Alumnae Bulletin November 2008

Our Farm

by Doug Stenberg, PhD '87

To the which place a poor sequester'd stag,
That from the hunters' aim had ta'en a hurt,
Did come to languish; and, indeed, my lord,
The wretched animal heav'd forth such groans,
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting; and the big round tears
Cours'd one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase: and thus the hairy fool . . .
Stood on the extremest verge of the swift brook,
Augmenting it with tears.
As You Like It

In the summer of 1991, when all the trips to Russia were nearing an end, I translated one of Rosalind's lines for a young painter: "I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men's." This was seven years before I played Jaques in the park, but the Lancaster magic of those July nights was tame compared to life in the city of changing names. When we later parted, not knowing that our goodbye was farewell, Natal'ia asked me not to look back. I could not help myself or her, and she disappeared into a crowd on Nevskii Prospekt.

From a vantage point where Blue Mountain forms a horizon, above the Tulpehocken Path and a cabin built in 1737, Kari found her land. My wife has always loved horses, so the acres seemed perfect for her calling and our future. Soon enough, thanks to the continued generosity of our folks and the expertise of real estate agents, we signed a deed. Despite an evening chill, we later slept out in the open, cradled by Kari's flatbed truck. Rarely have we been closer as our talks flowed and continued in silence "'tween asleep and wake." The feel of that space was our conception, a movement of the stars while we slept or followed in a time closer to life before we were born and tomorrows we may never see.

In the light of day, social correctness might be possible with a mortgage, although I had felt marginalized when talking with my best man's housemate from their law school days. I was not sure if diligence is due or done while landscaping, delivering Chinese food, and selling cars after relocating to Pennsylvania from Colorado College. My friend's classmate was a homeowner, and his children would soon be off to college, perhaps to that same university with an endowment in the billions. But one day Kari said that it was time to build, and I simply held on to the leap of faith that became more familiar with each passing year.

We brought an axe to the land, and as one tree was coming down not far from the road, it caught a limb of his dead elder, which was still participating in life like the doomed suitor in Three Sisters. The new brought down the old; our young Lloyd sniffed and scratched with determination around the two felled trees.

Later I limbed overhanging branches, with a curved saw at the end of a pole, by the fence line where the stony drive now runs. A new chainsaw for the logs came in handy, but in concert with dusty boxes of letters and books, it soon lay fallow. Thanks to Charlie Walbridge, who began to put me through my paces at Camp Mowglis during the summer of 1970, I prefer the axe. All the same, we did revive the chainsaw after last week's ice storm.

Bark of rough-cut cedar board and batten covers our home. We twice stained the eight and ten foot sections stored in our cinder block basement while builders and carpenters fleshed out the first and second floors. A few extra pieces formed a birdhouse, and my humanities teaching team used a discarded cut, known as Humbaba from Gilgamesh, to prop our "Wooly Mammoth" projector during film presentations. The piece is still buried on some shelf in a perpetually scruffy storage room, since better technology last year replaced the relic.

Our wavy fascia echoes primitively Norwegian and Russian patterns beneath a weathervane holding a horse and the Bowdoin sun. Inside guffawing Cossacks stand over the unvarnished dining table opposite paintings of Kari's favorite horse Rex and Flavitskii's hopeless Princess Tarakanova. Painted by Kari's grandfather Knut Ivar in 1918 and hanging in our bedroom, a gentle horse overlooks a mother and her pups in a stall. On the same wall, a print of Prendergast's South Boston Pier reflects a different crowd than Papa Stenberg would have known as a boy in South Boston when waking near teamsters' horses in the morning or catching pigeons on windowsills for Chinese workers or later rowing his homemade boat around the Harbor. From windows we see game lands by day or constellations before sleep.

Before we planted grass around our house, Kari pulled a wire screen tied behind the truck to gather rocks. Weighed down by a heavy log, the device worked well enough, and a large pile of stones bordered the dog pen until years of "chasies" leveled the mound to a familiar moonscape. Aggressive ants later took over the heavy log before it touched down at the far end of our compost pile. When the lawn was young, I used a push mower, much like the one my dad relied on in the early sixties, donated by neighbors and then adopted by us. Eventually, even without the benefit of strategic fertilizing, the device that needed no energy could no longer gather momentum in the thickening green. A Honda, purchased at the chain that Dad always pronounces as Home [Depoh], is to lawn maintenance what crew cut barbershops were when most kids played Little League and received fewer trophies.

Nevertheless, older tools yielded unexpected moments. During our first summer, as I lazy-ladded an acre of grass near our entrance, I found an especially tiny fawn beneath the blade's work. She hesitated before moving away, and I apologized; the matted bed echoed a newborn's hair. Before the John Deere tractor with its diesel fuel and grass hog, we spread seeds by hand over the fifteen acres or so, walking our de facto row by row and hoping one day that horses might reap their own harvest. Field mice and groundhogs were frightened, but the threat died down in the space of several steps. Above, the hawks might have been amused and grateful for the rousting.

