To all the friends of this work, and to all those who still believe in a better day: Armloads of thanks as always for your encouragement and your passion for our Orphan Wisdom projects.
The great surge towards summer, towards growth and heat and all things green has been fitful and hesitant, and it has routinely pulled the plug on all manner of plans for planting and buiding here. This is probably true for you too. Then, suddenly, after two warning frosts that drove all seedlings underground again, the sun blisters the earth and we are scrambling to make sure not much gets lost. There are young bears among the bee hives – which usually means that something will die – and young blue corn in the field.
‘We ask for signs’, Leonard Cohen sang, “The signs were sent.” People check in with us with news of quiet dissarray from all corners. Whispers of permanent change – a strong phrase – are on many lips. You hear them all, you let some in, you think your thoughts, and then what?
Here, we asked sixty people – including all The River’s People of The Orphan Wisdom School – to bless our fields and animals, so that all manner of life might live. The land here remains the faithful temperate teacher, unperturbed by the human worry that captivates many of us. We are farmers, which means we obey what Old Woman Earth asks, and try at the same time to strike a deal of planting and harvest that keeps Her fed. So far, so good.
A while ago we had a noble thought, to grow The Orphan Wisdom School out west, in Maui, but many responded to the offer with genuine regret, even chagrin, that the school wouldn’t be held by the shores of the River of Time and Abundance, where it was born. And we see that this seemed to deepen the feelings of homelessness and dislocation that are so much now the common fare of our times.
So we have heard that clearly, and with gusto and a great gratitude to those of you with a capacity to miss what you’ve not yet had we let all of you know that the new class of The Orphan Wisdom School, The Red Sand White Sand People, will be planted here on the land that will feed and house its scholars August 15th – 19th, and will go every August and February over the next few years, that all of you will be welcomed and find a good place among them, that the land here, as always, will recognize your friendly, searching steps to be a clear sign of humans gathered again to put their shoulder to the wheel of fashioning a better day from the current frets and threadbareness, even though they may not see that day. You will join the quietly growing clan of land-wise farmer sages that now fill the learning benches and the banquet hall that has become The Orphan Wisdom School. The door of welcome has swung wide and open to you to learn the mandatory arts of living deeply and dying well. All aboard.
We have a little land in eastern Ontario, and a little of that land with a lot of manure seems willing to grow food for people. Those who come to our school are fed by her. The land is a glacial flood plain, sand and stone, one of those countless thousands of stretches of ground that should have been left as standing pine, spruce and cedar. Having such land is a torment. Sometimes I want to leave the whole thing go to trees again – which won’t happen in my lifetime – and sometimes I remember the sorrow in my farmer neighbour’s voice when he saw I wasn’t breaking the fields and said, “Well, I guess you’re going to let it go”. For him and for me the stone fences dividing our fields are museums of outmoded human toil, and each time I sit on them I see the generations of dirt farmers pitching them on the stone boats, every rock picked up a few times, each spring a new crop.
If you’ve the burdensome privilege of a little land whose story you know something of, you might end up where we’ve ended up most early springs: given the GMO mayhem, given that none of us pay a fair dollar for the food grown for us, given that 1% of us is feeding the rest of us and the number is falling still, what do we owe the land, the young people in our midst, the time to come we won’t live to see? My answer is: we owe them seeds.
They say that the mark of a rich culture is when people can wear all their wealth at one time. No self storage units, safety deposit boxes or basements. Any more possessions dim your treasure. We are fast approaching a time when our cultural, spiritual and ancestral treasure will be in seeds we know the story of that will feed those we love. The mad sanity of this treasure is that it will tolerate no storage. Seeds can’t survive any instinct we might have to hoard them, and their vitality fades with every growing season on the shelf. They must be spent to be precious. You have to trust them to the ground and, as land based peoples know, learn everything you can to end up a faithful witness to the spiritual larceny of these times and a midwife to what has been entrusted to you.
Now that homeless corporations own life forms the day will surely dawn when they will come after you for living outside the seed patent laws. The day may already be here. On our teaching travels we meet too many people hobbled by an impotent rage, who know enough to be sure there’s nothing to be done but tend to their souls, but not enough to find the handle of their sorrows and act as if the world needs them. Seeds are a handle. Growing good food with your own seed will one day be seditious rebellion. We are not waiting for that day. I am not talking about saving heirloom seeds. Plants notoriously long for more diversity. Their life giving power depends on ever deepening diversity. The heirloom fixation is nostalgia for a better time we’ve screwed up. There is no purity in seed. There is only life, or some kind of anti-life.
