At the turning

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

— Susan Cooper

On the shortest day I loaded a backpack with four tin cups, a thermos of hot cider, a parcel of cookies dusted in sugar, and a picnic blanket. It was a surprise outing for the children, an inkling of a new tradition I’d thought of. We drove a little way north along the rim of the valley, where there’s an open field I like. I used to ride an Arab mare around the perimeter, trotting her uphill for conditioning and resting at the top to puff and look out over the quilted landscape. Our family of four—and the dog—walked along the fence that surrounds the cemetery of the little church of St. Francis and picked a spot in the high corner to spread our blanket and watch the sun sink.

During our first full season at the farm I’ve watch the sun’s arc intersect the hills beyond our valley, working steadily south along the blue knuckles of Mt. Dallas to Little Mountain and then the low hills above Kanaka Bay. This deep in the year it doesn’t even reach the island, vanishing instead behind the Olympic mountains across the straits.

We called up the most luminous points of memory from the year that’s been: adventures in Paris, singing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, bringing home the kittens, making “fifty” friends at school, our first lambs. The great magic of life on this farm—a magic well grounded in work that isn’t always fun or instantly gratifying, mind you, but rewarding all the same.

Now we’re closing the year in a slog through boxing up all our remaining clutter in Portland. I am not quick to find cathartic joy in this chore; part of me would like to light a huge bonfire in the driveway and have done, but alas, city codes and sentiment over the possessions of my ancestors prevent me.

Wishing you a clean sheet, a new leaf, a freshening wind as we welcome 2018!

Full circle

I hated The Giving Tree. I don’t lightly second-guess Ursula Nordstrom—you have her to thank for the phenomenon of children’s books that actually appeal to children’s imaginations, and to me she’s something of a personal hero—but even as a tot I was horrified at this story of a boy’s increasingly rapacious relationship with an apple tree. This is probably just the reaction my parents were hoping to cultivate. I learnt to chant “Boycott GE!” at a tender age; we were still punishing the company for their pollution of the Hudson and the Housatonic. We carved a linoleum block with a spotted owl for our Christmas cards one year. My parents owned a lumber store, but I grew up knowing exactly where we stood on indiscriminate logging.

During the summer my husband ordered boards to rebuild our paddock fence, which is forty years old and falling apart. I thought I’d patched all the holes in the wire, but it was so rusty that the sheep simply shoved their heads through to form new ones wherever there were likely comestibles on the other side. One of the lambs was found to be freely scampering back and forth through such a hole. There’s no point in replacing the wire until we replace the rotten posts, so another big farm project is on.

The new wood is locally milled into fine stout boards that will do for horses as well as sheep, and it was delivered earlier this week. As we unloaded and restacked the lumber in the ewes’ field, Adam asked Jay where he typically gets the timber he mills. Construction sites? Harvesting on private land? “This lot came from back in Hidden Meadows,” he told us. Remember that game where you make yourself an alternate identity using the name of your first pet and the name of the street you grew up on? I’m here to tell you that Hidden Meadows makes a rather poor surname. And I knew instantly where this wood had come from.

My parents sold our Hidden Meadows house last summer. A few months later we heard that the new owner had felled a number of large trees to improve his view of the pond, including the cluster of big Doug firs in which we’d had a treehouse and a zip line. We laid our pets to rest amongst their roots. I’ve managed not to be too sentimental about losing the house of my childhood—my sense of home is imbued in the island itself—but I was sorry to think of those trees gone. It was a queer sensation indeed to find myself standing over the boards milled from their mighty trunks.

In the next few weeks we’ll start pulling out the old fence and setting the new posts. We’ll offset these sixteen-foot boards over spans of three posts for a sturdy fence a horse can rub her bum against. With any luck, I’ll be an old woman by the time we need to build it again. Shel Silverstein cannot convince me the trees are happy, and I wish they were still wriggling their roots toward the pond and offering their whippy tops to the breezes, but I am touched and appreciative that they’ve followed me.