Tag Archives: nature

Happy If — Happy When: Why Write a Musical?

 

Here is the link to my latest blog post on Psychology Today!

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201705/happy-if-happy-when-why-write-musical

Why, you may ask, would a scholar of religion/ dancer/ farmer/ mother of five decide to write a MUSICAL called HAPPY IF — HAPPY WHEN?

Believe me, it has been a mystery to me too!!!

But in writing this blog,  I began to figure it out.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

A Summer with Legs

Providence (second from the right) and friends

This summer we have faced a good chunk of challenges having to do with legs. First there was our hen—a Rhode Island Red whom we named Providence. Her troubles began in the chicken coop that night when Geoff and I were yanked out of bed by a ferocious squawking. We ran down stairs, pulled on muck boots, and ran to the coop in our nightclothes to find Providence on the coop floor. Her right thigh was torn open. The leg beneath was bent at a right angle right at the ring where the feathers end.We saw nothing else amiss, until we rotated the flashlight up to the rafters and found two glowing orbs. A raccoon—a large raccoon—was peering down at us, wondering what would happen next.

We found the place where the racoon had pried the chicken wire loose from the window frame and slipped through. We moved Providence to a bed of hay in the corner, fixed the window, and finally managed—after failed attempts to coax, cajole, startle and scare the raccoon out of his perch—to hit the back of the coop with sticks in a rhythm catchy enough to move that raccoon out of the coop and into a nearby tree.

The next morning, in broad daylight, I took a good look at Providence’s leg. The thigh wound was already healing. We had seen worse. It looked like it could heal. But that lower leg was a bent twig. Providence could not stand up, extend the leg, or put any weight on it. When she tried, her wings would flap and flap in a desperate attempt to balance. The other hens were bothered by this obviously aggressive action and rushed to peck her into place. At this point I knew that Providence would not make it if we left her with the others. The healthy hens, unable to tolerate weakness or difference, would peck her to death.

I made a splint for Providence’s peg. I located our large cat carrier, layered it with hay, added food and water, and placed Providence carefully inside. She sat quietly. Was there hope? Could she heal? Every couple of days we would take her out, change the hay, and examine the leg. The splint failed. The leg turned black. She was not eating much, but she would eat green things—leaves and shoots—when Kai and Leif held them out to her.

Meanwhile, Daisy, our seven-year old Jersey, our first cow and matriarch of our herd, went into heat. We knew because Bright and Blaze, our 1800-pound oxen were suddenly standing sentinel, chins poised above her back, guarding the gate to her future generations. We called our “AI” guy who came with his pickup truck, carrying frozen bull sperm, and put it in place. Later that afternoon, Daisy’s right rear leg was hanging, disconnected from the ground. She was holding her hoof high. Had she been hurt by overly enthusiastic oxen? Or a hidden hole? We had no idea.

We examined the leg. Her foot was warm and sensitive. We assumed a strain or sprain or break. But what can you do? You cannot cast a cow. Bright once hurt his leg and it swelled horribly. We waited nine long weeks. Then, he put it down and began walking. Now he pulls his own weight—and sleds full of firewood—as part of a yoked team.

We put Daisy in a pasture by herself, close to the barn, so she could stay still and eat without having to compete. Cows cannot easily move on three legs like a dog or cat can. They need four on the floor. Nevertheless, within a few days, Daisy had learned to lurch herself around the pasture to preferred spots, seemingly calm and content on her three legs. She would stretch out her neck, lean her body forward, and then hop her left leg to catch up.

To milk her, one of us would carry a bucket up the hill to wherever she was, and squat down to milk her in the field, by hand, without a stanchion to hold her still, hoping she would not hop. To avoid being splashed by jostled milk, we learned to notice her thrusting chin—sign of an imminent move. We practiced pulling the bucket out from underneath her right at that moment in her heave forward when she would have kicked it.

Meanwhile, when not helping to give Providence and Daisy a leg up, Jordan decided to try out our new scythe in a far meadow. He woke at 4:30 AM, took the scythe into the field, and moved back and forth with an even rhythmic swing for four hours. In bare feet. It was a beautiful sight.

