Small things sometimes call us home, like the two birds I saw
circling the hay field this morning on my way back from
farm chores. Their shrill vibrating whistle, a half warning, half invitation
stunned me awake from a deep dream—even though
I should have been sufficiently awake from an hour of shoveling
manure. Why would two seagulls have come so far inland? I wondered,
as I mentally calculate whether the recent hurricane
or an errant trash heap had thrown the birds off course.
Then I saw the unmistakable thick body and spiraling flight of
predators: a grey morning sky backlit like a metallic robe
about to hit the ground in full favor of nakedness, no pretense.
The birds were not seagulls, but red-tailed hawks.
I hadn’t noticed that our free-range hens were already
scattered outside like balls on a pool table hit particularly well
by a skilled opening break. The roosters were on high alert and
had surrounded the hens, several of which were on a
chaotic sprint towards the low lying platform my father had built
as a roost, but we now used for a refuge and cover outside
for moments just like this, for times when hawks were double-
or triple-teaming the hens. The hawks have lost interest
in the hens, for now. But suddenly the hayfield has come alive,
shaking in the wind with vulnerability. A small toad or mole: now the sole subject
of the hawks’intention. I start to draw closer, but my boots on the newly paved road
are too loud. The trite intrusion draws my attention to a small rivulet of
water from last night’s rain along the side and I think just how insufficient
a surface asphalt is, as rain can no longer follow a true path to the sea
and how so often our way is bridled by obstacles of our own making. The sun,
still hidden beneath a grey cloud cover, shimmers as if stretched
across our skies in shredded ribbons. So I take off my
muck boots and wait, while the heavy strain against the birds’ wings
appears to hold them aloft and the hawks soar ever freer
in the stark fact that existence is connected to these moments.
Every single evening
in her short life
the garden spider spins
a web of concentric
circles. Each anchored
or so holdfasts,
on a wheel,
against which everything hinges.
Around and around she goes,
adding to her work,
bridging the distance from
to another, length by length,
and perspective as she telescopes inward,
moving deftly to a center only
the edges can project, filling
in a spiral with detail.
Her strange and perfect offering
completes itself in zigs and zags like a zipper
on a fine golden purse to safely carry expected coin.
By morning the light and dew
create a hall of mirrors,
drawing her prey down
now lit corridors,
the mirage of open
space an enticement to beyond,
but instead a dead end.
A goldfinch flies over the garden
on his way to a field where evening
primrose offers buttercups of nectar
and darts past the spider,
her work a magnificent lit
lamp tilted just so
he can avoid ruining her elaborate
composition. By evening, the spider
dines on her work, now studded
with the jewels of beatles
and papery moths, lying still
in silky sarcophagi.
The spider unwinds
her entire web, ingesting it within
in a feat of impressive completion,
only to begin
The Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia or “with a bright face” in Latin) goes by several other common names including the writing spider, corn spider, or McKinley spider. They are found in all 48 contiguous states usually in gardens or at the edges of open fields. We commonly see Garden Spiders on squash or tomato plants in the farm’s vegetable garden that abuts a hayfield.
My grandmother darned socks.
A good farm wife, she knew
any tear could be mended,
the original wound transformed
into a caesura, a brief pause held by the conductor
to grab our attention, to show us meaning
that hovers uncomfortably in a void.
Or into a sharp, an intentional accident in service
to asserting a consciously uplifting melody.
Nana knew that darning took painstaking
skill, a recovery, of a pattern not usually
perceived by the untrained eye, but seen by those
disciplined enough to lean in and acknowledge the
asymmetry and contradiction of things once whole,
now splintered. That darning takes patience and faith,
word by word. That bridges built across an abyss need
to also be shored up, stitch by loving stitch, until they stand
no longer alone. That it takes a steadfast surrender
to duty and one another since every stitch rises
or falls entirely due to the number
of stitches interdependent with it.
That we must finally take responsibility
for the damage we have wrought and the scars we leave
by sitting and working under the brightest of lights.
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” —the Rolling Stones
When I was growing up, our farm (then a dairy) was one of three farms on our hill. The other two were horse farms. The confines of these farms held a large gang of kids, who roamed the combined 200 acres of pastures and woods as if it were the wild, wild west and we were its deputies. All of us rode horses.
The lucky ones took riding lessons at Palmers horse farm, which had a proper English dressage arena, given in exchange for mucking stalls. The rest of us saddled up on our own horses and rode rag tag, grabbing onto saddle horns when the going got tough or muttering prayers to saints on necklaces once they or our hearts started bouncing too hard against our chests.
Our horse was technically my sister Linda’s, who had used her hard earned cash to purchase a handsome chestnut-colored quarter horse named Bellboy. Along with my sister’s coming into teenager-hood, Bellboy brought a whole lot of excitement to our lives. There was a handsome farrier who came with ancient looking tools to shoe him; there was leather tack that required coats of beeswax to remain supple and waterproof; special brushes for his mane and tail; and the occasional vet visits. And then there was the luxury of riding whenever my sister would let me.
It turns out that telling someone to get right back on the horse is one of the worst pieces of advice you can give.
Linda was sixteen when she fell in love with my now brother-in-law Tom. Horses require steady streams of exercise, but that spring—the spring of Tom—Bellboy was not turned out as frequently as he would have liked. So I gladly picked up the slack. I was all of eleven.
One muddy spring day, when I could see that Bellboy was particularly agitated from a lack of exercise, I saddled him up to take him for a spin around our hay fields.
This is how I imagined I looked to people passing down our street:
But this is how I really looked:
Bellboy had reared up and took off like a flash throwing me off his back as if I were a clown at a rodeo. Only instead of a clean fall, my boot got stuck in the stirrup and I was being dragged.
Hooves were coming down all around me.
It took more than a few rounds before I realized just how in peril I was and started dodging the hooves and protecting my head with my arms. All I could think was what an embarrassing way to die.
My mother came running out of the farmhouse with a towel in her arms, screaming STOP. But it was my sister’s call to the horse that finally worked.
While the memory of those hooves coming down around my head will live in my minds eye forever, I have no memory of those moments after the horse stopped. I assume someone helped get my foot out of the stirrup. I’m sure I eventually got up off the ground and walked back to the farmhouse. I do remember that my leather boot was cut clean through and that I had a bad rug burn on my ankle. But I was relatively unhurt.
I had fallen off the horse. But getting back on was not as simple as an act of will. It would be a good fifteen years later before I got back on a horse and many years after that before I’d realize that getting right back on a horse you’ve fallen from was about the worst advice you could give someone.
The year I did get back on the horse I had travelled to Kentucky for work. The kind trail ride owner whom I told my story to before she handed me the reigns of her gentlest horse laughed with good humor and understanding, but pointed out an important fact: “Well, you might have needed some riding lessons.”