Spring and The Pope


These moments arrest me: Dust highlighting the edges of sunlight in our old tin-lined grain room. The complicated evening sky behind my loved ones on our hilltop. A curled cultivator from the Landis family farm given new paint and new work in our garden. An old white man kneeling before refugees with his hands cradling their brown feet.

grainroomsunbeamA photograph of Pope Francis washing the feet of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian refugees—pressing his lips to their skin—more than captivates me. I am undone. I can feel my own feet in someone else’s hands on a Thursday before Easter, over twenty years ago. Teenaged, I barely fit in my own skin, unsure of my changing body and my place in the world. There, on the thin carpet, an adult woman knelt, cupping water over my feet and drying them gently.

This ceremony is intimate and powerful, even when photographed for the world. More embodied than communion, one person’s fingertips and palms hold another person’s foot. The act could feel awkward or staged, but doesn’t. Our bodies influence our minds too much for cynicism in this moment. To choose to kneel before another person, bathing their feet, feels—I realized as a teenager—strong and connective. Afterwards, we stand together.

This year, 2016, is an extraordinary Year of Jubilee, added onto the regularly scheduled Jubilee years. It is a year of debts forgiven and wrongs absolved, a year of starting clean. It is—Pope Francis has declared—a Year of Mercy, which is kindness without boundaries, love as a verb.

eastereggsAlthough I am not Catholic and do not subscribe to traditional ideas of sin and salvation, something inside me embraces Jubilee and Mercy, especially in spring. This season always reassures me that life can return. Browned by winter’s freeze, plants become green again, even exceeding minimum survival by producing red buds, yellow blooms, purple petals, bright new growth.

Also this year, world events and national politics relentlessly conjure words like destruction, hatred, and division—a bludgeoning that sends me walking outside to watch the chickens running and scratching for a while. I need to wander, to see that the scars and ruts where junk and abuse gouged our farmstead are indeed healing.

On the farm and as a veterinarian, I count on healing, but I don’t perform it. I simply try to create opportunities for healing, then cheer when it happens. Perhaps this is a year of creating opportunities, and—at my most hopeful—I can see that healing can happen. This spring, we will prepare the soil and the barns and fences, and we will open our minds and bodies. We will kneel and invite connection, reminding ourselves that this is an extraordinary year of forgiveness and mercy.



This Squirming Pile of Fortune

Spotted salamander

On the road, it is wet and warm and dark, except for some distant lightning. And my flashlight. This kind of night invites amphibians, so I have come. I walk slowly, looking down, to avoid stepping on anyone.

The night is not peaceful. Spring peepers—sweet sweet!—and wood frogs—chuckle chuck—yell into the steady wind, which carries a promise of lower temperatures. It is raining. All around me, there is sex and death, and soft, shiny lives are running out into the open.

Jefferson salamander

I am a hundred paces from our front door. I am the last one out here tonight. Sam and Andrew went first, to check the cylindrical metal traps we have been placing in the wetland’s edge for several days. Every day, we check the traps, squealing together at lively Jefferson salamanders, grape-sized tadpoles, and one newt with a bright yellow belly. We admire the predaceous diving beetles, who carry an air bubble for breathing underwater and pinch your hand faster than you can drop them.

Tonight, knowing it’s a restless night for amphibians, the guys squelch out in tall boots, while I read books to tired Stella in bed. Then, footsteps pound up the wooden stairs, and Sam’s laugh bounces into the hallway. They burst into the bedroom with a new species, a spotted salamander, vibrant with her big yellow spots and tall black eyes. Sam caught her near the wetland. We cheer and admire, then they take her gently back.


Later, with both kids asleep, I walk out alone. Rainy spring nights coax salamanders from the woods across the road to our wetland to mate and lay eggs. Male frogs emerge too, beckoning females. Squashed frog bodies litter the road, and I dart around—as Sam did an hour earlier—scooping up the living and slipping them into the grass.

Seeing no dead salamanders, I wonder. In European mythology, salamanders could walk through fire, even lived in it—an untrue, but stirring image. On our road, are salamanders smarter or faster than frogs? Luckier? Are they fewer in number, and less likely to be hit? Or do they just stick to tires, leaving no evidence? It is always complicated to assign reasons for one group’s apparent fortune in the face of another’s losses.

When we wake the next morning, the grass is green. Wood ducks have splashed down into the wetland. Standing among cattails, the din of frogs surrounds us. Sam yells when he lifts one trap from the water, “It’s a whole family of spotted salamanders!” We grin at each other, thrilled by this squirming pile of fortune.





Muscle Memory with a Pitchfork and Banjo



We are the music makers,

and we are the dreamers of dreams…

Arthur O’Shaughnessy

I keep my nails lopsided—long on the right hand, short on the left—just in case I find the time and gumption to play my banjo again. This house has never heard the bum-ditty of that spunky instrument.

The banjo has waited in its case through our construction dust last winter, hidden in the closet through a busy summer, and has been tugging at me this fall and winter. Finally, one late February day, I unzip the case.

