Autumn, asters and time

Dark in the morning, these days, when I come downstairs early to make coffee for my husband, tea for me. I light two candles, a practice inherited from a housemate many years ago, as it eases me into my day. I peer at the inside/outside thermometer. If the inside temperature is below 60° AND the outside temperature below 40°, I make a fire in the woodstove. 

A soft, dancing light of warmth is thrown into the room. 

Autumn is far and away my favorite season. The colors this year are spectacular and we have had quite a few sunny days.  Our garden has not yet been hit by a hard frost: late tomatoes are still ripening on the vines, the kale and swiss chard are flourishing and my harvest of zinnia blooms grace tables throughout the house. 

And New England asters burst their purple and pink into the world with end of season abandon. 

But winter is coming, and, unlike other years when I have embraced this season of transition, looking forward to snow and skiing and to hunkering down into more inside activities, my predominate feeling this year is dread. The occasional outside meals with guests, served on top of an old table on saw horses set up on the lawn, will come to a chilly end. Visits-at-a-distance with the grandkids outside will depend much more on the weather. Unlike most winters, that occasional sprinkling of company into the house or a gathering for a community event to season our days will not happen.  

Zoom meetings will help. But only superficially. 

We are not ill with Covid and indeed, lack nothing of importance except the precious opportunities to be with loved ones. So many others are suffering so much more; it is beyond my imagination. 

I look back at my previous posts. Such an underpinning of optimism. The world pulling together.  Hope for a change in direction across the country that would begin to steer us toward not only a nationwide Covid response to reduce the deaths but a change of heart about other threats, such as climate change.   

I have not written for two months. Time during a pandemic takes on different characteristics. We are in our eighth month. It is less than two weeks before the election and a part of me is terrified, not to mention really sad that so many people apparently have accepted a “new normal”.

It is not normal, and immensely tragic, that our “baseline” expectations may have changed so much that what people believe and how they behave toward one another might have become an unrecognizable reality. I begin to recognize in myself – and in others – a shrugging of the shoulders kind of acceptance when Trump does things that are so far off the beaten track of normalcy that we tend to ignore it.  But I fear that is exactly what begins to erode our valuing of what is right, what is ethical, what is true.  We become so cynical that we begin to forget what is good. 

Optimism is being suffocated. 

I refuse to accept this as simply “the new normal”. I do not want that kind of world for my grandchildren. 

So, for the time being, each day after I extinguish the candles, I will seek to lean into the deeper, wiser, and comforting presence of some other non-human being, animate or inanimate, that represents a different kind of normal. 

What can I learn?

Here, for instance, are the fall asters. During the day, they open their hearts to the sun and to the bees, who in turn are thankful for a late season source of pollen and nectar.  But at night, the blooms close up. Botanists are unsure why this happens, but it might be simply to protect the pollen from moisture and to preserve energy for the daylight hours when the insects are more active. That sure makes sense. Whatever the case – they have adapted to a rhythm balancing outward offerings and inward preservation. 

 I need to learn to do that right now.  

Divine Messaging

I walk through our fields. We have not had enough rain, so the grasses are all a bit stumpy for this time of year.  But the mix of maturing seed heads and dots of color from small flowers still form a pleasing mid-summer palate. As I pass by, a clique of adolescent bobolinks appears magically from the density, rising up together to perch on the tops of trees alongside the field. We have delayed haying this field for the benefit of the bobolink’s reproduction, so it is a welcome sight.

The seasons progress. Because we have lived here for 15 years, we know more or less what to expect. If you live and grow things here, you know the importance of flexibility. Heat, frost, drought, downpours. You watch, and listen, and learn, and then adapt to daily and seasonal changes.

And now, Covid. We stay home.  With a garden and good neighbors, it is easy to shelter in place every day of our lives, watching the changes around us.  And yes, I give thanks. Every. Single. Morning.

I am at a loss for how to respond to realities beyond our fields. America is living through three simultaneous pandemics, caused by an insidious virus, systemic racism, and an inability to see and adequately respond to the overarching reality of the climate crisis. The uncertainty is driving people crazy. The subsumed emotions are breaking out in violence. I feel all I can do is respond to one issue at a time, while reminding myself the interconnectedness of all three pandemics is the primary lesson to be learned by us all.

I read about a recent poll that found that a majority of Americans who believe in God think the pandemic is a divine message and that humanity needs to change the way it lives.

My initial reaction upon reading this was:  Whoa! Here we go again with the concept of a punishing god who chooses a pandemic as a way to teach us a lesson.   “Zap!”   “You have not kept your side of the covenant with respect to the earth. Let’s see how you feel after more than 18 million people get sick and more than half a million (and counting) die! Maybe then you will listen and change the way you live on this earth.”

This “zapper god” is not a god with whom I am familiar.

I want to make it clear that when I say that I think there IS a divine message arising from the pandemic, I am referring to a different sort of God.