And our land has indeed been shared with others, although Nature is often indifferent to their happiness. Our dogs used to destabilize the scruffy log pile, Ikey removing one piece at a time. Once a mouse tried to flee with a baby clinging to her side; the blind one fell off and the mother rushed away. The canine trio have cornered, chomped, shaken, and killed groundhogs. Ikey and Molly, when Lloyd was convalescing from leg surgery, once tugged on a young one and tore it in half.

Before wire netting surrounded the top of our chimney, birds often trapped themselves in the section above our woodstove. Although starlings made a racket before their release through an open window, a bluebird was not as assertive and fortunate. After the mate escaped, he died in the ashes, and I buried him near our flattened stone mound in the dog pen.

Haunting cries often clasp the night. One winter I discovered a frozen doe impaled on a broken branch near the main road. The stake emerged through her stomach; in the course of the season she disintegrated with each new blast of cold and snow. Other animals, including more than one unsympathetic fox, lived off her carcass.

And a quail once visited the end of our lawn. None such has appeared since. Pheasants, unlike children of yore, are more often heard than seen.

Bees take part in the dance that is our home. They sing and smile on HBO's Classical Baby, only to be reborn as a basement refugee returned to our chilly morning. They cause Molly's head and nose to swell. They die in the flashlight's glare beneath extinct steps. And in hidden coffers of the dog pen, buzzing comrades perish 'neath stars and our vanguard moon. They claim territory in our house and build homes near the apex of our A-frame. They love our fields more tenderly than we. More often than not, bees do not bother us before we bother them.

Happily, some birds seem glad that we are here. Our feeders welcome many, including the Indigo Bunting, a variety of woodpeckers, jays, sparrows, cardinals, chickadees, the Tufted Titmouse, the White-breasted Nuthatch, the Dark-eyed Junco, pesky cowbirds, finches of happier colors, mourning doves on the ground, and mockingbirds who behave like trustees after nesting in replanted Christmas trees. Below a Rufous-sided Towhee joins the gathering. Above our oriole appears every spring to nest, presumably, in the woods that border one longer field. Swallows follow the tractor in the summer like bluebirds along a tree-lined path or dolphins beside ships when the "sails . . . grow big-bellied with the wanton wind."

This fall as I read in Wheelock's companion collection "Centum oculos Argi videbitis in cauda pavonis," which our independent study group eventually translated as "You will see in the peacock's tale Argus's hundred eyes," the image of that rainbow on our driveway reappeared. He wandered once from our neighbor's property, from those folks who take pride in not being able to see any home from their own. I remember admiring the bird and hearing it before and after. The calls, however, have not sounded for several years. Perhaps Io and Argus were able to work things out after all.

Barn construction this year, preceded by fencing surrounding our fields and several horse pens, defined much of our lives. Kari designed the facility with efficiency in mind. Built on a long and narrow ridge, the dimensions are 130 feet long by 32 feet wide with ten stalls, a wash stall, a tack room, a hayloft, and a 30x20 foot shed as well. The complex also serves as a windbreak for a dressage ring measuring 130 feet. Kari is able to teach horseback riding at her own place, and the "horses really seem to love it." Since they are always in sight of each other, they feel secure as part of a larger herd.

Truthfully, the improvements have had a negative impact as well. An increase in the value of the property does not recognize the fact that deer no longer sleep in our fields only to appear as ghosts in the morning mist. A fallen cherry tree, that still flowered in the spring, despite its broken base and a life made horizontal, was cut into sections by an overzealous work crew and by my own hands-off approach during the construction process. Mounds of dirt from widening work were not leveled, trees toward the end of property remained uprooted, and no one graded a sloping section of the path around our fence. Hopefully, happy children caring for horses will make up for the damage done.

Over the years, fellow primates have caused more problems than have the smaller denizens of this space. Thieves robbed us twice. The frozen-vein reaction to a breezy bedroom left in tatters foreshadowed glass shards and a fence post in our living room. Family silver from Norway disappeared. A state trooper lifted a partial fingerprint; somewhere my ceramic polar bear collection is following a diaspora far south of melting ice and warming waters. Last year someone left a bag with a dead cat and chicken on the corner of our property opposite a church graveyard in the distance. A rusty piece of trashcan metal appeared not long ago in the same spot. When we first arrived, I removed two truckloads of tires and trash along the creek that borders our property; distant neighbors drove by the refuse for years. Only last month someone hung a chef's hat on a branch above the main bordering road. "Bitch" was capitalized in black magic marker; its twin fell to the ground in pieces across the way, a prolonged rain accelerating another journey toward biodegradation. Nevertheless, a lovely woman often gathers trash along the roads; the rusty metal recently disappeared.

We took time out this summer to celebrate our 90th birthday, as yours truly turned fifty and Kari's July 18 balanced the extent of my math skills. Close friends and some family gathered. Sadly, Sarah was still in mourning over the death of her husband from Lou Gehrig's Disease in the fall, Gretchen's personal days were maxed out during our aunt's long decline and death from cancer and from the passing of her mother-in-law, and one of Kari's brothers and his family were away at a time-share. Even so, some of Kari's relatives made the trip from Oslo and London. Brumle, Hege, and her mother Reidun provided delicious food and drink. Young Hedwig and Waldemar stood by the apple trees planted years ago as gifts from their mother and father.