So. please consider refusing impotence and instead ask for help and permission from where all land comes from, scratch a little piece of earth, learn like crazy all you can about a handful of seeds, and then risk it all by planting and caring for them. Ask somebody young to come and bless the ground for you; you’ve got enough to do. Save some seeds in the fall – the young of the plants you cared for during the summer – and ambush someone with a handful, round about this time next year.
A few weeks ago I had a wretched autumn flu, meaning that kids have gone to school, swapped pathogens like playing cards and brought them home for all to enjoy. The fact that you’ve no school age kids at home doesn’t save you. It didn’t save me. Some well meaning neighbours lent me their social justice dvd library to get through my miseries. Watching the various Armageddons hour after fluish hour – not something I would recommend – I was reminded often that everything of merit is being dragged to the abyss in high gear. The prime adjective describing our time: Dark.
Darkness has acquired a terrible reputation. As Europeans tumbled across the globe during what only their own heirs could call the Age of Discovery and Enlightenment, they carried with them a stout aversion to darkness, which resulted in them carrying and planting darkness wherever they went. They ‘discovered’ entire continents of darkness, peopled by darkness. To the enduring job security of many, their inner world sprouted darkness of all kinds too, ripe for enlightenment. The addiction to all things light, bright and white which ensued is with us still, especially at this time of year.
Darkness, if we are willing to learn it, isn’t the absence of light, any more than music is the absence of silence. Nor is it the absence of insight, or civilization, or the Gods. Darkness includes all these things. Our times of darkness, inner and outer, are times of sitting arm in arm with insight, with real civilization, with the Gods and the great mysteries. If you’ve ever planted a seed you planted it in darkness, with hopes for a harvest. If you’ve ever tried something entirely new you probably didn’t do so with the secret certainty that you were consigning your venture to hell, to a void, to nothing, or worse. The time of darkness is ripe, rich, full of portent, mandatory. It is the time of resting from labours of all kinds, the full and proper twin of work, and it is the time of resting for what surely will be needed in the time to come. Even the most relentless, unkillable inner Protestants – I have several – collapse in a heap at times and have rest thrust upon them.
Darkness is the great Taking Stock, the great Pause, the place where Life itself goes before it launches into the world. Darkness is the time just before the Stirring, just before the Old Man begins his hoped for, thin and threadbare pilgrimage northward, towards those of us living up here. It takes considerable courage in the modern world to be intentionally idle, taking the measure of your times and your life without needing the flu to slow you down, undistracted by the blind obedience to carrying on regardless, not flooded by light and revelation. I received a remarkable number of Happy Solstice greetings in the last month, many more than ever before. It may signal my inclusion in new, dedicated list serves, true, but it may signal that around me there is a growing respect and welcoming of the darkness that is in every necessary, living thing.
Tonight, the 21st of December, is the night of deepest, needed rest, a numinous stillness if we are willing, and should each of us be granted a little more time tomorrow will be the beginning of working towards a better day we may not live to see. This labour is what our heirs deserve from us. Rest isn’t what you do at the end of your life, no matter what the gravestones say. It is something you do in order to live deeply and well. It looks like ‘nothing’ only to those radiated by rickety histories and flourescent memories. May it be that your rest has that kind of nourishing darkness, and your darker days have that kind of fuller rest. All blessings on your road.
If you’ve lived through a February in the northern part of the world, you’ve learned some valuable things. Thin layers beat one thick coat, for instance. Felted wool beats woven wool – that may not be science, but it seems true to me. And the shortest days of the year, the ones where winter is truer than you thought it could be, come along weeks after the solstice. The same holds true for summer, for right now. These days are longer – especially these languorous evenings – than they knew how to be in June. That is a true thing. There is some kind of delay in how the big, enduring things appear. They don’t give themselves away all at once, no matter what the calendar says. The truths, all of them, take time to show up. That is their elegance.
It’s the same for death, really. People call me ten months after their lover or their friend dies and they say, “It’s a lot worse now.” Yes it is. It takes a long time for a loved one’s death to die. It’s the same for your life: it takes a good while for you to start living it, though all the necessities for living deeply and living well are there pretty much from the outset. Add all this up and it may be that woven into the great architecture of the way it is you’ll find some grace time, for learning. You’re not on the hook right away. The Lords of Chance give you a chance to learn, so that you don’t come to all the big things an amateur, startled, without a chance. If we are lucky enough for you to live into your elderhood, you’ll find that even your elderhood takes time to appear, and when it does you get a chance to mimic all the elegant truths that have had their way with you. You go slowly. Then the younger folks get to see what it is like, well before their turn comes.
