Archive for July 2012 | Monthly archive page
For years we’ve had beavers on the land, and so far the risen water and the beavers together have killed five acres of bottom land on our already small farm. I’ve broken the dam several times and found it rebuilt and stronger within a day. I’ve tried trapping them out winter and summer to no avail. Late one night a few years back I made the last turn up the gravel road to our place after four hours of eye burning, butt numbing driving from the city and very narrowly missed running down a beaver seated on his tail in the moonlight. I stopped, watched him for a few seconds in the rear view utterly undisturbed and at home in the dusty red glow of my break lights, put the truck in reverse, considered the ease of this solution and wrestled with the Great Beyond.
I didn’t make any noble decisions, and I didn’t get a sign. I just couldn’t do it. So after a minute or so I slid the truck into first and drove up the hill. The beaver never moved, never even looked up at the truck. Within a week all the beavers were gone out of the swamp, and they stayed gone for three years, and the bottom land began to regrow itself. I drained the swamp, cut some standing dead wood for the home fires, and pictured corn in the reclaimed field until early last fall, when the beavers came back and rebuilt their marvelous and immense dam and started mowing down the brush along the creek bed. Neighbours noted the rising water in the field, offered advice and sympathy the way people do when there is serious illness in the family. Nothing rivals beavers for changing the landscape irrevocably except humans, the same way nothing rivals sickness for changing life irrevocably except dying. Mostly because of harvest fatigue and my teaching schedule, I never got around to fixing the beaver trouble.
This spring the runoff from the mountain, which usually lasts ten thunderous days and nights, lasted two, and the signs were everywhere to be seen, even during the rains of early June, that there wouldn’t be water this year. We planted anyway, but the old timers were already shaking their heads. I write this to you after five weeks of punishing heat and no rain. Only lately have the radio people begun to admit that the weather that pleases campers, cottagers and tourists is killing everything that feeds them. There’ll be little feed for livestock this winter, food prices for humans will rise, and no farmers in my area can see the bottom of this right now. Most fields around me for miles are the colour of bleached sand.
My fields of blue corn, red potato, peanut and chard are burnt at the edges, but they’re mostly green. There are two reasons. I’ve had a dozen or so scholars from our Orphan Wisdom School as undeclared apprentices in the Redemption Business, which is what we call farming in played out alluvial till, and they’ve tended to the crops every morning before the sun climbs over the granite mountain to blaze the fields. The other reason: every morning they haul by hand buckets of rank smelling, mineral rich, coffee coloured beaver water from the swamp to the fields, the same water I’ve tried to drain away for years, and every day there is reprieve. It wasn’t my prescience that granted us this water, nor is it any hope or prayer answered. I credit entirely the beavers and their Gods, and have a real gratitude for my late fall fatigue which I didn’t have then. My plans, my whole take on the beaver dilemma failed, and because I failed I have corn again this year, and so we can feed the scholars that attend our school this summer the way we’ve done summers passed.
I ask you to consider this: Our corner of this world is in bad shape, largely thanks to what we’ve done to it during my lifetime. We could withhold our labour and our Amen until the Great Solution to the gathering troubles shows itself, when the corporations humanize, the seed supply naturalizes, the chemically dazzled soil revitalizes, and all but the most egregious – and maybe them too – are forgiven and converted. We’d be sincere, principled paralytics. Or we could start, minus the reassurances. We could proceed without feeling safe, without certainty, without any promise of return, without any clear handle on the Big Story, without hope. I hereby declare by the power vested in me by no one at all that hope is no longer needed in order to put our shoulder to the wheel of the world for the sake of a better day. And faith, that blanket coverage insurance policy that promises moral victory before there’s any work done, I also declare tried and found wanting.
We could plant without faith or hope or water, without the promise of water, in the jaws of a drought – which may be the way of the coming days – and keep up our end of the Mystery. We could start a school dedicated to teaching the orphaned wisdom of our time. Or some of us could join one. With luck our most efficient and relentless planning might be unhinged by some other partner in the Mystery, our well meant scheming checkmated and life going on anyway.
