Doesn’t it feel like the past two years have been an unrelenting series of catastrophes? A global pandemic, climate-change-fueled natural disasters, domestic riots and insurrection, and now war in Europe. I find myself falling into the bad habit of wondering what the next unthinkably awful thing the near future has in store for us.
It all makes it hard to hope—even now, on spring’s doorstep.
Of course you can’t swing a rusty shovel on a farm without smacking against the cliche of spring as the season of new hope, but cliches arise because on some level they are, in fact, true. This month I began the work of the new season, the sowing of seeds, one of the most radically hopeful human activities I can think of.
And hope, whatever else it may be, is a kind of activity. Hope generates some sort of work in the world, or at least ought to. The least hopeful thing is to curl up in despair and do nothing.
So I strive to work this month in full expectation that the coming growing season has gifts in store for us, if we but attend. Perhaps not always the gifts we had wished for, but good gifts nonetheless. And part of the preparation here at the season’s beginning is preparing to receive those gifts.
The ground thaws. The sap rises. Birds return from their southern ranges. Soon the snowdrops and crocuses will thrust through the earth and stretch their blade-like leaves toward the sun. Amidst it, there is good work for us all to do. Time to get busy.
When I rise up
let me rise up joyful
like a bird.
–Wendell Berry, “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer”
With March arriving, birds on the farm begin to rise. Many lived here all winter, of course, flocking to our feeders in the ice and snow. I keep a list of the ones I see: Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and slate-eyed juncos. Goldfinches and house finches. Hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, common flickers. Bossy blue jays. Vibrant cardinals. Others don’t come to the feeders but fly around the farm nevertheless. Red-tailed hawks soaring above the frozen fields. The clutch of crows perched in the spruce trees croaking back and forth to each other each morning. The great horned owl hoot-hoot-hooting somewhere overhead in the cold, still night.
Just last week, I discovered an eastern screech owl had taken up residence in our barn’s loft sometime this winter. I noticed first that the floor was littered with these weird soft gray oblong masses: owl pellets, I realized. And where there are owl pellets, there must be an owl. So I searched up in the rafters, and there it was, perched high in the peak of the barn, eyeing me warily. I have been trying to attract owls to live on the farm for a while now, so I was happy to greet it.
These year-round residents are now joined by others. Last week, as I was beginning the greenhouse work, I saw the season’s first red-winged blackbird, right on cue. This morning I heard the eerie trumpeting of a sandhill crane and stepped outside just in time to see it drift low over the roof of the farmhouse and north toward the woods abutting the back of our property. We should be seeing robins soon, followed by bluebirds and orioles. And then my favorites, the tree swallows, which will fill the warm evening air, falling and rising above mid-summer fields.