A Farm Breviary: Matins
The night office, midnight at the top of the hill on a cold March night. The hour opens on the long silence of deepest night with the taste of snow in the steady wind. The few lights from our kith down in the valley seem more intimate for their distance. Signaling the presence of a modern life alone, they are connected and affirmed by the grid of powerlines humming a feeble supremacy on the far edge of the pasture.
Overhead, in gaps in the cloud curtain, the sharp clarity of winter stars is visible in the night sky. Remote intelligences communicating in a winking semaphore the unwelcome message of humility and insignificance. From my chair, my feet firm on the pasture, I hear behind me what must be a rabbit breaking cover, pursued by my dogs, conveying in their own language a place and hierarchy.
The owls hoot from the 20-acre wood beyond me a song of plausible deniability as the rabbit escapes under a fence and back to ground. On a nearby ridge, coyotes yip a prayer for sustenance. The hens squawk a nervous call and response, moving around on their roost, a sound of apprehension carried up the hill to my ears. The world in acts, some played and some still being written, surrounds in this hour. The challenge comes in a quiet listening beyond my own thoughts.
I break the hour and pick up my chair and return down the hill. My boots make small crackling sounds on the frozen ground, and a few swirling snowflakes accompany me with a delicate dance. Each step brings me closer to home and further away from my reverie.
A last glance skyward, before I enter the house, finds the semaphore code broken as the clouds shutter the sky. The world is once again close in and yet remote, both knowable and unknown. The link now only a thread, I open the door.
A Farm Breviary: Lauds
The dawn office, taken at 5 a.m. in the orchard on a cool morning. An ending of the night and a start to the new day, the work ahead still unformed, drifting through my mind like the mists in the creek bottoms below me. The waning half moon presides over the Southern late winter sky, one eye on the job in front and one eye on the job completed. The Big Dipper holds court to the north, its cup turned in welcome to the colder climes. The deep mysteries of the night office now wane with the promise of the sun.
This is the time of dogs and roosters. The night creatures are returning to their dens, ready to report back to hungry children the success or failure of their labors. The dogs in the valley, invigorated after a night’s rest, track the movements of each skunk, opossum, or fox as it crosses their domain. Agitated barking from all points of the compass signals a last hurdle for the weary parents.
I sit in my chair and let the sounds of this ending enter. The past few days I have hosted a cousin and his family. They were paying a visit to the last surviving sister of mine and my cousin’s mothers. As our aunt closes in on 97, she is still healthy and sharp; yet her long day must inevitably near its close. Her offices observed with intelligence and faithfulness, she has achieved what our old dependable scribe Berry would term “a complete life.”
One step in front of another and a life of daily cycles becomes a decade, a century, a millennium, a billion years. It’s not for my intelligence to know the duration. And only for others to judge the completeness of my projects, to wonder what tasks I left unfinished, to know whether my footsteps traveled on a purposeful path or toward a dead-end. I resolve to be like the moon: Does she wonder if she should alter her footpath? No, she sets her course and stays true, knowing her place, her duties, a life faithful and complete.
I gather my chair and return to the house, the rooster crows now being answered from over the ridge. The light of the sun, still a few hours below the eastern hill, respectfully waits for night to complete its work. My dogs disappear into the brush; the cool air moves, bringing the scent of a skunk disturbed by their explorations.
I leave them to patrol the farm and I enter the house, first one foot and then the other.
A Farm Breviary: Prime
Dawn is an active office, a time for movement and chores, a time when reflection and observation are often drunk on the go, when dark gives way to light and to shadows. Dawn begins the dutiful time of day, when the role of husbanding demands an attentive service. It is a time of rivers.
The back door shuts, a noise, carried to the barnyard as a signal to the ram. He rises and the bell around his neck wakens the flock. They stand and gather together with expectant murmuring, awaiting my arrival. An open gate, a shaken bucket of feed, and the river runs forward, eddies around my legs, erodes my stability, before flooding into the fresh grass: a flock experiencing the full pleasure of an early spring morning. The chickens mirror in lesser volume the actions of their sheep sisters. They stream out of the coop and into the sunlight, bugs and scratch high on their list of priorities.
Below the farm, down the hill at the road, the world of man has begun to reassert a misshapen dominance. A rising water at flood stage, threatening to overwhelm, the road is quickly engorged by the tributaries of commuters in cars and trucks flowing into its main channel. Among them, a school bus moves in and out of the road current, accumulating children, eventually depositing them like a debris field after a storm, to be trained in the finer points of boredom and disengagement.
After an hour or two, the morning flood will subside to a trickle before the mystery reverses itself in late afternoon. In the meantime, my path is a well-trodden one of scheduled rituals, starting with the giving of first food then water to all who need it. I end the dawn office leaning over the paddock fence, watching with pleasure as the pigs enjoy — as only pigs do — their early morning breakfast. A pause in my activities, a quiet few minutes to review the day to come.
