Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Clothed with Gladness

The grasslands of the desert overflow; 
the hills are clothed with gladness.
Psalm 65:12

[This was written in the season of “farch.”]

It’s hard to estimate just how long it’s been since the world outside my door offered much to see. Snow can be gorgeous, but we’ve had less than enough to create the alabaster robes that make the Plains look regal. Ever since the first killing frost, the country has been almost entirely tint-less.

Okay, the color is not gone, really, but, it gives meaning to the word lackluster. It’s a good deal less than inspiring. Shoot, inspiring is a stretch. From December through late March, the world I live in is dull, plain, uninteresting, dreary, colorless—all of those. And, this winter, the dawn’s early light—always a blessing—has been rare. On Saturdays, more often than not, it’s been cloudy.

Photography is all about light. Manure becomes a blessing in the golden joy of sunrise; but spot a perfect composition in heavy clouds and no matter how you fine tune a digital SLR, what you’ve got is almost unfailingly uninteresting. Fogs cast a spell, but a prairie winter has few mists worth noting.

We’re thick into the season of “farch,” as some people call it, a coinage of February/March, when the snow that remains is flat out dingy. Last week’s sudden blizzard left long and heavy drifts asleep in the ditches, but, they look, a week later, like dead sheep, as Jim Heynen once wrote, gray lifeless masses that will stay around far too long.

If I made my living as a photographer who didn’t roam, I’d be starving. My winter shots hardly merit the space they take up on my hard drive. I could delete the whole bunch and not miss a thing.

Saturday a storm was forecast, so I assumed there would be no dawn. But when I stepped outside early, the clouds were broken enough out east to allow a wearied sun at least a bit of stage time, so I took off and found some old cottonwoods out east of town, some fallen. I thought I had some fine shots until I got them up on the screen. Nothing to write home about. Maybe it’s my fault. There’s a learning curve with my high-tech gear, and I’m too old for new tricks and too blasted male to take time to read the instructions.

Dawns last ten minutes, maybe fifteen, before the patina fades. I need to remind myself that this is the season of farch—nothing striking anywhere. Saturday my wife brought home a clutch of tulips from Walmart that just about took my breath way. It’ll be a while. I’ll just have to wait.

The earth rests, the fertile, slumbering soil beneath us hibernating. It’ll have toil enough in a month or so, when farmers start to work it once again.
It’s farch and it’s lent and it’s too cold to be spring, even though today, officially, is spring solstice. In South Dakota, people are staring out their windows at 18 inches of snow, which is enough to prompt me to use the old Midwestern adage—hey, things could be worse.

There will come a moment, a time, a succession of months, in fact, when the hills out west are as clothed with gladness as the ones David saw, rejoicing and singing. There will come a time when the grasslands overflow.

Patience is a virtue. Hope is a thing with feathers. Faith is the sure knowledge of things hoped for. I better be ready. I got time now to read instructions.  The emeralds will return, refreshingly. I know it. I can hear the promise in David’s song.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Right and wrong near Ireton

It starts with the Depression era's terrible, unsatisfied needs. There was no money. Hence there was no food. The story begins with poverty--unmercifully brutal want. It had to take place about the same time as the day a mob of angry farmers marched into a courtroom just down the road in LeMars and demanded a judge not foreclose on the fifteen farms whose mortgages he held just then in his hands. 

When the judge refused to comply, they grabbed him off the bench, stripped him down beyond his skivees, strung him up, and threatened to hang him. Wasn't pretty. But yawning want makes suffering people do regrettable things.

And it's an old story, repeated often, certainly not news. A farmer just up the road from that snarling mob keeps losing chickens. He knows because he counts them, like he does his blessings. After all, his blessings in 1933 are really, really few. Too often there are not as many chickens as there was the day before; hence, not as many blessings.

And it's no fox, no coyote, no weasel or mink. This farmer, who is not well-heeled, has to provide for his family at a time when it simply doesn't pay to keep livestock and the crops have, once again, failed. How his chickens disappear is a mystery at first. But it gets unnerving, then irritating, then infuriating. Finally, he decides to act, stays up some night, loses sleep, and no one or nothing shows. Tries again. No one there.

He wonders if the thief is gone, goes back to bed in the old farmhouse, and one day wakes up to a smaller flock again. Now he's incensed. He determines to put an end to the thievery by rigging up a shotgun. Then, one night, he wakes up when the 12-gauge goes off. He runs outside and finds a neighbor down on the ground, bloody. 

