The Sunset Sky

April 9, 2014

“The grandest picture in the world is the sunset sky.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals, July 26, 1852

Sunset at the farm, early Spring

Sunset at the farm, early Spring

“A gorgeous sunset after rain, with horizontal bars of cloud, red sashes to the western window, barry clouds hanging like a curtain over the window of the west, damask.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals, July 10, 1851

Minnesota is still in the final throes of winter, a real mixed bag weather-wise.  The week delivered snow, rain, warmer temps, and then freezing cold.  My final evening on the farm was a grace note — a colorful sunset accompanied by a chorus of geese and sandhill crane calls.  Lovely.

Looking east

Looking east

By the barn

By the barn

Setting sun through the bare trees

Setting sun through the bare trees



The old farmhouse where I grew up

The old farmhouse where I grew up

“I live here in the realm of predictability.  Each day goes by, a mirror of the one before, a rough draft of the one to come.  The passing hours bring variations in the sky’s coloration, the comings and goings of the birds, and a thousand almost imperceptible things.”
— Sylvain Tesson, The Consolations of the Forest:  Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

My father is rooted to the land where he has lived for over 90 years.  The Minnesota farm was his childhood home, and he has observed the seasons passing predictably year after year.  And now in old age, the call of travel and adventure no longer appeals.  From my perspective, life on the farm seems slow and unchanging, each day a “rough draft of the one to come.”

Still, there is a lot of richness in being so rooted.  As Natalie Goldberg says in The True Secret of Writing:  Connecting Life with Language, “Much can be done by doing little — with regard.”

Sylvain Tesson, quoted in the opening to this post, deliberately experimented with finding his inner life by removing himself to a remote, rustic cabin in Siberia.  He found that “Staying put brought me what I could no longer find on any journey.”  Writer Jim Harrison, writes about these same feelings in Brown Dog:  “Come to think of it, the main good thing out here snowbound in this cabin is that nothing is happening . . . I’ve got this personal feeling things are not supposed to be happening to people all of the time.  At least I’m not designed for it.”

If we live to extreme old age, our bodies will inevitably wear out, slowing us down and making us stay put.  I got a taste of this during the two weeks I stayed with my Dad.  The challenge for all of us, regardless of age, is to stay observant to the things that come across our range of view, and to find the beauty in these still images.

Here is a window to my Dad’s world:
















” . . . everything is always already being lost.”
— Bradley L. Garrett, discussing Walter Benjamin on the nature of ruins, from Explore Everything: Place Hacking in the City

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

Looking through the living room window at my 94-year-old Dad mowing the lawn

I’ve just returned from two weeks of keeping company with my 94-year-old Dad on the family farm.  I’ve written about my father before, most notably a tribute in honor of his 90th year.  On this recent visit, I was reminded daily of the small, accumulating losses that accompany anyone into extreme old age.  Since my last visit in February 2012, I noticed that my Dad no longer checks his email every day, works on crossword puzzles, goes to mid-week mass, or plans and cooks even simple dinners, much less barbecued chicken.  His short-term memory is going, and it is doubtful that he will be able to continue to live alone in the old farmhouse, even with the considerable day-to-day support that a few of my siblings provide.

And this is going to be a challenge for our family, because Dad will not go willingly to another home no matter how much better a change would be for him — keeping him in physical safety, with good home-cooked meals provided, and lots of other support.  He wants to die at home on the farm.  The loss of his home, a reassuring space, would be heart-breakingly sudden, not like the other losses he has born, some so gradual that he might not even be aware of them.

We cannot stall the passing hours.  There is no promise of preservation.  I see in the slow, inexorable deterioration of the farm house, sheds, and barn — those that will be torn down when my brother builds his family’s retirement home on the land — the reflection of my Dad’s inevitable decline.  In spite of the pain, there is beauty in this collapse of our everyday existence.

Farm house window

Farm house window

East side door

East side door

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

Linoleum floor with sun and shadow

East side window

East side window

Roof of Uncle Pete's garage

Roof of Uncle Pete’s garage

Interior, garage

Interior, garage

Barn doors and windows

Barn doors and windows

My view upon waking

My view upon waking

Old farmhouse in the morning light

Old farmhouse in the morning light

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Looking west across Ben's wildflower field

My brother Ben planted a wildflower field next to the farm’s driveway.  It provides a spectacular profusion of mixed flowers during the summer months, but it has its own kind of beauty during the winter.  I particularly like that the seed dispersal structures are so evident at this time of year.

