Crofting: In Due Season

We are under a mist of freezing rain. While our goats are in the barn and eating hay, and the chickens snuggly in their pens, out of the weather, it is a difficult condition for wild things to face. Once the layer of rain freezes over the veil of snow, deer and other animals that paw to find grass, lichen and barks will not be able to get to that source. Small wild birds become saturated and freeze if they can’t find shelter. There isn’t much snow cover, so burrowing animals will feel the freezing cold. Weather like this is a killer for wildlife.

A warm spell in winter also may force the swelling of tree buds, which then freeze in the next cold snap. New growth for setting flower and seed is lost.

Uist croft

Some of this cycle may be the vagaries of nature, culling the weakest in the harsh winters, but some of it is most definitely the result of the unnatural patterns of modern life, warming the atmosphere, dumping high levels of carbon and other elements into the air and the water. Tree cover is gone in parts of the world that for millenia have been the lungs of the earth. Polar ice is melting, old glaciers that predated the last ice ages and the appearance of humanity on the earth are gone. The reindeer may leave the tundra, which will dramatically alter its life cycle. The great bears and marine mammals of the north are disappearing or shifting their territory. The bio-mass of great shoals of fish in the oceans are dwindling. The loss of movement and interaction of these creatures will, in a short time – less than centuries – adversely affect the weather and the flora of the north. If the equatorial rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the polar regions are the brains. Once their delicate functioning starts to shut down, the whole bio-system will fail.

In our small way, we are finding it easier to live the life of boreal herdsmen. Consciously and unconsciously we are reducing our need for the worldly system in which we have swam as little fishes for  a long time. It has meant giving up some of the trappings of civilized life such as fashionable clothes, social expectations, luxuries of food. We are tied to the small house because we heat with wood and cannot be gone for 24 hours without risking a complete freezing of our water supply. We have animals under shelter, so we need to make sure they have adequate supplies of food and water.

It is winter. We are sheltering, rarely journeying far. I have to go out about once a week now, but in the next month we plan to be snugged in for most of the rest of the season. We can’t afford to keep the truck in legal registration with the province. Repairs, taxes and fees are beyond our income right now. I will need the money we put into truck expenses for more vital expenditures such as medical care and my immigration fees. So I have to make sure we have food, firewood, medicines, grain and hay to last three months or more. I do hope we will be able to get some alternative transportation this summer, or we will gain enough extra income to license a vehicle again.

This is how poverty affects many here. Gradually, they lose the accoutrements of civilization – vehicle, appliances, even electrical and phone service. Some cope well. I think we do. Some fail to find a way to make up the difference. They run cars illegally, often dangerously decrepit vehicles with bad brakes and no headlights. If they get caught, they ignore the fine and even the court dates until they are picked up by the law for another violation, and then they spend a little time in jail. Some turn to petty crime to get by – a spot of shoplifting, stealing items from barns and garages to resell, cutting their firewood on a neighbour’s woodlot. I would rather starve than steal.

So this coming year we will have another go at small scale crops, get more chickens, perhaps get a few sheep. We are getting farther away from the demands of civilized life that drive people to keep an eye on the clock and calendar.  I hope to do more reading in how to manage a small isolated croft. Oddly, we have neighbours – near neighbours, too – who live a life no different from what we lived in the suburbs of a large city. The commute to scheduled jobs, have two cars, go away on vacation, decorate seasonally. They could in Richmond Hill, outside Toronto, or Silver Spring, Maryland. We are not isolated in being cut off from all human contact, but it is still rare, as they live the artificial day of electric lights and shift work. This is not to say that they are wrong, but to say that I expect that the nearly neolithic life of herders and shepherds will have to find a co-existence with the dominant American culture of supermarkets and malls. There will have to be a heightened and mutual accommodation and tolerance.

It could all fall apart quickly. Or it could all improve quite a bit. If we can discover the root of my health problems (possibly thyroid) then I will be able to put more time and energy into the croft work. If I can increase our income a bit we will be able to make other improvements. We are exploring, via internet, the 21st century’s equivalent of a monastic library, how to live closer to the old ways.

