Dawn and the Highest of the Arts


“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Last night at bedtime my kindergartner asked me if we could wake up “still in the nighttime” and go on an adventure before school. I told him sure, but that he’d have to wake me up. This morning at precisely 6:15 am, I felt a small hand on my shoulder and a whispered, “Dad, it’s getup time.” Without opening my eyes I whispered back, “ok just a few minutes.” He refused to snooze and appealed to my sense of honor: “You promised last night that we could get up in the nighttime. Is it morningtime now?” I acquiesced and rolled out of bed. Within five minutes we were both stepping into wellies and zipping up down jackets. He wore a hat. I couldn’t find mine.

I have wanted to go for a dawn walk in the woods for the past couple of weeks now. I even worked out a plan for doing a morning walk at exactly the same time and on the exact same route every morning for a year and writing about it, a sort of human time lapse. Such rigid discipline appeals to my imagination, but not to my body. It took a persistent five-year-old to actually get me out into the woods at dawn.

Yesterday I walked around the farm on a cloudy afternoon to take some pictures for this website. Except for the green halo around a few just-budded maple trees, the whole farm was a flat duochrome of gray and brown. This morning everything was soaked in the golden orange of low-angle dawn light. The same green buds and grass now sparkled with heavy dew. Long tree shadows reached far into the meadow and field.

We grabbed the Nikon before we went out, and I let him carry it. Yesterday when I was taking pictures, I moved fallen branches that cluttered a shot of the woods and a long orange cinch strap out of a picture of the barn. I stood next to the Weber grill so that it would be out of the home page picture. My son hasn’t yet learned to frame discordant or ugly elements out of his shots, and the result is a pure form of realism. He’s just trying to capture the world he sees; he’s not trying to present it to anybody. His camera work captured a couple embarrassing pictures of soggy moving boxes that have cluttered our driveway for far too long and a couple of beautiful low angle (ie. from about 3’6”) shots of the sunrise. My favorite is this one,  “Broken Down Tree.” The picture and its title are all his.


Aldo Leopold famously wrote that the chief spiritual dangers of not owning a farm are the faulty suppositions that food comes from a grocery and that heat comes from a furnace. Fair enough, but, having recently purchased a farm, I have become well acquainted with farms’ many, many hazards. Some of the dangers, like Leopold’s benefits, are spiritual, but just as many are physical and economic.

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned about farm ownership. Thoreau is clear about the hazards:

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?

I read these lines with glee as an unlanded and untethered twenty-year-old, and they have never been far from my mind in the years since, bubbling up to the foreground of my consciousness at title company closing tables and Home Depot checkout lines. I’ve always kind of regarded Thoreau’s warning as a sort of metaphorical exhortation about the dangers of material possessions generally, not farm ownership specifically. Once again I am reminded that it’s always a danger to abstract Thoreau too far from the particular thing he describes. A pond bottom, a mountain ridge, or a farm may point at some other truth, but it’s never just a symbol of a spiritual fact. A pond is a pond, a mountain is a mountain, and in this case, a farm really is a farm.

My farmhouse has occupied nearly every non-working[1], waking minute of my life since we closed on it in October. Sometimes the work is a joy,  as it was yesterday when I was jointing the edges of cherry shelves with a no. 5 Stanley plane in spring sunshine. If there is a more elegant tool than a well-tuned jack plane I haven’t come across it.   Other times the work does indeed feel like a march towards death, as when I pulled rotten plaster and mouse droppings and insulation down on my head in search of something, anything, sound to which I could anchor a new ceiling. Or when I nearly cut the top of my right thumb off reaching blindly into my tool box in search of a phillips screw driver, finding only the edge of an open PEX cutter. That thumb has almost healed enough to allow me to button shirts or buckle carseats without excruciating pain, and this is a good thing, because I’ve recently lost pain-free use of my left index finger to a nasty splinter.

But the thing is, my children who are directly in line to someday inherit the farm, its house, its barn, its tools, they love it. On Sunday afternoon I hung a hammock with them at the edge of the woods and the meadow to loaf in the first truly warm day of the spring: “you can read books with them and maybe even snooze a bit with them,” Kerstin told me optimistically as she climbed into the car to run to the grocery store unencumbered. I lay in the bottom of the hammock trying to steal a few moments of sleep, but they quickly imagined the hammock into a ship on the high seas. Small knees and feet and elbows kneeled and stepped and pressed on me as my children took turns climbing to the hammock’s prow to lean out over the prairie grass as a figurehead and to hike out over its nylon gunwale. These inadvertent steps I could mostly ignore, but eventually my children interrupted whatever snatches of sleep (seconds really, definitely not minutes) I had stollen with shark attacks and giant swells that swayed and rolled the hammock-ship. I finally abandoned my attempts to sleep in favor of landing shrieking and laughing sharks.

I love the farm too, now that I’ve had a few moments to enjoy it. Last night I read eighty pages of Nikolaus Butler’s The Hearts of Men for pleasure while my family slept. Sensing that I was reading far too late into the night, I turned off the light exhausted. I couldn’t sleep though, so I got up, made myself some herbal tea, and set up shop to do some writing in my Morris chair. It was the first time I had read for pleasure in a long time and the first time I sat in a chair in the living room, even though I had lived in the house for two weeks. I had often imagined myself reading and writing in the house as I worked on it, and these few stolen minutes late at night were a joy that I paid for with a sort of literary hangover this morning.

[1] Working, here, means reading and summarizing seventeenth-century books of travel as I promised I would do in my fellowship application.