Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ev'ry Gal Needs a Sowin' Machine!

Today, we present another low-tech marvel: the sowing machine. Most folks, when they think of farm machinery, tend to think on a grand scale: giant combines and harvesters grinding their way across the acres, mowing down miles and miles of "amber waves of grain." As we've mentioned before, we own no such monsters. Our farm has a different economy of scale.

There are no amber waves here. The rocky, acidic soils of Maine make grain-growing difficult. The rocks can foul up even heavy-duty tines and blades. Our own farmscape offers the additional challenge of steep slopes and ravines. Although an old picture shows this entire parcel cleared and pastured, the second- and third-growth forests have reclaimed our "back thirty". Decades of poor management prior to our arrival resulted in nutrient depletion and serious erosion, a combination that has rendered that acreage suitable only for wildlife habitat.

The only land flat enough for pastures now rests between the woods and the road. For the past three years, we've been working with our local Conservation District to better manage this land. We've done soil tests to determine the soil's acidity level and nutrient needs. We've stabilized fragile hillsides by planting a "conservation mix" of erosion-controlling plants, and we've removed diseased and invasive plants to make way for healthy natives. With help and advice from conservation district technicians, we drafted a rotational grazing plan and set about reclaiming two old, overgrown fields.

There was a bit of a hiccup in the plan last year when a 30-ton load of wood ash (a natural liming agent used to "sweeten" acidic soils) got delivered on the wrong side of the property when we weren't home. Over forty calls to landscape companies and tractor owners were made during Spring/Summer 2008, but no-one seemed willing or able to relocate and spread that mountain of ash. So much for the Usefulness of Big Equipment! This year, though, we happened to share our tale of woe during an Easter breakfast at church. Turns out our breakfast companion just happened to have a small tractor and some extra time on his hands. Providence!

Earlier this week, Mr. Tractor Hero moved the ash into the two new cleared fields and spread it around. What next, we pondered: fence the fields in, or sow them with clover and pasture grass? With the ground freshly worked and rain on the way, we opted to get the seed sown right away. Considering that we've been putting the cows out on our yard to let the permanent pasture recover, it's best to get some new grass growing sooner rather than later!

A few hours later, we were back home. The same wagon that carried eight piglets now cradled a few hundred pounds of seed mix: annual and perennial ryegrasses, Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, timothy, red clover and alsike clover. (Note that orchardgrass and reed canarygrass were our preferred choices for the purposes of rotational grazing, but they were almost twice as expensive as the mix we cobbled together.)

We emptied the bags into the farm cart, then raked and turned the seeds with our fingers: elongated, smooth-husked grass seeds in pale gold and greyish-green, mixed with tiny round black and red seed-beads of clover. We marveled at the gathered mass of tiny pastoral possibilities, but a gust of wind reminded us not to marvel too long. The rain was coming. It was time to bring out...the sowing machine.

Nobody's certain just how we acquired it--probably at some yard sale back in the eighties, when few cared about such stuff. The cloth top has been repaired multiple times with various weights and colours of thread and string. Printed in bold black ink on the stained, weakened canvas is the following inscription:

With the double Irish reference, I imagine the device being made in a factory full of recent immigrants--words of Gaelic mixing with the harsher words of English, scraping and tumbling like so many metal filings onto the dirty shop floor. Did they dream of better fields and healthier crops than the rotten praties of Home, or did they curse the work of farming and embrace the noise and heat of industrial labour?

Whoever made it, they made it to last. The metal backplate is riveted solidly to the hopper. The wooden crank-handle is well-turned and nicely varnished. The seedplate adjusts without fuss for different rates of flow. The gears rotate smoothly with a cheery wee clankety-clackety-hum. The hopper-sack and neckstrap show the most wear, but they still perform in spite of haphazard repairs. All in all, this is a wonderful device, well-crafted and a genuine pleasure to use.

I tuck my head through the neckstrap, and improvise side-straps from some camping gear, as this is the only original part that is missing. I tighten the straps so that the backplate rests comfortably against my middle and my neck doesn't bear all the weight. After making sure that the seedplate is down, I use a grain scoop to pour seed into the hopper-sack until it bulges and the old-fashioned lettering stands out. Ready, set, sow!

