Each morning as I rise to let the horses out to graze for the day, I’m once again that teenage girl who awoke early to climb on horseback to greet the summer dawn, mist in my hair and dew on my boots, picking ripe blackberries and blueberries as we rode past.
The angled light always drew sharper shadow lines as the sun rose until I knew it was time to turn around, each hoof step taking us closer to home to clean barn, do chores, hang laundry, weed the garden until sunset.
It is sunlight that creates and then erases all in me that is shadow. Eventually, only the real me remains.
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There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.
Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.
I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.
But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most: -the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked -the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains -the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us
Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.
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In your next letter, please describe the weather in great detail. If possible, enclose a fist of snow or mud,
everything you know about the soil, how tomato leaves rub green against your skin and make you itch, how slow
the corn is growing on the hill. Thank you for the photographs of where the chicken coop once stood,
clouds that did not become tornadoes. When I try to explain where I’m from, people imagine corn bread, cast-iron,
cows drifting across grass. I interrupt with barbed wire, wind, harvest air that reeks of wheat and diesel.
I hope your sleep comes easy now that you’ve surrendered the upstairs, hope the sun still lets you drink
one bitter cup before its rise. I don’t miss flannel shirts, radios with only AM stations, but there’s a certain kind
of star I can’t see from where I am— bright, clear, unconcerned. I need your recipes for gravy, pie crust,
canned green beans. I’m sending you the buttons I can’t sew back on. Please put them in the jar beside your bed.
In your next letter, please send seeds and feathers, a piece of bone or china you plowed up last spring. Please promise I’m missing the right things. ~Carrie Shipers, “In Your Next Letter” from Cause for Concern
For our children (and now their children) who have left the farm, now living far away:
I want to be sure you are missing the right things about this incredible place.
There is so much about a farm that is worrisome, burdensome, back-breaking and unpredictable. Don’t miss those things.
Miss what is breath-taking, awe-inspiring and heart-swelling.
We miss you more than we can ever say, indeed an intensive “missing” that can’t be expressed in words. So I send this to you and you’ll understand.
There is something mysterious about fog. It whispered to Sandburg as it crept into the harbor
on little cat feet. It settles over Admiralty Inlet, a down comforter of relief on a simmering summer day.
It moves in quickly, a cool mist that settles lightly on our faces and arms as we trudge up the hill
toward home. Then the stillness, how it tamps down sound, reminding us to honor silence and drift
through an inner landscape of ideas, enter into the ethereal magic of another world,
as if we were birds soaring in clouds that have come down to enfold us,
quieting the minor furies we create. ~Lois Parker Edstrom from Glint (MoonPath Press, 2019)
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment … a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present… ~Wendell Berry from Hannah Coulter
~Lustravit lampade terras~ (He has illumined the world with a lamp) The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me; my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter. – Blaise Pascal from “Miscellaneous Writings”
The only thing more frightening than the unknown is the fear that the next moment will be just like the last or perhaps worse.
I tend to forget: the moment just passed can never be retrieved and relived.
Worry and sorrow and angst are more contagious than the latest viral scourge. I mask up and wash my hands of it throughout the day. I wish we could be vaccinated to protect us all from our unnamed fears.
I want to say to myself: Stop and acknowledge this moment in time. Stop wanting to be numb to all discomfort. Stop fearing the next moment. Just stop. Instead, simply be, now and now and now.
I need to know: this moment, foggy or fine, is mine alone, a down comforter of relief~ this moment of weeping and sharing and breath and pulse and light. I shout for joy in it even when sound is muffled in morning fog. It is to be celebrated. I mustn’t hold back.
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Holy as a day is spent Holy is the dish and drain The soap and sink, and the cup and plate And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile Shower heads and good dry towels And frying eggs sound like psalms With bits of salt measured in my palm It’s all a part of a sacrament As holy as a day is spent
Holy is the busy street And cars that boom with passion’s beat And the check out girl, counting change And the hands that shook my hands today And hymns of geese fly overhead And spread their wings like their parents did Blessed be the dog that runs in her sleep To chase some wild and elusive thing
Holy is the familiar room And quiet moments in the afternoon And folding sheets like folding hands To pray as only laundry can I’m letting go of all my fear Like autumn leaves made of earth and air For the summer came and the summer went As holy as a day is spent Holy is the place I stand To give whatever small good I can And the empty page, and the open book Redemption everywhere I look Unknowingly we slow our pace In the shade of unexpected grace And with grateful smiles and sad lament As holy as a day is spent And morning light sings ‘providence’ As holy as a day is spent ~Carrie Newcomer “Holy as a Day is Spent”
We are in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, predicted to hit 110 degrees F over the next two days. This part of the world is sorely unprepared for these temperatures – air conditioning is unusual in residences and some workplaces so we grit our teeth, mop our brows and search for the blessing of shade and relief.
