Pointers for a Writing Life

At the farm, for the month of June, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I will concentrate on the tasks in front of me. On the other days of the week, as much as possible, I plan to escape to a rental house on Cape Cod. It’s between Wellfleet and Truro on the ocean side, an area I love and where I have vacationed with my children since they were young. My plan is to work on a book I have been writing off and on for five years and more. I would like to finish it, am feeling the pressure to complete this project—or if it seems not-finish worthy, eject it. Send it over and out into the ethers—delete, delete. After all, it is only electronic bits of information.

But thankfully there is Annie Dillard. In her book, The Writing Life, she says, “Writing a book full-time takes between two and ten years.” She offers me relief. I have not been working full-time on this project. I have two other full-time jobs—art and the farm. She also says:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control: it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

I understand this ferocity. At home, I cannot open the book for it might take over, grab hold of a leg and not let go. When I am on the road, or somewhere else, anywhere really, on a train, in a hotel room, and now at the Cape, for some reason the danger is not present and I can turn to it, dive in, and to my astonishment, do the work I love—the search to shape of an event, or an object, with words. And then there is the book itself, becoming an entity of its own, taking over, devising its own life. The two of us now living together.

I am writing about moving to Old Frog Pond Farm, assuming the care of the abandoned orchard, and committing to bringing it back organically. What got me here? Why did my marriage fail? How has my Zen practice braided through the orchard work? And what lessons have I learned that appear in my art?

            Annie Dillard again:

The strain, like Giacometti’s penciled search for precision and honesty, enlivens the work and impels it toward is truest end. A pile of decent work behind him, no matter how small, fuels the writer’s hope . . .”

Yes, she is right, I do have hope. And then I fall short, I fail as I judge what I am writing. I hear myself say, I am not a real writer. I read other writers whose work I admire and see how my writing lacks their skill. How does one learn to write? Annie Dillard, thankfully, answers this question.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength; that page will teach you to write.

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Other than write, I take beach walks. On my first one, I stopped when I found a horseshoe crab upside down, it’s little pinchers barely moving. I turned it right side up and watched as it began to move. Its long tail spine pointing to where it had come from, its hulk moving towards the waves. It stopped after about ten feet, and I had this sickening feeling that it was dying, right there, in front of me. I touched its pointer, wriggled it from left to right, and it started up again, slowly, another six feet, scraping its way over the sand, leaving its foot-wide trail. We went through this ritual several more times, my teasing the pointer, the crab starting reluctantly to move, but each time it seemed to be moving more slowly.

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When it finally reached the waves, I felt this was its most precarious place to be. It stalled. It waited. The surf poured over its hard shell. It seemed to be waiting for something. Then a large wave carried it into the jumble of surf. I saw was the tail spine, sticking up above the wave, pointing.

 

 

Mothers of the Earth

It’s a rainy and cold Mother’s Day morning. I smile though, as I walk to the studio and meet two families of geese shuffling their puff balls away from my threatening presence. The tireless care of these geese parents for their young, the overprotection, their ceaseless devotion strikes me as radical. What if we offered this kind of care to the world?

This morning I have no sculpture installations, no farm workers, visitors, or meditators. I thought about what I wanted to do with my free morning—a yoga class for my body, meditation for the mind, painting for the muse. There has been so much doing in the last month. Good doing, yes. Caring for the trees and the land. Meeting and helping artists. Delicious lists of a new asparagus bed to dig, raspberries to weed, young apple trees to weed and mulch, potatoes to plant, mowers to fix, dead trees to take down, buried rice to feed (we’re growing our own effective microbes to inoculate compost and orchard teas) and so on. But writing this blog is not on my to-do list, it is not something I do and say, now that’s done. It grows from a particular seed of quiet with the shape and color that only comes from being alone. I have to weed the garden of its to-dos in order to uncover what is growing.

Last Sunday we had a Crone Ceremony for the first time at the farm. Thirty-three women gathered to celebrate and bless each other.

An Online Etymology Dictionary defines crone with a lot of negativity:

late 14c., "a feeble and withered old woman," in Middle English a strong term of abuse, from Anglo-French carogne "carrion, carcass; an old ewe . . ."

The defintion ends with:

Since mid-20c. The word has been somewhat reclaimed in feminism and neo-paganism as a symbol of mature female wisdom and power.

