Chop wood, carry water

prairie flowers

Imbolc is a traditional Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. Traditionally, it was celebrated on Feb. 1. However, because the day was deemed to begin and end at sunset, the celebrations would start on what is now January 31st. Imbolc translates to “in the belly” and was associated with the pregnancy of livestock, specifically of sheep, and the onset of the lambing season.

Here on the Northern Plains, we are nowhere near the beginning of spring, and while there are some brave and well-resourced shepherds who begin lambing now, for most of us, lambing won’t start for at least another month or two or three. Usually, however, this is the time of year I start dreaming of baby animals, and even (foolishly) trying to find an orphaned bottle baby or two or three that need a home.

In many cultural traditions across the northern hemisphere, this is also a time for early spring cleaning, a chance to sweep out the dust and soot that’s accumulated over the dark, cold winter months.

A few years ago I wrote about a zen teaching that goes:

‘”What does one do before enlightenment?” the novice asks.

“Chop wood. Carry water,” replies the master.

The novice asks next, “What does one do after enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water.”

As anyone living and working on a ranch or farm can attest, the work is never done, and much of the work is physically taxing and monotonous. Previously, I always interpreted the story to mean that even after achieving enlightenment, the chicken coop would still need to be cleaned, the herd and flock moved from pasture to pasture, the cattle worked, the lambs weaned, and, of course,  the detritus of these activities would constantly, exhaustingly, ANNOYINGLY need to be removed from one’s living space. Presumably one wouldn’t mind, because they’d achieved enlightenment.

When I originally wrote about the zen teaching, I finished the column with the following paragraph: “I’m trying to see the neverending chore of cleaning as a joyous opportunity to engage with the magic of transformation. I’m not there yet, but just as Imbolc heralds the quiet stirring of new growth, I can imagine the seeds of this new way of being stirring within me too. It’s not spring, but we are getting there.”

My goodness, so much has changed! The new house is smaller and much easier to keep clean. The kids are also older, more helpful and (slightly) less like human hurricanes. Consequently, cleaning does not feel like the overwhelming, unending burden it once did. Keeping things relatively tidy is now the work of minutes instead of hours, so I no longer feel I need to be a zen master to survive the chaos of my own household.

I also, against all odds, have not been feeling the bottle baby fever that usually characterizes this time of year. After so much illness, the idea of waking all hours of the night to trudge out with bottles, not to mention fretting when they do poorly (which is almost inevitable with orphaned livestock) sounds exhausting instead of fulfilling. Taking care of myself is enough extra work for now.

Instead, this year I am feeling the threshold of Imbolc internally. We still have one foot in the depths of winter, but the darkest 10 weeks of the year are officially over. Meanwhile, beneath our feet the smallest of shifts is taking place. Tiny seeds, germinating in darkness, are beginning to awaken. In ways I can’t yet explain, this feels a little like what illness and midlife are offering me as well.

If we let it, this time is when we learn how to straddle the paradox, to dance with complexity, to set down strong and deep roots. It requires rest and dormancy, but also a slow enlivening that can’t be rushed. The earth isn’t waiting for spring, she’s preparing for the magic of rebirth one soft, quiet moment at a time.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.