Mending Fences


An old voice from the past came to me as I mended fence between our dry field of scant pasture and our apple/pear orchard after the Haflingers decided that no amount of voltage in the wire would deter them from  pushing it down and reaching for the sweet fruit they could see and smell just a few yards away–

“Good fences make good neighbors”

This wasn’t referring to hot tape and wire, but a stone wall in New England. Robert Frost wrote “Mending Walls” in 1913, a poem that I studied when I was 14 and which has stuck with me these 35 years.

Mending Wall (excerpts)
By Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

I maintain wood rail and hot wire fences, in my haphazard and ineffectual way, pondering the necessity for them and marveling at the Haflinger ability to overcome them. Fences to keep the pines and the apple trees separate, as Frost muses, seems ludicrous. Frost didn’t know about Haflingers though. Fences to keep greedy horses from gorging on apples and pears and getting sick makes complete sense. Fences to keep my “happy wanderer” Haflingers from exploring the road and the neighbor’s fields is imperative!

As one travels across the plains and mountains of North America, fences are everywhere to be seen. Fences that are impressive and tall, stretching for miles, built to keep deer and elk off the roads. Fences that are old barbed wire, falling and decrepit, no longer effective, but still testimony to a determined farmer’s desire to section off his barren land from another’s barren land, or perhaps the requirement borne of the homesteading laws of the time. Frost’s poem spans the balance between man’s sometimes irrational desire for barriers, and the acknowledgement of the order that they bring to an uncertain and sometimes unpredictable world that lays beyond our walls.

Fences continue to exist in many parts of the world today, created out of political conflict and fear. New walls are going up between Israel/Palestinian settlements (even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quoted Robert Frost’s poem in his justification of a new barrier). Much celebration accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall after its years of imposing testimony to the lack of trust and understanding between people who were once relatives, neighbors and friends. The Great Wall of China still stands, now primarily tourist attraction, no longer serving any other useful purpose other than to illustrate the lengths to which man goes to barricade himself off from others.

So why maintain life’s fences, even if there may be no hungry horses to keep in, or predators to keep out? Even if the neighbors are best of friends and get along famously? Even if the building and maintaining of these fences seems a futile and foolish task when they are pushed down, blown over in the winds, with trees fallen over them, and overgrown with brush and wild blackberries?

Fences, like rules and laws, define order, and structure. They can bite back if they are breached. If crashed and broken, they are hazardous in and of themselves, not withstanding the potential dangers that lay beyond them. Remove them altogether and we risk chaos.

So, in the best of times, we are mending walls out of continuing need for contact with our neighbors. We meet across the barriers to shake hands and visit while we repair the fences together, leaving the barriers standing and strong. In the worst of times, we fortify and hide behind the walls, making them taller, wider, deeper, creating greater and greater gulfs between us and eventually losing touch forever as the walls themselves deteriorate without the necessary mutual “mending”.

So we must not love walls themselves, but must maintain them with our neighbor. We don’t worship the walls themselves but respect the foundation they rest on. We must accept our boundaries with humility, recognizing their necessity is due to our imperfections.

Now I just need to teach my Haflingers to do their part and put the insulators back on the posts and stretch the wire and tape tight. I know their teeth are good for something other than secretly smiling and constantly eating.

Reflecting the Light


It was a treasured late summer evening when temperatures hover around 70 degrees, there was a slight cooling breeze, clear starlit skies, and barely a mosquito buzzing.  We had just returned from a lovely evening outdoor wedding for two special young friends,  with a special message from our pastor about the profound mystery of marriage, not just for newlyweds, but also for those of us married for many years. As we approach our 28th anniversary next month, we are blessed in the knowledge we depend on God’s grace every day, trying to reflect it back to our children, our community, to each other.

We decided to hike up to the top of our hill after dark to catch the best view of our neighbor Mars before we brought our Haflingers in for the night.  Mars was there to see all right, orange and bright in the southeast sky. But the Haflingers seemed to be afflicted by strange Martian fever, or perhaps it was simply because we rarely wander out into the field in the dark with flashlights in hand. There was no moon yet when we were out –simply starlight and the far-off lights from Vancouver,  British Columbia to the north and Bellingham to the south.

The Haflingers started running in the dark, kicking and snorting and bucking with the joy of a starlit, Martian-lit summer evening. Only all we could see of the Haflingers were their ghostly white manes and tails moving across the fields, jumping and twisting and cavorting.

I’m sure over the generations, in the alpine meadows of the South Tyrol, there must have been some starlit moonless lights when the Haflinger herds would run together, and all you could see in the dark were floating disembodied white manes and tails.