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Shepherds and Pastors

I kept a flock of Shetland sheep for ten years. I got out of shepherding reluctantly, for the good of my remaining sheep. We intend to start a new flock this spring, here on the croft. We will keep a couple of goats for milk and kids, but I believe at heart I am really a shepherd, not a dairy maid.

I learned, as a shepherd, that when Jesus told his shepherd parables, He knew what He was talking about. I wonder if His growing years were spent in the Galilean hills, working with family who were shepherds. It wasn’t an unusual event in a boy’s life then. While shepherds had sort of a rough reputation in first century Palestine, that applied to hireling shepherds, men without resources, who would work for a few pennies a month, along with rough barley bread and rougher beer.

I don’t know if it is evolution (probably not) or cultural training (most likely) but humans respond to lambs very strongly. Humans are naturally attracted to and protective of neo-nates (newborns) of mammal species; it’s the squished up face and big eyes. Lambs, though, seem to be especially winsome. Our species have been keeping company for 10,000 years or more, so it is no shock to realize that humans and sheep have many good traits in common.

I know that the modern political attitude is to compare people to sheep in an unflattering way, but a shepherd sees it differently. Sheep aren’t stupid, or identical, or blind followers. Nor are humans, really. One trait sheep and humans have in common, though, is a need to gather, and find a leader of sorts.

Sheep may be smarter about that than humans. Sheep are never influenced by how pretty another sheep’s fleece or face is; they are not swayed by the vocal prowess of another sheep; they don’t care how many of the other sheep like one certain sheep. Sheep have a need for a leader in the flock who can find food and water, who senses danger, and who can remember how to get to the safe and warm places. That leader sheep also must have a strong parenting instinct and recognize the lambs of its own flock.

Maybe sheep are smarter than people that way. We are too easily beguiled by promises. You can’t promise to animals – they don’t have a future tense in their language. We are apt to follow the person with the friendliest smile, the most flattering words, the ones who give us a sense that we are special while the other people are fairly wrong-headed and even damned. Sheep don’t have a concept of damnation. If they have a concept of salvation, it is probably a lot like, “Green grass, clean water, cool shade, every day.”

I can stand amongst the flock and say, “I have a vision for your future!” and they will go on eating the same good grass. If I fail to keep them in good grass, they will look elsewhere. It would take Sing-Sing to keep a flock in if they really want out. They push, dig and jump. They stay where they are fed well, or they are gone.

Think of that as an analogy for the church and its leaders. Sheep can’t be bribed with doughnuts and sweets. They get tired of that pretty quickly, and will not make a diet out of it. Entertainment might get their attention for a little while, until they realize that it isn’t connected in any way to getting fed. They are interested in the basics of life – food, water, shelter. If pastors thought more like shepherds, I think their flocks might be coming around the old barn more often.

 

Crofting: The Natural Day in Winter

It is snowing here. It is winter, and we have weeks yet, months even, of this weather. The wind is sharp out of the southwest, bringing cloud cover and precipitation. The ground is frozen, probably until March or April. We had meant to pull some fence posts that had been left along the east field, where our landlord had started a fence, but we did not get that done, so the few in the ground and the pile of cedar will remain another season.

I am hoping for a complete recovery from the mysterious auto-immune condition that has made life miserable for most of the past year. I took my earnings and went to the doctor, and talked him into a new course of medication, beginning with prednisone. The problem with the steroid is that it keeps me awake, even if I take it early in the day. This round left me fidgety and high-strung rather than energetic and ambitious. It takes a few days for the drug to work out of one’s system. Perhaps tonight I will fall asleep in a reasonable way.

We are keeping the natural day cycle as much as we can. We are not up late past sundown, and we switch to low light shortly after dark. I may have artificial light on for a while to finish washing dishes, but then it is multiple candles, gradually extinguished. My husband is ready for bed by 6:30 or 7 pm; I follow within a half hour. Both of us are sleepy and ready to extinguish lights (bedside electric lamps – no candles in bedrooms) by 8 pm. Dreadfully early!

But what are we missing? Some chat online, maybe a phone call, although those are rare these days. We have no television. I was finding make-work to stay awake until 10 pm some nights, although I too was heading for the quilt and pillow earlier if I could.