It is a gift, the staggering seasons, the year-long day you sometimes live. Not the kind of gift we long for. More likely the kind of gift we might deserve. All blessings on these long days, on the long road home.
We know the headlines all said that last year was financial crunch time, but everything tells us that this year the fears and hesitations are beginning to show. It is the same lag, the same delay. So we have the finest regard and a gratitude usually reserved for those times when all the looney seductions have failed and the way of the human being is among us, for all those who have thwarted their money manager’s advice and joined us in Saskatoon and Massachusetts and Victoria and the Hollyhock Centre in B.C., who will be joining us at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and in Charlton and Maui and in Ottawa, and most grandly for those who have journeyed to our little corner of eastern Ontario to become and now remain the faithful scholars of the Orphan Wisdom School. All blessings to each of you, and to those others holding down the home front and the work front so we can be counted among the lucky by your presence and your noble labours on behalf of a better day for those perhaps not yet born.
Dying people die sometime before spring, if they can. Fierce and implacable, and demanding: spring has that face. The green surge, the endless evening light, the stupor of a curled, private sleep now broken by something strong in the air: all of this makes a claim on the living. It says: If you are going to stay, ready yourself for work. The work of finding a way out of the web of life is work enough for dying people. The work of the living is to obey, to stir, to rise up again.
Deciding to live is not always an obvious, automatic thing, not a reflex. The flat screen news brings you new disasters and ending of all kinds, encouragement to the addicts of the end times. Then, the open window brings you something like a breath, a rumour that something old might be new again, a memory of warmth. Somewhere in there, you have to decide. You decide.
All blessing on the hard stirrings of your life, on the unlikely green now upon us, on the corner of the world you find yourself bound to, on its need of your willingness to continue. In the last few days geese have traced their way down the river in front of our farm. Early this morning a few of them found long circles of rippling life in the quickening current, sorted and settled their feathers, and sang out what I hope was their prayer to the dappled light, because they could. Because of that, we continue. May you continue.
Because of a wet, cold spring, because everything went out too early, we didn’t have bounty this year. But – and I don’t really know why – we did have corn. And here is the marvel: our Blue Hopi corn, child of the desert, grew the best of all.
Corn, the faithful teacher, starts its towering life indestinguishable from grass, and it teetered this year on the edge of every too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry day. It’s first emerald feathers made straight for the sky, tongueing as the young of every made thing does the starry, sunny udder in hopes that the old sky mother would let her milk rain fall. Against the odds the plants grew a foot, and then two. Gravity doesn’t explain this, but soon thereafter, when the corn seemed certain it would make it, those same adamant leaves began bending to the ground, all but the topmost. As the summer went on the proud male of the corn went twelve feet and higher, but beneath it all the leave tips bent themselves groundward.
In early August the blue corn’s wild confidence – the pollen – seemed to draw each flying insect and the wind itself. Every morning at dawn the dusty heads were alive and humming with the promise of corn and honey. In those mornings, so intense with life surging towards itself, we saw that the young corn cobs were swelling up from the fizzure between leaf and stem that was made by that groundward bend, and the story of the thing was written upon us. The cradle of the new corn was the longing of the old seed for the ground, for home. It was as if the memory of those days of blue seeds in damp ground were there in every leaf. A few weeks ago friends from the city came as they do each fall to bless our fields, and as they do each fall came away with armfuls of blessing.
Now we have two sweetnesses in our house: bushels of ripe blue desert corn, impossible in this part of the country, and the dusty liquid gold of all our bee’s labours. I know there are religions and psychologies that caution us where human longing is concerned, that it can’t but make misery or suffering, and maybe in some places they’re right. And the longing for home is usually abandoned by people in their twenties trying to outgrow their early years. But the corn and the honey of my farm wasn’t persuaded by the warnings this year, and neither were we. The old longing for home and for the first things seems the place where the hoped for and the untried earn their keep. That willingness to long for the old ground is the real beginning of the harvest. At the end of the gathering season, under the swelling harvest moon, the bees and the corn surely believe in longing – the weathered bushel baskets are full of the evidence – and we who gather the ending of their lives believe in it too.