Monday, November 23, 2020

A Bounteous Harvest: A Midwest Musing



This is the time of year I love living in the Midwest, more than summer, spring or winter, which each have their own charm. But fall has a particular beauty. The landscape is alive with wonderful color, and I don’t just mean the trees in places like hilly, forested Brown County, Indiana. I mean the fields and woods that adorn the countryside.

The sunlight is softer, this time of year. And this softer light is golden, transforming the ordinary into extraordinary, helping me see the richness of life around me.

That’s why I love taking Nancy for rides around Indiana at this time of year. We get in our pick-up and drive and watch the light play across the countryside – field stubble casting shadows along the dirt, bare black tree limbs silhouetted against a royal blue sky, clouds puffy and white floating serenely along. .

I feel a sense of connectedness with the land and that sense grows stronger every year. I was born and raised in the city and I often proclaim the wonders of that existence compared to that of my country cousins. But the fact is I loved visiting the farms of our rural families. And my father was a tramper of fields and forests. We often were out and about.

That’s one reason I am happy about where I live. Seventeen years ago, the home site was a tangle of briars, thorn trees, and poison ivy all tangled in old fences. My dad, my sons-in-law, and I began clearing all that Thanksgiving weekend, getting ready for building. We worked in the rain and mud and cold and snow. We cut, we sawed, we pulled bushes out with the tractor. All through that work, I smelled the scents of farm and field – clumps of mud clinging to boots, wood smoke from burning limbs.

Then, as the house was being built, I’d hike back and work, watching the seasons move through – budding spring, humid summer. Now we’re sixteen years in the house, and watching fall ebb, knowing winter is coming.

I love it. And more than that, this move and this time of year helps me remember that I am connected to God’s good earth all the time – from witnessing it’s visual beauty to partaking of its sustenance with every mouthful of food I eat.

God’s faithfulness, to me, is evident in the changing seasons. Crops are planted, grown, and harvested. The soil rests over winter. Though the face of the earth changes, God does not. God watches over it all, and has for eons, and is faithful.

I question that at times. Sometimes when life is good, I imagine that it is good solely from the sweat of my brow or my own efforts. After all, I cut those trees and mowed the field for the view – not God – forgetting that all I have comes by the grace of God in the first place.

Sometimes I question it, out of my troubles, like Job. Like in this time of COVID. I wonder if it is true and try to understand the mind of God. Then I read God’s questions to Job – “Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone -- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”

“Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges?… Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.”

God asked Job these questions because it was important for Job to remember that God was not his enemy. This encounter with the Lord was not to say why Job was suffering, but to learn, by faith, that God was his Creator, Sustainer, and Friend.

This is something I forget, but the Psalmist continually reminds me that the earth does not. “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;” the psalmist sings, “let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’ Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them! Then the trees of the forest will sing, they will sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Singing trees, jubilant fields – these things we take as poetic language. Things that don’t really happen. Or do they? Could it be that the golden light that transforms field trash into something of beauty is a way the fields are being jubilant, reflecting God’s light back to him? Could the graceful, waving naked limbs of trees be hands uplifted in praise to God? Maybe that’s all bit a mystical, yet I can always use a bit more of the mystery in my lives, for my truest encounters with God are more than slightly mysterious.


Of course, what makes the countryside beautiful and rich are the memories it evokes. And inevitably entwined in those memories are people. The people in whose woods I walked. The families whose haylofts I played in – and fell out of. The folks, past and present, who molded my life. I remember Mom and Dad, Grandpa and Grandma Bill, Uncle Johnny, Uncle Burt, Aunt Orie, cousin Ernie, and on and on. A parade of Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and pastors also march past. As do people from the present. Not a farmer myself, the seasons of my life have been blessed by a rich bounty of people, not crops. And I am richer for them all. They have been the jubilant fields and singing trees, singing “for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” They planted the seeds of faith in my life and watered them and watched them grow. Some of them – too many of them, for me -- have sung the song of harvest home. Some I get to see daily. Regardless, they all continue to bless me. They speak to me in the deepest parts of my soul.


