The Peaceable Cows, waiting in their fields
The birdhouse, waiting for tenants
First green of spring
Save me, O God, for the waters are come into my soul. I sink in mire where there is no standing. I am come deep into waters where floods overrun me.
-- Psalm 60: 1 – 3
Spring. Season when all the dormant things rise again, in flagrant color, from the warming earth. Season when the light returns. Season when frigid ground thaws and parts its bars in order to allow the first daffodils and tulips to enter. Demeter welcoming the stolen daughter home again from the underworld. Season of ripening bloominess, the air fragrant with something like promise – and rich in the pollen that bees love and which those with allergies do not love so much. And always, there is that Midas-touch over everything: spring's gold, dusting the porches and cars with a fine yellow haze.
In the small town where I live now, people come out after the long winter, into their yards to work and plant. The women hang laundry on the line again and beat the dusty rugs with steely mallets. Menfolk hang over fences to chat with their neighbors and tell each other how long the winter seemed. How the wood ran out before the cold did. Children grab their father's screw-drivers and punch holes in the lids of bell-jars, hoping twilight will bring the lightning bugs which they will chase, barefoot, over the twilit lawns. In the cool of evenings, the runners emerge again in their spandex leggings and trainers, earphones and iPods in place, jogging along the sidewalks and roadways where, not long ago, an icy slush was an impediment to running. Treadmills and home gymnasiums sulk, neglected, in basements: chrome and flywheels and LCD displays are no match for sunshine and gritty air and the heady smell of loamy soil. The town's long-lived widows stroll, arm in arm, through town, admiring the gardens, speaking of their lost husbands, sometimes complaining about how difficult their men were in life, openly aching for them in that way only the long-married can ache when a spouse passes first.
At the edge of town, farmland is being tilled and prepared for planting. The pungent attar of manure blows into town and wafts into the open windows, a fragrant mix of decomp and decay and sweet rot. Even the young boy-cat senses something is changing. His old companion is gone now and, in the heady aroma of the fields and flower beds, he has begun to lose the scent of the old cat. He seems lost and baffled as he walks from chair to rocker to bed, to sniff at all the things where the old blind cat lay for the past year. He is beginning to forget. When the scent goes, there will be little left to remind him. So the young male cat has taken to watching the comings and goings of the birds as they fly by the summer porch with twigs and dirty string, lifting up into the bloomy limbs of the tree, disappearing into the newly-hung birdhouse. He has that look on his face as they wheel past. You know the look I mean: old look of the predator when the prey draws near. Hunger.
To shake loose whatever winter-grief still lingers in me, I decide to drive outside of town, to the open fields, to see if the lambs and kids and calves are out in the fields now with their mothers. I will make a point today to overlook the red-tagged ears of the adult animals among them: a solemn reminder that spring - the season of birth and rebirth - is also the season of slaughter.
My grandmother told me a story once of the Caston men when they'd first come to America. They were farmers. Apparently, they weren't very good businessmen though since they'd bought the land without seeing it first. When they'd arrived, the stony land they'd purchased was crowded with hardwoods that had to be cleared before the fields could be tilled and planted. So began the long weeks of back-breaking cutting and clearing of the land. You couldn't feed a family if you had a proclivity for sparing juniper or oak, and you couldn't feed a family on scrub pine. And feeding the family was what mattered most to them in those days, fleeing, as they were, the old hard poverty of the mother-country.
But, as in the old country, one tree in each field was spared the ax. Each man, no matter how large or small the field he owned, left one tree standing. Not a fruit tree. Not a tree which would provide shade on a hot August day. Not a blooming tree, pleasing to the eye. The solitary tree had to be particular, and each man searched diligently for the proper tree: the God-Tree, they called it quietly. Reverently. From a distance.
The ideal tree would be damaged. Twisted. Gnarled. Grotesque. If that man was fortunate, it would be marred by catastrophe. Perhaps by a lightning strike, split in two and charred. Or by pestilence, stripped-free forever of its greenery, its tap-root gone. Such a tree was the god-sign and it alone determined the field and everything around it. At a safe distance from it, the barn would be built, and the house, and all its outbuildings. The scarred tree – the ruined tree – would serve as a "draw" for lightning. It had an affinity for catastrophe – the scar was proof of that. Everything else was safe so long as a respectful distance was kept from the "draw."
I find that tree today again – the God-tree – in almost every tilled field I visit. One bare, lone tree. Dead-center of the field. Standing solitary, nothing else near. Not even a fence-post. Farmhouses stand far-off, intact. Fences keep a respectful distance. Only the hawks and buzzards take up watch there. Sometimes a few crows. And a long silence, like the silence of a graveyard. Something weary and accustomed to its bleak habitation.
I think, sometimes, I am that god-tree, as a writer and as a woman. Some days, there is a slight scent of old brimstone in my hair. Of fire and something singed. Of wrecked things. Of old scars, mine and others. I am the thing set apart from the normal, the beautiful, the longed-for ones. I am the "draw" for catastrophe. The one who insures the safety of the others. The solitary one, the sentinel at the center of the unsafe places. A warning. A reminder. A monument. One does not, after all, live for many years tending the sick and wounded and dying, and walk away unmarred. . . .