Not fifteen yards from our house, on the northern side, lies a small wild place, hidden beneath a grove of spruce: a sheep graveyard of their own devising.
One ewe's bones are an undisturbed pattern of ivory laid out on a bed of spruce needles and moss. It is as if she had simply laid down in this quiet place, and then, oh-so-slowly, over the years, been distilled to her essence. We have watched the flock seek refuge from heavy rain beneath these very trees. I love how these bones lie so near to our own waking and sleeping.
You sometimes see, in medieval painting, a memento mori -- a reminder of our mortality. It may be a skull or a skeleton and sometimes it even has a sign attached, like a cartoon caption, with pointing arrows: memento mori. Not too subtle. It is tucked along the edges of the painting, away from the main action. It's something you have to look for. It's not meant to be threatening or frightening. It's more a way to shift the viewer's perspective, away from the apparent reality -- the flirtations of the richly dressed courtiers and ladies who command the painting's foreground, for instance -- to something else quieter, deeper, both more consoling and more real.
The sheep graveyard is a memento mori for me -- a small sign, tucked away in the edges, that life in all its heartbreaking beauty does at last lie down, and death receives it. Ash Wednesday is tucked away too, hidden at the edge of things, quiet, deep, consoling, real.