It's a Siouxland story, happened in the country, so it doesn't feel right to call it an urban myth; but you may well have heard it before, constructed as it is from the horrors of the dirty Thirties. Long ago I was told by a man I respect, a man who was, back then, a boy, that  that's the way it happened on his father's farm near Ireton, Iowa. What stays with me through the years is the way that friend of mine insisted I write it, the way some people do insist on things like that. "You ought to write that story, Jim," they'll say. Put in three exclamation points.  That's how he told me, with that kind of pointed emphasis.

I thought of his story when I read We Have Gone Away, Curtis Harnack's endearing memoirs of a boy's life on a northwest Iowa farm near Remsen mid-Depression. Harnack's Uncle Jack's kept a cave-like basement armory, where "the family firepower was being quietly amassed." Why all the weaponry? "In those Depression years of bank robbers, gypsies, tramps, kidnappers, cattle rustlers, and chicken thieves, our farm bristled with guns like a fort."

Through the forty years that have passed since my old friend told me that story and urged me to write it, I've sometimes tried to determine exactly why he wanted it told so badly. There are a dozen reason, I'm sure.

It's quite simply unforgettable. There's blood. It's pure action/adventure, right?

But it's much more. It's a story of two men in great need. One of them has chickens, the other does not. Because they both have hungry families, they are prompted to do awful things. One walks over the neighbor's and steals chickens when there's nothing on the pot on the stove. The other mounts a shotgun to take care of that bastard chicken thief that keeps stealing the chickens that lay eggs that keep his family healthy. In northwest Iowa in 1933 chances are good that on the Sabbath those two families sat in the same little church. 

Maybe he wanted me to write the story because what people call "the fog of war" drifted into what became "the fog of the Depression." I wonder whether the descendants of that hanging mob of farmers--some must still live here--honor their ancestors. Maybe he thought the story had to be told because it caught the fervent reality of a time when so many had so little.

But if my father had exercised that kind of zeal, I'd remember it too, perhaps, however, because a wounded neighbor lying on the ground by the chicken coop became the very first note that seemed woefully off-key in the otherwise perfectly tuned harmony of a righteous Christian life. Nothing that happened that night could be repeated in Sunday School.  

My old friend was a kid in 1933, a little boy who suddenly found himself confronted with a father who'd almost become a killer and a bloodied neighbor who was, beyond reasonable doubt, a convicted felon.

I wonder whether that's the reason he wanted me so badly to write the story. It was unforgettable because something a little boy crashed that night out there in the yard, a reasonable sense of what is right and what is wrong.

When that happens to any of us, to all of us, we take note, no one more pointedly perhaps, than children.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Morning Thanks--"Now Thank We All Our God"

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), like most, was obscenely messy. What's worse, like most horrendous conflicts of our day and years gone by, it was, quite frankly, religious, fought by antagonists perfectly confident that their enemies belonged to the army of Satan.The Thirty Years War wasn't among Christianity's finest hours.

Want to see for yourself? This excerpt from Cicely Wedgewood's history of that war may be all you wish to read. 
At Calw the pastor saw a woman gnawing the raw flesh off a dead horse on which a hungry dog and some ravens were also feeding. . . .In Rhineland [city magistrates] watched the graveyards against marauders who sold the flesh of the newly buried for food. . . .Acorns, goats' skins, grass, were all cooked in Alsace; cats, dogs, and rats were sold in the market at Worms.
People suffered. Political and religious hatred teamed up in a particularly rowdy fashion to create a war in which the Austrians and Swedes and just about anyone else looking for a fight on the continent took turns thrashing the very life out of the German people and countryside. 

To those who lived through it, the steel wheels of that war must have seemed to grind on endlessly. Thousands deserted their farms and homes for protection in old walled-in European cities. Soon enough, there was no room. At Strassburg, Ms. Wedgwood says, the living shut their windows to death groans just outside the walls of their homes. In winter, people stepped over dead bodies all over the streets.  Finally, when the city knew it could do no more, the magistrates simply threw out 35,000 refugees into the terror and death outside the the walls.

Spring came in long days of warm rains that kept the earth moist and rich for disease that flourished in the hot summer sun that followed. Plagues wound through the streets in gusts of warm wind., Outside the gates, law and order crumbled into chaos as men formed marauding, outlaw gangs that killed men, women, and children for food.

Sometime toward the end of the Thirty Years War, picture a man named Martin Rinkert, a servant of God, a preacher in his own hometown of Eilenburg, Saxony. In 1637, at the height of all the horror, Rinkert, the only clergyman left in the city, held funerals for up to fifty people per day. Even his wife died of the disease.

But sometime during those years--during the groaning persistence of war's evil--Martin Rinkert sat and wrote a magnificent, stately tribute thank you to God, the ruler of a world that must have seemed crumbling or burning all around.