The next evening, the tops of Jordan’s feet were sore. The following morning—48 hours after he had scythed the meadow—his feet-tops were bright red and covered with clear pus-filled blisters as long as an inch and as tall as three-quarters of an inch. The culprit: poison parsnip juice lit by the sun. As Jordan had sliced through these encroaching plants, setting their stalks aside, his feet had brushed by the cut stems. Unknown to him, juice from these stems had triggered a chemical reaction in his skin, rendering him hypersensitive to the sun’s searing rays. His feet were not a pretty sight.

For the week following, Jordan could not stand, walk, or even think of wearing shoes. He spent most of the time on the couch, with his feet up. Fortunately, he had company—two young brothers, newly released from school–who couldn’t get enough time playing board games. Undeterred by his painful plant encounter, Jordan picked up Aldo Leopold’s classic call to love the wildness of the wilderness–Sand County Almanac–and read it cover to cover.

Those of us left standing were waiting on Jordan, tending to Providence, hauling water up to Daisy, and bringing her milk back down—most of it in the bucket, and the rest on our clothes.

Meanwhile, Providence was getting stronger. One afternoon I opened the door of the cat crate and she tried to stand up. I took her out of the crate and she plopped back down again. “Come on, Providence! You can do it!” She tried again. I had the boys feed her more lettuce and spinach and grass by hand. She hopped and flapped her wings vigorously, beating for balance, while we kept the other hens away.

We started taking Providence out of the crate during the day and leaving her outside of the coop, while the others were in. Or we would leave her in the coop while the others were in the back pen. Mostly she sat. But then she began hopping around a bit more, spending more time standing on her one leg. Her hurt thigh had new skin. Her broken, black leg remained folded beneath her. I tried introducing her to the hens again. Those lower in the pecking order stood alongside her, happily enough. Only the top hens turned upon her. I separated them again.

Daisy and Maggie

Meanwhile, Daisy was not improving. Her knee started to swell. We called the Vet. He prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine and time spent even more immobile than she had been, in a stall. We could not drink her drugged milk. But Maple’s calf Magnolia could. So we put Maggie in the stall with Daisy so that Daisy could nurse her great-granddaughter. As many years as I have nursed, Daisy has me beat.

Fortunately, Jordan’s feet were finally permitting themselves to be used. So twice a day, while Jessica and Kyra were milking Maple, Jordan started going out with his scythe—wearing shoes—to gather a tarp full of grass for Daisy and Maggie. He could give have given them dried, crunchy hay, but the fresh grass is so much more delicious and nutritious.

Then one day Providence’s broken leg fell off. Claw and all. Yet rather than suffer this loss, she began standing taller still, hopping more, and asserting her place in the flock. Now, just over two months after her attack, Providence is back. She hops gracefully with no need for wild wing action. She lowers beak to grain without toppling over; tips her head up to swallow water and does not fall. Even more, none of the other hens seem to mind. Once again, she is one of them. Our one-legged hen. Providence indeed.

Providence

Last night, Jessica came in from chores: “Mom! I just saw Providence stealing food from another hen!” Ordinarily, I am don’t support stealing, but in this case, I’ll take it as a sign of unexpected, irrepressible life returning. Hooray.

So now we are all waiting on Daisy. We have one more dose of anti-inflammatory to dispense. The swelling in her knee is down; her leg still dangles. But we have hope. As long as she is healthy and not in pain, as long as her quality of life is good, we will wait to see what solutions nature has in store, and align our actions as best we can with whatever healing is happening.

Here’s to a summer with legs.

“Christmas Fawn” A Poem by Kyra Lewis Gee

IMG_1602On the first day of December, my daughter Kyra (age 11) decided to make an advent calendar for herself. She designed the calendar and wrote a poem to go with it. Then she wrote the poem, phrase by phrase, on the back of each numbered flap. When the last flap was opened, the last line of the poem appeared, and the image below.

Her poem is this month’s guest blog–and a wish for the coming year.