The God I know is a creative force of love, intimately involved in all processes that make the planet work the way it does. There are ecological and medical processes:  causes, effects, correlations, relationships, effectively “divine messages” about how things work, that scientists, doctors and climatologists learn to read. For instance: If habitat loss forces proximity between humans and some other animals, viruses do and will continue to jump from one to the other. If the lungs of people of color are compromised due to poverty and the siting of polluting industries, the death rate by Covid will be at least twice that of white people. If the planet continues to be warmed due to excess carbon, there is a strong possibility for hurricanes and tornadoes of an above normal frequency and severity this year.

The “messaging” is in the scientific information about these relationships.

Many experts are becoming more adept at interpretation, but most of us are not as conversant at understanding the messages, and are particularly ignorant of appropriate responses.  Bright blue chicory and ivory white Queen Anne’s Lace speak simple beauty to me, but for First Peoples, they spoke a message of gifts – culinary and medicinal opportunities. Their response was one of humility and reciprocity: the plants were thanked and the humans were careful to not harvest too many.

So yes, the pandemic is a natural “divine message”.  (When all else fails, read the directions!)  And yes, human beings: if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, I hope it has taught us that the messages still apply to us. So, I hope we consider humility, love, and reciprocity toward each other and toward the non-human world when we make our decisions in response.

Pointillism, Pixels….and Poison

The newly sprung leaves far above me spread across the blue sky like part of a pointillistic painting. They float, as if detached from each other and the earth, small etches of chartreuse, this early in the season.

Did you know the color “chartreuse” is named after a French elixir that exhibits this in-between-yellow-and-green color? The liqueur is an infusion of special herbs, naturally that color.  The formula has remained a carefully guarded secret by a monastic order for more than 400 years.

(This is what happens when you start down rabbit holes on the internet…)

Back to the leaves. They also remind me more prosaically of digital imaging pixels, an acronym for “picture element” (thank you, Wikipedia). The more pixels used in representing an image, the more information available to you.

In the case of these leaves, increasing the density will probably not tell me much more. But if I allow my eyes to simply drop down to the trunk of the tree, I receive additional information: the smooth gray bark tells me it is an American Beech. So the beech leaves dancing against the sky are the hopeful successors of the ones flattened under my feet, now decomposing in the soil into an elixir of water, minerals and other nutrients which will feed subsequent generations of leaves above.

Cycles:  composed of myriad pixels of lives and deaths, lives and deaths.

I think of all of us now, across the world, pixelated into six-foot-apart lives, the amalgamation of which creates a wonderful picture of caring and concern, if we choose to see it that way.  There is this strange contradiction: many of us are separated from those closest to us – unable to hug for goodness sake! At the same time, we feel ourselves connected to complete strangers in Japan and New Zealand and Germany and Kenya, when we see them in news reports, masked just as we are, all of us dealing with the incertitude of our individual and collective daily lives. Yes, though the threats and the challenges on a local basis may be vastly different, there remains a shared experience, not to mention a shared gratitude for the people who are essentially saving all our lives: the medical personnel, the trash collectors, the grocery clerks.

But the full picture is far from wonderful. The cycle includes too many deaths, exceeding 100,000 in the US as I write.  The New York Times devoted an entire front page to the names of 1,000 individuals, only one hundredth of the total. These names on the page are persons. Unless we have lost someone, and my heart goes out to those who have, we so easily fall into a contemplation of numbers. Names of strangers. Not people.

Recently there have been news reports of people flooding public spaces without masks and without distancing, others actually fighting with store employees trying to enforce a “mask required” order. These scenes way heavy on my mind and my mood. How can people not get this?  In a sense, the unmasked are living off the health of the collective, ignoring the possible contagion of others, and giving nothing in return.

There are t-shirts you can buy on Amazon that say “SELFISH And Proud of it.

What have we come to?

In Field with a view I explored the dangers of human exceptionalism, the metaphysical and theological implications of the vanity of self-importance on a species level. There is the possibility that we are only a passing phase in the overall history of the planet. And that was before Covid-19, which has demonstrated how the human animal is susceptible to the “whims” of another small being. “Being” might be too charitable, as it cannot replicate itself. It is just a bundle of genetic material that needs the duplicative ability of cells of a host species to reproduce a “pseudo-living” being.  I suppose from the point of view of the virus, the human animal is indeed delightfully exceptional. Easy pickings. We have no antibodies to defend ourselves.

When I think about it, humans are like a virus upon the planet, in the sense that we rely more and more upon scarce resources that have never been exclusively our own: the essential services of air, water, soil, other living beings. We so rarely recognize them, pay them the respect they deserve, or thank them, acknowledging our reliance.

Humans are pixels in complicated ecosystems, alongside other animate and inanimate pixels, from soil to sloths, granite to grouse, boreal forests to bacterium, volcanoes to viruses.