Nicholas is happy with this. He has suffered from SAD (seasonal affective depression) for years. Partly this is because he worked in businesses that were straight-out busy all through December, and he was forced up late at night, with few periods of rest. It did not suit him. I wonder why we do this to ourselves, why we not only keep an artificial day but an artificial summer? Most mammals settle in to sleep more in the winter, conversing energy. It is a mistaken notion to think that hibernation and the dormancy of trees are for rest. It is because the organism does not have the resources to keep moving, to keep growing, to put out leaves and keep them from freezing. Dormancy and reduced activity are normal in the natural winter cycle.

Sleep, deep REM sleep, is necessary for collagen to be produced. I have not been getting good sleep because of pain and by trying to stay on a worldly day schedule. I am hoping that more deep sleep will heal my damaged skin and immune system.

So we have pulled back from the worldly rush of the holiday season, because it makes no sense to us. Christmas activities for most of the Christian world are about creating a false environment – one that has never existed, a winter wonderland of nostalgia and a fantasy North Pole where Santa and the elves live all year on ice cream and fruit cake. We live in the real North, a harsh environment through the cold months. It is too real at times. We have moved away from the artificial day, the artificial summer, the artificial candy-coated Christian fantasyland.

Mt. Katahdin by Sisley

 

Living the Natural Cycle: Light One Candle

Last night I began moving toward our mutual goal of living a more natural day and night cycle. Instead of turning on the bright artificial lights in the house, I lit candles at the table after supper was over. It simulated a more natural dusk inside while I finished some work and communication. We had supper earlier than we usually did, and that really wasn’t a problem. The work was done by natural dusk. My husband finished a cup of after-dinner tea and the applesauce cake I had baked for him, then went to bed. I wrote a bit, got my email and other digital news, and by 7:30 pm, in the reduced light, my eyes were tired and my mind beginning to relax, despite the family issues that were ongoing and unresolved.

I could see that I would not get them resolved by staying up late. Others would work on them overnight, who had that sort of schedule. I could do nothing more. I went to bed, read a short while by the bedside light, turned off the light, and settled in to pray and meditate. I fell asleep despite my anxieties.

I woke fairly early, about 6:30 am, I think, but that is not yet dawn here. I waited until there was clear light in the window, and soon realized we would not have bright light today, as a storm had moved in. I lit a candle in the kitchen for about half an hour as I built up the fire in the wood stove, let the dog out, and made coffee. I feel today as if I have more “time.” Tasks have been done as they have been needed; I do not feel driven toward anything.

Crofting: The Rhythm of the Day

I am concerned about a couple of things here. One is my health. I have spent the last year battling a terrible reaction to a flu virus which left me sensitized to many chemicals. I have had to alter many things about our daily life in terms of food, cleaning products and even where I can shop. I cannot tolerate -at all – scents and chemical cleaners. Plastics are gone from our life, as I am concerned about their esters leaching into food. I am very cautious about buying prepared foods. I have been back to the doctor, and asked for a change in medications. I am hoping that finally we will see some advance and improvement.

The other is that we too can get caught up in a way of living which is not a way of life. Our energy costs hold steady from month to month, but I don’t seem to be able to drive them down any. Some of this is unavoidable, as we have a refrigerator and a hot water heater. The two surviving silkie chickens are living in a crate in the heated shed for now, as both have had some spells of ill health and injury. They have become pets, and as it is very inexpensive to feed them, I don’t mind. They are happy and melodious these days. One had a setback and spent an hour in the kitchen, on my lap, next to the wood stove. The dear little thing got so comfortable it put its head down on my arm and went to sleep for a few minutes. So cutting off the silkies’ comfort isn’t viable – the shed stays heated.

I keep a big pot of hot water on the wood stove, but often I forget to use it when I am washing dishes. It is easier to run hot water quickly over the dirty plates, and scrub them down with a soapy dish brush. I’ve also had to use the dryer this month because of my ill health and bad weather. Today is the last day for that, though!