*

On an early winter’s night of December 24th,
In the wind and snow, a brave girl ventured forth.
The sky was cloudy, the snow three feet deep,
But the strong little girl didn’t think she could sleep.
Silently she walked through the dark dark night,
And was rewarded by an incredible sight.
Deep in a forest, beneath the trees,
A pregnant doe was on her knees.
The girl settled into a thicket of thorn
And watched as a little fawn was born.
First came the front hooves, soft and white.
Then the perfect fawn’s head came into sight.
What followed the head was a neck, short and soft.
The shoulders followed; she was barely held aloft.
As the moon came out and began to glow,
The fawn, wet and clean, dropped to the snow.
At the very moment the fawn was born and the moon shone bright,
The clock struck the chime of midnight.
Later the girl would wonder in the pale pink dawn,
‘What better luck than a Christmas fawn?’

–Kyra Lewis Gee

IMG_1609

*

As Kyra explained to me afterwards, “No doe would give birth in the middle of winter. I just like fawns.” May you have such luck with unexpected beginnings in 2013!

The Nature of Nature: For Us or Against Us?

I went on a walk this morning to survey the damage wrought to our land by the winds and rains of Hurricane Irene. I was also interested in exploring the impact on my imagination of a book that I recently read by Darryl Caterine called Haunted Ground: Journeys through Paranormal America.

Irene is one of those phenomena that easily disabuse us of any lingering illusion that nature is a benevolent “Mother.” The storm was nature on nature at its fiercest. Winds lashed at leaves and toppled trees; rains flooded banks, washing plants, animals, fields, roads, houses, and people away. In the wake of Irene, it is hard not to admit that “nature” is indifferent to human well-being.

In Haunted Ground, Caterine offers an equally troubling vision of the “Nature” that Americans idealize as the Ground of our nation. This Nature, to whose beauty, order and innocence we aspire, is only ours, Caterine reminds us, because our ancestors destroyed the peoples and cultures who were already living here. “We” asserted a right to ownership by denying it to others–Native Americans, of course, as well as African Americans, and many women. In his travels, Caterine hears the whispers: the Ground we claim to own is haunted by these unknown and unknowable Others. It will never be ours.

Pondering Caterine’s book on the heels of Irene, I think again about the ninety-six acres I claim to own. What is “it” that I own? By what right do I stake my claim? Who do I think I am? And where?

*

With sunlight wrapped softly around my shoulders, I plow up the hill towards the hayfields. The grass is heavy with a moisture that catches the light and saturates the leaves with green. The air is so clear it glows blue. The mountains in the distance seem close enough to touch. The roar of the brook reaches my ears far beyond its usual range. A light breeze ruffles the treetops, as if to calm their agitated twigs. The storm has passed.

We were lucky. The few elms that fell in the forest will make terrific firewood. The splayed roots of tipped sunflowers are easily pressed back into the soil. The winds cleared out dead leaves and branches. This place feels refreshed, vibrant, humming with life. Walking the land, I do too.

“It,” however, doesn’t feel like mine. The land doesn’t owe me anything. On the contrary, I owe it everything. I belong to the land. I could not breathe without the precise mix of air it exhales; I could not drink without the water it circulates; I could not stand without the pull of gravity upon its ground.

It is obvious to me: this land has a life that exceeds me–a life I cannot control or master. To own this land is to submit; it is to enter into a relationship with it where I allow myself to be disciplined by its needs, by its rhythms and rolls. Its hills charge my thighs; its vistas guide my gaze; its briars scrape my limbs; its deer open paths for me to explore. Its beauty calls me to let it live, for my own health and well-being. For the pleasure it brings to me. For the thoughts and feelings and impulses to move that it stirs in me.

To own this piece of earth is to allow its incessant creativity to live through me. In whatever I do. I want to move from the place that moving through this place awakens in me.

*

But what about the ghosts? What about the indifference of nature to me? In wanting what I want, am I shrouded in some romantic haze?

As Caterine points out, a yearning to commune with nature is normal. What fascinates him is the fascination of many Americans with the paranormal. It has to do with nature. After traveling to several locations around the United States, he concludes that people in these circles accept that nature is haunted. Rather than seeking communion with it, they are seeking practices for discerning and communicating with the others. Whether channeling spiritual entities, tracking down aliens in our midst, or mapping the flows of water under the earth, these people engage in practices for the purpose of educating their senses to stirrings of knowledge that are neither taught nor validated by reason-based, science-driven systems of education.

