Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #36: Julia Shipley

Writers on Writing #36: Julia Shipley


I. Writing from the Ox-house

A human life is like a single letter in the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning —Jewish Theological Seminary, 1956

I fell in love with a dairy farmer. Like a duck that had fallen for a camel, I despaired as I stood inside the shed I rented for writing studio while I watched him mow, ted and bale hay in the field beyond the window: what on earth could we share?

But take the letter A and tip it over. There, do you see it? That familiar cow-like face girded by two horns? There’s your ox. “Aleph” is ancient Hebrew for the beast that pulls the plough, and is now the boss cow of a herd of 26 head of letters.

And then, for this next one, use your imagination: B derives from Hebrew for “house” or "Beth.” Put them together (A+B) and you’ve got: aleph-beth.

And there I am, standing in the shed of language, amid letters ready as tools hung on timbers, gradually discovering that that the word “alphabet,” essentially means, “ox-house” or barn.

Before this dawning, I spent many afternoons in agony, questioning my desire to write and the validity of my work, meanwhile pining for the sensual, practical labor of making hay.

I had just given up learning to milk my boyfriend’s cows and was staring at his fields instead of my pages, wondering what I could make that was as necessary as milk. He loved, knew and performed his work in a way I could not and did not. Because I didn’t know what my work was. So I recorded his:

I am watching Adam from the tiny window of the shed. He’s directly across the road baling hay on the Hershey kiss of a hill he calls the knoll. I can hear the gravelly voice of the engine. He’s got the baler on. He’s driving over the swaths of mowed and raked hay. The baler takes this flat ribbon of grasses and rolls them into a huge spool. He’s pausing right in front of me, working the levers, the baler hatch opens and releases a one ton bale. It’s emerging like an egg from beneath the unseemly metal skirt of the baler, this culmination of an eighth of a mile of cut grasses, of 50 consecutive days of growth. We watch it roll toward the electric pole and stop in the dip just before it. Now he puts the tractor back in gear and creeps away. The growly tractor noise fades and now he is gone.

If poet-farmer Robert Frost had a notion to show up as a human again, he might have shoved open my shed door and scolded me for whimpering in there with my notebooks, repeating a favorite saying, “Any Psychiatrist will tell you that making a basket, or making a horseshoe, or giving anything form gives you a confidence in the universe…that it has a form, see. When you talk about your troubles and go to somebody about them, you’re just a fool. The best way to settle them is to make something that has form, because all you want to do is get a sense of form.”

Perhaps the barrier I felt between my work and my dairy farmer’s work perhaps was nothing more than my own longing for form. And so in the dim and dusty shack on the edge of a hayfield I discovered how to write by studying the process and structures of Adam’s work.

From my ox-house I started to recognize my livestock were letters and words. I found my equivalent of his mowings in my daily journal entries, fifty consecutive days of notes. I saw the resemblance between the process of raking hay in windrows and the crafting of words into verses and sentences. Whereas he baled hay, I baled those sentences into paragraphs of prose. The meadows revealed themselves as pages, and the barn itself became the equivalent of the book where it all goes, to feed the mind and soul.

II. Alphabet--Herd

As far as we know, [writing] began in ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq). This area around the 3rd millennia… consisted largely of shepherds and farmers. This explains the first inscriptions…these tablets, which constitute a form of written temple records, list sacks of grain and heads of cattle. --from Writing: The Story of Alphabets

Both writing and farming began as marks on earth: a reed scoring wet clay, a metal share incising sod—both are acts of change, of expression, of making an impression, of determination. Originally one served the other, as the scratches on clay were a means of keeping track of flocks of sheep, of bushels of wheat.

Once my friend taught me the Chinese character for farmer, dipping her finger in sudsy water she drew on the concrete: a man standing in quartered fields. He also seemed a pen upright on paper till her picture bled away.

Oh, I begin to see: these two vocations have been bedfellows for centuries.

John’s wife also fell in love with a dairy farmer and his small herd of cattle. Each cow has their own special place in the barn. They stand one beside the other, tied up nice and orderly, fed with hay and grain, as John progressively milks each twice a day. After they’re all milked, he unhitches them and they make a crowd of big, bony, voluptuous bodies ambling out to a paddock until the morning milking. One evening before Valentine’s Day, John’s wife snuck out to the corral with a fat wax crayon, the kind you use to mark the hind of cow in heat or to scribe an X on the hip of the one to be sold. With the marking stick she wrote one letter on each cow’s flank. The next morning John watched his herd parade into the barn, a jumble of letters: y, V, t, i, p, u, I, l, o, a, l….but as each cow took her place, their message constructed itself: H.a.p.p.y. V.a.l.e.n.t.i.n.e.’.s. I. y.o.u.

“All forms are language,” said potter MC Richards.

Among my friends I count a potter, a woodworker, a knitter, a baker, and a basket weaver. I envy the sweet shape of their work: Heather’s mug drawn up and opened by her hands; Dave’s wooden bowl, lathed from a sputtering chunk of maple into a gentle hollow; Tina’s silver yarn drawn from fuzz into pure fiber on a drop spindle; Kristen’s pillowed loaf of bread; Heidi’s paunchy pack basket.