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At our gathering, we made ourselves crowns with fresh forsythia branches and flowers. We joined to acknowledge the new shape of our lives as older women, as wise and creative women with enough experience to trust our intuition. We rang The Olympic Bell and listened as its deep note resounded through the grove of pine trees. We let go of habits that no longer serve our lives today by tossing a symbolic twig or stone into the current of the pond. We owned our creativity and freedom as we sang, Amazing Crones to the tune of Amazing Grace, and celebrated that we still have much to offer the world. We ended our ritual in a circle in The Medicine Wheel as each woman asked to be blessed, and the group chorused, We bless you, and spoke her name.

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Like the cherry petals that have fallen, the flowers in our crowns faded quickly. I tossed mine into the woodstove the next morning. But, this week, the orchard apples opened their pink cloud hues and row upon row like trackless waves billow on every side. Will the Gods favor us with a good crop? Will the low temperatures forecast for Tuesday night freeze the about-to-open blossoms? Will bloom sustain the wind and rain long enough for the pollinators to do their work on the next sunny day? 

Will our bodies trouble us too much so that we can no longer do the things we love? At our gathering we had one women who could no longer walk unsupported because of progressively debilitating Multiple Sclerosis. As she stepped with her walker into the middle of the circle, we felt her bravery and her struggle. 

On this Mother’s Day, I offer a prayer for the earth and a blessing for our children and their children. May we do the work to provide good medicine to heal our beloved planet Earth. May we creatively cultivate the opening of all hearts for every sentient being. May we find the seeds of quiet to reconnect with what is important so that future generations will blossom and bear fruit.

We’re all mothers of the earth. Happy Mother’s Day!

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What Are We Doing to the Earth, John Chapman?

John Chapman (1774–1845) is familiar to most grade school students in the United States as Johnny Appleseed, the man who planted apple seeds. The irony is that John Chapman might have been sorely disappointed with this epitaph. John Chapman established nurseries of apple trees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and as far west as Indiana, but these orchards were not his true raison d’etre. Selling apple trees for his livelihood gave him the possibility of travel where and when he wanted—and the freedom to practice and spread his religion of choice.

 John followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish mystic, scientist, and theologian who influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe and was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Swedenborg believed we live in both the world of spirit and the material world, but that our eyes are often closed to the former. He was a Christian who formed a new religious movement, the Swedenborgian denomination, to advance the idea that God revealed himself in the world, in the earth, in all sentient life. Based on his own significant mystical experiences, he wrote that love is the “basic unit of reality.” He seemed determined to show people that there is more than what they see with their eyes and hear with their ears: There is a mystical world that everyone has access to.

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

John Chapman certainly seemed to want to have, or perhaps did have, his own mystical experiences—we will never know. But he did he carry the words of Swedenborg across the American frontier. Visiting homesteads, he would pull out his Bible and read passages with an ardor that calls to mind the approach of television evangelists today. Sometimes he would tear out a few pages and leave them, only to exchange them for new ones the next time he passed through. He was a vegetarian, wore no leather, and would never even cut down a tree.

Of course, on these journeys, he always had apple trees to sell. Fruit trees, often a requirement for anyone wanting to establish a land claim, provided the fruit to make applejack—hard cider—the drink of choice for the settlers at all three meals. From apple cider, settlers could make apple cider vinegar, a cleaning agent, as well as a preservative and medicinal drink. Even if the apples Chapman’s seedling produced were bitter and hard, ‘spitters’ I’ve heard them called, it didn’t matter, for they all mixed well in the grinder. 

Chapman would travel into a new territory ahead of the homesteaders and establish a small nursery with seeds he picked up annually from a cider mill in Pennsylvania. He chose a protected spot near a river or stream, secured it with brambles, and traveled on. The following year he would return, dig up his one-year-old seedlings. Apple seedlings with the right conditions can grow five feet or more in a year.   

My friend, Eric Schultz, who generously let me read his chapter on John Chapman in his book, Nation of Entrepreneurs, to be published by Greenleaf Publishing this fall wrote, “John Chapman was the oddest of evangelists, bringing gifts of heaven and alcohol in equal parts to the American frontier and running a business model that supported both.” There are not many followers of the Swedenborg religion today, but Chapman’s apples spread far and wide, and are certainly part of the proliferation of varieties of apples we now grow not only in America but all over the world.  It’s interesting how one’s passion does not always create one’s legacy.