This focus on practices is what I like most about Caterine’s book. It makes sense to me. In these exercises, I see people learning to discern, trust, and move with impulses arising in and through their bodily awareness. As Caterine confirms, it is a serious play, aimed at exercising a human capacity to move strategically in pursuit of what is desired, and bring it into being.

In a round-about way, his reading also illuminates what I am doing here, on the farm. I moved here with the intention of cultivating a different way of knowing than the rational objectivity privileged by our mind over body culture. I sought a closer proximity to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world as a way to challenge the complacency into which we are led by the virtual and conceptual worlds of modern western culture–a complacency that fosters a notion of ourselves as minds living in and over our bodies, able (at least potentially) to control and master nature.

I was not seeking to connect with a nurturing nature as much as to disconnect from the illusion of such a whole, whether present or forever lost. I wanted to develop practices of living that would give rise to ideas of humans as participants in the creation of this world we inhabit.

*

As I stride up a hill to the crest, a span of forest-encircled pond bursts into view, erupting with a bubble under my ribs. Ripples of wonder travel down my limbs and nudge my thoughts.

On the one hand, I am under no illusion. Nature is indifferent to my well-being. Elemental storms twisted out of air, fire, water or sand, bacteria or virus, forces of gravity, and laws of matter care little for the individual bodies caught in their path. We hairless, thin-skinned humans are particularly vulnerable. In order to survive, we must insulate ourselves, to some extent, from these stresses.

However, it is also true that nature is completely and absolutely for me, wanting nothing more than to live and thrive in the form of the particular person I am. Nature is at work, becoming what it can be, in the pulsing, squeezing, crackling of my bodily self. Nature is for me in the shapes of my limbs, the scope of my senses, the orientation of my thinking, and most of all in the movement that relates me to what is. My eyes cannot develop with light; my ears without sound, my taste buds without flavors. My digestive system will not function properly without hoards of bacteria which make their home in me. My brain will not wire without this movement of cells, senses, systems, and limbs. Nature is moving in me, as me, creating me, as I create and become myself.

For me or against me? Nature is both. Is it mine or am I its? Both are true.

It is a paradox, or a rhythm: it is our nature to separate ourselves from nature… and to keep coming back. We conceive and plan and implement, we dance and sing and sign, and whatever we do stands or falls based on its ability to align us with the forces of nature operating in, through, and around us.

When we fix Nature as an ideal that is either there or not, we deny this rhythm. We lock ourselves in conceptual boxes of our own making, assuming that we are either home or homeless, one with it all or alienated forever. It is our mind-over-body conditioning at work.

However, when we cultivate an alternative sense of ourselves as movement-as the bodily movements that are making us-then nature appears differently. We realize that the bodily movements that we make make us able to think and feel and act at all. As such, we can never control (our bodily) nature, but neither does it exist apart from us as some thing out there. Rather, we participate in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming, and we can learn to do so as consciously as possible, creating and becoming the patterns of sensation and response that will relate us to what will sustain us in mutually enabling ways. We can let live. We can dance.

And if I want to cultivate a sensory awareness of how my movement matters–of what I am creating–then the best way is to slip away from a human-built world of vibrating and stationary boxes, walls of words and wood, constructions made of concepts and concrete, and submerse myself in whatever nature I can find. Even if it is the world that appears when I close my eyes, wiggle my toes, and breathe deeply.

*

Returning home, I notice how the glowing world through which I walked is now dancing in me. There are ghosts in the woods and ghosts in my flesh and blood. Nature is haunted and so am I. I swell with joy at the feeling and knowing of this kinship.

Yet soon enough the deluge of tasks to be done will sweep away this sense of connection and I will settle into boxes of my own making, content to rest in the wake of the effort expended.

But then again, my rest will turn to restlessness, my insulation to isolation, and it will be time again. Time to break out, bare my skin to the wind, and submit my senses to rhythms and forces without which I would not be able to think or feel or act at all. Time to let nature live in me and through me and as me. Time to dance.


Thoreau’s “Tonic of Wildness”

“Can I go for my walk?” Jessica asks the question halfway through our home-school day. The arc of her interest in geometry has waned; her eyes wander outside already. I let the rest of her go.

