Frogmorefocus is, among other things, about discovering (or re-discovering) the wonder and awe of life. Life at Frogmore Farm means encounters with the the nature of North Central Florida; its beauty and its bugs, its great joys and its deep losses, its many gifts and their demanding price. Of course that means much of this site is about the plants and animals found here. To me, nature includes the garden, the livestock, the harvest, and the joy of the meals that may result. So on this blog I hope to share not only photographs but many elements of "homestead living". I hope you'll share in the conversation; post a recipe, tell a tale, or ask a question. Together we may discover new ways to see the world and ourselves.
When one thinks of the Northern Cardinal it is usually the male that comes to mind. The bright red of its plumage, the familiar melody of its song, the nobility of its crested pate awaken the recognition of beauty in all but the most hardened heart. And it is the male Cardinal that has become a symbolic reminder for many of the continued presence of our loved ones lost to death. Northern Cardinal (female)Poised near my backyard feeder, this female Northern Cardinal endures a drizzling rain between visits for sunflower seeds at "Frogmore Feed & Seed"
Though subdued in hue (all the better for keeping nest sites hidden from those who would consume eggs or hatchlings) the female is, to me, just as gorgeous. Her crest stands to me equally symbolic, her earth-toned plumage just as attractive as her suitor's. Cardinals are ubiquitous and numerous but much appreciated nonetheless. Never let the fact that they are common - that is, frequently seen - lead you see them as common, as in unrefined or unworthy of consideration. Notice them with joy!
Always touched by that beauty it was discomfiting to see one of our American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal recently. (See photos at bottom of this page) The initial reaction of course was shock. How could anything kill and consume this messenger of beauty? But that sentiment was quickly replaced by fascination. You see, in their own primordial way alligators too are beautiful creatures, and I knew this moment was a gift to me as a photographer and appreciative observer of the natural world.
It was only later, as I processed these images that questions arose. Only then was I able to contemplate the meaning of what I had witnessed and my reactions to it. Every creature whether large or small, beautiful or plain to the human eye, is subject to predation. I know this is true because I have witnessed such scenes played out many times. Yet somehow I am moved by it still. Perhaps i react so strongly because I am reminded of my own mortality. Perhaps more disturbing is the realization that I am more than an observer. Like it or not, I am a participant in the natural order. The human body too is subject to the cycles of life and death, each molecule recycled and reused.
And so I ask, "Is this young alligator brutal? Is it evil for destroying a creature of beauty and symbolic meaning?" Of course not! it is just an alligator manifesting the fullness of "alligator-ness". Any attempt to impose ethical considerations leads me to the conclusion that only autotrophs are ethically pure, as the life of every heterotroph (including humans) depends upon the destruction of another living thing. (Amusing side question: which is ethically more 'pure', eating a carrot thoughtlessly, or consuming an oyster with thanksgiving for its sacrifice?)
Somehow though, what is most moving about the encounter that day is deeper than all that, beyond all explanation and definition. I like the way Therese Doucet put it in A Lost Argument:
"I want to see the world without explaining away its mystery by calling things wicked, righteous, sinful, and good. I want to erase in myself the easy explanations, the always mendacious explanations about why things happen the way they do, and in this way, to come to know the mystery of being--not by any approximation in thought but by being. I want to be and not be ashamed of being."
I am grateful that little female Northern Cardinal was able to be beautiful for awhile. I am thankful she now nourishes another who is able to manifest beauty as an American Alligator. I am moved to awe that I was able to be there in that intimate, precious moment.
Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting! Alligator Eating CardinalWatching one of our resident American Alligators eating a female Northern Cardinal was --- interesting!
Delapidated DoorwayEven the most dilapidated door holds promise. What lies in the darkness beyond? It had been a night of sound sleep; sleep so deep that as I began to awaken I didn't know where I was. I didn't know whether I'd been asleep for moments, or hours, or perhaps days. The grey light that shone dimly through my windows could mean the beginning or the end of the day. That semi-conscious space was itself so peaceful that I felt the need neither to step through the doorway of continued slumber nor to pass through to wakefulness. Then I heard it; the rooster crowed. A new day had dawned. But recalling the confusion and wonder of the preceding moments I pondered what it may be like to awaken without the contextual clues necessary to recognize time and place. Even my sleep dimmed faculties recognized the symbolic power of the moment.
Our lives are filled with times of transition, and this week we celebrate one that is universally recognized - the "ringing in" of the the New Year. Like every such transition it brings with it a note of uncertainty. We may wish one another a "Happy New Year", hoping the next year will be better than the last, that suffering and loss will be left behind while peace and joy fill the days ahead. But really we know that the year will bring for most of us both sorrow and joy. Passing through the door to a new year exposes us to risks and danger. And like all such liminal moments the New Year may, if we will allow it, open the way to great adventure, to new opportunities to learn and serve. We may discover the door into our deeper selves, or pathways into the hearts of others. But just as with the passage from wakefulness to sleep, pass we must. We may linger in the doorway for a while, but we cannot remain there. We must go on.