I think about John Chapman when I read that we have experienced the five warmest years in history. We will soon be planting Southern apples here in New England, for in not too many years, our older heirloom varieties will not have enough chill hours to produce buds. Much of this heating up of the earth is because of our selfishness and blindness to the interconnection of everything we do, build, use, and desire. Chapman was a minimalist, even during a time when there was not much to spare. His potato sack shirt had armholes cut for sleeves and probably did little to protect him from the elements, but apparently, he never complained. What would we think if we saw this man walking along our streets, barefoot with “horny” toes, wearing a tin can cap, bearded and hairy?  We appreciate true iconoclasts often only after the person has died.

I came upon an interesting post, A Theology of Wild Apples, in the blog, American Orchard, Historical perspectives on food, farming and landscape.

 Yet well-off travelers in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century frequently cast harsh moral judgments on the subsistence-minded farmer and his wild, disorderly orchards. And by the 1820s, many moralists found another reason to condemn the seedling orchard: most of its apples were destined to be converted to demon alcohol. Temperance societies called for the destruction of wild apple trees as an essential step toward sobering up the nation.

Chapman, born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, died in 1854 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fortunately, a few decades later, his younger compatriot, Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord in 1887, celebrated wilderness, wildness, and, thank goodness, wild apple trees, writing the long essay, Wild Apples, in celebration of them. There is room for both: the domesticated apple and the wild apple.

Which brings me to our orchard of ordered rows. Last Monday, we finished winter pruning, and now the twisting rhythms of branches play the ground between the trees. We pruned on those days of coldest cold stamping our feet to keep warm, and finished last Monday, a 50 degree day with honey bees out flying. Here’s to a bountiful year of apples, those planted by crow and deer, and the straight rows of nursery stock.

Pruned Row February, 2019

Pruned Row February, 2019

And to you, John Chapman, thank you! May we be inspired by your life to care more deeply for every apple, and to appreciate the miracle of every seed.

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Geese, Herons, Beavers, and the Baby Steps of a Lapsed Blogger

For those who have been faithful followers of my blog, who have worried, and asked, “Is everything all right?” My reply is a hearty, “Yes!”.  It’s simply been a busy spring. So much has happened that I don’t know where to begin. Thus, baby steps.

Scultpure. LH

Scultpure. LH

I watch the geese. We have, I think, eight families, but they often mix together and it is hard to tell who belongs to whom. They are eating machines and when I listen closely I hear their beaks snap as they grab grass, insects, and whatever else they are snacking on. They are also poop machines and walking around the farm requires attention to the ground before you step.

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The geese love being here because of the pond. They need a body of water for protection. The hissing and tongue-sticking-out behavior of the defensive adults seems bravado distraction to give the goslings time to scurry into the pond.

The young herons are also a treat to watch.

Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

Two Herons, Watercolor, LH

One caught a frog in the mixed fruit orchard by the house. Another has been fascinated by something in the chicken coop. Then she or he walked across the street into the orchard and meandered down a row of apple trees. It is most unusual behavior for a heron. These young birds haven’t learned to fear humans or their domains; innate curiosity lures them close. This morning one came walking up the driveway;  I half expected a knock at the front door. Older herons have their reserved spots around the pond — one stands near the willows, another across the pond, and a third on the far side of the dam. This heron pays no attention to the medley of black, Northern water snakes that congregate on the warm rocks. I look down when I walk around the pond; sometimes the snakes prefer to hide in the long grass.

When I look up, I see my studio. There is no siding on the outside walls, only plastic Tyvek wrap like a Christo art installation. Inside, however, I am working and enjoying the new light-filled space immensely. We don’t have a CSA at the farm this year, and we don’t have any full time workers – which means I try to make time each week for art.

New Studio (difficult to photograph)

New Studio (difficult to photograph)

So far it has been working and I’ve installed new work in four outdoor exhibits this spring.

Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

Just Sitting, Installation at the Fuller Museum, Brockton, MA

I also try to spend a little time at the end of the day sitting in a chair with the windows wide open looking over the pond. One evening I saw something swimming, making what looked like figure eight circles on the far side. This went on for quite a while until I decided I would go up to the house to get some binoculars, risking of course, the creature’s disappearance.

When I returned to the studio and held the binoculars up to my eyes, I saw that there were two beavers, not one, swimming together.  One swam ahead while the other approached, then slid up over them, then swam off, and circled round. In silence the beavers came together again, then separated; joined and parted. Beavers making love in the pond!  A few more times and they disappeared. Now I keep binoculars by my window seat. I will not use these to make another scutlpure!