This will to walk is recent and new. One day she simply announced that she would. Even then she wasn’t interested in a walk, or walking per se, but in her walk, something done by her, for her, with her.

Since then she has owned her walks. And when she returns from the fields and forest, the glow in her eye and the ray on her cheek tell stories her words sometimes match. She shares tales of the chipmunk she saw nibbling nuts, the stick that took shape beneath her whittling knife, or the dreams of the garden she plans to plant that formed in her mind.

Is this how Jessica should be spending her home-school time?
*
I am rereading Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s account of his two-year “experiment in living” simply and deliberately on the shores of Walden Pond. Though I read him many years ago, I am startled this time by how familiar the work seems: he launched his experiment for reasons that resound through our family’s move here to the farm. He wanted to establish a perspective on contemporary society that would allow him to evaluate its values and practices, with an eye to making improvements. He wanted to wake up his senses, free his thoughts from their ruts, and live a life he loved to live. We do too.

For his part Thoreau was concerned that the obsessive-consumptive habits of society were dulling people’s senses and enslaving them to a quantity and quality of labor that failed to nourish their best selves. As he laments, “The better part of man is soon plowed into the soil for compost,” with predictable results. While the production of goods and services and the technological mechanisms for making and marketing them all flourish, individual humans don’t. Depressed by the sense-numbing pace of life, people crave distraction from expensive entertainment that ties them ever more tightly to their treadmills.

In Thoreau’s memorable words: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind… There is no play in them.”

Here on the farm, we share his concern, especially when it comes to kids. Teen persons in our culture have no purpose but to be educated for enterprises they will not be able to accomplish for another ten years. They scramble to compete for grades, awards, and victories that have no immediate bearing on their daily lives. Otherwise, they exist to be entertained. So separated from their bodily selves, they are easily seduced by virtual visions of pleasure, and quickly addicted to the rush they get by plugging in and pulling away from their connectedness with natural world. Is it surprising that so many teens feel alienated and depressed? Is it so surprising that they too, like the rest of us, cast about for the quick fix?

Addressing his contemporaries with prophetic wit, Thoreau asks: “What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented?” Thoreau’s response expresses the same intuition that guided us here: the only possible pill comes from grandmother Nature’s medicinal chest. The tonic of wildness.

Why Nature? Nature, according to Thoreau, awakens his senses in ways that feed his thoughts; Nature thus entices him participate in the ongoing work of creation—his own included.

For sure, Thoreau is interested in natural phenomena in general. An avid observer of plants and animals, earth, pond, and sky, his book chronicles changes of seasons and the cycles of a day. Yet he doesn’t go to Walden to observe nature per se. He seeks a time, space, and experience that will help him to a true account of life in all its manifestations. Human life included. He wants to sink beneath the surfaces of social doing and find a rocky real on which to stand.

What does he find? What a body knows. He finds endless movement—an ongoing movement of universal creation creating itself in him, around him, and through him. The rhythms of the natural world train his senses to see and smell and hear and taste the waves and trajectories of life’s becoming.

Further, once trained by Nature to notice Her movement, he sees and senses his own participation in it. He too is part of Nature’s ongoing work; Nature lives through his currents of feeling, his arcs of sensations, and the meandering of his own daily walks. Most importantly, for Thoreau, Nature lives in and through the rooting and unfolding of his thoughts. To live like Nature, then, is to find the freedom to think the thoughts that make of the day what it can be. As he writes: The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions… let us spend our lives in conceiving them.”

Nature, then, for Thoreau, is much more than a beautiful context or convenient set of metaphors for human pursuits. Nature is teacher and guide. Nature offers him the sensory education that he needs in order to be able to think about anything—whether railroad or woodchuck—with the same careful attention to its value relative to the “necessaries” of human life.

Our family moved for this same enabling proximity to the natural world so that we might bring our senses to life, find our freedom, and learn to live in love. Our mission: CliffsNotes to Walden.
*
Jessica comes back from her walk with tales of being stuck in a tree. She ventured out on a branch that led her onto another tree, and then found that the path was one way only.

“How did you get down?” I ask.

“I slid like a sloth down the branch and then dropped.” She smiles as she sits down to write. I smile too. I’m grateful. She is in good Hands.

In this home-schooling venture, I’ll take all the help I can get.