I turn from those in my care now fed, the initial flow of morning chores observed, and return to the house for my own breakfast. Overhead, the fine blue sky is now streaked with half a dozen contrails, sad evidence of our misplaced search for wonderment.
A Farm Breviary: Terce
The mid-morning office is a sun office and the heart of the workday on a small farm. It is the sweat-of-the-brow, hands-in-the-dirt, muscle-to-the-posthole-digger time of day, the time to get it done and not waste time. Putting my hands in the dirt, I plant, weed, and thin. Dirt, the alpha and the omega, where we all begin and where we all end.
I clean out the barn and pile the manure and bedding. By tomorrow, it will be smoking, a steam of decay already beginning new life. The farm in action is a plumed phoenix, flaming through life and death and life. Risen from the ashes, the bird becomes dinner, becomes compost and manure, becomes vegetables. Becomes a trinity of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Becomes us.
Yesterday, two friends joined me in cutting several logs into lumber. The morning was spent in pleasant labor, strenuous but never exhausting. Labor that if done in solitary might have been a chore was lightened by their company. Sawdust lay thick on the ground when our work was done, already becoming something new and different, yet still the same.
The challenge of today is to decide in the tomorrow how to best use this tree, this kith of the woodland — this matter, present at the beginning, that chanced to become the tree in a fencerow, and became stacked lumber in my shed. My responsibility is to make something if not beautiful, certainly functional. William Morris had it right, though we have drifted far enough into the fog bank that his words are now muted across the water: “Have nothing that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a directive bold enough to color my sins of misuse scarlet.
We are part and will be part of the plumage of the phoenix that fires and dies and is reborn. Holding that image in the eye, I will follow Morris’ instruction with the lumber. But for now, I start with my hoe, making my rows clean and productive, leaving the plants in fertile soil to track the sun across the sky.
The day will come when this matter too becomes compost, and begins again in dirt and life; when trees, in feeding, embrace the sun that brought me to their dark feet.
Finished, I hang up my hoe.
A Farm Breviary: Sext
It’s the midday office and I’ve brought my chair to the bottom of a grass-covered bowl, my own private Greek amphitheater. The greening spring grass grows thick where the play-goers sit; the stage for the actors and chorus is set hard against a fenceline, its backstage leading out to a former wood.
Here, our play opens. The oracle enters, predicting that where the fenceline stitches its feeble wire suture on the land, in a hubristic claim of ownership of what can’t be owned, the future already knows what we have forgotten.
The backdrop to the play is the clear-cut forest where I used to harvest ramps each spring and chanterelles late summer, deep in its quiet center. Now it lies as an exposed landscape of splintered trees and muddy roads, marking a deafness of the present custodians and neighbors to the past and the future.
Stage left is land that until recently belonged to an aging farmer who is in the long process of retiring, step by slow-moving step. He stopped by to deliver some much needed hay the other day, and I had a chance to chat with him about his life. Had he ever worked with horses? Yes, he said, he used to love to drive a team out into the field to pick up shocks of corn, the rhythmic stooping and bending work he liked as a youth. How old, I asked, when you were allowed to drive that team by yourself? Oh, very young, he responded. Eight years old.
Can I name a child of acquaintance who has the intelligence and responsibility to handle a team of horses and spend the afternoon doing physical labor? The sadness and absurdity of thinking we have improved on the past by infantilizing our children, swaddled even into youth and young adulthood, their girth and limbs malformed, their intelligence maladapted to the work of being men and women.
With these unsettled thoughts, the midday hour closes and I pick up my chair and walk back down the lane to the heart of the farm. The sounds of the chorus fade.
Rounding the last bend, I ignore the muttering of the audience and pretend the oracle’s prophecy was wrong. Blinded, I reenter this modern life.
A Farm Breviary: Nones
The ninth-hour office is the quiet hour. This is a time for either a short nap or a walk before returning to the task at hand. For this hour, on this day, the woods are my destination. I cross our pastures to travel a winding footpath through the woods. Often, my passage signals the start or the completion of a day of work. Today, I’ll stop, pause and reflect.
This small wood of twenty acres is crossed by a steep ravine. Three offshoots, broad church aisles of ridge land, converge on a private sanctuary in the heart of the forest, a natural presbytery for the unchurched. The time of day, the wind, the season, all influence where I stop and sit. I light a cigar and lean back against a tree and drift.
The light slants down, filtered, dropping in through high lancet windows of nature’s cathedral. It falls onto and illuminates my pew, where the smoke lifts up through the leaves in an offering to the peace found in quiet observance.