For me, God’s land and God’s people are intricately interwoven. Even those of us who rarely venture outside the city limits are tied to the earth by strong bonds and a bounty of people. And this season is about giving thanks for that bounty to the gracious God who loves us more than we can imagine.

I came across a thanksgiving poem the other day that expresses that thought better than I am able. It’s by Max Coots and says:
Let us give thanks for a bounty of people.

For children who are our second planting, and, though they grow like weeds and wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.
Let us give thanks; For generous friends ... with hearts ... and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbage, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you throughout the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts, and witherings;

And, finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.

 May I give thanks, this holiday time, for golden light, good friends, and God’s graciousness. May I open our eyes to jubilant fields and singing trees. Soaring clouds, be they white or gray with rain. Winds warm or chilled by the north. People who are made in God’s own image. Let me give thanks and “sing for joy before the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Baseless: A Brief Book Review

 Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act by Nicholson Baker


Right off I have to confess that Nicholson Baker is one of my favorite writers, both of fiction and non-fiction. I first encountered his writing when I read the astonishing Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization. The research that went into the making of that book and how he constructed it amazed me and drew me in. I've given numerous copies of it to friends. Traveling Sprinkler is my favorite novel of his (so far). 

So when I heard Baseless was going to be released, I pre-ordered a copy. And I looked forward to its arrival. I wasn't disappointed. 

Like Human Smoke, the research here is mind-blowing -- Baker's dedication to getting to the heart of the matter and keeping it all in an order that makes an eminently readable book. That is no easy task -- to take pages upon pages after request after request via the Freedom of Information Act, many of those pages heavily redacted, but still filled with clues or hints that needed to followed, and written in government intelligence and military jargon and distill them into clear, clean, precise prose. Further, Baker makes it both compelling and interesting.

One way he keeps it interesting is by interweaving bits of his daily life into the narrative. Organized chronologically beginning March 9 through May 18, 2019, he presents a daily chronicle of his life as he writes this book (I was disappointed that there was no entry for my May birth date, though). That personalizes this material in a way that makes the information he presents from his research both less and more horrible at the same time. 

The title for this work comes from "Project Baseless," a project begun in the early 50s by the Pentagon to develop and achieve deliverability by the US Air Force chemical and biological weapons. As Baker's research reveals, this was not just an idea, but a project where millions of dollars were spent on such weapons and how to deliver them on targets such as Korea, China, the USSR, and more (including in Central America!). Of course, the cost was more than just financial -- there was also a huge animal and human costs. Thousands, if not millions, of mice, rats, cats, dogs, monkeys and more were sacrificed in testing the viability of these weapons. Some humans may have been, too, as wind drift and poor delivery systems scattered spores and the like places they weren't supposed to go. Other humans, notably the scientists and other workers on this project, suffered all sorts of issues -- physical, emotional, and mental. More than a handful committed suicide. 

The horror is staggering. Made all the more so by my reading it during the current pandemic. The power of a virus is an amazing, terrifying thing. And to think that my government (supposedly for the people and by the people) secretly developed and deployed such weapons is amazing and terrifying. 

And the silliness of the people involved, too, is amazing and terrifying. The list of participants is a who's who of US Cold War warriors. And they play this, at times, as if it's a game. The code names and acronyms remind of my early 60s childhood games with the guys in my neighborhood -- or a Monty Python skit gone terribly wrong.  REDSOX and AEROSOL are relatively benign, if silly, but then there's BGFIEND, KMWAAHOOLAND, DYCLAVIER, PLAYDON, and on and on. It would be funny if the destruction of whole countries crops and other food sources, resulting in mass civilian starvation, wasn't the goal. 