And then there’s my hen’s tan egg; and the river’s egg--a globule of clay worked by turbulence of the Lamoille River into a duck-shaped sculpture. MC would say these objects are the letters of our cultural alphabet.

In my great grandparent’s basement we found something that looked like an iron letter j—was it an upside-down cane? A grab hook? It was for hanging a curing ham.

As with all these treasures, as with the useful hay bale of dried grass strapped in a hunk, or rolled into a spool, I yearned to hew words into such pleasing forms, to make them a shapely as the letters they contain.

After MC’s death, at her request, her friend Paulus Berensohn wedged her ashes into clay and made hundreds of stone seeds of them and placed them in lines like sentences. Berensohn wrote of his work: “This is what I have been imagining these last few days: that each word is a seed that I can plant.”

III. Journal Notes—The mowings

Many 19th century farm journals are spare and concise:

Here’s upstate New York farmwife Delia Denison’s Diary from 1883:

June 11th Mon: H. went to the Village

June 17th Mon: a very rainy day

Or here’s Pennsylvania farmer John B. Gehman’s log from 1854:

June 11th Abraham Stauffer and Isaac Shelly were here

June 17th We are done plowing corn

For comparison, here are my verbose journal gleanings from my from an apprenticeship on a vegetable farm near Albany, New York, in 1997.

June 11th Irrigating. Lynn rototills one more time. Put up trellis posts 12-15 feet apart. Holes drilled through top of each post, wire strung through pea netting and lashed around and around with twine (twining netting to wire for tension); shelling Great Northern beans for seed; scuffle- hoed in poorly germinating corn; seeded two more kinds: Platinum Lady and Burgundy (six beds total). 90 degrees.

June 17th wheel hoed the potatoes; transplant Brussels sprouts into ends of potato bed (work up, add bone meal); transplant melons (Yellow Doll); weed leeks (desperate); fish emulsion and seaweed feed all tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, basil greenhouse tomatoes, tomatillos; transplant some flowers out; seed gourds and Blue Hubbard.

In and of itself—not so interesting, but…

IV. Verse--Raked into Windrows

The aisles of agriculture, where crops are planted—these, I realize, have counterparts as both the furrows of the lined page and the sentences I situate upon them.

One of my favorite poets, Seamus Heaney, wrote a poem in which he described his father’s agricultural talents: “My father digging,...the course boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/ against the inside knee was leveled firmly./ By God, the old man could handle a spade./ Just like his old man…My grandfather cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.”

As this poem grows, you can sense the anxiety of a son daring to step away from the legacy of his father with, “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

Heaney also felt an anxiety about the separateness of vocation, the laboring father, the schooled son, but finds in the end a binding element. At the end of the poem, the poet swerves to see where their energies bind, where the barrier becomes a link, their labors rhyme: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it.”

With this permission to dig I unearthed more convergences and correspondences between writers and farmers. Heaney showed me how one sows and harvests the outer fields, as another forages and reaps the inner realm.

V. Bales of Prose

“You’ve got to know what you can do in a day”—Adam

Yet to some extent, writing and farming are impossible to reconcile--for how is there time to cultivate the thoughts on pages, and to read extensively, and then get on a tractor, plow, disc, re-seed a hay field, fix the water line to the far pasture and milk the cows? As an apprentice on vegetable farms I would get up at 4:30 a.m. to write in a journal; I would make notes on the backs of seed packets in the field, but as for making a book of work: nothing much accrued.

I’d sneak a volume out into the field to relieve my loneliness, allowing one poem per row of weeded vegetables. At night I prop the book on my chest and take in a few pages before exhaustion tugged me under.

Adam, he also read on the job, beginning with the Burlington Free Press. He’d drop each finished wing of the news in the gutter, one about every 5-7 cows; the portions he wanted to think about, he’d drape over the horizontal bars across the window, finishing the whole issue as he finished morning chores, reading wars and natural disasters, scores and funnies, all between putting machines on, pulling machines off his herd.

Hoard’s Dairyman, Sports Illustrated, these were consumed in the house, along with the chapters of the Bible. He had time for one a day, which he read before plunging into a post- lunch nap.

When he used to plow with horses, he’d read after every few furrows, turning the pages between turning soil, while the horses rested.

Yasunari Kawabata coined the term: “smoke-long pieces”---and began paring his prose to transpire entirely between the lighting of the cigarette through stubbing it out.

This became part of my vocation, then: to write something the length of a horse rest. Or to write something so succinct and compelling that it could be left and returned to while Pepper, Cleopatra, May and Denise let their milk down.

For over a decade, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s twin fields of prose have itinerantly appeared in the bottomlands of the Opinion Page of the New York Times. Titled, "The Rural Life," his piece is something you could read in the time it takes to offload the tedder and attach the rake to the back of your tractor. Something you could read in the time it takes to milk out Thistle with the machine.