Many points of being.  I so desperately want the full pointillistic picture to be one of beauty.


This blog was started a couple of weeks ago, when the leaves were still chartreuse and small against the sky. The leaves are bigger and darker now and the deaths in the US from Covid-19 have surpassed 100,000. But the enumeration of thousands of names on the front page of a newspaper has been eclipsed by one name – George Floyd – whose death was not in a hospital bed surrounded by medical personnel dedicated to helping him breath, but by police officers cutting off his breath.  (Please note the “s” on officers.)

I am a white woman of privilege and I do not pretend to understand the poison of racism that seems to flow in the blood of all human beings. Like the virus, it affects us all differently, both in how we treat others and in how we see ourselves. I am not sure if there will ever be a vaccine. I do know that many good people over many, many years are trying very hard to discover treatments that help minimize the effects.

I also know that fire destroying businesses already gravely stressed by the Covid-19 lockdown, like the only local grocery store available in a food desert, will do nothing to help the mindset of officers like those that killed George Floyd. Sadly, the violence has overshadowed the death of the person known as George Floyd. His pixel of light is being subsumed in the flames.  I find that part very sad.

The black man most revered by this nation was so very clear: violence begets violence. He knew that the poison of racism could only be countered by the antidote of love and compassion. Yes, I know, easy for white me to say, from my secure home in the middle of fields, looking toward mountain tops. But that is what my faith has taught me. And my faith tells me that, just as God accompanies me in her most enveloping form, a Spirit of truth and love, she has imbued the world with compassion over the past few months.  As always, we are in the midst of becoming.  Always becoming an image of beauty, as pixels of love combine in new understandings, new connections, building better, to nourish subsequent generations to come.

Liver Lobes and Earth Day

The white snow covering has given way to hues of burnt umber/ beige of crushed, flattened leaves, still with ample moisture underneath evidenced by the gentle squish as my boots tramp on the woods trail. To one side, a middle-aged maple hugs the ground, the large exposed roots creating small sheltered gaps between them.   I gently push aside the leaves, and find our first serious harbinger of spring: hepatica.

This year, the search tasook on a greater urgency.  I needed this sign of spring to counter the images of 18-wheeler freezer storage containers lined up for corpses, and the faces of exhausted medical personnel, tears brimming in their eyes.

At times, I feel overwhelmed by guilt – that I have these options to look for signs of spring in the woods behind our farm.  That I do not want for food, for money, for a strong supportive community. But I recall a sentence in a recent reflection by a priest friend, that “love doesn’t keep a score of grief and hardship, so much as it assumes that all hardship is held in Creator Spirit’s embrace.”

Is that too pat a thought, I wonder, too easy for a person of faith to take off the shelf to appease a heart grieving at the inequities that this damn pandemic has blasted with neon lights across the world? Perhaps. But without it, I know I would just melt into tears of utter frustration and anger and sadness.

So, knowing that Love is alongside, embracing me and others, I go looking for signs of spring.

What a strong feeling of security there is, knowing that I will find hepatica every spring. Somewhere – underneath this tree or that, eventually – the little curled up buds will be pushing upward alongside the lobed leaves. Hepatica: from the Greek for liver referring to the lobed leaves. Ancients hoped the shape of that leaf signified its power to cure liver ailments. Since the 15th century the “Doctrine of Signatures” held that the shape of a plant indicated its curative use for humans, sort of a hint from a deity that perhaps regretted the diseases that pervaded the world.

Wafhat mind-blowing anthropocentrism. Still, the reliable appearance of hepatica cures me, at least for the moment, of the overwhelming insecurity of not knowing what the crisis will bring next week. Or next month, or a year from now.

On my walk, I searched for something that I knew from previous years would be there. And it was.

The reassurance was palpable to my soul.

Not all predictably recurring events sooth the soul.  Last week was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I shake my head. There is no such palpable reassurance when the human species concentrates just one day a year to foster harmony with the planet on which it lives. School children and elected officials planting trees, pronouncements from politicians and pulpits, editorials about how Earth Is Important.  As far as I am concerned, as long as there is an Earth Day – we are in deep trouble. Notwithstanding the laudable, revolutionary and largely successful protections passed in the early years of our caring for the earth, we are in deep trouble as a species.  Many of last week’s dozens upon dozens of recollections and commentaries and lamentations on the state of the planet concluded, rightly in my opinion, that the only way to save the world from this pandemic is to double-down on addressing the climate crisis. As Swedish activist Greta Thunberg remarked on a recent Zoom call with fellow activists and supporters… “every crisis needs to be treated like a crisis.”

I have this outrageous hope that after Covid-19 we will not need another celebration of Earth Day.  Because during this in limbo time, this pandemic spring of 2020, people will make it a habit to live differently, love differently, share differently for the sake of us all, and for the sake of the earth that needs more than an anniversary.

They say hope springs eternal.