All blessings on your wrecked plans and your hope-free days. And may it rain, should that serve.
My daughter made the many mile drive to our farm to be with me on Father’s Day, and I rewarded her by at one point talking about how I’m getting older. As is proper, she refused to have the conversation, which deepens my respect and admiration of her. Eventually we will have the conversation, hopefully quite a few times, and we’ll join hands as older parents and older children can do, each of us having made it to a certain ripeness that can come from hanging around long enough, each of us no longer undone by the gentler knowledge that our time together has a certain shine and depth that comes from knowing that those times won’t, can’t, shouldn’t stretch unconditionally and endlessly into a future we once thought ourselves and each other entitled to. They won’t last, in other words.
Things like Father’s Days, birthdays and anniversaries click by with relentless precision, and many of us seem bent on counting them, the ones left and the ones that have come, and this faith we seem to have in being able to calibrate our days I don’t think is particularly admirable, nor does it mean that we are finally ‘getting it’, nor is it a natural thing. It comes more and more from digital clocks, rolling tachometers, hand-held tyrannies and the utterly reliable admen and hucksters of nostalgia who plan our Big Days six months in advance by guaranteeing that a Big Sale accompanies them. There is a card for everything.
The real dilemma with time is the vague theology, the vague notion of Something Bigger Somewhere Else, that this culture clings to. Somewhere along the line each of us ‘learns’ that the past is gone, the best of it maybe perched at the right hand of the Divine. And that leaves the future as everything that hasn’t happened yet, and the present all there is. It is a savage, graceless thing that the elders among us are now obliged to see their lives as mostly ‘gone’, and that the rest of us are obliged to keep jogging, keep eating power bars and topping up our RSP’s so as not to be as ‘gone’ as our parents or grandparents or dead spouses are. This is the poverty that my culture has come to now: we don’t have to die to be gone anymore. We, with all the perishables in the grocery store, have a ‘best before’ date too. We have a peak of freshness. Aging gets us gone, well before most of us thought it would, and almost no one – certainly no one undespairing – wants to get there. I myself refuse all of this.
Leonard Cohen, though he doesn’t likely know it, is the patron saint of my Orphan Wisdom School, and its bard, certainly because of his many human skills, but mostly because, against the odds I guess, he is still with us, still testifying, having more and more faithfully begun to sing the songs of real age. He hasn’t sworn off the desires for which he is rightly well known. Instead he has with considerable labour allowed his age to render the younger desires into a more full bodied kind of longing. You could say that his example is one in which longing has earned its keep. He seems now to be longing for Life, not for more days to be added to his life. His wish seems to be for life to continue, whether his continues or not. This is wisdom, friends, and Mr. Cohen, bless him, isn’t keeping it to himself. His is a faithful witness, an undiminished witnessing to all in our time that would diminish us. I love the man deeply for it all, and would gladly carry his bags if ever given the chance. He is, I would say, more present among us, less gone, than he has ever been, a great gift and a national living treasure. He offers up another way of age, where nothing is shrugged off, abandoned or lost, where time deepens instead of passes.
I write this to you sitting on the shoulder of the summer solstice, another day for many, a time of gardening consequence for some, known far and wide as the longest day of the year. It isn’t the year’s longest day, of course. If you’re measuring, every day has the same number of hours in it. No, it’s the oldest day of the year, the one that carries the most, remembers the most, where the whole of the year is most present and generous. I sat for a few minutes yesterday in one of our fields planning for the new class of our school in August, thinking about the oldest day of the year, looking over the new sheep fencing we’d just strung across a pasture that probably hasn’t seen animals in forty years, to the lines of red pine seedlings we planted two months ago in hopes that we could bring this land that never should have been cleared to some kind of soil feeding health again. I won’t see those seedlings into trees, not likely, though my wife may. My kids, should Life grant them life, could. My grandchildren, should that come to pass, will. None of us, not then and not now, will be gone. I planted those pines with no despair, no futility, only a willingness to proceed as if life will continue. Which requires nothing to be gone. Such as it is, that is my longing.
All blessings on your Longing for Life on this Oldest of Days.