catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 11 :: 2013.05.24 — 2013.06.06


Lost and found

A reflection springing from “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” by Wendell Berry.

“Do something that won’t compute” — amen, Brother Wendell!  Buy a run-down farm with a bit of help and some high falutin’ dreams. Install plumbing and new wiring and a working kitchen and bathroom when your skills extend to hammering a nail and that’s about it.  Leave the urban world for your patch of land; God is calling you. God is always calling someone to do things that don’t compute. And God has seemed to lay a big hand on your shoulder and point towards this 12-acre patch you name Maple Tree Meadows.

“Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor.”  Yes. Yes. Quite familiar. I just didn’t know that it would take more, and yet more, than all that I have.

The Mad Farmer’s manifesto has been a guide as I’ve developed a vision for the farm. Brother Wendell’s view of sanity, which opposes our mainstream culture’s values, is comforting to me, as is Jesus’ call to discipleship. They both look crazy to others. They both reveal people who know a deeper, more committed, more meaningful life than the ordinary. They both encourage me in this journey that at least one friend has called “delusional.” I’m pretty sure that what Brother Wendell calls losing your mind, I call faith.   

April 22, 2013: A day on my farm

I wake up to sunshine, a glorious change from the cold rain. It’s Monday, a day I can choose what I want to get done.  Goal for today: wash, caulk and paint the crown molding in the dining room and start painting the kitchen shelves. Painting the kitchen is the last leg of my painfully long, yet wonderful house renovation.

I go for a walk, cats unhappily locked in the house so the birds have a few safe morning hours. I notice a robin’s nest in the yard when I get back, from one of the recent windstorms, I presume.

I take an hour to research breast cancer diet for my friend Millie who has just been diagnosed. What helps? What is bad? I discover that black pepper and button mushrooms are associated with cancer growth — what? At any rate, some info gets in a computer document.

Then it’s time to take Jeda (cat #4) to the vet. After some hide and seek, I get her scooped into the cat carrier. When we get back home after the indignities of the visit, she races out of the carrier to the freedom of the barn.

I’ve been putting off a few phone calls trying to find a home for a local male cat who came here about two years ago and now needs a new home. I call the woman who took MacFluff, the friendly, orange, attacking neighborhood tomcat, a month ago. He has still not returned after running off from her place, but she doesn’t want to try another cat right now.

So, time for the goal of the day. I clean out a bucket and wipe down the trim. While it dries, I see that nest out the window and take the ladder out to put it back in a tree. There are two broken blue eggs, one punctured and sucked out — breakfast for some creature. I climb the ladder and perch the nest on two boughs. Maybe the robins will use the grass to start a new nest, even with my scent on it.  Probably not.

The ladder back inside, I glance out the window and see Orie’s guys on the shed roof — they’re here! So I traipse out to see how the roof repair is going. After looking all around for more galvanized steel roofing used 40 years ago but no more, we come up short. They will patch the little spot with what we’ve got.

Meanwhile, I notice it’s warm out! It’s warm! The first actual springlike day. The ground is soft, so I get out my shovel and move the paving stone that had been bugging me. And while I’ve got the shovel, I dig out some weeds in the garden; they always seem to grow up first.

Okay, since it’s warm and my only day home all week, I’ve got to put the strawberries in. Johnny’s sent them a week early so they’ve already been in the fridge awhile. This means I dig out the trowel, watering can, a bucket and the wheelbarrow. Bear, my asthmatic kitty and the farm’s oldest resident, pads after me. A few bees buzz around me. Am I taking away their blossoms that I call weeds? It’s a bad time to do that, with the problem of declining bee population. Sigh.

Two hours later the berries are in. It took so long to weed the first row that I just stuck in the last plants without weeding well. I hope they will survive.

Back to the crown molding. It will get painted today! I give up on getting the exact paint tint I want and brush it on, all around the room up and down on the ladder. It’s on. Done. The kitchen shelves? No way — time for dinner and sudoku. Now this feels like a farm: not getting what you planned done, but getting some surprise accomplishments in. I hear on the news that it’s Earth Day, but I forgot until now. Well, it’s a fitting way to honor the earth, even if I didn’t celebrate it with a poem or song.

Brother Wendell says,  “Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. Listen to carrion — put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.”  A broken robin’s egg, strawberries in, old hay around them: building that humus. Do I pause to listen for that faint chattering of the future?

My daily life is more tired than joyous. More push and hurry than laughter. “Just get through this building project and I’ll make time for a good rhythm,” I think. But this has been my life, taking on more than I can accomplish. Do I know how to live a good rhythm, with pauses for enjoying the wonders in my back yard, to contemplate the unknowable? “Lie easy in the shade,” Brother Wendell says. Yes. I just can’t seem to find the time.

