By Chip Prehn

It is winter in the Shenandoah Valley. Since we are 1,000 feet higher than the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, it is colder here sooner than there. In the winter, all that’s left of the land is its bones. The trees are bare of their brilliant foliage. No fruit remains in the orchard. Apples and pears are long gone. The trails through the woods are clear of weeds but not of stiff briars. Most everywhere around here the corn has been shelled, and the last haying was completed many weeks ago.

We have not seen the farm like this in a year. It is free of pretense and flourish. These colors and shades are not seen in summer. The winter colors are beautiful but more subtle: raspberry, mauve, various lavenders, and more shades of gray than seems natural. Along the lane, the scarlet leaves of the sassafras trees rest fading on the ground, but here and there a stubborn sumac shines red against the pewter timber. The days are bright if cold.

The animals have lost most of their cover. The deer are exposed and will burrow in leaves during the daylight hours. The groundhogs have gone into the den for the winter. The big red foxes know where to hide, and must do so now with this year’s cubs. The bobcat’s stomach will need to shrink for a few months. The skunks seem to wander aimlessly from scent to scent. Late at night, we hear the cries of those most successful hunters: coyotes, on which we have yet to lay an eye.

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We have seen only the evidence of bears. Near the orchard and in the woods, we have discovered their unmistakable scat. In early spring, we know they have visited our woods under the cover of darkness because the sapling cherry trees are broken over from the tops. The wildlife service says there are now too many bears in the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge. This is why people are meeting bears in unexpected places such as near garbage cans and on their back stoops. Since our farm is in between the two mountain ranges, our land is bound to be a thoroughfare for the big and startlingly discreet creatures.

We’ve met a man who hunts black bears with hounds. He’s been as close to an irritated, fleeing bear as the length of his arm. “It was a 300-pounder,” he told me. “The dogs gave him his space, and I thought he was charging me!” That bear got away that day. It feared the hunter as much as the hunter feared it; so they honored each other with respect and understanding. For his part, the man praised God that his life was spared. That’s how he put it.

I am here in Virginia in Advent because we are in the last days of a house-raising. We aimed to move into the cottage a month ago, but labor is scarce in the Shenandoah Valley and every project takes longer than projected. We are glad that the men working on the house take pride in their work. Their work is excellent. We designed the house to look (as much as possible) like a Valley house built 100 years ago. We did not want our house to look like the abode of interlopers, but native. We bought the farm from people who have been in Virginia since the early 17th century. We do not want to pretend. It is this soil in which we shall root ourselves. It is this place of which we are only temporary stewards.

The little cottage on the top of the farm is almost finished. Old as it appears, there is central heating and air-conditioning, a gas range, a wood-burning fireplace with a gas “cheater,” and even a water softener. The fireplace is in the main room. From that front room we can see for miles to the north, to the east, and to the west. To the west is Elliott Knob on the Allegheny Ridge. Up there is the tower whence the signal comes for our Wi-Fi service.

Until the cottage is finished, we are living down in the old homesite in a 200-year-old log cabin rebuilt on our place by a talented contractor. The big logs came from another farm up near Lexington. (In the Shenandoah Valley, “up” is south and “down” is north, because the Shenandoah River drains northward into the Potomac.) The friend who gave us the logs told us, “If you get the logs off my farm, you can just have them.”

Based on the diameter of the chestnut, oak, and walnut logs, some of them 22 feet long, the logs were 80 to 100 years old in 1826 when pioneers built the original cabin up the Valley. We thus figure that the logs of our remade cabin are 350 years old. The pioneer cabin was constructed to withstand Shawnee raids and bitter cold. Square nails in the timber were modern at the time. Our friend kept the stones of which a massive fireplace was made.

The cabin is cozy. Its thermal qualities are excellent, though in freezing weather our standup heater is seldom able to push the cabin temperature above 68 degrees. We have grown accustomed to the bracing if brief trip between the cabin and the outdoor shower. Since we have one of the best little water heaters in Christendom, we do not much feel the cold after a shower. Shutters from the original farm house provide a windbreak and concealing screens on three sides. We have found that our bodies and our attitudes adjust to our situation without overmuch trouble or complaint.

We are glad it is winter in the Shenandoah Valley. We feel warm, comfortable, and fortunate. We are fortunate because, when winter strips the land of all but its bones, the soul too is exposed. I cannot know what my soul looks like to the One who made it, to the One who can see what it is now and can know what it will be. But I can see its bones. I am not proud of what I see. I know I must be hopeful, but how can I know much about the Object of my hope? The Spirit knows. I am glad for this, and I must for now be content with it and grateful. The Spirit is the Loving Bond between the Father and the Son. The Spirit belongs to them from eternity, and I believe that the Spirit is shared with me and others. Grace!

If I cannot know, I can at least feel. I can feel the distance between the Lord and my soul. That is a useful beginning for the growth of true religion. But the spiritual guides tell us that in each of us is an “eye” that sees the living and true God clear as day. From the eye of the soul, then, we have our real life. This must have something to do with the Beatific Vision. Where is that part of me that sees the Lord? How do I find that part of me that sees God already?

The bones of the land in winter: The bones of the soul in Advent: The corn shelled: The corn-fields flat as the spirit of a man the day after a feast: The marvelous colors of the farm without color: The cold. What now? It does not matter. I know I am in a good place. I am where God wants me. So I pray gladly the old collect,

Purify our consciences, we beseech thee, O Lord, by thy visitation;
that thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, when he cometh,
may find in us a mansion prepared for his dwelling. Amen.

About The Author

Chip Prehn is an Episcopal priest, independent historical scholar, writer, and poet.  He is a principal of Dudley & Prehn Educational Consultants, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, and Charlottesville, Virginia.  Prehn serves on the board of the Living Church Foundation.

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David Hein
13 days ago

A beautiful essay—quite interesting, and with a seamless weaving together of themes natural and theological.