Wednesday, May 25, 2011

ravens in the corn

Driving home after my herding lesson was wonderfully anti-climatic, fantastically boring. For weeks I had been fretting about this particular ride, certain it would be a disaster. I knew I’d have an energetic border collie and a ram lamb inches away from each other crammed in the cab of a pickup truck for a two-hour transport across three states. I was expecting bedlam. Gibson would be howling and clawing at the crate, the ram screaming, truck swerving, me praying as I slid down sketchy mountain roads. I tried to prepare. I had a car-seat harness for Gibson. I had a first aid kit packed. I planned to stop often. When I doubted the transport, I started pricing stock trailers on Craigslist…

It was all in vain. The ride home was like driving in an Edward Hicks painting. Gibson curled up in the front seat, exhausted from his lesson. He was sleeping like a babe of Eden. The ram lamb bleated here and there, but generally resigned to his lot as cargo and laid down. (I would find out later he was "calmly" filling the dog crate with liquid feces, but that's another story for another day). With my back to the crate, my dog at my side, I was in a blissful state. My new-to-me truck was chugging through the Green Mountains like a champ and I was almost home. Just a few hours prior to crossing the Washington County line my business-partner-in-training had moved from the round pen to the high field and was starting to show real progress. I had come out of lambing and was now focused on summer projects. I had a rabbitry to start, a cart pony to train and outfit, turkeys to raise, and now I was driving home with next season's sire. He was a beautiful boy. I carried him in my arms to the truck myself from Denise's farm—a young Blackface ram. He's the breed I chose amongst all others to feed and clothe me. I named him Atlas, because a new ram is a sheep farm's whole world while he thrives. New blood, new lambs, new hope and all of it tangled next to my chest as I loaded him into the truck. Two hearts separated by wool, skin, cloth, and blood.

Picking up the spring lamb that would, in turn, become the fall ram was a new thing for this particular farm. New, but instantly ritualistic. It was one of those things you do as a new farmer and immediately understand you're taking part in the first of endless annual occurrences just like it. You are nostalgic in the present moment, (which I think, might be the closest to enlightenment this girl will ever get). My first Shearing Day was like this too. As was my first apple cider pressing, lambing season, and that first spring hatchery order years ago in Idaho. They are holidays, you see.

Holy is the proper word, too.

I am not a religious person, though I respect and appreciate what religion is. It's a way to live, and something to live up to. It's a year marked with observances and festivals that—if celebrated earnestly—make us understand the world better and our place in it. As a child my holidays were full of magic and great import. As I grew older I lost that. Holidays became Hallmark and faded back into numbers on calendar. Soon after, religion and I parted ways. We still meet up for coffee on occasion, but it’s a platonic conversation. No commitments from either side.

But farming is changing this. My life is entirely about commitment now, and I find myself praying more than ever before in my life, mostly out of sheer gratitude for my land and the air in my lungs. My prayers aren't to anyone in particular, but they are constant and honest. I have a lot of Evangelical friends and sometimes I sit down with the Bible. Other times it's the words of teachers and writers wise enough to crack the farm house's foundation. I make more time to meditate now, and read through the sutras that make my head sing with good things. The Heart Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, which has a line I want engraved someday on my tombstone if I ever get a say in such things.

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

So the farm is bringing out a more spiritual side, and it's varied and happy. This life of soil and lanolin is my choice and my dream and it makes its own holidays. My year is now marked in new ways now. It is marked with days novel to me, but timeless to the human animal: Planting, Breeding, Shearing, Canning, Lambing, Harvest, Honey Extraction... the list goes on and on. Most of these holidays are casual observances. You don’t need to dress up, but you do need to be mindful. There’s a good reason shepherding holidays fall in the order they do, and each one is just a part of the annual cycle that is ewe and ram, fleece and lamb. Care of the flock breaks up my year now the way old school and church holidays did, and I find myself as wound up and restless before Shearing Day as I was as a child waiting for Santa. The next day brings something magical, something traditional, something tangibly wonderful and a part of me and endless people before me. What a thing. What a thing to relearn again. At nearly 30-years-old I feel like an authentic string of traditions as old as fire and song are wafting back to me again. I need to learn all the particulars, but I have a lifetime to do it in, and if I'm lucky that's a few more years of cider and wool, eggs and piglets. What more dare I ask for?