With my first step forward, I nudge the seedplate up and begin slowly turning the hand-crank. The gears start clattering and the wheel starts spinning. As the seeds tumble down into the wheel, they are sent spinning and tumbling out, some in the middle and some spraying out to either side. I stride the field and I sow the field, the seed landing in evenly distributed bands, all under my own human power. The whirr of the gears is not so loud that I cannot hear a cricket's chirp or a bird's song.

I could turn the gears even faster. I could get the job done in half the time, but truly the work is so pleasant, and the weather so kind, that I find myself slowing my stride. I move slowly enough to monitor my work, to be sure that the seeds fall thickly and evenly. As I walk, I imagine these fields full of lush green blades, full of clover blossoms, full of bumblebees and earthworms and countless other crucial, delicate living things. I envision the sweet contrast of shaggy red-brown kye ambling through the vibrant green, pulling up tender mouthfuls with slow-motion bovine enthusiasm.

This is what it means to steward the earth, to engage both soul and soil, to walk slowly enough to see. When we work on this blessedly human scale, we rediscover the truth that there is little need, on this small farm, for petrochemical-belching behemoths--and if the wood-ash had been dropped at the field's edge, as we intended, we could have spread even that with a shovel, a rake, and a cart.

To be a Luddite, one need not abandon all industry and innovation. What is required, instead, is a careful reflection on sources and benefits, a thoughtful deliberation on tasks best shared and tasks best managed alone. Walking the new fields with my old-fashioned sowing machine, I stitch myself back into the fabric of creation. I move with a natural rhythm and contribute to an older, deeper song.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bird in the Hand

Welcome to Maine's first annual Blog A Bird Rescue Fest! Both our farm and the Castlebay Ceilidh Palace were visited yesterday by bewildered birds. Here's the tale of our own poor wee wanderer:

Perhaps the little blighter followed a fly, one of the few lazily drawing aerial figure-eights in our entryway. Perhaps it was confused by the peep-peep-peep of newly hatched chicks in the upstairs spare room. However it happened, I heard two successive impacts and turned to find a half-stunned nuthatch clinging to the window munton, disturbing the little cloud of ennui and despair that has settled over my seedling trays.

The tomato plants lifted their heads in amazement, as if to say, what, there's a world of life and movement somewhere? (They desperately wanted to be planted outside two weeks ago. When I merely transplanted them into larger containers and returned them inside, they decided to revoke their life-force. I've been trying to tell them it was for their own good, as we're still getting frost warnings, but they don't believe me, even after I dosed them with a hearty splash of fish fertilizer!)

Little Bird clung there for a minute or two, gasping dazedly with open beak. I put on a glove and reached my hand oh-so-slowly in the bird's direction. To my surprise, it didn't flutter or try to get away, but calmly stepped from the window munton right onto my outstretched hand. I walked with it to the open door, but it was still getting its bearings and simply perched on my fingers, blinking back at me. We perched together for a few minutes, there, both marveling at the unusual company we'd come to keep.

It didn't seem right to hold the wee wild one indoors, so--bird still perched calmly on hand--I stepped across the threshold, down the steps, and towards the blooming pear tree in the orchard. Nuthatches aren't known so much for branch-sitting as they are for trunk-hopping, and their preferred habit is to move downwards, headfirst. I stood a few feet from the tree, pondering the best method of transfer, when the bird finally found its bearings, stirred, and flew, alighting on the trunk about seven feet up. It hopped and skittered a bit, testing its feet and watching me with an odd mix of interest and unconcern. Then it flew up into the branches, amidst the faintly fragrant blossoms, and uttered a series of buzzing little notes, as if to say, "Right, then, all's well that ends well, you were. Let us both be moving along." I paused just long enough to document the day, then respectfully departed.

What a lovely, odd visit. It was kind of the nuthatch to endure my assistance with grace--it restored a pleasant light to an otherwise frustrating avian-involvement day. You see, for the last few days, we've had chicken eggs hatching in the incubator, and something went mystifyingly, dreadfully wrong about halfway through the hatch. The first seven birds came through fine. The temperature and humidity seemed right where they ought to be, and several additional eggs were "pipping" or showing signs of activity. The next chick that hatched out seemed to labour a bit too long, and it looked woeful when it finally hatched. It didn't live long enough to join the others in the warm little paper-lined box next to the incubator. After that, the pipping eggs just...stopped. I waited and watched through the little plastic window. Usually they'll rock a bit, peep now and then inside the egg, and then exert themselves in shell-pecking and struggling for a furious second or two before resting up for the next urgent effort. Instead, the eggs--four of which already bore tiny, newly-pecked holes in their shells--gradually stopped rocking, quieted and became still.

