Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Groundhog

Its been a while since I've written anything for my blog, but I have been doing a lot of writing for my Eng. 301 class. Most recently, we were assigned to write a descriptive nature essay, so I will share that here. Enjoy:

Like the omniscient groundhog, in whose shadow rests the very fate of winter, ripe blackberries mark the end of summer. The season itself may be at least a month from over, but shortly after people begin to pick blackberries, school resumes, and summer, as far as students know it, is finished. My last Sunday evening at home found me strolling through the fields of my parents’ farm. I carried with me a large, yellow, plastic bowl. I was going to check the groundhog.

The path leading from the horse barn to the back field is narrow, separated from larger pastures on either side by two short electric fences. I unhooked the chain that held the large steel gate in place and pulled it open, the metal clattering as it dragged against the concrete.

The worn grassy path dipped and ducked and the hills continued to shrink, leading to the lowest point on our acreage. Straight ahead, a small opening stood invitingly amid a tangle of leaves and white branches, the entrance to one of two small woods on the farm. The path, however, wound around the edge of the woods and opened into a field. The ground, a cheery yellow quilt of buttercups, sank slightly beneath my foot with a squish. Even during a dry summer, the field maintains the feel of a small swamp.

A familiar aroma wafted pleasantly through the air, something like honey. The fresh and lively scent came from the field’s most obvious landmark, a large Cottonwood.

An elderly man named Morton Lawrence owned the property before my parents, and lived there for 78 years. Morton always referred to the Cottonwood by a rather peculiar nickname: the “Balm of Gilead," for the sticky resin on the underside of the leaf, evidently similar in appearance to the healing balm sold by the traders from Gilead who also bought Joseph from his brothers in Genesis. The nickname is memorable, and makes the tree seem ancient, as though it is a tie back to Bible times.

The tree stands alone in the middle of the field, a giant patchwork of broad green leaves and the occasional yellow, bathed in a deep golden glow from the waning sun. The woods on either side of the field, with their warm cluster of Birch, Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Big-Leaf maple cause the Balm of Gilead to look simultaneously solitary and majestic.

During the spring, the rain causes the ponds in the woods to spill over into a natural stream that flows downhill out of the woods to the right, across the field, and past the Balm of Gilead, eventually curving into the woods on the opposite side. In late August, the dry streambed is nothing more than a shallow trench, a long line dividing the field in half.

Beyond the Balm of Gilead, the ground slopes back upward to a small bluff, and a barbed wire fence marks the southern edge of our property. A large field sits on the other side of the fence, and, beyond the field, houses. Despite the southern exposure, this field, tucked off in the corner of our farm with its lonely Balm of Gilead, and practically cocooned by two separate woods, offers a feeling of security and solitude.

Ironically, this sense of security and solitude makes this field an ecological hotspot. The zone in which the woods open into pasture teems with wildlife. Woodland creatures, such as raccoons, deer, rabbits and mice, use the edges of fields as a corridor of travel, as they move much faster in the open field. The presence of woods on both sides creates a natural freeway of sorts, several lanes of furry woodland traffic.

The protection of the nearby woods emboldens these creatures. Occasionally, they dare to linger in the field, foraging and hunting. Barn Owls, Red-Tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles discovered this wood’s edge phenomenon long ago, and countless times I've seen the hunter flying overhead or sitting perched in the top branches of the Balm of Gilead, waiting for some brave rodent to venture out of the woods.

I stepped across the dry streambed. Along the edge of the eastern wood grows a large thicket of blackberry brambles. Blackberry bushes grow rampant on our farm. We have burned them, mowed them, chopped them, and pulled them out by the root; yet they always seem to come back with a vengeance. Anywhere else on the acreage, they are a nuisance, but here, in this field, blackberry bushes are a treasure.

The large, dark berries glistening in the setting sunlight confirmed my suspicions: the groundhog had not seen its shadow; summer was over. Not that it would have changed anything; I had already packed the last box into the trunk of my Ford Taurus, ready to hit the road back to Iowa first thing in the morning.

The berries serve as a gentle reminder that life must keep moving. The plans of man for this life are nothing to the plans of God. If it were up to us, we would live in the protection of the forests and backfields in life, never daring to discover what lies in the open fields and beyond. God calls us to challenge ourselves, to step beyond the familiar, to allow Him to work in our lives, no matter how far from home it might take us.

I picked a plump blackberry from a thorny branch and placed it in my mouth. A blackberry is actually a collection of many tiny fruit that cluster together to form what most people think of as a blackberry. As I bit down, the juice of 60 small fruit burst in my mouth--dark, sweet bitter.

As tough as it would be to leave the comforts of home and summer behind, staying would get me nowhere. For my senior year of college, God’s plans called me back to a small Iowan town nearly 2000 miles away, and I knew that the best thing I could do was to trust and follow, even if the next step beyond that was clouded in uncertainty. The swallows were chirruping a brash evening chorus as I walked back to the house, the plastic bowl filled with blackberries that would stay at home.