Despite bothersome flies, which to the surprise of some guests are attracted to a barn housing large animals, everyone seemed to have fun. The facility anchored the event as music from a three-man band inspired kids and parents to dance, while a brew crew rode conversations into the comforting night. Toward the end, as numerous shooting stars sped beyond our reckoning, I talked with a fellow teacher about the calling. We shared perspectives and stories on some public school classes, colleagues, and collective bargaining. Apparently, as he and Burkey the bass player drove home, the teacher added, "Man, that guy's even more negative than I am."

Shortly before 9/11, I was chopping up wood from a pile that had lingered since we cleared the driveway. The axe came down on a dark limb, which then flew into my face and opened a cut right below my left eye. On the ground, I initially thought I lost it, but after I got myself into the house and washed away the blood, I simply covered the harbinger of a scar.

Not long after the attack, we had to put our cat Seeger down. I think he must have had cancer; increasingly it was difficult for him to get around. Lloydy loved Seegs, despite the fact that the senior cat once attacked him in the dark when "Fluff Pup" was only months old. He often licked his buddy's ears and quietly made much of him. Now our eldest dog cried after his friend growled at him in pain.

On the way back to our home in tears, as Seegs lay in the back of the car, I could not control myself and cried out his name, the sobs altering the sound of the soul we loved. I continued in pain while digging his grave to lay him wrapped in his bedding towel beneath our ornamental cherry tree. The surrounding bed was in the shape of a heart at that time. In the years since the dimensions have come full circle.

A teaching colleague said that he had seen two eagles in the sky before foreign guests hijacked planes and committed genocide, on whatever scale the victims' loved ones might define. Perhaps a distorted echo of Caesar and the bloody spectacle of 44 B.C. found their flight in the skies above "states unborn and accents yet unknown." But I have never grieved before or since for anyone as I did for Seegs in the weeks following the September violation that welcomed the new millennium.

So, in a world where people are socialized to buy and believe but not to become, I find solace in repeating "I'll do my best" while driving past a graveyard on the way to school at dawn or in the dark. These days life is thankfully paring itself down from years of searching to rituals of reflection. Happily, I often talk with my best man Neil and groomsman Gamps, a wrestling teammate at Bowdoin. All three of us are disciples of Larry Lutchmansingh, our art history professor who finally left America for Sri Lanka. Larry opened a class in the 70s with a reading from Pico della Mirandola's "Oration on the Dignity of Man." I use this selection with my own students when we study the Renaissance, and I now wonder where Kari and I would be if we were not allowed to exercise free will in choosing each other and a calling:

  • 'Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam. . . . The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world's center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul's judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.'

Kari and I feel like stewards here, but we do not give "form to nature" as much as Nature continues to form us. And though the lives of creatures are primarily defined by survival, and although much of humanity lives by the fear that drove Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba rather than to spare the captive's life, perhaps some glimpse of the eternal is the best that any of God's children, in all of our variety, can hope for.

In the 1980s Kari and I were proving that "The course of true love never did run smooth," and I stayed nearby one weekend in the rented garage apartment of my friend T-Man, who was earning his philosophy doctorate at Bryn Mawr. Ironically, I pass the same Tudor house twice a week on my way to sabbatical classes this year at Rosemont. As I slept on his couch, I dreamt of a beautiful landscape with colors that could only exist in the afterlife. And I knew, even during the days when love seemed hopeless, that Heaven does indeed exist.

Not long after we built our home, I looked out from the French sliding doors that open to our bedroom, and I saw that landscape. The colors were all too natural, but the spirit was the same. This Christmas I will give Kari two watercolors framed together. One is of an apple tree that resembles the eldest of our planted two. The other is of a farm with a home and a fence leading off into the distance. We painted these when we children, long before I listened to Morricone's music in the Leningrad darkness with the lyric yet unborn, "I knew I loved you before I knew you."

Before our gentler Jamestown scarred and protected this distant cell of The New World, countless fireflies danced above their knowing fields. A dream in full summer, they shared older music with anyone welcoming the notes made audible by their light. And in the autumn I have seen their green lights along the driveway that we formed seven years ago. Perhaps they were the stars' reflections or raindrops, but I believe these lonely signals were expressions of love.

Fireflies still appear, in far fewer numbers, bearing witness to Time's offering as well as to those who should still be singing their dance. As our forebears who buried their children along trails and in plantation graves, as those people who lived here for millennia past and who believed that the spirits of their loved ones abide in forests, some fireflies live on unseen in the sacred nights.

Kari and I will stay on our farm as long as humanly possible, beyond a time, perhaps, when we bury our pets in memory and prayer. And years from now, if our land is still willing to forgive, we shall sing and dance here as well.