I'm still not sure of the culprit--did I not turn them often enough as they were developing? Was there a sudden dip in temperature in the middle of the night, perhaps, or did the humidity drop below the preferred level? Well, there's nothing left to do but clean out the defunct eggs, scrub the incubator down, and try again--maybe with a fancy digital thermometer/hygrometer this time around.

At least we have seven beautiful chicks to show for our efforts. Only one is clearly a hen (they have darker coloring than the Golden Comet males, even as chicks), so it looks like most of these are destined to become Sunday Suppers: plump little roasters lads who will live out their short but happy lives in an outdoor pen in the front yard. I wish I'd had more hens, as there are customers waiting. I'll have to call them and let them know they'll have three more weeks to wait. Now, I'd best be bustling off to the barn to collect today's eggs and start all over again!

To show you how well-suited our new hatchlings are to this Celtic Homestead, I've posted a video taken during the hatching. It's a bit long and rather blurry, like most birthings, but you can clearly see the egg rocking in time to the bagpipe recording that was playing downstairs!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Water Them In: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

(As preached on May 17th, 2009 at a U.C.C. church in Maine)

(Note: this sermon was inspired by this week's assigned lectionary readings, the passing of recent legislation in Maine, and this post.)

We knew we had come to the right place when we saw the line of cars. There were bumper stickers that said things like “organic gardeners have more fungi,” “compost happens,” and even “tree-hugging dirt worshiper.”

After a two-hour drive north, we had arrived at Fedco, central Maine's fabled tree, seed, and garden supply co-op. It was the Annual Tree Sale weekend.

The long lines had already formed. I went to the end of the line, clutching my pre-order confirmation slip like all the other frugal folk who had come to avoid shipping fees. The line was hardly moving at all, as each order had to be checked, cross-checked, then gathered from the cavernous nursery warehouse. Every minute or two, a huge brown paper bag would be hefted out from the shadows of the building, into the waiting arms of another customer. From my vantage point, it looked like I was in for at least a twenty-minute wait...yet there was a special spirit in the air, and, like everyone around me, in spite of the wait, I just couldn't stop smiling.

On one side of me, a burly fellow with a grungy, frayed ball cap stood waiting for his strawberry plants and apple trees. He talked of an old hayfield that have never really worked out, and how they would beautify that challenging scrap of land. His face glowed as he shared his humble vision. It had sustained him all winter long, the image of those berry plants sending out runners and those trees growing up, spreading their limbs, bearing fruit.

On the other side of me, a grey-haired woman wore a hand-knit sweater—with yarn every colour of the rainbow—over blue jeans and rubber boots. She was there to get seed potatoes and blueberry bushes. She must have come right from the garden-- there was chaff in her hair and dirt under her fingernails, yet she radiated beauty. She was clearly in love—in love with the work of raising her own food, in love with the creative power of tiny seeds and the strength of stems and roots. She was in love with Creation itself, and the Creator of all these good things. Her passion had moved her to tend the earth and, in doing so, to care of herself. She hadn't always lived like this. She used to work and live in the city, in a walk-up apartment. Now she could hardly wait to get home and play in the dirt. She looked forward to months of growth, months of harvest, and months of feasting. She gloried in this participatory abundance.

Before I knew it, my turn at the counter had come, and I was walking back to the car with my own giant, unwieldy brown paper bag, loaded with bare-root tree saplings and carefully-bundled baby plants. Then it was back down the road, back to the highway, and home, on that soft grey day, home to get on my work gloves, get out the shovel and a bucket or two of compost, dig some big holes, and plant.

Planting trees is hard work. It's hard on the back, all that digging and hauling and lifting. And it's hard to remember the big picture, to hold a vision of blooming, fruiting loveliness when all you can see is a little greyish-brown stick. This year, I invested in a “Vermont Beauty” pear, a “Redfield” apple, an American Linden and a Ginko tree.