Seed heads in varying states of dispersal

I love the calligraphic lines of these grasses, punctuated by flower seed heads.

Dried flower stalks

This dried cone flower looks like it has a Mohawk haircut!

Dried wildflowers

Dried seed heads

Looking across the wildflower field to the red barn

Ink sketch of Ben's wildflowers in winter

Ink sketch of Ben's wildflowers in winter

Watercolor sketch of Ben's wildflowers in winter

Watercolor sketch of goldenrod

Watercolor sketch of milkweed and pods



Minnesota woods after the winter storm, before the thaw

“March. I am beginning
to anticipate a thaw. Early mornings
the earth, old unbeliever, is still crusted with frost
where the moles have nosed up their
cold castings, and the ground cover
in shadow under the cedars hasn’t softened
for months, fogs layering their slow, complicated ice
around foliage and stem
night by night . . . ”
— Luci Shaw, from “Revival,” posted on The Writer’s Almanac

The morning after Minnesota’s snowstorm gave me my only taste of the icy and snowy winters of my childhood.  I went out into the woods, while it was still cold, to see the frosty wonderland before it thawed.

Following the groomed trail through our woods

A light touch of frosty ice on the distant trees

Ice-coated branches

An icy wonderland

Young tree against the trunk of an old one

Red oak leaves encrusted in ice

The ice added a bit of sparkle to an otherwise gray and brown woods.

Heavy with ice

The trail through the back woods

A bit of red

Sloppy footprints through the slushy snow



Gone Into the Fields

March 6, 2012

“Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs-
To the silent wilderness
Where the soul need not repress
Its music lest it should not find
An echo in another’s mind,
While the touch of Nature’s art
Harmonizes heart to heart.
I leave this notice on my door
For each accustom’d visitor:-
‘I am gone into the fields
To take what this sweet hour yields.'”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, from “The Invitation”

Plowed fields under a dusting of snow

I’ve just returned from a week’s trip to Minnesota to stay with my 93-year-old Dad on the family farm.  It’s been an unseasonally dry and almost snow-less winter in Minnesota, but a storm passed through during my stay.  The farm was on the south fringes of the storm front, and we got just a small amount of snow, some rain, and sleet.  My sister, who lives in northern Minnesota, got 10-inches of snowfall in one day!

The farm is quiet in winter.  I enjoyed my solitary walks through the woods and fields.  Like Shelley, I kept my eyes open to what the Minnesota winter yielded.

Water after it has passed through the culverts under our driveway

Thin ice

My brother raises elk; this is his bull elk (looks like it has a third antler!).

Empty nest

Animal tracks in the snow . . . raccoon?

Dried leaf



Churches and Minnesota lakes

Steeples rise above the corn fields

Parish church in rural Minnesota

Tall church steeples dot the rural Minnesota landscape.  They stand as sentinels over our farms, fields, and lakes.  And they are a visible sign of the ties of faith and community in the country.

Our parish church, seen from our farm

When I was growing up on the farm, my family belonged to a Catholic parish just a mile or so from our home.  This church was, and still is, the lifeblood of our small community, which also included a two-room public schoolhouse, a store and bar, a garage, a baseball diamond, and farms and homes.  Many of my relatives are buried in the parish cemetery.

The parish cemetery

Decades ago, the public schools consolidated.  I was among the first class of sixth graders who moved from the country schoolhouse to the elementary school in town.  A few years later, the lower grades also moved to the town school, and the country schoolhouse has since stood empty.

The parish and community weathered that change, but now is adjusting to another consolidation, that of the rural churches.  When our parish’s aged priest died, the Catholic archdiocese took the opportunity to centralize management of the small local parishes under the auspices of the larger town church.  Our small parish now has masses twice a week instead of daily, and a visiting priest, who resides in town, travels between two rural churches.

The loss of local priests and local autonomy is a big blow to the community of faithful in the rural Minnesota countryside.  It feels wrong to not support a thriving local parish in the name of economic efficiencies.  Especially when the “commodity” is faith, you’d think that the intangibles would weigh more heavily than pieces of silver in the decision to keep a parish church going.

The interior of our local parish church 30 minutes before mass. By the time mass started, the pews were full.

Holy water font