The dogs, after a bit of chasing around, like kids at a Sunday service, pick up on the mood and settle near me. This is not a formal ceremony where members of the elite sit in designated and privileged seats. It is a come as you are, find a convenient rock, fallen tree or flat ledge of land, where the ritual begins when you are ready.
An hour of simply sitting brings to me a satisfying mental quiet in which thoughts eddy and drift with the smoke along unexpected paths — a reverie softly interrupted by the distinctive devotional of a woodpecker, heard in its search for a communion grub, or the alarmed bucksnort, a cough by the old man of the woods as he catches a whiff of the dogs, his whitetailed flag flown, signaling if not surrender, then at least a quiet retreat up the central nave and out the back door.
When my cigar is near its end, I stub it out on a nearby rock. The dogs are off chasing squirrels and the scattering scent of the vanished buck. A cloud obscures the light from the upper windows, and I, the remaining congregant, arise and start the journey home along a familiar and welcome path.
A Farm Breviary: Vespers
Evensong, I pull up my chair into the bee-loud glade and sit down in the shade of a young oak. It is a mere child of 15 years, with near two centuries of growth ahead. Yet, already sturdy and full, it provides a cooling shelter for myself and our small bee yard.
Storms build in the west, as the sun, already hidden, prepares for departure, his work done. This is the office for the ending of the day, sung as a work chantey by humming bees finishing up their own day’s labor. Laden like the stevedores of old, they return to their community one last time, legs loaded with pollen. Soon the daybridge will be pulled up in readiness for the night and her watchmen.
In the poultry yard nearby, the chickens join in chorus with the bees and begin the return to roost. They flutter up into the coop, where their elder aunts have already gone to bed. The roosters, giving a last challenge to the fading light, crow once more, then declare victory and retire from battle. In the lower fields the sheep still graze. Soon though, the dominant ewe will signal an end to the day. She will lead the flock in a doxology of contented bleats back to the barn, all readiness for rest and security.
Vespers on the farm is a coming home.
Next to me is a small hive worked earlier in the day, a captured swarm from a friend and neighbor’s apple orchard. Eleven days it has labored in building a new home with the old queen. We were prepared to find it weak, to merge it with a stronger hive. Yet, the queen still lived, busy laying eggs, building brood, surrounded by her attendants. Not yet a strong hive, but with luck, hard work, and the inevitable act of regicide — like the corn kings of folklore — the colony will end the summer and fall strong enough to survive the next winter.
I sit in idleness and rest as these last bees return from the field. I watch as they and their sisters gather, bearding the front boards in tight-knit community. With news exchanged, plans made for the following day, they begin to go indoors.
Rising, I put my ear to one of the hives and listen to the hum of their evening song. It’s a melody picked up throughout the farm. I pause and listen for the refrain, and then, as the poet says, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
A Farm Breviary: Compline
The final office, and I’m seated in the doorway of the hoop-house. Behind me the compline bell rings with each shake of the ram’s head. The flock is bedded in the barn for the night, but still restless. Through the far door of the greenhouse, in the dimming light, the pigs gather as hungry penitents, hoping to be favored by an overgrown turnip or some other toothsome gift. Mere feet away, a rabbit munches a cabbage leaf, unconcerned by my presence.
The hour of compline begins with the restless, the hungry, and the insolent, which seems to be a certain commentary on something, if I could but grasp it. Meanwhile, in the blue-black sky above, a late jet catches up to the sun’s light at 40,000 feet and reflects the granted glory of a temporary membership among the celestial.That too seems to me a lesson: mistaking reflected light as a sign of glory or evidence of mastery. Our literature as a species, outside of this current epoch of assumed progressive godhead, is replete with warnings of a fall and our inevitable irrelevance.
We forget the lesson of the Roman triumph, where the servant stood at the conquering general’s ear and whispered the message of mortality, or the caution of the young Shelley, that the Ozymandian stature of our achievements was petty compared to the cosmos, or even to a tree, a bee, or a rock.
Perhaps we seek too high for that reflected illumination. Once, I had resolved to be as the moon, steadfast in her journey. Now I’m thinking I should be a cabbage. It seems not to care whether rabbit or human eats its leaves; it thrives in that short arc before becoming fodder for whatever destiny.
I laugh out loud at my absurd ruminations, startling the ram out of his own observance. He nervously rings the bell on his collar to close off the hour. Still no closer to an understanding, with this final office now observed, I pick up my chair and turn to leave. The rabbit casts a wary eye, then resumes its predations on my garden.
A final gaze at the night sky before I enter the house finds the familiar winking semaphore still sending its eternal dispatch — which I suspect, if I could just hear, would be whispering in my ear: remember, you are only a man, nothing more.