Is caring for this farm practicing resurrection? It is mad. I’ve felt an affinity with Wendell’s Mad Farmer, just by being a single woman on this farm. To be honest, the farm gives me the place to focus mad hopes I’ve had all my life.

Ten years or so of dreaming of being back on a farm, decades after leaving the Ohio dairy farm of my childhood, it is happening. I’m bringing the restoration, hopefully, of a venerable farm.  It’s felt like obedience to be here.  And joy. And deep contentment. With an undercurrent of getting the place ready for its next people.

“Practice resurrection.”  That last line is a great hook, but after a few years of living in what I’ve called the Land of Death, it annoys me. What does Brother Wendell mean by practicing resurrection? I live with the passing of my father, of other important people — Howard, Donna, Mary Kay, Elaine, Don — with hopes for the farm that keep being deferred.

I can point to many things here that are a return of life: the house that had no plumbing now has, the new maple trees are leafing. The strawberry patch may give me a good crop this year. Walnut and maple from Dad’s lumber collection now grace my bedroom floor and kitchen counters. Five cats who would be God-knows-where have the good life.  And yet the sorry-looking barn, the last shaggy horse shelter, the manure lagoon all sit waiting for help. Does resurrection really take this much work?

I don’t feel resurrected here. I feel exhausted. And yet, other than the house rehab, this is what I “belong to be” doing, as the poet said: carrying the wood, cooking the maple syrup, canning tomatoes, basking in the fire’s glow in January, the snow covering the resting land.

Losing my father and so many other people these past three years, I am changed.  

T.S. Eliot’s poem of the Magi’s journey to see the baby Jesus comes to mind:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This:  were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

“I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.” I have a glimpse of Brother Thomas’ conundrum. We usually sing our Easter hymns with high joy, but resurrection always requires a death.

I’ve always understood resurrection as a phenomenon that goes against nature. Yes, the leaves decay and feed the soil and new life emerges. But that’s a natural process — not resurrection. How many people come back from being dead? No one I know — and wouldn’t we all be glad to bring back someone we love.

Maybe I need to expand my understanding. Brother Wendell says in another Mad Farmer poem, “The Man Born to Farming,”

he enters into death yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.

And in “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer,” he says,

If I have been caught so often laughing at funerals, that was because I knew the dead were already slipping away, preparing a comeback, and can I help it?

And in “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer”:

When a man’s life is over the decent thing is for him to die. The forest does not withhold itself from death. What it gives up it takes back.

In “Some Further Words”:

I loved my children from the time they were conceived, having loved their mother, who loved them from the time they were conceived and before. Who are we to say the world did not begin in love? I would like to die in love as I was born, and as myself, of life impoverished, go into the love all flesh begins and ends in.

Wendell doesn’t refer to Jesus’ resurrection in these pieces. His is nature’s resurrection: life from last year’s, last millennium’s decomposed life. But this last piece helps tie it together for me: “I would like to die in love as I was born…[and] go into the love all flesh begins and ends in.”  If we’re fortunate, we are born to parents whose hearts yearn for us. No matter our looks or personality, they are disposed to love us. “Who are we to say the world did not begin in love?”

Looking over the photos of these years at Maple Tree Meadows reminds me of the life and the love that has flowed through here: the folks who came the summer of 2008 to take out the bathroom, tear out smelly carpet, wash floors, and on and on; the farm’s blessing in June of 2009 — the little maple tree from Tim and Michele’s farm is sprouting high to the sky; the Soul and Soil series for women doing ministry — what meals and food for thought that has been, and I started a new kitchen herb garden with their help; Willard storing his construction equipment in my horse shed and paying with labor, bringing blackberry canes; Steve storing his tractors and boat in the horse arena and taking down decrepit sheds and mowing the endless burdock, getting stickers even under his goggles; Gary farming my hay fields and fixing my truck; love underneath and all around here.

Brother Wendell wants us to “practice resurrection.”  Ah, he’s got me there, that smooth, sly poet. Practice: to repeat over and over, to prepare for the real thing, or to simply act as though something is already real.

I’m not the person who bought this farm five years ago. Part of me, too, has died. Perhaps this old farm is part of my “Land of Death.”  And yet, it is so alive. The little dusty field full of brown grasses when I moved here sprouted overwhelming green grasses once it was mowed.

I am more introverted these years. Perhaps after recuperating from the renovation, I’ll be back out in the world. Perhaps not. For now, I’m weeding the berries, mowing the lawn, painting a kitchen, picking ticks off Bear, listening to the birds.

For now, I’m practicing.

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