There is barely a breeze. The weathervanes are standing stock-still without a hint of swivel, cooking in the sun just as thoroughly as the rest of us. Our barn has a beautiful Haflinger horse weather vane – a precious gift from Amish country given to us by treasured friends over thirty years ago.
However, the standard weather vane is a rooster, found on a neighbor’s barn about a mile from our farm. The traditional rooster vane (“weathercock”) has a long history dating back to the ninth century when Pope Gregory declared all churches were to be crowned with a rooster as a suitable Christian emblem. This was to immortalize St. Peter’s three betrayals, predicted by Christ to take place before the rooster crows in the morning on the day of His crucifixion.
So roosters began to appear on the weathervanes of churches in Europe, blowing this way and that with the wind, just as Peter found himself carried by the wind of opinion on that fateful day. We are to be reminded of our own tendency to shift and swivel with the forces that push us around when we are uncertain or fearful, forgetting our foundational faith and beliefs.
Yet Christ forgave Peter, not once or twice, but three times for each betrayal. He delivers an unexpected grace and gift of redemption to a man who had turned away from Him. Christ’s instruction to Peter was to “feed my sheep.” Our response to the grace shown to us is to nurture and show grace to all we meet.
As our weathervanes remain unmoving in this heat, we stand firm in the shade of our Lord’s forgiveness of our betrayal of Him – all that is just and holy.
Amen and Amen.
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Once again a child asks me suddenly What is a poem?, And once again I find myself riffing freely and happily Without the slightest scholarly expertise or knowledge; But I am entranced by how poems can hint and suggest And point toward things deeper than words. A poem is An owl feather, I say. It’s not the owl—but it intimates Owlness, see what I mean? You imagine the owl, owls, Silent flight, razors for fingers, a wriggle of mouse tail Slurped up right quick like the last strand of angel hair, A startle of moonlight, a fox watching from the thicket, All that from a feather. It’s like an owl is in the feather. A poem is a small thing with all manner of bigger in it. Poor poems only have a writer in them, but better ones Have way more in them than the writer knew or knows About. This poem, for example, amazingly has owls in It—who knew we’d see a flurry of owls this afternoon? ~Brian Doyle, “A Flurry of Owls”
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.
I walked into our big hay barn this week, finding scattered atop the few remaining bales from last summer these few owl feathers…
they were waiting for a poem to hide within, just as the barn owls are tucked invisibly in the rafters until the cool air of dusk and hunger lures them to the hunt, swooping outside to capture both moonlight and mice to be coughed up in pellets of fur and bones.
These feathers, dropped like so many random snowflakes, carry within them the glint and glow of the moon, a reminder what we leave behind matters, whether it be feather or fur or a wee dry skeleton, a shell of who we once were yet are no longer.
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My family sold our first farm in East Stanwood when my father took a job working for the state in Olympia, moving to supervising high school agriculture teachers rather than being a teacher himself. It was a difficult transition for us all: we moved to a smaller home and a few acres, leaving behind a large two story house, a huge hay barn and chicken coop as well as large fields and a woods where our dairy cows had grazed.
Only a few years later, the old farmhouse burned down but the rest of the buildings were spared. It passed through a few hands and when we had occasion to drive by, we were dismayed to see how nature was taking over the place. The barn still stood but unused it was weathering and withering. The windows were broken, birds flew in and out, the former flower garden had grown wild and unruly.
This was the place I was conceived and learned to walk and talk, where I developed my love for wandering in the fields and respecting the farm animals we depended upon. I remember as a child of four sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window at the sunrise coming rising over the woods and making the misty fields turn golden.
Yet now this land has returned to its essence before the ground was ever plowed or buildings were constructed. It no longer belongs to our family (as if it ever did) but it forever belongs to our memories.
I am overly prone to nostalgia, dwelling more on what has been than what is now or what I hope is to come. It is easy to weep over the losses when time and circumstances reap circumstances that become unrecognizable.
I may weep, but nature does not. The sun continues to rise over the fields, the birds continue to build nests, the lilacs grow taller with outrageous blooms, and each day ends with a promise of another to come.
So I must dwell on what lies ahead, not what perished in the ashes.
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The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back. The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe, trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow, balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack the ice so horses could drink. With each blow I feared she would fall, but she never slipped. Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say? The time we have’s still too short to master love, and then, the hollow that comes after. ~Kitty Carpenter “Farm Sonnet”
Vigil at my mother’s bedside
Lying still, your mouth gapes open as I wonder if you breathe your last. Your hair a white cloud Your skin baby soft No washing, digging, planting gardens Or raising children Anymore. Hollowed.
Where do your dreams take you? At times you wake in your childhood home of Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom. Other naps take you to your student and teaching days Grammar and drama, speech and essays. Yesterday you were a young mother again Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.
