.

Sigurd Olson calls this “the witching hour,” a moment of epiphany when our mother, the Earth, opens to us her wild beauty. These moments cannot be contrived or orchestrated, they are gifts of the highest order and I am humbled to be so blessed.

It is dark now and the full moon is shining over my bed. They say sleeping in the moonlight will make you crazy. Maybe so, I’ve been doing it all of my life. But if this is insanity, there is no way I would rather be.

A Light in Dark Places

If I had a blog, today I would write about the lifeline that has sustained me during some of my darkest hours. Today I would write about the inspiring words of others.

Books - LightThe most important thing I have ever read came to me just before I started college. I was at loose ends the summer before I left home for the first time. It was 1990 and libraries were still the end-all-be-all for avid readers so I spent my days haunting the stacks for good distractions. On one of my expeditions, I found a book called Light From Many Lamps by Lilian Eichler Watson. It was a collection of quotes, poems, and passages from Ms. Watson’s favorite literary works and I was, in a word, captivated.

Part of the book’s allure had to do with the fact that I had been collecting the same kind of quotes since I was ten years old. I got the idea from my dad, who also kept a quote book, and by the time I entered college, my collection filled several journal-sized books. I had everything from Robert Frost, to JRR Tolkien, to Ronald Reagan and I treasured those passages as if they had come from the Oracle at Delphi herself. I knew the words of others spoke to me, but until I found Light From Many Lamps, I had never considered making those words my own.

Light From Many Lamps introduced me to a new concept, a way of using poetry and prose that went beyond mere recollection and preservation: The book encouraged me to commit favorite passages to memory and use them as a light when life’s path grew dark. I took Ms. Watson’s words to heart and, over the years, I have used these  passages as incantations against fear, loneliness, and despair.

books invictusThe first poem I memorized was, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. During my first year in college, when I was homesick, I repeated this poem over and over and it gave me the courage to go on. The poem took on new meaning twenty-five years later when I learned it was a mantra of hope for Nelson Mandela during his thirty years in prison on Robben Island.

books-frostThese are by no means the only words I hold dear to my heart. If I were to count them, they would stagger the imagination. I love Emily Dickinson’s Hope is a Thing With Feathers, Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, selections from Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and countless passages from naturalists like Sigurd Olson, John Muir, John Burroughs, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, just to name a few.

These men and women are my heroes and through their stories, I find my own. Their poetry, prose, and songs, are my battle cry when I face the dark unknown, my shout of victory when obstacles are overcome, and my whispered prayers when my own words fail. In knowing their words, I am never alone. Indeed, I am in the company of the gods.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,                                                                                                                          Black as the pit from pole to pole.                                                                                                                              I thank whatever gods may be                                                                                                                                For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,                                                                                                                             I have not winced or cried aloud.                                                                                                                     Under the bludgeoning of chance,                                                                                                                      My head is bloodied but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears,                                                                                                        Looms but the horrors of the shade.                                                                                                                    And yet the menace of the years                                                                                                                          Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,                                                                                                                  How charged with punishments the scroll.                                                                                                          I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.

Walking With Giants

If I had a blog, today I would write about my friend, Big Bluestem.

09032013_180602 WebI call big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) my friend because it has been part of my life for over twenty years. Big bluestem is a native grass of the tallgrass prairie, a vast domain of largely treeless expanse that, before the coming of the white man, dipped down out of southern Canada, expanded to over 600 miles in width across the Midwest, and ran for more than a thousand miles towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, we touch the boundary of the prairie that extended, and broadened, as it went north. Plants native to the tallgrass prairie grew here, though not in the lush abundance found to our north and east. To honor the sea of grass that once touched The Greenwood, we planted grasses and wildflowers common to the tallgrass prairie here on our farm and big bluestem is the first of the grasses to bridge the gap from summer to fall.

09212013_070226 webGrowing up to nine feet high, big bluestem was a wonder to the first settlers. In his book Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, author Joan Madsen writes “[big bluestem] was a marvel to the early settlers who plunged into it and left accounts of big bluestem so tall that it could be tied in knots across the pommel of a saddle.” I see these slender sentinels as the guardians of my homeplace, keeping watch over the long gravel lane that connects our farm to the outside world.

In August, big bluestem begins to go to seed and as it opens, reveals a three-branched seed head that has given rise to another name, “Turkey Foot.” Its unmistakable silhouette tells me fall is near.

10282011_155806 (1) webI am not the only one to await the ripening of big bluestem. From late September until November, the seed-heads are an endless bounty to sparrows, juncos, and a host of migrating birds who rely on the nutritious seeds to fuel their winter stores of fat. Driving along the lane on a fine autumn afternoon, the giant grasses are bent to the ground under the weight of feeding birds. The continual rise and fall of the stems makes it appear as though the plants are moving under their own power, bowing to the mellow sun.

09202013_181510 webThis year, the big bluestem began to open on July 31st. It will take some time for the seeds to cure, but already the sparrows are gathering, testing the crop to measure the breadth of the harvest to come.It is a welcome sign that summer’s reign cannot last and the time of harvest, then rest will come.

There are only a few tallgrass prairies left today. Most fell to the settler’s plow over a century ago, so I am proud to know the big bluestem, so see them dance, as Wallace Stegner wrote: “in the grassy, green, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it.” I walk among giants as my forbears did and dream of what lies just out of sight, oven the next wave of green.

Bees

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of the honey bees.

080116_2132This summer we have new visitors at our hummingbird feeders: Honey bees. While we could buy hummy feeders with bee-guards to keep the little guys at bay, their urgent need has prompted us to make room for them at the table.

In past years, we’ve had problem with wasps taking over the hummingbird feeders. Wasps are aggressive and disinclined to share. They will drive hummys away if possible and if their threats go unheeded, they will even attack the little birds to drive them away. Not so with bees.

080116_2105On any given day this summer, you will find the holes around the feeders ringed with bees; six or seven per feeding area, but instead of jealously guarding their bounty, they are more than happy to share with the hummingbirds, letting them sip at will in the center of the ring of bees.

The bees are gentle with us too. When the feeder is empty, Mom and I have only to gently brush the bees away. They go without quarrel and return without malice, sometimes landing softly on our hands as we hand the feeder on its silver hook.

We don’t know where the bees came from. Perhaps they are a swarm that left an overcrowded farmstead hive along our road or maybe they have come from a long distance, finding solace in our little valley. From wherever they arrived, The Greenwood is now home and we are honored to host their banquet.

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In a world where hatred seems to be the dominant force, I am glad to see cooperation, kindness, and gentleness right out my back door.

                          Poet Kahil Gibran wrote:”For bees, the flower is the fountain of life;                For flowers, the bee is the messenger of love.”

This year they are our messengers of love as well. I love you little bees.