"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Photo Essay: Sunday Morning and Scenes From a Farm

It's an August weekend and I'm back “home,” as I still call it, visiting my mom and dad. Having retired from farming this past October, my dad, for the first time in more than 60 summers, is not in the midst of haying season. On this Sunday morning, I watch him and my mom drive off to the Lutheran church just a couple of miles away. I was once confirmed in that very building.

There's a Wallace Stevens poem entitled “Sunday Morning.” I first encountered it in college at a point in my life when I was making my way toward a new and – for me at least – clearly better understanding of divinity.

The poem is a meditation on the ephemeral – life, death, change. It also explores, suggests really, the primacy of the sensual world over the need for “some imperishable bliss” – that place or state of being attained ostensibly through some kind of sublime apprehension of "The holy hush of ancient sacrifice."

For some reason, I suppose for lots of reasons really, I have this poem on my mind as the folks disappear down the road. I begin to meander about the farm with camera in hand – though I hardly know what I’m doing with it.

And then suddenly the pictures come to me. It simply becomes a question of whether or not I have the ability to give them the attention they deserve. I try.

A young apple tree’s green fruit, still wet from the early morning thunderstorm. Though the tree is not tall, these apples are high enough to avoid the straining necks and outstretched tongues of white-tailed deer. Pinkish-red apples may be plucked within a month, though that will require vigilance. They may well drop to the ground in the meantime, and the deer will get their chance.

Speaking of which, I happen to glance down our driveway and lock stares with a doe, her two fawns in youthful oblivion. They cross the road and a moment later head back from where they came.

Bringing up the distant rear of their retreating procession, another deer emerges and stops to look at me, a young buck if there ever was one.

I walk toward the barn and pause at the milkhouse. Hollyhock bushes on the cusp of full bloom stand awkwardly around it, gangly sentinels guarding nothing but a memory.

I head into the barn and decide to go up. For a moment the morning sunlight’s transfiguration of the haymow belies its dilapidation, though it’s undeniable: Decay advances in swift progression with each day’s disuse. I think of a line from Robert Frost, something about “what to make of a diminished thing.”

But I don’t make anything of it. I negotiate the precarious stability of the ladder on my way down and then quickly direct my attention to a barn swallow in rare pause.

I kneel in the darkened interior of the barn and fail to get a decent shot of the swallow. I then realize I’m in between the cat food dish – which Dad refills regularly – and this young tom. To be clear, this is what we have always called a barn cat, and he is, for all intents and purposes, feral.

The challenge as a kid was to locate where mother cat had placed her babies among the vast farm nook possibilities. The kittens required human touch to ensure their tameness. If you missed the window of opportunity, which wasn’t very long, the kittens would, as the phrase went, “go wild.”

No chance of getting close to this one. His mode of survival involves living on the edges of two worlds – of human offerings and the more hard won offerings of nature, which will come to the cat only through the concerted application of atavistic predatory traits – i.e., he must become a killer.

For now though, he sits first in the sun, peering at me perplexedly. And then moves closer, coming inside the barn to sit again. Still more than fifteen feet away. And yet he poses so perfectly.

The cows in the barn are no longer. Actually they’re about four miles away, bought by a nearby farmer. Water is the giver of life. There stands a drinking cup, empty and dry.

When I was a boy, more than a dozen mountain ash trees were scattered around our yard. Now just two stand behind the machine shed. Their nearly crayon-orange berries can hang on well into winter, though robins, grosbeaks, catbirds, as well as squirrels and black bears, may well gobble them up by fall. Can we eat them? I never tried, though there are lots of ideas on this from others. I recall grabbing handfuls of these and chucking them, at what I have no recollection.

At the base of the silo, I stick my camera in, point up, and shoot. For me the sound of an empty silo is indelibly connected with an echo. I remember being little and standing on the floor of the silo, looking upward and shouting, “Hello!” Today, though, I stay quiet and remain outside, content to simply peer into the grayness and move on.

One of the few images this morning that I work to “find.” Here I’m trying to be among these black-eyed Susans, to be them now, not just see them. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” The lie, the truth, everything eludes me here. Everything but yellow. Now that I can say I know.

So there is my Sunday morning. Life, decay, colors, shapes, fullness, emptiness. Glimpses in one hour. Mom and dad drive in, back from church. I walk toward their car, back from church as well.


Anonymous said...

I especially like the empty drinking cup. Anton

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