The Light Through the Trees
Reflections on Farming
The Light Through the Trees is a remarkable and deeply wise reflection on land, farming, a sense of place, connecting with nature and what it means to live on this earth. As a third-generation farmer, the author’s roots go deep into the land but her work also captures her thoughts on such current issues as the environment, environmental identity and animal ethics. Her writing is poetic, lyrical and engaging. Part farmer, part poet, part activist, Armstrong engages her readers through her fascination and close involvement with both the natural and the human worlds.
The dog knows. He stands beside my desk, his tail wags very slightly, his fierce collie stare fixed on my face.
Yes, yes, all right. I have been in front of the computer for several hours, teaching a class of writers who live all over the world. I live in the Purcell Mountains, beside the broad, dark expanse of Kootenay Lake. I have lived here on the same piece of land for most of my life except for time out to travel, teach and go to school.
Last night it snowed. Time to go outside, read the new snow, see who has been here, who passed through, who came to visit in the night.
We set off—my dog, my brother’s dog and I—down the hill and across the field below my house. The coyotes were here this morning hunting mice in the tall grass. There are deer tracks, raven tracks, and an unknown cat track in the snow. Probably bobcat.
The two black dogs run and run. In Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz writes that dogs see time differently than humans do.1 The dogs don’t see tracks, they see smells. They know who was here today, and last week. The only time I can somewhat “see” in the way the dogs do is when I look at the layers of tracks in the snow laid down over the past couple of weeks. Today, the fresh snow has obscured some tracks and revealed others.
And then on down the hill toward the beach where bear tracks cross the path. Late in the year for a bear to be out.
On the yellow sand, edged with ice, more deer tracks, evidence that several deer have been here. From the tracks they left, they might have been dancing. Playing? I don’t know.
I stand to admire the glassy sheen of pale water, black rocks crusted with ice, the mountains stippled pale blue and bright white. Two black and white ducks at the point of a thin V on the surface. Few people come to the lake in winter. They miss this beauty. On calm days in winter, the water surface looks glazed, like metal. Just past the beach, a large bald eagle lights in a Douglas fir. The top bends under its weight. The eagles come in winter to feed on the black coots. We trudge up from the beach, up the hill, over the fence and across the pasture and so, home again to tea and darkness coming and some more writing done.
Writing and walking go well together. Walking is always a story, and though I have taken this same walk almost every day for sixty years, each walk tells me a different story. Seasons change, colours change. I meet the other inhabitants of the place or read their stories in tracks, in sounds, in flashes of colour.
When I am writing, and stuck for a new direction, an idea, new words, walking usually brings an idea or some language to get me through to a new place. As Rebecca Solnit says in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”2
Walking here unites all the disparate elements of my world, mind and body, human and animal, the past and the present, inside and out. Every walk is a narrative about language and silence, about presence and about forgetting. When I walk, I travel through a place I love and am trying to understand.
Writing about love is hard. A love story tends to always veer into romance, or sentiment, or lyrical grandiloquence. And yet a love story is impossible to avoid. It wants to be told. It trumpets its own eloquence.
Is love even the right word? I write about feeling connected, about the many ways I see this place. And about the many eyes here that also see me? And I also write about what I don’t know. What do these non-human others know? What do they see? And how can we see each other past this not-knowing?
I wonder if this is even a relationship, my feelings about this place and its inhabitants. Or is it all a one-way emotion from me, the human stalker, wandering around wanting to be loved? And just what am I doing here, living in this particular place? How do I understand it?
I have asked myself these questions at many odd and various moments. While I bend over the garden, planting. In the spring, breathing on tulips, or listening to a lone frog, both of us awake on a March night. Or in August, listening to the Northern harrier crying over the burned-to-golden summer field as I sit peeling peaches in the hot slanting sun. Watching my farmer self, at harvest, harried by wild turkeys in the grapes, deer in the apple trees, voles in the garden, and the half-grown bear in the pear tree. In the winter mornings, a raven comes by as I throw hay to the cows, standing ankle deep in yellow mud and manure. At night, the dogs and the coyotes yell challenges or greetings or some other message. I listen to exchanges from which I am excluded. What do I know about all this?