Perhaps that is what enchanted the mountain peasants the most about their sturdy reliable golden companions—at night they become spirit and light. They shine like the stars, even from the ground, reflecting back the lights from the heavens.  And so, in our companionship with each other, and with God, do we glow with His light.

Song from a Snowdrift

emilyleaDear One,

Your rolling and stretching grew quieter that stormy winter night, but no labor came.
A week overdue, you still clung to amnion and womb, not ready.

The wind blew wicked and snow flew horizontal, landing in piling drifts.
The roads became impassable, nearly impossible to reach the safe haven of hospital if labor came.

But your dad and I tried to make it down the road, worried about being stranded at home. Our little car got stuck in a snowpile, so we prayed you would wait, our tires spinning, whining against the growing snow. It took a neighbor’s bulldozer to dig us out to freedom. You floated silent and still, knowing your time was not yet.

After creeping slowly through the dark night blizzard, we finally arrived to the warm glow of the hospital.

You slept. I, not at all.

With morning sun glistening off sculptured snow outside our window, the doctor arrived to start labor but your heart had mysteriously slowed in the night. You were jostled, turned, oxygenated, but nothing changed. You beat even more slowly. The nurses’ eyes told me we had trouble. The doctor, grim faced, announced delivery must happen quickly, taking you now, hoping we were not too late. I was rolled, numbed, stunned, clasping your father’s hand, closing my eyes, not wanting to see the bustle around me, not wanting to hear the shouted orders, the tension in the voices, the quiet at the moment of opening when it was unknown what would be found.

And then you cried.

A hearty healthy husky cry. Perturbed and disturbed from the warmth of womb, to the cold shock of a bright lit operating room, your first vocal solo brought applause from the surrounding audience who admired your pink skin, your shock of damp red hair, your blue eyes squeezed tight, then blinking open, wondrous.

You were okay.

You were brought wrapped for me to see and touch before being whisked away, your father trailing behind the parade to the nursery.

I closed my eyes, swirling in a brain blizzard of what-ifs, knowing if no storm had come, you would have fallen asleep forever within my womb, no longer nurtured by an aging placenta, being cut off from what you needed to stay alive. There would have been no pink skin, nor husky cry, only the soft weeping of your parents knowing what could have been if we had only known, if we could have been sent a sign to go for help.

Saved by a storm and dug from a drift: I now celebrate each time I hear your voice.

Love, Mom

Unfinished Business


Written for my brother-in-law,  Mike Casey
husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, friend, musician, carpenter

written August 25, 2007

Unfinished Business

We always assumed there would be
another day
for the next remodel,
the next project,
the next concert;
plenty of time
to explore how
to bring people joy
and help them feel at home.

You rebuilt the old
with tools in your hands,
both people and houses
molded with encouragement and humor
created through wood, music
and friendship

Your four grandchildren
-brand new construction-
sanded and shaped
reflecting your love and skill.

You are in their hands,
their eyes,
their hearts
forever more
your knowledge
becoming theirs.

It is much too soon
to be called upon to move on,
leaving behind unfinished business;
yet you are building afar
a new song
a new foundation
a new hope
new construction
for the rest of us to come home to

Blackberry Cobbler

blackberriesWe’ve often been asked about the origin of our farm name, BriarCroft, as it is a bit unusual. I point toward our back field when I explain: banks of blackberry bushes and vines on the periphery of our woods, covering an old barbwire fence, and literally becoming fence itself in their overwhelming growth. So that is the “briar” and the “croft” is our little Scottish “farm on a hill”.

The blackberry vines seem like trouble 90% of the year–growing where they are not welcome and reaching out and grabbing passersby without discriminating between human, dog or horse. But for about 3 weeks in late August and early September, they yield black gold–bursting, swelling, unimaginably sweet fruit that is worth the hassle borne the rest of the weeks of the year.

Today I was on a mission. I wanted to make a blackberry cobbler for a family dinner to serve warm with vanilla ice cream–a true once a year treat to offer up.

It has been an unusually dry summer here in the Pacific Northwest with little rain at all since July, so the fields are brown and even the usually lush blackberry vines are starting to dry. The berries themselves are rich from the sun, but a bit smaller than typical. The Haflingers have been fed hay for the past several weeks as they are turned out in the fields in the mornings as there is not enough pasture for them without the supplement–we are about 6 weeks ahead of schedule in feeding hay.

I had grown a little suspicious the last couple nights as I brought the Haflingers into the barn for the night as several of the mares turned out in the back field were bearing purplish stains on their chests and front legs, and one even had a tell-tale purplish mark on her muzzle with a short blackberry vine still painfully stuck in her lower lip that I extracted for her. Hmmmm. Raiding the berries. Desperate drought forage behavior in an extremely efficient eating machine.