None of them will offer much of anything in the next few years. They'll grow slowly. They'll still look like little more than sticks. But someday, the fruit trees will start to bear their sweet and lovely fruit. Someday the Ginko will give shade in the summer and light up the Autumn landscape with a graceful canopy of golden, fluttering leaves. Someday, the Linden will bloom so sweetly that it will draw honeybees here from miles and miles around, giving every flowering tree and plant the chance to become more fruitful. They say it's a lovely shade tree, too, and the wood is sought after by carvers. The catalog says the leaves can be made into a soothing tea, and the inner bark used to make ropes and nets. That's intriguing, but mostly we chose it because there is no other tree that the bees love so well.

It was hard to talk myself into the investment. My usual idea of a good tree is one that hangs heavy with fruit, one that produces a crop reliably. The Linden won't do that. It will grow, spread its particular branches in their particular shape, put out its own particular leaves and blossoms, and lure hundreds of precious little pollinators to our farm. It's different from all my other orchard trees. It doesn't match the template, the standard set. But the catalog described it as having so many uses and gifts... I know we'll be the richer for its presence among us.

The last step in planting a tree is to “water it in.” The long trip to the nursery and back, the time spent reading and choosing, even the work of digging the hole, adding rich compost to the soil, spreading the tree's roots out and filling the soil back in—all of this would amount to nothing if we didn't water it in. The shock of being uprooted and moved could do a plant in if the water were withheld. I don't want any of my trees to go to waste, so I carry heavy, sloshing buckets out to the orchard. I splash the water out until it makes a pool at the little tree's base. I watch the water soak in, all the way down to the roots. Honeybees are not so common as they used to be. We need this Linden to do well and thrive. With a prayer and a bucket of water, I welcome the little tree home.

They say Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. His friend Peter had also spent some time in the garden. I want to tell you a bit about Peter, since he's involved in the passage from Acts that we read today.

Peter was a zealous man, on fire with love for God, love for the community of faith, its health and its growth. He was a good Jewish man who pledged to carry on the work of Jesus, a Jewish prophet, teacher, and reformer. So Peter set out to get things organized. He traveled from one Jewish congregation to another, consulting, teaching and preaching, healing and praying, helping restore faith and helping good Jews become better followers of their faith. Always he kept the Jewish laws, avoiding that which was unworthy and unclean.

But then Peter was given a vision. God showed him, not once but three times, a vision of the goodness of all Creation. Peter heard God's voice, saying, “what God has made clean, you must not make unclean.” In other words, contrary to popular opinion, everything was Kosher.

Peter was bewildered. God wanted him to broaden his understanding, and he was unprepared. Where he had cultivated neat little olive groves, there was God thrusting a huge brown paper bag in his arms, saying, “these trees are all good too. Prepare a place for them! Peter answered the call, stepped beyond his close-knit community with all its rules and known comforts, and went to visit a Gentile—a Roman soldier, no less—who had asked for him to come. There he found a crowd assembled. With them, he shared God's vision. He preached the Good News—and then he got to the very best part: the Good News that included them.

The story of what happened next is still told:
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”

These soldiers, these pagans, these cast-offs and throwaways-- all were touched by the fire of Peter's words. They were touched by the Holy Spirit so powerfully that it was like Pentecost all over again, with people so moved, so inspired that they sang praises to God in a whole host of languages.

Peter's Jewish friends watched in absolute amazement. Then Peter did something even more amazing. Against convention, against custom, he challenged anyone to exclude these people from baptism, for clearly they, too, were God's beloved children. “Can anyone withhold the water?” he asked--and he ordered them to be baptized. Then he stayed with them, broke Jewish law and ate at the table with them, prayed and laughed and feasted with them, and these strangers experienced a community, a communion, a love greater than any they had known before.

From these strange seeds, the Church was planted. From these odd little sticks grew the great spreading canopy of faith. To some, they didn't match the plan. They didn't belong. They didn't seem to fit. But God created each of them, blessed them, and touched them with the Holy Spirit, whether others were prepared to recognize them or not. And Peter came along, like a good gardener, and watered them in.