Around and around we go, a palimpsest of footprints telling an infinite number of stories, over my lifetime, over so many lifetimes.
If I put my ear to the ground, if I lie down, can I hear the past banging its way under the grass and tree roots? Can I hear the banging of all those other feet coming by? Can I hold eternity by the hand like a child with almost no sense of myself, listening, at last, inside this place? If I weren’t walking here, would I be walking somewhere else, my head in the sky and my feet shuffling in grass, in leaves? Wondering how to grasp the intricate complexity of a field, a patch of moss, a flower opening. What do I really know?
This fall, I missed the swallows leaving and felt an acute sense of loss. I was interrupted by inattention, by being busy. No excuses. And the ospreys left as well, without saying goodbye. No, it was me who didn’t say goodbye, stomping around picking apples and preparing for my own winter. Another year going around—all year we chase each other, the seasons and I, round and round. I am lost inside and lost outside, occasionally glad to be so lost, and yet often too anxious, driven by time and small worries.
The elements bind us, me, the place, its many inhabitants, together—fire inside my belly, fire in the bellies of the sleepy animals, fire in the woodstove, and then Kootenay Lake glinting in its cleft home between mountains, my feet banging, banging on the earth while I listen to echoes.
In winter, late at night, I curl under the weight of many covers, listening to snow hissing at the windows, wind shivering the tree branches together in an odd syncopation, in my bed house, my bed-balloon, my bed cocoon, tethered to the night sky, swinging and whirling in the wind, travelling all night but never lost, never not at home.
Walking here is also walking in time, over layers of tracks laid down by parents and grandparents. Understanding how to fully be in a place and taking care of it means also seeing how it is taking care of me.
Inside these reflections is a writer walking in slow circles, through one place, over and over, studying her own tracks to find not only how to live somewhere but also to love the place where she lives, to care for it, and to try to understand, as much as is humanly possible, the place and its inhabitants. These essays attempt to illustrate, open, and perhaps begin, however tentatively, to illuminate those gnarled and ancient questions that I share with anyone who has a deep relationship with place: what am I doing, how do I live well here, how do I behave within this network of relationships, both human and not?
I have called myself a farmer for most of my life, but I am also a writer. Which means it’s hard to be in a relationship with land, animals, a particular place and the people of the place without wanting to tell stories about it and wondering what it all means.
But I’m not the only one asking these kinds of questions. I write these essays at a time when the tangled and contradictory arguments in the media and in environmental circles about the future of the world—about global warming, about energy shortages, about food
panics—continue with no resolution.
Asking questions about a relationship with a place, and telling stories about that relationship is simple but necessary in a world where the assumptions upon which humankind has prided itself—the idea of progress, the idea of human superiority over the non-human, the idea of private property—are demanding to be questioned.
Changing ways of thinking and talking about place and our relationships to them will only happen through a sustained conversation and communal cultural examination of assumptions and priorities. These essays are an ongoing part of such a conversation.
And although many writers live in places they love, few are farmers and even fewer write about farming. The books about farming and gardening that I have read usually follow two standard formats. Either they are practical “how to” books, or they are written by non-farmers about farming. Thus farm writing, like nature writing, has a tendency to be both sentimental and romantic. But I was a farmer before I was a writer. So here are stories of a small farm, of the stubborn, self-sufficient, hard-working and proud way of life that I was born into, and which I continue. When I was a child, I worked on the farm because my father told me that I had to work or we would starve. Now I do it because nothing else I have done is more satisfying. I like growing food and sharing it, I like animals, I like walking, and I find in the place where I live an endlessly engrossing and unfolding story.
Once I was talking to a dear friend about my childhood and the farm, and he said, “The land was your mother and father.” I think he was right, but as well as mother and father, I think the land is also both my teacher and my home, the place I go to learn, the place that mystifies me with its depth and beauty, and never lets me go.
1. Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog (New York: Scribner, 2009).
2. Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).
Nominated for the 2013 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.
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