I usually read Nicholson Baker books fairly quickly. By the end of the week they arrive, I've finished them. Not so with Baseless. The writing was beautiful and eloquent, but the material was not to be rushed through. I needed time to absorb the horror of what I was learning before moving on to even more horror. And I admit, the more read, the more ashamed I was that our country participated in this projects, with support from presidents of both parties. It makes me wonder what else I don't know that my country has done in my name ... and with my money, even. 

Father, forgive me. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

 Midwest

by Stephen Dunn

After the paintings
of David Ahlsted

We have lived in this town,
have disappeared
on this prairie. The church

always was smaller
than the grain elevator,
though we pretended otherwise.
The houses were similar

because few of us wanted
to be different
or estranged. And the sky

would never forgive us,
no matter how many times
we guessed upwards
in the dark.

The sky was the prairie's
double, immense,
kaleidoscopic, cold.

The town was where
and how we huddled
against such forces,
and the old abandoned

pickup on the edge
of town was how we knew
we had gone too far,
or had returned.

People? Now we can see them,
invisible in their houses
or in their stores.

Except for one man
lounging on his porch,
they are part of the buildings,

they have determined
every stubborn shape, the size
of each room. The trailer home
with the broken window

is somebody's life.
One thing always is
more important than another,

this empty street, this vanishing
point. The good eye knows
no democracy. Shadows follow

sunlight as they should,
as none of us can prevent.
Everything is conspicuous
and is not.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Of Cats, Presidential Language, and Discouragement: A Midwest Musing


The day is breaking grey and chilly. Some leaves are still clinging to the trees. They rustle back and forth in the light wind. Persimmons are ripening on the branches out by the prairie. Hopefully, we’ll get some of them before the deer eat them all. Squirrels are busy stashing walnuts and hazelnuts and acorns. 

I walked out onto the back deck to feed the Ebony, Bamboo, and Gracie (the farm cats) and they greeted me with great meowings and fell to their food as if they hadn’t had been fed in days. As if I didn’t know they’d been out mousing or chipmunking or birding in the prairie and had probably feasted well. Still, they mad me feel welcome in their catlike way – which is to say, like a politician who just found out he had my vote and then turned away in search of another. 

Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, as I climbed out of the shower and was drying off, I saw Gracie heading out to the prairie to resume the hunt.

Despite all this goodness around me, I’m feeling a little discouraged this morning. Last night I did something I guess I knew I probably shouldn’t have done while doing it – I posted the following on Facebook:

President Trump in Arizona today called a news network, “You dumb bastards." Regardless of your political leanings, is this appropriate language for the President of the United States to be using in public?

Ah, the furor it provoked -- a political rugby scrum, including justifications for such language.  Sorry, but I don't find any such justification for such language at a public rally -- regardless of party. 

I remember the first time I said "bastard" in public and the reaction it got. I was in fifth or sixth grade, sitting on the floor of our dining room on Eureka Avenue in Columbus, Ohio watching tv. Back then our television set, a mammoth, humming thing, was in the dining room. Mom didn't like to have a tv in the living room and the family room hadn't been added onto the back of the house yet. 

As I said, I was sitting on the floor watching tv. A dinosaur movie was on. Dad was sitting in his place at the dining room table reading the sports pages. He looked at me and sighed. I'm certain he wanted to watch the sports news. He'd even prefer Jimmy Crum, of whom he was less than fond, than a dinosaur movie. At any rate, at one point in the flick, one dino grabbed another by the neck and wash thrashing him and I, excited by the fight, yelled out "Kill the bastard."

Bad move. 

I knew my dad was fast. I'd seen him play shortstop, second base, basketball, and football for years. But I didn't he was that fast. I found myself scooped up and this red faced old guy (he would have been around 33) holding me by my shirt collar and demanding, "What did you say??" and telling my sisters to go find mom. "Kill the bastard," I whispered, wondering why he was so upset. "Where did you learn that word?" he asked. "What word?" "Bastard!" 