The layout director at the Times sticks a section of post and rail fence and what looks to be a 65 horsepower tractor up in the headlands of his prose meadows, as if in perpetual approach. Within this tidy patch of cultivated turf, Klinkenborg explores the facets of his farm life in upstate New York. His topics are simple: a lost knife, an ice storm, a wounded horse. But he turns each observation and incident into a small resonant meditation—his crafted words fit the mind of the reader, like a shovel fits the width of the furrow.

VI. The Meadow: Field as Page

Adam taught me to read the fields. We’d go for drives around the countryside in his battered Subaru and he’d point out the way goldenrod, bedstraw and milkweed will invade the fields not hayed in recent years. I learned to see clover showing the fertile patches and recognize the shabby grass of poor soil. I read the remnants of ancient high drives and old cellar holes, of swampy lands and ledge-lands; I knew when timothy grass headed up, first cut hay was ready to be reaped.

But gazing at the mountains hunched around us like recumbent cows, I realized the glaciers were a kind of writer: their scour and retreat gave us this soil. And with this soil and because of it: grass, trees, the place where our stories play out.

In James Galvin’s book, The Meadow, he writes:

The way people watch television while they eat—looking up to the TV and down to take a bite and back up—that’s how Lyle watches the meadow out the south window while he eats his breakfast. He’s hooked on the plot, doesn’t want to miss anything. He looks out over the rim of his cup as he sips.

As the book progresses this meadow reveals itself as the force that flares and fills the beings who dwell upon it. This book is the story of the meadow, the main thing, the enduring, eternal thing, upon which men briefly smoke, sip and work.

VII.  The Plough Provokes the Muse

In Willa Cather’s, My Antonia, the narrator, speaking from the early 20th century, tells us of his college studies, learning, ‘Primusego inpatriam mecum…deducam Musas means “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.”  His professor clarifies,

patria didn’t mean nation, “but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country,” to his father’s fields.

Certainly Seamus Heaney with his poems begotten in the peat of Ireland, and Klinkenborg with his neat rows of rural news, and Galvin collecting the sediment of a meadow’s 150,000 year history between the covers of a book, yes, they have brought the muse into their father’s fields.

Or, then again no, perhaps not. Maybe they are not so much escorting the muse into the country as hearing the muse’s release from the soils of place as the plough blade opens the land. Whether spirit is made or found, I pay attention now, in case she’s in the clang of stones on tines, the wraith of mist above a mown field, or the wistful syllables of killdeer.

VIII. The Book is a Barn For All of It

What both James Galvin and Willa Cather propose in their work is that the land itself is a being, not just receiving imprints and becoming marked, but exerting itself, imprinting itself--the land authors us.

In O Pioneers, Cather evokes newly settled Nebraska as a landscape that is alive, conscious, that it has a will:

It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness…the land was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man.

And in My Antonia, Cather writes:

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea... And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running…I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…

This idea makes the totality of this farm with its double strands of 14 gauge wire running the perimeter seem like it’s all just one big hay-bale with sagging twine, something just barely kept whole.

Or else it’s like the whale inside which I and my farmer and his herd are Jonah.

IX. Stored in the Mow

The turnip farmer rose and with a fresh pulled turnip...Pointed to my road. --Issa

As I learned to farm the vacant pages inside my rented shed, I often felt as if I were beneath or within a kind of beast. The low ceiling with rib-like rafters and icicles drooling from the eaves suggested that though I had ceased milking for Adam and John, I was still working by the belly of a cow. And from this bovine shelter I grew out of my despair. I recognized that though my work meets no physical needs—you can not eat this book, (and as for burning it—its warmth so temporary), farmers and scribes have needed each other ever since Mesopotamia, when raising more grain and calves than they could keep track of begat the need for writing and a barn.

As I loved the man whose work was so obvious: turning grass into hay to feed cows, I began to recognize and celebrate how I could write something like a bale—something dense and tight, made of days like June 11th and June 18,th to sustain a tired mind, if not between cows or right before sleeping, then something that could be broken open and consumed through our brutal winter.

I found that plowing land, traversing rows of vegetables, mowing, traveling back and forth from barn to house--this shuttling is so akin to writing, the body a pen, the land an endless tablet, that the words within us, under our gambrel skulls, are waiting to be let out to pasture.

Julia Shipley’s essays have appeared in Alimentum, Fourth Genre, Whole Terrain, and Wildbranch: an Anthology of Nature, Environment and Place-based Writing (University of Utah 2010). She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Herd (Sheltering Pines Press 2010) and Planet Jr. (Flyway/Iowa State 2012). A version of this essay will appear as part of a limited edition letterpress book, Adam's Mark: Writing From the Ox House, forthcoming from Plow Boy Press in late 2013, and she’s currently completing a collection of linked essays, Dirt’s Mistress: On Man, Land, & Literature. She writes, teaches and farms in rural Vermont. Her website is

Passages North's nonfiction contest winners announced!

Passages North's nonfiction contest winners announced!

When the Plan Comes Together by Tom Rich

When the Plan Comes Together by Tom Rich