And you know what's truly beautiful about these agricultural holidays? They belong to everyone. Regardless of your creed, race, age, gender, location, wealth, or sexual orientation, hell species: we are all united in the Great Religion of Food. We all need it to survive and if it wasn’t for grocery stores, we would all be ordained instead of lapsed practitioners. Which is exactly what we are because just a few generations back your family probably grew (or personally knew the farmer) who raised the food you ate. We once knew how to eat in season, how to cook dinner, how to string up a bean vine, shell peas, and dress a Thanksgiving turkey. Our children were not scared of dead pigs, but clapped their hands under the hanging hogs. Because they liked bacon, and because they weren't shielded from the whole story as if it was a favor. I want to go home to that mind that sees the world as a hundred pieces of one life, complicated and forever, like the growing season.

All this time I thought I was becoming a farmer, but the farm is becoming me. It turns out I'm a seminarian here. A little monk on a little piece of land learning how to not mess it up, over and over. It makes me glad.

P.S. If you read this post thinking I am replacing religion with agriculture, then you have it all wrong. Farming isn't a path that drives me away from faith. It is a way to cultivate it all over again, and maybe someday find it amongst the ravens in the corn. Maybe not. Like said, there's not commitment here. Just a lot of observation.

But we can still meet for coffee.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again your writing touches my soul. I am not a religious person (as a matter of fact I invited people over for a bonfire during the rapture, as a celebration for those of us who wouldn't be chosen) but I am spiritual. My church is the peace and quiet I get with my animals, on my property and yes, even curled up on my couch watching a storm blow through. I have had similar trips home as what you forecast, but I've never been lucky enough to have the dog go to sleep... Thanks for your thoughts...

May 25, 2011 at 9:15 PM  
Blogger Carol said...

Congratulations on Atlas, I'm looking forward to pictures of him and the girls.

I like your analogy of farming and religion, I can't think of anyone who would be able to put it to words as eloquently as you.

I was raised in a Catholic family and went to 12 years of Catholic school. Religion was part of my life, but like you, we parted ways as I grew into an adult. My dad always was a religious man, but not a church goer, he always said that he had his word with the Lord while driving to work everyday and what he had to say was personal between him and his Creator, he didn't have to go to a church. Its kinda funny because he was brought up on a farm and always looked at things from that point of view.

I wish you continued success as you and your farm continue to grow and prosper. Keep the faith!

May 25, 2011 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Jenny Glen said...

I brought my first 3 sheep home in the back of my Ford Ranger with a shell on the back. My border collie rode in the front seat with his nose pressed to the glass.

May 25, 2011 at 9:27 PM  
Blogger denise said...

i am a christian, but you'd better not call me religious. i have a relationship with a living person, jesus, not a set of rules and laws that make up religion. i understand completely what you are saying about the spiritual side of nature. i attend church every week, but i promise you that most of the time, i feel closer to god in my little garden than i ever do at church. go figure.

May 25, 2011 at 9:41 PM  
Blogger Patsy said...

And God smiled.

May 25, 2011 at 9:47 PM  
Blogger georgie said...

and behold, it was very good.

May 25, 2011 at 10:11 PM  
Blogger Kitchen Mama said...

"All this time I thought I was becoming a farmer, but the farm is becoming me. It turns out I'm a seminarian here. A little monk on a little piece of land learning how to not mess it up, over and over. It makes me glad." Beautiful. The sutras that you mention are truly lovely and great for thinking about. You have expressed a very Buddhist idea there, that the farm is you and you are the farm. All is connected. A lovely post, Jenna.

May 25, 2011 at 10:15 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Simply lyrical.

May 25, 2011 at 10:39 PM  
Blogger damnyankee said...

Great piece Jenna. I concur. Congrats on Atlas (great name).

May 25, 2011 at 10:46 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

Another great post, Jenna.

Farming is a great act of faith, isn't it?

May 25, 2011 at 11:37 PM  
Blogger redbird said...

Given me thoughts to ponder when I think of ravens in the corn—how we rise when we're born like the ravens in the corn. Superb thoughts.
—also love the name Atlas.