Today you looked about your empty nest Disguised as hospital bed, Wondering aloud about Children grown, flown. You still control through worry and tell me: Travel safely Get a good night’s sleep Take time to eat Call me when you get there
I dress you as you dressed me I clean you as you cleaned me I love you as you loved me You try my patience as I tried yours. I wonder if I have the strength to Mother my mother For as long as she needs.
When I tell you the truth Your brow furrows as it used to do When I disappointed you~ This cannot be A bed in a room in a sterile place Waiting for death Waiting for heaven Waiting
And I tell you: Travel safely Eat, please eat Sleep well Call me when you get there.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20
…we are faced with the shocking reality: Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of <His> message. Christ stands at the door. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him? ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from an Advent Sermon“The Coming of Jesus into our Midst”
Sam does barn chores with me, always has. He runs up and down the aisles as I fill buckets, throw hay, and he’ll explore the manure pile out back and the compost pile and have stand offs with the barn cats (which he always loses). We have our routine. When I get done with chores, I whistle for him and we head to the house.
We head back home together.
Except this morning. I whistled when I was done and his furry little fox face didn’t appear as usual. I walked back through both barns calling his name, whistling, no signs of Sam. I walked to the fields, I walked back to the dog yard, I walked the road (where he never ever goes), I scanned the pond (yikes), I went back to the barn and glanced inside every stall, I went in the hay barn where he likes to jump up and down on stacked bales, looking for a bale avalanche he might be trapped under, or a hole he couldn’t climb out of. Nothing.
Passing through the barn again, I heard a little faint scratching inside one Haflinger’s stall, which I had just glanced in 10 minutes before. The mare was peacefully eating hay. Sam was standing with his feet up against the door as if asking what took me so long. He must have scooted in when I filled up her water bucket, and I closed the door not knowing he was inside, and it was dark enough that I didn’t see him when I checked. He and his good horse friend kept it their secret.
He made not a whimper nor did he bark when I called out his name, passing that stall at least 10 times looking for him. He just patiently waited for me to finally open the door I had previously locked tight.
It wasn’t Sam who was lost. Sam lost me. He patiently waited until I realized he was waiting for me for me to come around and open the door.
He was ready to accompany me back home.
Though you are homeless Though you’re alone I will be your home Whatever’s the matter Whatever’s been done I will be your home I will be your home I will be your home In this fearful fallen place I will be your home When time reaches fullness When I move my hand I will bring you home Home to your own place In a beautiful land I will bring you home I will bring you home I will bring you home From this fearful fallen place I will bring you home I will bring you home ~Michael Card
The mares go down for their evening feed into the meadow grass. Two pine trees sway the invisible wind some sway, some don’t sway. The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight For just a minute or so. The mares have their heads on the ground, the trees have their heads on the blue sky. Two ravens circle and twist. On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer. ~Charles Wright “Miles Away”
It isn’t yet time to turn the Haflingers out on pasture. The fields still squish from our heavy winter rains when I check the grass growth and test how firm the ground feels.
But spring is in the air, with pollens flying from the trees and the faint scent of plum and cherry blossoms wafting across the barn yard. The Haflingers know there are green blades rising out there.
There is a waning pile of hay bales in the barn being carefully measured against the calendar. We need to make it last until the fields are sufficiently recovered, dried out and growing well before the horses can be set free from their confinement back on the green.
Haflingers don’t care much about the calendar. They know what they smell and they know what they see and they know what they want.
One early spring some years ago, as I opened the gate to a paddock of Haflinger mares to take them one by one back to the barn, their usual good manners abandoned them. Two escaped before I could shut the gate, the siren call of the green carrying them away like the wind, their tails high and their manes flying. There is nothing quite as helpless as watching escaped horses running away as fast as their legs can carry them.
They found the nearest patch of green and stopped abruptly, trying to eat whatever the meager ground would offer up. I approached, quietly talking to them, trying to reassure them that, indeed, spring is at hand and soon they will be able to eat their fill of grass. Understandably suspicious of my motives, they leaped back into escape mode, running this time for the pasture across the road.
We live on a road that is traveled by too many fast moving cars and trucks and our farm on a hill is hampered by visibility issues –my greatest fear is one of our horses on the road would cause an accident simply because there would be no time for a driver to react after cresting a hill at 50 mph and finding a horse a mere twenty yards away.
I yelled and magically the mares turned, veering back from the road. As I marveled at my ability to verbally redirect them from dashing into potential disaster, they were heading back to the barn on their own, where their next most attractive feature on the farm dwelled: our stallion. He was calling them, knowing things were amiss, and they responded, turning away from the green to respond to the call of the heart.
So that was where I was able to nab them in their distracted posing for the guy in their lives. Guys can do that to a gal. You can end up completely abandoning thoughts of running away with the wind when the right guy calls your name.
Lured from the green grassy borders of heaven, we respond to the call of the heart from the world.