Morning sounds

In the city shortly before sunrise, as predictable as the returning light, the warning blasts from the morning train’s horn begin.
Muffled at first by distance, the piercing sound grows louder with the train’s approach until it joins with the clanging bells of the lowering crossing arms shouting: Beware. Beware.
Motorists pause impatiently. Then the sounds of accelerating engines and wheels turning on asphalt take over as the train moves to another crossing, to another neighborhood still trying to sleep.
Even before dawn, the loud hum of humans is constant in the city.
The rising sun brings with it the beep, beep, beep of garbage trucks backing up and the rumble of mowers and the growls of leaf blowers.
At the farm, the sounds of an awakening day are orchestrated by nature, not people.
As punctual as the city’s train, the first bird begins to sing before the sun’s orange glow paints the horizon.
The screech owls, great horned owls, barred owls and occasionally coyotes set the tone with their night hoots and startling cries.
At sunrise, the cardinals, chickadees, mourning doves, blue jays and quail take over.
Why do they sing?
Those who study such things say the songs come mostly from males trying to attract mates and warning other males to stay away from their territories.
I like to think the songs are a daily announcement of: “Here I am.”
Soaking up these sounds soothes and calms. It reminds us that nature, battered by human carelessness and greed, is still there, reveling in the routine of beginning another day.
Here I am.
If we are indeed on the brink of another mass extinction as scientists predict, the loss will be ours.
In the city, the clatter of humans adjusting to a new world will grow louder.
At the farm, the silence will overwhelm.
Where are you?
I’m no longer here.

The Bench

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The bench isn’t much to look at.
Like most of my building projects, it’s a bit off kilter but solid.
Made with pressure treated lumber, it should last for years, certainly not forever. Nothing made by humans does.
I carried it on my trailer to one of the deep ravines on Roaring Creek Farm and placed it among the towering pines and hardwoods.
It’s quiet there.
The gurgling water of a gently flowing creek soothes. Birds sing their ancient songs.
It’s a place to listen to God.
If you believe the Old Testament stories, God was much more direct during those times.
The word came through a burning bush or spoken by an archangel or directly from God.
Abraham, Moses, David and the other chosen ones must have trembled at the sound.
God speaks in a quieter voice now.
You can hear it in this cathedral in the woods. Divining the meaning isn’t always simple.
Jesus taught in such places, on hillsides and in farmers’ fields.
He didn’t need multimillion-dollar edifices to inspire or million-dollar pipe organs to create a heavenly sound.
We’ve gotten it all wrong. His message was delivered simply:
Feed the hungry, visit the sick, welcome the stranger, love your neighbor.
Hurricane Michael left many of the trees on Roaring Creek Farm twisted and broken.
The bench on the side of the ravine survived amid the fallen trunks and branches.
The creek and the birds still sing their songs. God still speaks, quietly, subtly.
You only have to listen.

Trump must go

August 31, 2019.
Roaring Creek Farm, Gadsden County, Florida.
Less than one year ago, Michael, a Category 5 hurricane, struck the Big Bend.
The farm wasn’t spared. Winds of 145 mph toppled old hardwood trees and planted longleaf pines alike.
The destruction remains painfully evident.
Now another massive hurricane, Dorian, stalks in the Atlantic Ocean, threatening the East Coast.
Welcome to the new normal.
Meanwhile, the president of the United States is hastening what will certainly be the devastating impacts of climate change.
He has put industry toadies in positions of power who are dead set on undoing even the modicum of environmental protections that were in place.
Of all the absurdities that come out of his mouth, remember this one: How about dropping a nuclear bomb into hurricanes to stop them.
Or this one: I’m an environmentalist because I’ve done environmental impact statements for projects.
There are many reasons why it is imperative that this president shouldn’t be re-elected.
We desperately need a leader who will prepare us for the new world we are bequeathing to our grandchildren.
If we don’t find that leader, the question they will be asking us will cut like a jagged knife:
How could you?

Take a Moment to Drink from Nature’s Cup

The bird feeders at Roaring Creek Farm are dinged and worn after tussles with squirrels and raccoons and the passage of time.
But the birds still visit them: chickadees, the tufted titmouse, mourning doves, woodpeckers, crows.
The male cardinals stand out with their startling red raiment and their quarreling ways.
When I was a boy, I had a pair of mourning doves that lived outside in a cage my father and I had built, but I had to release them when a next-door neighbor complained about their cooing, which he somehow found irritating instead of peaceful.
Another time I found an egg that had fallen from a nest. I swaddled it in cotton and placed it on top of the water heater for warmth.
The shell cracked open, and I fed the baby sparrow with an eyedropper as it grew feathers and learned to fly.
The bird would sit on my shoulder. Outside it would take flight but always return to me.
I had to leave the sparrow perched on a chain link fence instead of my shoulder as we left on a family vacation.
I can see it to this day, sitting lonely and confused. It was gone when we returned.
Life lessons taught at an early age: People don’t always appreciate beauty and life moves on.
The other day at the farm the crows were carrying on in the yard by the feeders, cardinals flitted from one feeder to another and a red-bellied woodpecker sailed down from a nearby hickory tree and hung upside down on a feeder to dine.
The birds offer comfort in good times and times of trouble.
“Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?
“Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”
No, but life’s moments are richer when we drink deeply from the beauty of God’s creation.
We are assigned the task of protecting it. In these difficult times, to our shame we are failing to fulfil our sacred duty.