As I contemplated that dreamlike state the words in the photograph below came to me. In those days just over a year ago I had found great peace at Frogmore Farm had attained a sense of purpose and accomplishment in my part-time work. Yet I knew my mother's passing was drawing near. I cannot say I am thankful for all that I experienced in the weeks to come, but I am thankful for that one moment of confusion which led to an experience of profound clarity.
On a recent "day trip" we stopped for just a few moments at Big Talbot Island State Park, between Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach in northeast Florida. Like all the Florida State Parks I've been fortunate enough to serve (as a young man) or visit (across my whole life), Big Talbot Island is a place of outstanding natural beauty. It holds a special place for me because in my younger days - before the island was a part of Florida's award winning State Park system - my friends and I frequented the place. There are stories to be told of flounder gigging and the nonsense that went along with that activity. But I think I'll keep those chapters of life to myself for now (wink, wink)
Red Cedar at Fort George Island, FLThe coastal barrier islands of Northeast Florida were once home to many beautiful ancient Red Cedars. Most have been destroyed. This specimen shows the fluid form typical of these twisted giants. The island was once the home of many ancient Red Cedar trees, once a common species on the barrier islands of Florida's coast. Most were destroyed by greedy people who didn't comprehend their value. That too is another story for another day. The Red Cedar shown here was photographed on Fort George Island, another nearby property managed by the Florida Park Service. If you have never done so you really should explore the wonderful parks of that region stretching from Fort George Island to Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach.
That is the trip we made on that day when I visited Big Talbot Island for the first time in more than thirty years. Like coastal hammocks everywhere, the trees on the island have been shaped by the climate in which they grow. The prevailing sea breeze has bent and twisted their trunks into beautiful forms that leave no doubt about the direction of the ocean. And the salt spray borne by that breeze has pruned them beyond the ability of any arborist. These trees, as surely as those of the mountaintop, could serve as models for the artisans of Bonsai.
Just as the trees in the photograph were shaped by their climate we are shaped by the climate of our world. As my mentor and friend Jim Armstrong points out in his book,"Change: Reflections on Personal Growth & Social Transformation",
"The word climate has more than one meaning. It denotes 'meteorological conditions,' but also it means, 'a prevailing condition in human affairs.' It is not only atmosphere, it is attitudinal."
Yes, we are shaped by our climate. We grow into a shape influenced if not dictated by the prevailing winds and pruning of our lives. The food we eat, the environment in which we live, the activities we pursue, the people with whom we surround ourselves, the notions and beliefs we hold, and more, make up the climate in which we grow. All shape us in body, mind and spirit. (That's why my sister can adopt a pose in the photograph below that only great trauma could induce in me. She has chosen to care for her body in ways I have not. ) If I grow in a climate of guilt, shame, and blame, I am likely to feel guilt and shame whether or not they are warranted. Perhaps, just as those coastal trees point the way of the wind, such a climate will influence me to point my fingers at others in blame and judgement.
Yoga TreesAt Big Talbot Island State Park the trees are shaped by the sea breeze into beautiful, leaning forms. My sister becomes a part of the natural setting as she assumes a pose that would hospitalize me. There is an important difference between humans and trees though. The trees growing on the barrier islands of Northeast Florida did not choose their climate. The oaks didn't pick Fort George Island as acorns and decide, "this is the place for me." I didn't choose the climate into which I would be born and spend my youth either. As grateful as I am (and that's one helluva lot!), I didn't pick the era into which I would be born, a time of vaccines and air conditioning and burgeoning technological advances. I didn't choose to grow up in a privileged, white, Roman Catholic family in the United States. Most certainly I didn't choose parochial education (the nuns seem much kinder and gentler at the distance of a few decades than they did in the immediacy of childhood!) As a child I was as stuck with the climate I was given as are the trees.
But since adolescence at least, I've been able to make some choices about the climate surrounding me. I could pick my friends. Whether to participate in extracurricular activities, and which activities those might be were up to me. (Drama Club, Junior Achievement, and Photography fit me; sports not so much.) And of course as an adult the range of choices is broad.
Trees continue to grow and therefore to be shaped by their climate for the entirety of their lives. That is true of us as well. As Tony Robbins is quoted as saying, "if you aren't growing, you're dying." Just as we continue to grow in every stage of life, we continue to be shaped by the climate that surrounds us. Perhaps we can't change the climate of Washington DC (not directly or immediately, at least.) But we do have choices.
So I ask myself, "What choices of attitudinal climate shall I make today?" Do I choose an attitudinal climate of fear and xenophobia, or one of openness and acceptance of 'the other'? Will I protect what I think I know and believe and hear only the voices that reassure me, or will I risk ambiguity and uncertainty in order to discover what has until today remained beyond my comprehension? Do I choose the winds of victimhood or the fresh breeze of self determination? In my losses do I see myself denuded of all I care about, or in that pain am I pruned into a form I may not recognize but is just as much and perhaps more essentially 'me'?