So this evening I headed down the path to the back field, not seeing the mares until I rounded the corner of the woods, and headed toward the berries. They had heard the Haflingers in the other fields talking to me as I passed, and were already headed up to see what was up. When they saw the bowl in my hand, that was it. They mobbed me. I was

So with three mares in tow, I approached the berry bank. It was ravaged. Trampled. Haflinger poop piles everywhere. All that were left were clusters of gleaming black berries up high overhead, barely reachable on my tip toes, and only reachable if I walked directly into the vines. The mares stood in a little line behind me, pondering me as I pondered my dilemma. I looked back at them and told them they were berry thieves and they weren’t getting a single one from me.

I set to work picking what I could reach, snagging, ripping and bloodying my hands and arms, despite my sleeves, determined that I was not going to give up on this vision of steaming blackberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream that I’d entertained all day. Pretty soon I had mares on either side of me, diving into the brambles and reaching up to pick what they could reach as well, unconcerned about the thorns that tore at their sides and muzzles. They were like sharks in water–completely focused on their prey and amazingly skilled at
grabbing just the black berries, and not the pale green or red ones. Three plump Haflingers and one *plumpish* woman willingly accumulating scars in the name of sweetness.

When my bowl was full, I extracted myself from the brambles and contemplated how I was going to safely make it back to the barn without being mugged. Not a problem. I adopted that “look” and that “voice” and they obediently trailed behind me, happy to be put in their stalls for their nightly grain, a gift from me with no thorns or vines attached.

Thorns are indeed part of our everyday life. They stand in front of much that is sweet and good and precious to us. They tear us up, bloody us, make us cry, make us beg for mercy.
Yet thorns did not stop salvation, did not stop goodness, did not stop the promise of sweetness to come. We simply can wait to be fed: a gift dropped from heaven.

Anyone ready for blackberry cobbler?

Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond


Perhaps it was his plain talk about the Word of God.  Perhaps it was his folksy stories tying that Word to our lives.  Perhaps it was because he was, like the rest of us, so fully a flawed and forgiven human being.  Pastor Bruce Hempel ministered to thousands over his lifetime of service, yet the simple act of climbing the steps up to the pulpit was nearly impossible for him.

Bruce had one leg.  The other was lost to an above the knee amputation due to his severe diabetes.  He wore an ill-fitting prosthetic leg that never allowed a normal stride and certainly proved a challenge when ascending stairs.  He would come early to the sanctuary to climb the several steps to the chair behind the pulpit so he would not have to struggle in front of the congregation at the start of the service.  As we would enter to find our pew seats, he would be deep in thought and prayer, already seated by the pulpit.

He often said he was a difficult person to live with because of his constant pain and health problems.  His family confirmed that was indeed true, but what crankiness he exhibited through much of the week evaporated once he was at the pulpit.  Standing there balanced on his good leg with his prosthesis acting as a brace, he was transformed and blessed with clarity of thought and expression.  His pain was left behind.

He came to our church after many years of military chaplaincy, having served in Korea and Vietnam and a number of stateside assignments.  He liked to say he “learned to meet people where they were” rather than where he thought they needed to be.  His work brought him face to face with thousands of soldiers from diverse faiths and backgrounds, or in many cases, no faith at all, yet he ministered to each one in the way that was needed at that moment.  He helped some as they lay dying and others who suffered so profoundly they wished they would die.  He was there for them all and he was there for us.

One memorable sermon came from 2Kings 5: 1-19 about the healing of the great warrior Naaman who was afflicted with leprosy.  Pastor Bruce clearly identified with Naaman and emphasized the message of obedience to God as the key to Naaman’s healing.  Like Naaman, no one would desire “Seven Ducks in a Muddy Pond” but once Naaman was obedient despite his pride and doubts, he was cured of the incurable by bathing in the muddy Jordan River.

Even upon retirement, Bruce continued to preach when churches needed a fill in pastor, and he took a part time job managing a community food and clothing bank, connecting with people who needed his words of encouragement.  He was called regularly to officiate at weddings and funerals, especially for those without a church.  He would oblige as his time and health allowed.

His last sermon was delivered on a freezing windy December day at a graveside service for a young suicide victim he had never known personally.  Pastor Bruce was standing at the head of the casket and having concluded his message, he bowed his head to pray, continued to bend forward, appeared to embrace the casket and breathed his last.  He was gone,  just like that.

He was not standing up high at the pulpit the day he died.  He was obediently getting muddy in the muck and mess of life, and waiting, as we all are, for the moment he’d be washed clean.