Have you ever felt unsure of your place, unsure whether you were worthy of being blessed? I felt it when I returned to my childhood church, a week after I'd graduated from seminary. I was called on the carpet by our pastor. “What gifts do you think you have, anyway? She asked me. “What makes you think you can become ordained in this Church?” I thought about my friend, C. —one of the most pastoral, most gifted ministers I had ever met, and also openly gay. In that denomination, he could only be ordained if he hid or denied a part of who he was, a part of how he had been created by God. I thought about my friend K., pastor of a thriving church, beloved by her congregation, who felt called by the Spirit to speak out during a Church debate on issues of human sexuality. She stood at the microphone and came out to the entire assembly, and faced a church trial and the loss of her ordination as a result. Standing there in the minister's office, my throat went dry. “Can anyone withhold the water?” There was no one there to minister to my thirst. Though my own calling was strong, I felt I had been uprooted. I no longer knew where I belonged. It took years for me to find my voice again, to recover from the shock.

But God calls us to BE. God calls us each to be true to ourselves, to our unique gifts, to the blessings with which we were created. God keeps nudging us, surprising us, shaking us awake, splashing us with water, dazzling us with light. Every tree has a place, a use, something beautiful to offer. Every person does too. Like the rooted citizens of the orchard, we are called to be fruitful, to blossom in our own unique ways, so that others may share the benefits. We are called to stop denying the way God created us, each of us full of unique gifts and blessings.

We cannot do this alone. And so, just as God created each individual, God also created community. We are called to help each other grow and live. As Jesus says, in John's Gospel,
... I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you...
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

The love of this community, of this church, has helped me grow. You have lifted me from the misery of an unwanted servant into the joy of a cherished friend. Gradually, I am learning how to use my gifts again. Slowly but surely, with your support, I am taking the steps in the U.C.C. to seek ordination. I am learning to abide in joy, because all of you—like good gardeners—have made a place for me and watered me in.

As we move from Easter towards Pentecost—the season of celebration of the Holy Spirit—I invite you all to reflect on your gifts. What is it that you are called, and created, to do? Are you living out your gifts, or are you living in fear, feeling uprooted, unsure how to be blessed or offer others your blessing? Are you open—truly open—to the movement of God's Spirit and the full blossoming of your own fruitful life?

Growth is a hard discipline, just as gardening is a hard discipline. It demands attention and constant care. But this is the season for this work. Yes, as the bumper sticker says, “compost happens.” But God has called us to live fully in community, to stop denying and withholding our gifts. God has called us to abide in love—love for ourselves as well as love for others. Recognize your gifts. Seek to recognize the gifts of others. There is not a single sapling that has no use. We all grace this uneven landscape with our own unique and beautiful forms.

Can anyone withold the water from these? Come, water them in. Find your own roots, your own place in Creation. Stand tall and let your own arms reach out wide. Extend the welcome and abide in joy, in God's abundant and all-inclusive love.

(All photos copyright Mainecelt 2009, except for the linden blossoms. Photo credit for linden blossoms:

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gilt Trip

The Gilt Trip: A Rural Adventure

There are folks who make cars and promote them with ads
Where they show that the car is so large,
it can fit in a soccer team, two king-size beds,
and the contents of one garbage barge.

How roomy the car is! The seats come unhinged!
The configurations are endless!
You can fit all your friends...even after a binge!
(You can live in it if you are friendless!)

But in all of those ads, there's one situation
The ad-makers never do feature.
It's the one where a farmer makes use of the car
to transport any sort of farm creature.

They wouldn't want word getting out about this,
but--give me a minute, I'm beggin'--
I'll tell you how great it was, bringing all eight
of our pigs home in our station wagon!

Okay, so the inside was, um...aromatic.
When piglets are nervous, they show it.
But if you need to fetch home a piglet or two,
then a wagon's a good place to stow it!

We borrowed the kennel (we're sorry, dear dog!)
and we brought along two smaller carriers.
They each took two piglets. The kennel
held four. They peeked out from wire-door barriers.

Eight pigs in a car with the windows rolled down.
We paid, rev'd her up, and drove out.
Our cargo was grunting and squealing, but we
drove with glee down the old homeward route.

The car, we admit, needed airing a bit.
But the pigs arrived home safe and sound.
When you don't have a truck, well, a wagon must do
when it's time to haul farm stuff around.

So, ad-men, ad-women, as you sit and plan
for your promos and clever ad copy,
Remember us wagoneers, down on the farm,
with our pigs packed inside our jalopies!