Imagine. Thanksgiving in the middle of that unthinkable carnage.

"Now thank we all our God," he wrote and many of us will sing today. His nostrils may have been filled with the stench of war, but his soul seems to have been overflowing with confidence. 

Eilenburg, Saxony, 1637. The Thirty Years War.



If you've got four minutes, listen in.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The beauty of literature

What she said in the note was that she and her husband had headed south early this year. They're snowbirds, and the organization I was leading is a circle of retired folks, many of whom depart the cold of winter once the leftover turkey disappears from the sandwiches. This couple does too, but this year they packed their bags early.

So she sent out a note that came a day after the meeting when we'd discussed Black Soil, a dusty old 1930 novel by an Irish Catholic, one-time novelist named Josephine Donovan. Ms. Donovan's parents homesteaded maybe ten miles east of here, and she used her father's memoir to create this old, pretty-much-unread novel. 

In order to get enough copies, the local library worked overtime; there just aren't many around. It's not a great novel. Giants in the Earth is a great novel. Black Soil isn't, but it's rich if you live on the same black soil. 

So the next day she sent out her note explaining their absence. "Some of you know Herb is fighting a rare form of non-Hogkin's lymphoma, something called myocosis fungoides--four out of a million people have it."

There's more. "Herb has been using steroids, the first line of defense, and he's ready to graduate to the second type of treatment, which is AVA or AVB light treatments, three times a week for three or four months."

They'd left for their place in Arizona, she wrote, because in the Valley of the Sun they can get treatments just down the road and avoid having to drive to Sioux Falls over and over again--or worse, Rochester, in the winter. 

So they'd missed the discussion of Black Soil, which went very well, if my unused teaching faculties for assessing such things are still worth anything. Lots of comments, lots of questions, lots of amazement at the way Ms. Sullivan describes a time when Sioux County, Iowa, was dangerous wilderness. 

Black Soil is a novel whose central conflict is rare these days--will they make it out here, or will nature itself spit them out and send them back east, will hoards of grasshoppers, raging prairie grass fires, and blinding blizzards the like of which people never, ever forget send them packing? Believe me, "can they survive the prairie?"is a question no one asks on the very same rich ground 150 years later.

And it's not really "they" who is at issue--it's Nell, wife and mom, the New Englander who remembers too fondly the good life in Massachusetts, the abundance that "back home" offered, so much that simply isn't here well beyond the edge of civilization. Nell is a wonderful character, not unique to prairie writing; menfolk, like her husband, tended to love pioneering, women not so greatly. Living in a soddie wasn't easy because you never knew what kind of vermin might crawl out of the ceiling. Women felt the pain of separation from family more than men, the books say. Under this broad dome of heaven, they often felt isolated and vulnerable in a land so bare naked it could hold no secrets. 

Donovan's novel is something of rarity among "Middle Border" literature because it features a woman as a central character--and she's Catholic, which would have been something of a rarity in 1870 Sioux County too. But Nell is worthy; she bears her suffering by reminding herself of a God of love who's ever vigilant.

The group liked the old novel, and I was relieved because it had been my idea to read it. For a long month before the discussion, I was sure they were all bored and weary. I was wrong. Black Soil was a hit.

But Herb and Marj had missed the discussion. "We're going to have our own little journey out of our comfort zone," she wrote, and then ended the note with their cell phone numbers.

And then, finally, this line tacked on to the bottom: "P.S. I loved the book Black Soil. (Marj) Hope to be as brave as Nell.

Long, long ago, on a sidewalk in front of the classroom building, I remember telling myself before American lit class that the idea of doing this literature stuff for a living wasn't all that bad. We were doing Emerson that day, of all people; but there was something charming about "Self-Reliance" in the late 60s; and it simply hit me all of a sudden that teaching literature was something I could see myself doing.

That was a half-century ago. There have been tons of wonderful moments. But that little note on the bottom of an email explanation typed by a woman trying to find comfort in her own wilderness, that single line has to rank right there with the sweetest and is reason for thanks.

"Hope to be as brave as Nell."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Report--We Have All Gone Away

It's a beautiful book, really, one of the finest I've read in some time. Curtis Harnack is local, born and reared on a farm not so very far from here, just outside of Remsen, Iowa, on land his family still owns. Unlike Frederick Manfred, who was older, Curtis Harnack's boyhood didn't include horses. Farming on his Plymouth County farm were more mechanized than they were in Doon in the early years of the 20th century, but still a whole era away from what we now call "agribusiness." 

