Last week I took my camera down to the millrace, part of an on-going attempt to get a photo of multiple turtles sunning themselves on a log in the middle of the race. So far this goal is proving elusive -- even when I'm using a telephoto lens, they seem to sense the attention and slide into the water for safety.
I recorded a couple not-very-interesting views of turtle tails just before they vanished beneath the duckweed and was trotting back to my car, when the late afternoon sunshine and the colors on the nearby plants said, "Hey, what about noticing us?"
So I took a deep breath, slowed down and beginning looking around -- and discovered a large healthy monarch caterpillar on the milkweed right in front of me.
This isn't the first monarch I've seen in the wild this summer, but this time I decided to bring it home. I've been reading When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd, where she interweaves her mid-life depression and spiritual journey with the story of a chrysalis that she finds hanging from a dogwood branch one stormy day. As Sue explains, the Greek word for soul is psyche, and the soul/psyche has often been symbolized by a butterfly, since both go through transformations and metamorphosis. The caterpillar struck me as a good companion for that reading.
Here's Sue, describing her encounter with the chrysalis:
I was caught suddenly by a sweep of reverence, by a sensation that made me want to sink to my knees. For somehow I knew that I had stumbled upon an epiphany, a strange gracing of my darkness. I took my forefinger and touched the bottom tip of the tiny brown chrysalis and felt something like light move in me. In that moment God seemed to speak to me about transformation. About the descent and emergence of the soul. About hope. p. 12
I carried the caterpillar home and put it with a stalk of milkweed in a bushel basket on our back porch. For a day it feasted, munching so enthusiastically its antennae quivered. Then for a day it was quiet, resting on a stick. By evening, it was hanging in the familiar J-shape that comes just before the chrysalis stage.
All evening it hung there. We checked just before bed. Still no chrysalis. I checked again, first thing in the morning, and discovered it just finishing the process of shedding the old stripped skin, wiggling around and settling into its new green shape.
So now it is hanging on that twig, resting on my back porch. It takes about two weeks in the chrysalis before the butterfly emerges, I've been told.
Sue describes the months of her time of transformation, elaborating on the role of waiting in the obscurity and darkness of the unknown. Transformation takes time. There's work for us to do, and there is also the work of letting go, and letting God do the transforming work we need.
Making a cocoon and the transformation that goes on inside it involves weaving an environment of prayer, but not the sort of prayer we usually think of. No, this is something mysteriously different. This prayer isn't about talking and doing and thinking. It's about postures. Postures of the spirit. It's turning oneself upside down so that everything is emptied out and God can flow in. It's curling up in the fogged spaces of the listening heart, sinking into solitude, wrapping the soul around some little flame of hope that God has ignited. It's sitting on the window sill of the heart, still and watching.
Such interior postures are themselves the prayers that transform, heal, and yield the answers in our waiting. They're the shapes and contours that turn us into a cocoon. p. 126
And so we wait, and watch.
Thistledown is such a fun word. I just double-checked the names of the fairies in Midsummer Night's Dream, thinking that surely Shakespeare used it. But no -- Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb, Mustardseed, and of course Puck, but nary a Thistledown. I can just see her though, with a spiky purple cap and an intricate, airy white gown.
And this thistledown along the millrace was catching the light a few days ago. A goldfinch landed on the one above, loosing a cascade of fluff, but flew off again immediately. I've just been reading that finches like to line their nests with the down. (I also read that finches don't like their feeders to be too close to other types of birdfeeders -- maybe this explains why the finch feeder hanging near the sunflower tube and the hummingbird feeder has not gotten much attention from finches this summer.)
Sparks of light of a different sort...
After I posted about the Soil and Soul Retreat I attended at Maple Tree Meadows a few weeks ago, several friends expressed interest in learning more about what Karla Kauffman has in mind for the farm.
So yesterday five of us spent the morning visiting with Karla, learning about this wounded farm and the healing place she hopes to create here. The Gleason family were early settlers in the area, and farmed this land for over 150 years. It's been through many configurations, including a state-of-the-art dairy operation decades ago, and years as a horse farm, known as Gleason Meadows.
Eventually it was sold, and over time became more and more wounded. Karla bought 12 and a half acres of it four years ago and has been slowly working on renovating the old farm house and developing plans for the rest of the land.
She dreams of hosting a small community of fellow healers, who would tend to the land, and provide a space where others could come for rest and renewal -- perhaps offering a sanctuary for rescue animals and a place where veterans and others suffering from post traumatic stress disorder could spend time working with soil and soul. But all this is down the road -- for now she would be happy to have a small group of people who could help her consider how to give the dream body and prioritize the tasks.
In the meantime she is hosting once a month retreat days with the Soil and Soul theme from May through October, inviting women who serve in healing roles of many kinds (pastors, teachers, nurses, spiritual directors) to spend four hours in study, soil-work, soul-work, and fellowship.