May what I choose to eat today, the music to which I listen and the programs I choose to watch, the articles I select to read, the people with whom I converse, and the direction of my awareness in solitude bend me, twist me, shape me so that my (increasingly ancient) form may, like those with whom I stand, point toward justice, truth, peace, and the source of them all, which is love.
One of the first projects set in motion when I moved to Frogmore Farm was developing a small flock of laying hens. A coop and run were built anticipating we'd have 6 or 8 hens. There are 16 hens and a rooster today. Not to worry, there's plenty of room for all of them, especially in that the flock free-ranges almost every day.
Knowing far more eggs would be given as gifts than ever would grace our own tables (though I do tuck away my share), from the beginning I set out to build a flock whose eggs would be be colorful. Recipients of these eggs always comment on the appearance. They say the kids loved 'em but I think the grown-ups are just as captivated.
Intending to share them, just because they're attractive and unique, I took the photograph seen here. It was as I set up the shot, fiddling with the background and lighting, that something occurred to me I'd not considered before. Every egg is a slightly different shade. Even from the same hen their sizes vary; some are barely what USDA would call "Small" while others surpass the 2.5 oz "Jumbo" definition. The shells of some are smooth, others have rich texture. Sometimes an egg is misshapen, while the next from that hen may be textbook perfect. And it is that diversity of colors, sizes, and textures that makes a dozen of them so attractive, so beautiful.
Once you crack them though, they're all the same (okay, except for the size.) If you haven't had a truly fresh, free-range egg in a while you can't realize how beautiful and delicious they can be. Unlike the uh, 'less fresh' eggs most of us are used to, the yolks stand up tall and round rather than flattened. Because of the diverse diet free-ranging provides, those yolks are rich, deep yellow. And they taste good too.
How like people those eggs looked to me as I took their portrait. Each is beautiful, and that individual beauty is enhanced, is more visible and pronounced, when they are gathered together in a group of many shades, textures, and sizes. And, on the inside we are mostly the same - we are fresh, and beautiful, and rich. At our core, no one of us is any better or worse than the next. Funny how easy it is to see the beauty of diversity and the quality inside an egg and so easily miss them in the people and communities around us.
When I see that person tomorrow who is so clearly different from myself, I'll try to remember that they're a good egg.
(I've added some new photographs; please check out the "Recently Added" section of the website.)
“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”
Although I’d been baking bread for decades, it wasn’t until I moved permanently to Frogmore Farm that home baked bread completely displaced store-bought from my diet. The reason for that shift was rather pragmatic. I was broke and with a five pound bag of King Arthur Bread Flour, which cost about as much as a good loaf of bread, one could produce four loaves and have a bit of flour left over.
Every few days my cottage was filled with the wondrous aroma of baking bread – few things smell as appetizing. I enjoyed some wonderful whole grain loaves, and baked specialty loaves for Frogmore's visitors. And it was far more than just my diet and wallet that were enriched.
You see, there is something especially rewarding about baking bread, something somehow relational. You can feel the dough developing in your hands, responding to the warmth and strength of your touch, and you can smell the yeastiness that makes the dough very much a thing alive. Those who garden, raise livestock, or bake bread have a perspective of their sustenance that cannot be replicated by the transactions of any market, however fine the purveyor may be.
In the Fall of 2011 I watched a program on PBS I’d seen many times before, but this time with renewed interest. It was the episode of “Cooking With Master Chefs” in which Julia Child bakes sourdough bread with Nancy Silverton, chef-owner of La Brea Bakery. My interest in bread baking had its genesis with Julia and PBS back in 1974. That first loaf failed (badly!) but my interest did not. In this program, recorded during the 1990s, Silverton demonstrated her recipe for sourdough starter beginning with fresh grapes, flour, and water.
Well, I didn’t have any grapes, but the Wild Persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) just outside my door is prolific and from August until late winter the ground beneath it is littered with ripe Wild Persimmons. There was little to lose but a cup or two of flour and some water from our well, so I just had to experiment. And, it worked! The resulting sourdough starter is extremely active if not especially sour.
I baked a rustic sourdough loaf this morning. Rustic, of course, means it's got its flaws - imperfections you'll readily see as it is pictured here with some of this year’s Wild Persimmons. With every slice of this sourdough I am reminded that in it I taste “all the stars and all the heavens.” And in it I taste Frogmore Farm. The yeasts which make my bread rise and the bacteria that give it that very gentle tang weren’t imported from San Francisco, or Germany, or anywhere else. They’re a living part of this place, and they permit me to connect in an essential and meaningful way with the cosmos, with Julia Child, with Frogmore Farm, and especially with myself.
You can watch Julia Child and Nancy Silverton bake together here.
You read Nancy Silverton’s recipe here.
You can probably find a Wild Persimmon Tree near you (if you live in North America) and if not, wild Muscadines are still available for those of us in Florida.
But you can only taste my Sourdough at Frogmore Farm!
It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. Henry David Thoreau