--copyright Mainecelt 2009

P.S. If you're wondering about the title, a gilt is a young female pig.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday Five: A Bug's Life

Sophia, over at RevGalBlogPals, writes: "As I was walking the beach today, I was surprised and delighted to find it swarming with ladybugs...This got me thinking about spiritual insect trivia: Did you know that medieval mystics and theologians esteemed the bee for its dedicated work and transformation of ordinary ingredients into sweetness? That Spider Woman is an important creator Goddess to many Native American tribes? Or that Francis of Assisi was reminded of Jesus not only by lambs being led to slaughter, but also by worms (think "I am a worm and no man" from the Psalms)-- so he picked them up and took them out of stomping-vulnerable spots?!
In that spirit, this week's Friday Five is a magical mystery tour through God's garden of creepy crawlies!

1. Ladybugs or ladybirds? Pillbugs or roly-polys? Jesus bugs or water skeeters? Any other interesting regional or familial name variations?

Wow. I have never heard water-skaters called Jesus bugs, but it sure conjures up an amusing mental image! We called pillbugs "potato bugs" where I grew up, but I'm not sure why, as I don't recall them doing much damage to the potatoes.

2. Stomp on spiders, carry them outside, or peacefully co-exist?
Definitely no stomping. I've heard there's an African saying, "kill a spider and it will rain." No matter how much I want rain, I can't bring myself to do it. Since we do have at least one poisonous spider variety here, (the brown recluse), I regard spiders with a healthy respect and try to simply keep out of their way. Occasionally I'll usher one out of the house with the help of a glass jar.

3. Favorite insect?
I have always had a deep affection for bumblebees. (As a wee bairn, I kept a mason jar laying on its side tucked into the woodpile. It was my "bumblebee hospital." After heavy rains, I'd look for waterlogged bumbles and tuck them in, on a bed of grass, to dry.) People who study aerodynamics say that, according to their science, these creatures SHOULD NOT BE ABLE to fly. With their soft, round, velvety bumbling bodies and undersized wings, bumblebees are one of my favourite Godly "proofs."

4. Least favorite?
Ticks. Eeew, eeew, eeew. I know God has a reason for every element of Creation, but ticks are the one type of creature that unfailing appalls, disgusts, and disturbs me. Their presence is subtle, their movements are difficult to detect, and the diseases they carry are daunting and debilitating. Besides that, anything that can attach itself, suck your blood over the course of several days, and swell up enormously before falling off and laying there, too engorged to scamper away? Folks, that's just plain gross.

5. Got any good bug stories to share?
In New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, gardening season coincides with the Season of Black Flies. My favourite Scots Gaelic textbook, (written by an Isle of Lewis woman who moved to Canada), makes use of Black Fly Season as a "teachable moment." There's an entire lesson about these tiny, swarming, biting insects. The lesson is based around a conversation in which a girl curses and hurls invectives at them, addressing the black fly as "mhic an uilc" (son of evil) among other things. It's a very popular lesson among beginning Gaelic students in our region!
Folksinger Wade Hemsworth wrote a great song about these pests, too. It tells the tale of a Northwoods survey crew worker. According to one verse,
"It was black fly, black fly everywhere,
A-crawlin' in your whiskers, a-crawlin' in your hair,
A-swimmin' in the soup and a-swimmin' in the tea;
O the devil take the black fly and let me be!"

They ARE devilish little things, and they swarm something terrible. A few years ago I got tired of slathering potions all over myself every time I wanted to take a walk in the woods or tend the garden, so I sent away for one of those mesh outfits you pull on over your clothes to keep the bugs off. All my friends made fun of me, said it made me look like some space alien or something, but I just smiled back through the mesh as they swatted and scratched and cursed. There are few sounds sweeter than the angry, futile buzz of a black fly hitting that mesh and failing to get in!

Bonus question: share a poem, song, quotation, etc. about insects.