And we shared many sparks of light -- the laughter and sharing of dreams, the birds singing in the maple trees, and fellowship on a beautiful summer morning.
A half-bushel of paste tomatoes and another of regular, a day's labor and, viola! Ten quarts of juice, and twenty pints plus four quarts of canned tomatoes -- a treasure trove for soups and sauces this coming winter.
And the delightful sound -- snick! -- of lids successfully sealing. Thirty three of them..... which means one didn't, so I had tomato juice along with my lunch today.
This seems to be the season for spiky purple plants in my garden -- salvia, sage, lavender, hyssop, butterfly bush. The butterflies are loving it. While the overall effect is spires of purple, when you focus in on the shapes of the individual blossoms, what a variety of shapes!
Butterfly bush has a fanfare of trumpets with fire at their hearts -- and the underside of this swallowtail butterfly echoes the fire with its own refrain of orange and blue.
When Beth and Jesse got married last year, they wanted lots of colorful summer flowers for their decorations. I planted sunflowers, and we knew there would be black-eyed susans, queen anne's lace and other roadside flowers. Several friends allowed us to sow seeds in their gardens in various locations around town, which we figured increased our chances that some would be in bloom when we needed them.
Our plans worked well, and there were bucket-loads of colorful flowers to put in pint jars for table decorations. This included lots of bright zinnias. I had never been very interested in zinnias. They always seemed stiff and rather boring, and I generally have preferred perennials to annuals. But last summer I realized zinnias did a good job of bringing color to the late summer garden, and this year I planted zinnia seeds.
And I've discovered that zinnias are not only full of color -- if you take a close look, they are downright zany.
I found a magnificent stand of pokeweed in a corner near the old barn at Maple Tree Meadows. Pokeweed, as its name makes no attempt to hide, is a weed. The plant itself can grow up to nine feet tall, and produces lots of berries.
This one had pendants at all stages from flower to berry, making for an intriguing continuum from pastels to rich, dark colors. They look luscious, but pokeweed berries are poisonous, though I've read that the early spring shoots are edible.
During the Soul and Soil retreat on Thursday, I spent the contemplative prayer time roaming with my camera. The last ten or fifteen minutes of that I slowly circled Karla's herb bed, focusing in on some of the intriguing shapes and patterns. Until I slowed down and looked, and looked again, none of them had made even a tiny "blip" on my consciousness, even though we had gone past the bed several times.
Later, as we gathered around the dining table for lunch, one of the other retreatants told me she had discovered a new contemplative practice. She had ended her prayer time sitting quietly on the porch, sheltered from the light rain, looking out over the yard and the herb bed, and watching me contemplate the plants with the help of the camera. She discovered that it can also be contemplative to watch someone else in the midst of going slowly, looking, trying other angles, looking again.
Yesterday I was at Maple Tree Meadows, near Three Rivers, Michigan, for another in this year's monthly series of retreats on Soul and Soil. Karla Kauffman led us in a rhythm of an hour of study and conversation, an hour of labor, an hour of solitude and contemplation, and an hour gathered at table, eating and talking.
It was a cool and rainy day, for which the soil was grateful, as were we. Nothing like a little drought to change your perspective on gray, rainy days! Though I generally have a positive attitude toward days of gentle rain like this one -- it reminds me of the year I lived in Belgium, and brings back warm memories.
We studied two more chapters from Ellen Davis' book, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, and talked of the gift of manna, and eating as the most basic of all cultural and economic acts. And we talked of Leviticus and the way it portrays the acquisition and consumption of food as the definitive cultural and religious act, an occasion for Israel to practice covenantal faithfulness.
And then we went out and stacked wood in the barn, observing the Benedictine practice of stopping when the bell rang for prayer, even though another ten minutes or so would have seen the whole pile neatly stacked. Instead when our "bell" rang -- when Karla looked at her watch and said it was time for our hour of quiet -- we stopped, took off our work gloves, and moved in to a time of contemplative prayer.
My prayer took the form of wandering with my camera, slowing down enough to see the beauty hidden around me, focusing on the gifts of this gray day. They were subtle, but there. Most of the photos that follow I found in the pasture pictured in the first photo above.
And then Karla rang her kitchen chimes and we gathered around the table for that cultural, economic, and religious act of eating together -- a salad of mixed green and lemony lentils, corn on the cob, and applesauce, with fresh peaches to end with. Thanks, Karla, for the space, the reflections, the fellowship, and the lunch!
I biked down the millrace path this afternoon, to see what I could see. I found a profusion of plants at a profusion of life stages -- buds and full blossoms, green seed pods and dried seed heads ready to send seeds flying with the next strong breeze.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"