The Tractor

One would think that after almost eight years of sharing intimate moments we would be friends.
We are closer to reaching mutual understanding, but it is apparent there will always be an undercurrent of mistrust and acrimony in our relationship.
Neither one of us is much to look at.
The old faded-red Massey Ferguson tractor has more than a few dings, and at 71 years old so do I.
When I climb onto the driver’s seat, I can almost hear the tractor say with disdain, “Rookie.”
It’s an apt description since I spent my working career in offices far removed from plowing fields.
We met when my wife and I bought Roaring Creek Farm. I had zero tractor experience.
I began learning by doing, and I quickly learned the tractor could kill me, especially when using the Bush Hog to mow the side of a hill in one of our pastures.
Ah, the Bush Hog. It too has its moments.
The first challenge is attaching the Bush Hog to the Power Take-Off shaft, which transfers the mechanical power from the tractor to the mower.
If this sounds like I’m smart, I had to Google it.
But let’s back up. The first challenge is lining up the side arms of the tractor’s three-point hitch to attach them to the mower.
This is a precise operation. There is nothing precise about my Massey Ferguson.
That finally accomplished it’s time to join the mower to the PTO shaft. The shaft on the mower should slide out to allow the coupler to reach the PTO.
Did I mention the Bush Hog is also old and cantankerous?
The shaft is heavy and doesn’t exactly slide with ease. More than once after finally accomplishing the tedious task of attaching the side arms to the mower, I’ve found the shaft impossible to break free.
Unwilling to erase the progress of having attached the sidearms, I’ve had to crawl under the tractor, tie a tow rope to the stuck shaft, secure the tow rope to my four-wheeler and use that to free it.
This entire operation has been known to take several hours, much sweat, skinned knuckles and a flow of curse words.
I’m quite certain the language has not helped our relationship, and I’m working on that.
Once up and running doesn’t mean the adventure is over.
There is much vibration in the mower, akin to being attached to one of those weight loss machines that wraps a belt around your middle and shakes, which means critical pins can come loose, which means the Bush Hog can end up in precarious positions, which means walking back to the barn to get the farm truck’s jack to realign the mower to properly attach it again.
Then there are the repairs the Massey Ferguson often requires, such as unclogging the fuel line, which no matter how carefully done always results in a good dousing of diesel.
Removing dirt and debris from the radiator so the engine doesn’t overheat is another fun chore.
I could go on.
For instance, changing the bearing on the Bush Hog’s rear wheel probably shouldn’t take a day and a half, but loosening bolts that haven’t been freed in years takes more sweat, more cursing and more time, as does the several trips to town to the tractor shop to get needed parts.
After my latest skirmish with the tractor, my wife commented: “You and that tractor! Gonna take it away from you!”
Not a chance. Our relationship is beginning to mature.
I’m no longer a rookie. I have the scars to prove it.

Jacksonville, The Times They Aren’t a Changin

From the blue gate that opens to Roaring Creek Farm, Jacksonville is 195 miles to the east.
At the farm, it is peaceful. Jacksonville, however, is a hot mess.
It’s the Jacksonville way, and it’s been mostly that way during the 40 years I’ve reflected on the city as a journalist.
But the city’s bad traits have only been exacerbated by the current administration.
As demonstrated through words and action, at its core is a meanness and a posture of war.
Unfortunately, its enemy is inclusiveness and striving for common ground.
And it has molded people who know better into its ugly image.
While the city’s murder rate climbs ever upward, the administration, with a majority of the City Council bent to its will, has stuck its nose into another elected body’s business.
Before and since consolidation, the city’s minority neighborhoods have been treated shabbily.
That’s particularly true with the public schools.
The School Board hopes to reverse that shame by asking voters to approve a sales tax to upgrade the system’s dilapidated schools, the oldest in the state.
But the administration and council, egged on by a group of rich people who want to grab a disproportionate chunk of the tax revenue for their pet projects, stand in the way.
It’s the Jacksonville way.
Instead of this power play, the administration and council should be paying attention to city challenges that actually fall under their purview:
The murder rate. The fact that after 50 years, the promises of consolidation remain unfulfilled. Failing infrastructure. Pollution. Preparing the city for climate change.
It’s difficult to pay to correct such shortcomings while giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to favored developers who have the money to pay their own way instead of feeding off taxpayers who don’t get such breaks.
It’s the Jacksonville way.
With this administration just at the start of its second term, it’s going to be a long and dangerous four years.
An embarrassingly low turnout of voters put this crew into office. One has to wonder how much people care.
The mayor isn’t fiddling while the city burns. He’s attending Jaguar practices.
And the people shrug instead of demanding change.
It’s the Jacksonville way.

2019, Anno Domini: A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

She stood on a hill and cried out:
A reckoning is coming.
The children are sobbing.
Parents are taken, their brown-skinned hands cuffed.
The shots ring out rapidly again, again and again.
A reckoning is coming.
The seas are rising and covering the land.
Fields are parched.
Fields are flooded.
A reckoning is coming.
The winds howl.
The earth trembles.
A reckoning is coming.
A country founded in blood and subjugation still hates.
A few live lavishly and want more.
Those without are stirring, their anger increasing like a gathering storm.
A reckoning is coming.
Where are the leaders? Not here.
Where are the prophets? Silent.
A reckoning is coming.
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
A reckoning is coming.
She stood on a hill and cried out:
A reckoning is coming.
No one heard.