Here are two quotes from the book, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," written by one of my best-beloved earthy mystics, Annie Dillard:

"I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt'ring eye and say, 'Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are 228 separate muscles?' The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I meant to change his life."
--Annie Dillard

"Look at practically anything--the coot's feet, the mantis' face, a banana, the human ear--and see that not only did the creator create everything, but he [sic] is apt to create anything. He'll stop at nothing, There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say, 'Now, that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous and I won't have it'...welcome aboard. A generous spirit signs on this motley crew." --Annie Dillard

(All images taken on my farm / copyright Mainecelt 2009)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Friday Five: Celebratory Ritual Edition


Sally, over at RevGalBlogPals writes, "It is the first of May, or as I have been concentrating on dialogue with folk interested in the new spirituality movement this last week, it is Beltane, a time to celebrate the beginning of summer... I believe that we live in a ritually impoverished culture, where we have few reasons for real celebration, and marking the passages of life;


1. Are ritual markings of birth, marriage, and death important to you?

Children engage in creative play to learn how to be human. I believe rituals, at their best, are a kind of sacred play that reminds us of--and calls us back into--our fullest and most inspired humanity.
Rituals can bless or curse, invigorate or drain a person and/or a commmunity, so they must be thoughtfully crafted and conducted. There are so many funeral stories in which poorly-chosen words or poorly-done rituals contributed to, rather than eased, the pain of the mourners...there are also countless stories of the pain caused when a meaningful ritual is withheld or denied. I stand in solidarity with my GLBTQ brothers and sisters, here-- may we all experience rituals that bless our loving parnerships and allow us to name that love in a circle of caring support and communal accountability.

2. Share a favourite liturgy/ practice.
Only one? Impossible! I have too large a liturgical appetite. Here are two: First, I pray each night by cupping my hands, filling them with cool water, and drinking five draughts from my hands. The first four draughts are for the four directions. As I drink, I think of one direction and its traditional associated gifts. As I fill my hands the fifth time, I say to myself, "and one for the Center of All Things..." and I drink deeply in honour of God's Spirit. I love this simple ritual: so brief, yet so sensual and centering.
Second, (appropriately, on this Bealltuinn/May Day), I sing to my fruit trees when I plant them. There's an old British folk song called "The Apple Tree Wassail." I sing it three times as I plant the tree and water it deeply, to bless the plant in its new home, "to grow well and to bear well and so merry let us be..."

3. If you could invent ( or have invented) a ritual what is it for?
In response to the relative lack of coming-of-age rituals in American culture, I made up a ritual for myself as a young teenager. Each full moon, after everyone else had gone to bed, I would stand on our back porch and look up at the moon. Standing there, I would reaffirm myself as a child of God, offer myself in service to others, and ask God to help renew and refill me, the way the moon returns to fullness. I always wished there was someone else, some counsel of wise elders, to conduct such a ritual. Without them, I made my own. Perhaps someday I'll be able to offer such a ritual to others.

4. What do you think of making connections with neo-pagan / ancient festivals? Have you done this and how?
The words of Chief Seattle, Black Elk, and other Native American wisdom-keepers surrounded me during my childhood in the Pacific Northwest. I considered their teachings on equal par with the Christian & Hebrew scriptures, but I felt a deep unease, as I had been taught it was not right to "play Indian" or borrow thoughtlessly from other traditions. When I began to study my Celtic heritage, I found my old mythic friends, Raven, Deer, Tree, Sea, and Salmon, recast in a guise I could happily own. I also found, in the language and poetry of my heritage, an exquisite sensitivity to, and respect for, the sacredness of Creation.
I have dear friends who have chosen the path of neopaganism. I respect that path, yet, while it offers much in the way of inspiration and sensory engagement, I find it does not feed my need for moral discourse and ethical education. The Celtic Christian tradition offers a better balance of all these things, at least for me. The Celtic expression(s) of Christianity, along with Celtic poetry and folklore, have become the bones and muscles of my faith.

5. Celebrating is important, what and where would your ideal celebration be?
My favourite image of the Kingdom of God is that of a ceilidh: a participatory creative gathering where everyone is welcomed and included and all our creative gifts are celebrated. (Ceilidhs [pronounced KAY-lees] were the standard evening entertainment of Celtic communities prior to the advent of electricity and mass media. They still happen in some places.) Modern ceilidhs tend to be carefully packaged and orchestrated, but the best kind of ceilidh can still be found--or created--now and then in a parish hall, around a campfire, or in a crowded kitchen, with old folks telling grand stories, children romping about, musicians playing with enthralling rhythms and harmonies, and singers singing their hearts out as all join together in the blessed creative--and re-creative--feast.