I lift its perfect, round face into the light, imagining the words encircling the head of Pete Seeger’s banjo: This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It To Surrender. The time seems right for music. I wonder if I can still play it.

Photographed from Pete Seeger’s How to play the 5-String Banjo

My return to banjo stumbles along, but my fingers surprise me by how much they remember. I play clawhammer style. A left fingernail strikes a string, lifts, then strums, A high pluck of the thumb on the fifth string punctuates each strum. It’s an old-timey, sing-along sound that brings me pure delight as I create it.

Callouses form again on my left fingertips where they press the wire strings. Sometimes my hands even act independently of my brain, as if by instinct. But this is different from the instinct. Instinct drives my chickens to scratch forward, then step back and dart their beaks to the ground. My banjo-playing movements are learned with meticulous repetition. Once taught to my confused, unwilling muscles, this music-making seems to have entered my cells.

Our bodies store memories. The smell of your elementary school. Stubble on an unshaved cheek against your lips. A dog’s ears in your hands. Mint tea from the garden—sweet on your tongue, cold down your throat.

As spring approaches, callouses form again on my palms. I lever a pitchfork into two-feet of hay and petrified sheep turds that linger in a small corner room of our barn. The shove, pry, lift pattern plays old scenes in my mind of other places I’ve used a pitchfork or a shovel. Sweating in stalls as a teenager so horse-crazy I felt honored to handle their feces. Turning compost in our red dirt garden in Alabama. On this farm, I push wheelbarrow loads to the garden, where the well-cured manure will fuel our vegetables.

We are always teaching our bodies something, whether or not it’s what we want to learn. I have learned to ride a bicycle, to drive a car, to tie surgical knots. I have learned to carry my shoulders high and tense and to bite my fingernails (must resist…need them for the banjo).

Movements repeated, like my fingers across this keyboard, become unconscious. We cannot unlearn them, although they can fade with disuse. I wonder what other actions I repeat without realizing that I’m coding them into my body.

Maybe one day I will play the banjo as fluently as I ride a bicycle. It will keep me company and make me laugh. It will invite other voices and their own harmonies. The banjo has no agenda. It offers me no guilt or frustration, only song. It takes my moods and stress and fears and creates something more hopeful. My banjo needs its own slogan—one that rings true for me. Maybe: This Machine Digs Into Shit and Turns It To Fertilizer.



The Barn Politic



In a stiff wind, the north wall flaps. I worry, mid-January, that it will take flight, leaving the rest of the barn to fend for itself. Feeling fatalistic, I shrug and leave it up to nature and gravity to decide if we’ll still have a barn by spring. Andrew opts for strategy and action. He angles some beams from floor to wall, tethering the pieces, for now.

This barn is older than our 1890-built house. Dutch settlers built barns like this one all over upstate New York, many now crumbling. The Dutch Barn style features decorative ventilation holes near the peaks and, often, IMG_0766horizontally lapped siding. These barns typically have an H-shaped support structure, and an open threshing floor on the upper level. Thick, hand-hewn beams pegged together make these barns surprisingly difficult to dismantle, even in extreme disrepair. That’s what we’re hoping, anyway.

We bought this barn sight unseen, since the innards were filled—wall-to-wall, and on the lower level, floor-to-ceiling—with the previous owner’s junk. The main barn was strong enough, anyway, to hold six vehicles surrounded impassably by stuff. With the junk gone, we have taken stock.

barninthemorningHere is a barn with potential for great usefulness and charm, carrying almost two centuries of history. Here is a barn that could house cows and horses and enough hay to feed them all winter. Here is a barn with some major deterioration. A sad and tilty barn. A nearly naked, aged barn, still holding onto its dignity.

We scrutinize our priorities. What is our responsibility to the past and the present? What kind of structure do we need, going into the future? How important are beauty and history? How much can we commit—time, money, other projects pushed aside—to this central, even guiding, element of this enterprise? What makes sense, and what do our guts tell us?

Sometimes you have to tear apart the old structures and build a new, working system. Raze the existing edifices, corrupted by time and rot and small problems ignored into larger ones. Or, perhaps what stands can remain, with rigorous—and costly—renovations. The foundation might need to be reset, and the crooked framework hauled into line.

All of this work demands honest courage and discerning vision. Deny this work, and the whole, rat-eaten construction can crash, despite its strong potential. Approach this work brazenly, with a lack of heart, bringing only a destructive energy, and the results will be ugly. I am pondering big decisions that define a place. I am thinking about presidency and candidates.

We decide to save the barn and to tear it down. Almost half of the building consists of three added-on pieces, which are not worth saving. The main part of the barn will suit our needs, for holding livestock and hay and the soul of this farm. This summer, and probably next summer, too, we will do our best to transform it backwards and forwards into a noble, effective structure. We hope it will offer good lives to those who depend on us and make this farm a welcoming, secure place. May it also be so for our nation.