May 26, 2011 at 12:12 AM  
Blogger Misha said...


May 26, 2011 at 12:23 AM  
Blogger Kara said...

Just awesome, thanks Jenna! Congrats on Atlas :)

May 26, 2011 at 12:36 AM  
Blogger Stargazer 2 said...


May 26, 2011 at 2:19 AM  
Blogger daisy said...

Jenna, you don't need to catagorize yourself for my sake. Your writing speaks for itself. We are all connected...

May 26, 2011 at 5:57 AM  
Blogger Janet said...

A wonderful essay Jenna - thanks for sharing it.

May 26, 2011 at 6:33 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

That was a great post. Whether you are a religious person or not, we are all connected through dirt, air, sunshine, water and the food it brings.

May 26, 2011 at 7:37 AM  
Blogger kylieps said...

beautifully said Jenna. I think there's something very spiritual about letting new lambs out to pasture and watching them spring around. It is a lovely thing to commune with animals and one's farm.

May 26, 2011 at 9:02 AM  
Blogger Kris said...

Great post! Yes, this is the way I feel too; more alive because of how I live with the seasons and the weather, the animals and the plants.

May 26, 2011 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Meredith A said...

great post! i love how you take the time to write what many think and feel but couldn't be bothered to express in writing. its great to have those thoughts captured.

i love the name atlas, i've been saving it for that *special* dog in the future.

May 26, 2011 at 9:32 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

I think I found your blog for a reason. You write these posts and they get into my heart and speak to me. This little voice says "hmmmm... did your hear what she said? What are you doing with yourself to feed your soul?" And I either cry, or plan something good for myself or seeth with anger at what I have let myself give up. All emotional reactions to your words and a symptom that I need to make a change. Your words give me the courage to do so. The change is coming, I can smell it in the air, like the smell of spring rain on a dusty road. It's coming...

May 26, 2011 at 9:33 AM  
Blogger Knit Picky Knitter said...

Very nice post Jenna. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts and words. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

May 26, 2011 at 10:03 AM  
Blogger bucolic beauty said...

Any man that walks the mead
In bud, or blade, or bloom, may find
A meaning suited to his mind.
- Alfred Tennyson

May 26, 2011 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

What a lovely post! I have also come to enjoy (and look to) all these seasonal markers. They define time for me, and bring a sense of meaning and ritual to my life. It's something I hope to pass on.

May 26, 2011 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger scorpiogirl said...

Jenna, you truly live your life as though it were one long prayer. Each moment a verse to revere. Of hope, and faith, and thanksgiving. I think you could not honor your place in this universe any better.

May 26, 2011 at 2:00 PM  
Blogger Toni aka irishlas said...

Incredibly well said.

May 26, 2011 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger phaedra96 said...

My dad always said he felt closer to God behind the butts of his draft horses in the middle of a field than in any church. There is something theraputic and religious in working a team down a field pulling disc harrow. Farming puts God back into your life in a way non-farmers will never understand.

May 26, 2011 at 5:32 PM  
Blogger Debi said...

Beautiful post Jenna. Congratulations on Atlas...can't wait to see pics of him!

May 26, 2011 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Donna said...

I always enjoy your writing and the way you have knit all of us readers into a community, but every once in a while your write something that hits home with such impact that I find myself holding my breath while I read it. This is one of those posts. It says everything I've been trying to convey about why I want, no need to return to the land of my father. It's in that place where I feel that I am home in the holiest sense and that I am walking hand in hand with that creative force behind us all. Thank you and Namaste.

May 27, 2011 at 12:12 AM  
Blogger Reason's Whore said...

Frankly, I don't know how any farmer with half a brain could be religious in the conventional sense. There's too much death, and babies born wrong, to believe in a good god.

But nature is fucking awesome, no doubt. As long as you respect her dark side.

May 27, 2011 at 1:07 AM  
Blogger kristin said...

that last paragraph made me tear up. I just finished Kathleen Norris' A Cloister Walk and so i've got monks on the brain.

May 27, 2011 at 5:53 PM  
Blogger ocean said...

Great post, Jenna. Your description of religion is one of the best I've ever read. Love your blog.

May 28, 2011 at 8:46 AM  

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