I honestly couldn't remember. It probably was on the playground of John Burroughs Elementary School three blocks away. I had no idea what it mean -- it just sounded like a cool word. Reminded me of "dastardly," which I had heard in other movies, television shows, and overheard adult conversations. So I thought I'd try it out.

Dad then gave me a very brief and direct lesson of the etymology of that word. And that if he heard me ever say it again, I faced dire consequences. 

I never wanted to face Dad's dire consequences, believe you me.

Now, to be fully transparent, I have said that word since. And some other bad words, too. There may be members of my family or certain friends who have a tape or memory of me blurting something out -- but never whilst giving a public speech, teaching a class, preaching a sermon, or...  Even when I rolled the John Deere tractor down a hill, I refrained lest the cows in the field across the road might hear me -- or because I was too scared to say anything. 

When I awoke this morning and read the vitriol in response to the post, I decided to delete it. And I renewed my promise to myself to not post anything about that man on social media. No matter how hard it is when he is so outrageous and crude and mean. It discourages me to see the support his behavior gets.  

So, today, to help battle my discouragement, I'm going to try to stay centered on the things mentioned in the first few paragraphs. Things that represent goodness and life that continues, even in the midst of this horrid pandemic and political season. And then, when it warms up a bit, I’m going to go up to the garage attic. My plan will be to organize my stash of Brent Bill for sale books, straighten things up so I have a place to put my golf clubs and the deck furniture for the winter, and the like. I don’t know how much I’ll get done as I know I’ll come across stuff that Dad put up there. I'll look at it and remember that good man. I'll probably uncover other things that bring to mind good people who have passed. 

And while I will mourn them, I will also find joy in remembering their love and basic integrity and decency.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Harvest and Election Signs: A Midwest Pick-em-up Truck Drive Musing

 Yesterday, after spending most of the week in Zoom meetings for board's I serve on, I needed to get out from in front of a computer screen. So I told Nancy I was going to fire up the pick-up truck and head out for a ride. "Wanna go with?" She did and so off we went on the backroads -- Gasburg Road, Joppa Road, Bunker Hill Road, and many more.

We didn't talk much -- mostly just looked at fields that had been harvested, that needed harvesting, and were being harvested. We saw big combines working their way across cornfields, trailing clouds of dust and spewing field trash. We witnessed other combines, their wide corn or bean heads removed, maneuvering along the narrow country roads, cars and trucks scooting as far over as they could without tumbling into a ditch, as they moved from one field to the next.

We also saw the risings and fallings of the supposedly flat Indiana farmland that was revealed in the freshly picked fields. We drove through woods being stripped of leaves by cooler temps and the yesterday's blustery winds. The yellow, gold, and red leaves that once adorned the trees now spread like a carpet at their feet, while their arm-like limbs reached up into the sky.


Around every bend, we encountered yard signs promoting this candidate or that one. Looking at them, I remembered something that our granddaughter Alexis posted recently. According to her poll of yard signs, Joe Biden was going to place third in the Hoosier state's voting for president behind Trump and Firewood for Sale.

That was a good joke, I thought. And from our informal survey on our drive, looked to be true. 

The election will be over shortly, one way or another. And I, for one, will be happy to see the signs (regardless of candidate) come down. I will be even more glad to see the political ads disappear from the airwaves and interwebs. People send me, via messages and posts and tweets, things that vilify the candidate they don't like. I'm sick of it. I'm also weary of the increasingly negative attacks of candidates on each other. If I wasn't a pacifistic Quaker, after watching the ads and reading the memes, I'd be for taking all these horrible people out and shooting them. After all, according to the ads and memes there is not one good person running for office. And where these used to mostly be about higher offices (which is odd) now they've trickled down to the state, county, and city offices. Yesterday there was an ad on television saying how Peorgie Tirebinder, who is running for county dogcatcher, had been taking kickbacks from Purina Pet Chow and Pet Armor Flea and Tick Treatment to finance his condo in Florida.

Okay, I made that last little bit up.