I have been reading much on the Sami – the reindeer people of northern Scandinavia. While they have had to change their traditional ways to some extent, they are anxious to lose no more ground. They have been people who were not tied to clocks and calendars; they do not even define dates for the change of seasons, but call the changes according to what the natural world is doing. They once followed the reindeer, almost as wild as the animals themselves, but taxation and government accountability changed them. Still, there has come a time when the herding Sami, as well as those who fish and farm, are saying “no more.” They believe that the eco-culture of the North will be changed drastically if they must become reindeer-farmers rather than reindeer-pastoralists. Many of them would like to go back to smaller herds and more family groups in the far north, using the snowmobiles, ATVs and helicopters much less often. The governments made the mistake of seeing the reindeer as a commodity with a monetary value, which the Sami did not. The reindeer were valuable in themselves; sometimes animals were used as a currency. The parallels to the pastoralist patriarch Abraham in the Biblical book of Genesis are obvious.

Like the Sami, I see no reason to be bound to a clock or calendar, although one friend has pointed out that the government does expect the tax forms to be filed on time. We have occasional appointments to make, and we do try to be prompt for them. It is good to remember family birthdays, too.

Circle of the Year, from "Sami Culture"

But I’m wondering if we regulate our spiritual weeks, months, seasons, years, too much. What would it be like to have “church service” or “meeting” when we felt so moved? When we needed to pray, or we needed to praise? What if we celebrated the Pascha (Easter) or the Nativity (Christmas) not according to new moons or artificial dates, but when the time was right? Would we call upon the histories and examples of certain saints when we thought we needed them? Would we remember Herman of Alaska when the salmon spawned? Would you read the passages about Mary of Nazareth when we were anticipating the birth of a child in the family? Would we talk about the poetry of John of the Cross in the dark long nights of the winter? And if that was the way of the saints in our natural ecclesia (church) who would be our saints? Perhaps there would rise histories and remembrances and writings of people who were not noticed in Rome, Antioch, Moscow or Canterbury.

We are moving in a few days to a different schedule while keeping the same house. I think it will make the croft more useful to us, and ourselves more integrated in the life of the croft which now may seem a little bit peripheral. We will go to bed as the night falls, and rise, as much as possible, at dawn. In this latitude, just before the winter solstice, the corresponding hours would be about 7-8 am for sunrise, and 5-6 pm for sunset. We anticipate being in bed by 7 pm, asleep before 8 pm, and according to research on people put on natural nordic winter day/night cycles, we can expect to have a couple of hours of near waking in the night. This used to be a special time, according to anthropologists and sociologists. It was a time to share dreams, nurse infants, pray, make love, meditate and remember, without resorting to artificial light. Then naturally, the body eases back into deep sleep for another four or five hours.

I suspect that some of what we call insomnia is the body asserting its natural rhythm, but our commodified and regulated culture calls it a medical condition, and prescribes drugs to keep us in a state of suspended thought for seven or eight hours.

When spring and summer come around we will have more hours of activity, and rather than being lulled into the cultural pattern of stopping work between 5 and 6 pm, eating, and taking leisure, we may use those later hours of sunlight for work, and reserving the hours of high sun and UV exposure for rest and recreation.

Another change we want to make is to do more of our activities together. I want to spend more time with the animals, and I have asked Nicholas to be more involved in food preparation. We are not going off to separate jobs, so we think we would like to have our work more intertwined.

We can’t ignore the tick-tock time nor the weekly regimen completely, but I am hoping that a more natural rhythm to our lives will improve our health and lower our overall anxiety and stress.

 

Book Review – “Without a Vision My People Prosper”

Not your typical book on ministry, Without a Vison My People Prosper is the result of David Hayward’s life in ministry and his artistic expression of that ministry. It draws on his online reflections – quotes, thoughts, musings, cartoons and sketches – about a dedicated life in Christ, in the Church and in churches.

While striving for orthodoxy in belief, he questions the orthodoxy of leadership we find in evangelical churches. This is his personal search for authenticity in himself, and in others. After many sessions of vision planning, Hayward began to question the necessity of a church having a vision, as if they are always looking to the future, and never happy in the present.

He proposes that living without that “vision” – that goal, plan or ideal for the future – means the Church will start living in the present. He would like to see the churches stop looking for growth and change, but be satisfied with what God has given for today, including those fallible and unsatisfactory people in the pews right now.

When I told my husband about the book, he came forth with an old Amish proverb: “All I know is what I have today.”

I recommend this book for those caught up in the missional, visionary planning stages of their own church, always looking for the days yet to come instead of being thankful for our daily bread.

The author provided me with a PDF version of the book to review.