But then Curtis Harnack learned farming from a man whose heart wasn't in it. When his own father died, Harnack's mother chose to stay on a farm that would be run by her brother-in-law, someone she determined would be the kind of father-figure her son would need. Uncle Jack figures greatly in We Have All Gone Away, although their relationship is somewhat love/hate, in part because Uncle Jack never really loved the chores that come with the territory and would have greatly preferred what folks used to call "tinkering."

But 'druthers' weren't in the cards during the Depression, when Curtis Harnack was a boy. Uncle Jack had no choice but to farm two chunks of land that came to him when his brother-in-law died. Harnack may well have picked up something of Uncle Jack's own disgruntlement because while the essays in this thoughtful book of memories are redolent with farm memories that are anything but disdainful, Curtis Harnack determined early on that farming northwest Iowa soil, as rich as it might be, was not going to be his lot in life.

His mother wanted more for her boy; and that, he says in the book, is the reason he had no choice but to leave. His mother looms over this memoir like no other character, even thought she remains mysterious and shadowy. Halfway through, I wondered why I knew so little about her. By the end, we know her better; but one of the most intriguing aspects of this wonderful series of essays is that it is so much about a woman we never really come to know. 

I'm not sure Harnack knew her either. She was always there at home, but what these elegant essays say more clearly than anything was that she reared her talented children (and they all were talented) to leave the farm and Remsen for worlds that didn't end at a fence row. We have all gone away, Harnack says, because that's the way mother wanted it to be.

Caroline Harnack died in a mental ward in a Sioux City hospital after attempting suicide twice. If he didn't really know her, it's possible no one did. But what Mother Harnack clearly imparted to her children was the necessity of finding themselves in a larger world than Remsen. 
So long as Mother could anticipate the unfurling of events in the lives of us children, her spirit was sustained; she was held together merely by being a witness of destiny. But once the true patterns became evident, and the playing out of our years meant we'd actually be more and moe removed from her, a weariness and hopelessness about her own remaining years descended. What was there left to envisage, in her future? Somehow, she'd imagined getting away, too, just as we were doing, but she wouldn't want to be an encumbrance, hang onto us, or interfere in our lives. we were to go off by ourselves without so much as a glance back; otherwise how could we create our lives to their fullest extent? She knew at last the clean, scraped-womb condition of her sacrifice to give us our chance.
I had no trouble putting down Curtis Harnack's short story collection Under My Wings Everything Prospers because I thought I was listening to a man with an identity problem, someone who wanted badly to be something he wasn't, someone who wanted to be something distinguished and academic and exceptionally literary--and not from the farm. Some of those short stories feature characters he didn't seem to know, and there's a mannerism to the writing that suggested he wasn't writing from the soul but for readers whose regard he wanted more than anything. I had trouble finishing the stories.

On the other hand, even though I was taken with the first essay in We Have All Gone Away, not until the end of the book did the book's strengths fully take me over. At his worst, Harnack tries too hard for a sophistication he is more than capable of achieving--he's a marvelously graceful writer. But art for art's sake doesn't work all that well in a book about the farm where he grew up.

Like a growing season, We Have All Gone Away is a collection of memoir essays you slowly come to love. By the end, you start to feel they're almost perfect. 

I've been on a kick for quite a while, reading books that grew up in the region. Harnack's We Have All Gone Away is one of the very finest. It's artful and literary and not for everyone, but it's beautiful in its design and almost perfectly lovely in its mystery.

Willa Cather had designs on leaving Red Cloud, Nebraska, behind her on the path to literary stardom, when a friend reminded her that Cather knew great stories from her Great Plains past. Thank the Lord for good friends. We've got Song of the Lark, My Antonia, O! Pioneers.

I wonder if something similar, somewhere along the line, didn't happen to the New Yorker Curtis Harnack became. Someone may well have suggested the Iowa farm boy write about Remsen. 

And he did. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Morning Thanks--Yesterday's Sabbath

In all fairness, my father didn't understand--and for the most part, neither did I. 

When I told him, years ago, that I wanted to be a photographer, the news made little sense to him because he didn't--let's just see he couldn't--see the profession outside of his own experience. A photographer to him was someone who took pictures of school kids. Dad was a conventional Calvinist; taking school pics wasn't really what he judged a "Kingdom calling," upper-case K. It didn't really count for the Lord, like, well, the ministry, or missions, or standing up in front of a room and teaching those kids, not just snapping their pics. 

But he was no Nazi. He wouldn't have said I couldn't be a photographer. He was a wise and gentle man, and I knew well enough what he thought when his eyes didn't brighten. 