As I sat in silence in Quaker worship this morning, I thought about some of what I've just written. Not a good way to center down into listening for God's voice -- except it was. Because I did hear a voice reminding me that on November 4, the signs and ads will be gone -- except for the "Firewood For Sale" ones. And that's a good sign. It connects us with the daily that goes on and on. Firewood, for some people will still be needed -- and it will be available. Those signs are a constant in rural Indiana ... and other states.

I was also reminded that there is another constant. The God of grace and God of glory. The God who is transcendent and immanent. The God who is Light, and Love, and Truth, and who promises never leave or forsake us. The God who is the Great Lover of Our Souls and warms them with a holy fire and lights our way forward. 

We could use a few signs for that. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Election 2020 Musings From the Midwest

First, let me say that for the past four years I have been completely disturbed and horrified by many of the words and actions of President Donald J. Trump. And that's the last time you'll see his name in this blog post.

However, as voting is going on now and through November 3rd, I cannot be silent about policies, words, and actions I find contrary to my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am committed to working against these things which I feel are harming the country I live in and am grateful to live in. 

No politician is perfect. All have their faults. That's been true in the past and is true now. Yet many, I believe, acted in what they thought were the best interests of our country as a whole. I do not feel that way about many of the current occupants of public office. 

Here is what I looked for in the candidates for which I voted in 2020 (yes, my ballot has been cast). I looked for people that, imperfect as they are, came close to supporting ideas that congruent with my understanding of Christian faith. People that are for:

  • a country and government that respects all people regardless of ethnicity, gender-identification, sexual orientation, religion (or choosing to have no religion), and so forth.
  • an administration and government that exists to serve all under their care and which recognize that diversity of color, lifestyle, opinion, religion, and more enrich our country.
  • a nation that guarantees and equally protects the rights of all its residents -- again regardless of ethnicity, gender-identification, sexual orientation, religion (or choosing to have no religion), and so forth.
  • a country that emphasizes peace in its actions and spending.
  • a nation that works to ensure that all its residents have the best healthcare, education, housing, worthy work, and food possible. I don't just mean "access to" -- I mean, have these things -- regardless of ethnicity, gender-identification, sexual orientation, religion (or choosing to have no religion), and so forth.
  • a government that encourages civil discourse and acts and speaks with care and respect.
  • civil discourse among peoples of differing views so we can learn from each other.
  • a country that is known for its mercy and justice toward all peoples everywhere.

I am for these things as a person of faith.

I need to speak about what I'm for, rather than what I'm against, for my own spirit's sake. Being for instead of against helps me to be humble and exhibit (as best I am able) love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

These times are fraught with peril. They are also times that are filled with possibility. May you vote prayerfully and carefully.

God bless us. Every one. 

Friday, October 02, 2020

Thistles and the Prairie

After walking through the slowly fading, quickly browning prairie yesterday and observing the various seeds -- including the fluffy thistle ones -- I read this poem on The Writer's Almanac

Why There Will Always Be Thistle
by Maxine Kumin

Sheep will not eat it
nor horses nor cattle
unless they are starving.
Unchecked, it will sprawl over
pasture and meadow
choking the sweet grass
defeating the clover
until you are driven
to take arms against it
but if unthinking
you grasp it barehanded
you will need tweezers
to pick out the stickers.

Outlawed in most Northern
states of the Union
still it jumps borders.
Its taproot runs deeper
than underground rivers
and once it’s been severed
by breadknife or shovel
—two popular methods
employed by the desperate—
the bits that remain will
spring up like dragons’ teeth
a field full of soldiers
their spines at the ready. Bright little bursts of
chrome yellow explode from
the thistle in autumn
when goldfinches gorge on
the seeds of its flower.
The ones left uneaten
dry up and pop open
and parachutes carry
their procreant power
to disparate venues
in each hemisphere
which is why there will always
be thistle next year.


“Why There Will Always Be Thistle” by Maxine Kumin from The Long Marriage. © W.W. Norton, 2003.