Voice of the woodcock

The land in summer is full of questions. Will heavy rains come and wash out the seed, or will the new variety of beans prove inferior? Will I get some of the projects off the ground that those long winter nights dreamed up, like clearing the brush out that runs against the edge of the woods, moving the toolshed out of the view of the bird feeders, and digging that much-needed ditch above the upper field to prevent the spring runoff from entering the garden?

I understand why Thoreau said he read few books the summer he hoed beans! You are so positive when morning breaks clear and lights up your bedroom that you will not only cultivate the lower field, but finish the fencing, haul the stones for that new foundation, and paint the back wall of the shop addition. By 10 a.m. you know you will only accomplish half of that work and by 3 p.m. you are satisfied with a third.

Unlike the pressures of the work in the city, however, where we are made to feel guilty if we do not complete certain tasks expected of us, here in the country whatever work we do accomplish makes us feel good. Everything is concrete and we can see accomplishment quickly. As we look around, there are the young fruit trees set out last year, the new pond, fields cleared that were stone and clay and that now are taking on a rich, dark hue as the soil is enriched each year, with compost and other organic matter. Subduing the woodlot is the hardest. Unwanted brush and dead, thorny trees all take time and patience to clear out. It is hard work, the kind you take in a sort of stride developed from learning the rhythm of the ax. A whole new perspective of the tree emerges and, as you stop to breathe and to wipe the sweat, you realize you live with a blend of savagery and philosophy. Does any other work give you much pause for reflection? Where else but in the woods, alone with only your tools and the great arching tangled mass of thicket, can you touch the margin of your mind with the delicacy of a crayfish's antennae?

I am attempting to bring order to these woods, I explain, as a thrush settles on a limb to question my presence. In the individual, as in the universe, order is a profound necessity. The work pattern used, however, is dispersed and interwoven with a spirit of pastoral and pioneer adventure not found in other occupations. It is characterized by an abundance of small but essential details demanding close observation. In farming, like few businesses, you must teach yourself every day to accept and solve new problems and benefit by new lessons. The granary of your mind is soon filled with knowledge of the habits of helpful and harmful birds and insects as well as the characteristics of plant growth.

We cannot envision the specter of famine and impoverished fields in America because the soil has always been treated with pride. The farmer has harvested from the soil with an intensity not unlike the prophet's in the desert. Working with nature is the sweetest dream that labor can know, for it makes you live with love and humility.

Humility is what I experienced today when I went into the little toolshed to get a rake. Each year in the spring I emptied a basket that had obviously been the home there of a mouse during the winter. Today the basket again was full of soft fluff from cattails and milkweed, the softest material available for her babies. It was so full of the stuff I didn't see the mouse or the babies, but picked up the basket, went quickly to the pond, and proceeded to dump the fluff in, thinking it would be good material for birds to pick up. No sooner had I turned the basket over into the water than I saw the mouse fall, followed by the young ones. As I watched, the mother began swimming toward the opposite shore and to my astonishment, the babies miraculously were clinging to her back. They made the shore and scurried into the brush.

The devotion of this act, the love and commitment, made me realize how mindless I had been. Never would I disturb a mouse in that basket again. I would simply see that there were two baskets in the toolshed.

Had there been terror, panic? How do we read the lives of these creatures? How can we close the door of our tenderness against them? And you, poet, who live in this place, unknown among these woodland creatures, do you feel your spirit growing apace? Have you learned the manner of the flower's breathing? Does it smile at night? We are only a delegate to nature's conference, and the closer to earth's secrets we get, the more our thoughts rise heavenward like uplifted hands.

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