But I was no wise man either. I didn't understand. Photography held a kind of magic for me. To catch a moment in time was to stop the world, to give some act, some face, some landscape a store of foreverness. Photography, like nothing else I knew or felt at the time, stopped time and made it eternal. 

It doesn't. In what closet or hard drive might we find your favorite pictures? Nothing gold can stay. Nothing black-and-white either. Or sepia-toned.

Or silver for that matter. 

All the elements were right yesterday, a perfect Sabbath morning. New heavy snow like no first snow I remembered ivoried absolutely everything. When the storm left, the cold sneaked in from the northwest and swept over the river, over water unseasonably warm, sending up steam that settled in and over a wonderland.

On Saturday, I'd gone out with my camera for a couple hours and came back home totally skunked. It was beautiful out--gorgeous fields of fresh snow. But I just couldn't see. On Sunday, glory walked up into our backyard. I took a car up the road, but if we wouldn't have gone to church I could have walked to this gallery.

I don't regret a lifetime of teaching, don't hold a grudge against my father's furrowed brow when I told him I thought I wanted to be a photographer. My dad didn't understand.

But then, neither did I. A whole lifetime later I've come to realize, joyfully, that photography, for me at least, isn't about earning a living. It's all about vision, it's really about learning to see. That's the blessing. Sometimes even barbed wire can seem elect.

Sometimes there's glimpses of the new heavens and new earth. You just have to look.

For yesterday's Sabbath in our backyard, I offer morning thanks.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Morning Meds--Abundance

“You crown the year with your bounty, 
and your carts overflow with abundance.”
Psalm 65:10

If I’m near water, I eat fish.  Lobster in New England, crab cakes in Seattle, smoked salmon on Lake Michigan, grouper in Florida.  In northern Minnesota, nothing tastes better than walleye right from the lake.  Well, maybe nothing but perch.

Out East, I’m sure, one can get a really good leg of lamb; but if you want it done right, you may have to visit Australia or South Africa or New Mexico, where sheep are taken seriously.

But if you’re on the hunt for a pork chop or a chunk of filet mignon that melts in your mouth, then visit my corner of the world. I live in a red meat country whose bounty will take second place to nobody’s Angus. Our cattle are corn-fed, not half-starved in mesquite groves or pastured out so the meat is grizzled as leather chaps. We pamper our beef here in Siouxland, and our hogs grow up in confinements so climate-controlled the residents never see a cloud. My old friends in southern Wisconsin call their prime Swiss cheese Green County Gold; well, our stock in trade is glorious red marble.

But it’s just about all we do, agriculturally. Sure, there are a few dairies around, but mile after endless mile of farmland where I live is perfectly lined with just two crops, corn and beans. And all that bounty—and tons of grain are produced here annually—all of that bounty goes to livestock, to cattle and hogs, to the red meat on your Hardee’s sandwich and the sirloin you buy anywhere in America and even around the world.

I should be proud—and part of me is. But our bounty, and our success, is more and more attributable to just a few good men and women. With every passing year, farming—agriculture—agribusiness—is less and less a family affair, as fewer and fewer landowners work more and more ground. The distance between producer and customer has lengthened exponentially since the days of what was—a century ago—subsistence farming. What that means in terms of Psalm 65 is that fewer and fewer of us, even here in the heartland, really rejoice at the climactic phenomena David finds so blessed.

Right now, all that good ground is mantled in new snow. But if I drive a couple blocks south, a massive pile of corn and/or soybeans still sits on the ground like so much waste.  It isn’t, of course; it’s surplus. The bounty this fall was immense, probably too much, torpedoing prices. Some folks drive by that huge pile and admire the abundance. Many don’t because out here sometimes too much is, in fact, too much. 

A good friend of mine told me once that people who don’t put seed in the ground in don’t know God. That strikes me as a hair judgmental, but I know what he means, even though I’ve never lived on a farm. What I’m saying is that I’m guessing there are fewer and fewer, even here, who delight in David’s immense joy.

The real blessing of Psalm 65, whether you work the land or a Dell computer like the one in front of me, is the inspiration one receives from David’s attribution of his overflowing joy to God’s abundant blessing, the reminder his bliss that our blessings—all of them-- come from the God who made the heavens and the earth around us, around all of us. 

It’s not something I think of when some waitress slaps a half-rack of ribs in front of me on a Friday night. It’s not something I think about in late March snow or even April showers. That kind of attribution, like faith itself, is not something my human nature conjures on it own. 

One of the blessings of Psalm 65 is the reminder that not a dime’s worth of our immense abundance comes our way without the showers of God’s eternal goodness, his love.