October Colors Shout and Sing

After the keen still days of September, 
the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth…
The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. 
The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. 
The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, 
emerald and topaz and garnet. 
Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her…
In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible.
~Elizabeth George Speare from The Witch of Blackbird Pond

On this early morning
gray clouds lie heavy and unrelenting
hovering low over the eastern hills,
when a moment’s light snuck out from under the covers
throwing back the blankets
to glow golden over the mountain.

Only a minute of unexpected light underneath the gray
gone in a heartbeat
(as are we) yet
O!  the Glory when we too are luminous.

A book of beauty in words and photography, available to order here:

Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

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We May Or Might Never, Meet Here Again

My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina
and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons
willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old
farm house on that land where several generations
of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung

their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you
know when your family has lived close to the earth:
things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new
of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away
but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have

enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick
in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know
the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel
it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.

I may walk the streets
of this century and make my living in an office
but my blood is old farming blood and my true
self is underground like a potato.

I have taken root in my grandfather’s
fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees.
~Faith Shearin from “Fields”

It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.

A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.

My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!

Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme,
Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine,
Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain,
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well,
For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel,
There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee,
There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me,
Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again,
Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock,
I wish her safe landing, without any shock,
If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea,
I will always remember, your kindness to me,
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again

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My Secret Place

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree
out of blue sky    the wind
sings loudest surrounding me.

And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,  fearfully,  high   I’d climb
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,  part   daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world, part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog, autumnal burnings,
far calls,  close calls—the boy I was
calls out to me
here the man where I am “Look!

I’ve been where you

most fear to be.”
~Robert Duncan “Childhood’s Retreat”

Behind the house in a field
there’s a metal box I buried

full of childhood treasure, a map
of my secret place, a few lead pennies
from 1943.
The rest I’ve forgotten,
forgotten even the exact spot
I covered with moss and loam.

 
Now I’m back and twenty years
have made so little difference
I suspect they never happened,
this face in the mirror
aged with pencil and putty.
I suspect even
the box has moved as a mole would move
to a new place long ago.
~Dan Gerber “The Cache” from Particles

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

As a child, I left secret notes to my future self,
in hidden crevices of old barns,
and attic lofts up rickety stairs,
and yes, even in trees,
but never went back to retrieve them
except in my rare dreams of growing up
on Friendly Grove Road.

Back then my ten year old heart
tried to imagine me sixty some years hence
(counting out how old I would be in 2020 something)
as I squirreled away in some secret place.

What fears and joys would pass through like pumping blood,
what wounds would I bear and cause to bleed,
what smiles and tears would trace my face?

I have not forgotten who I was then.

No, I have never forgotten that girl who kept secrets,
who dreamed of a someday gray-haired grandma
who now looks back to my secret places,
and remembers being remembered.

A book of Barnstorming photos and poems by Lois Edstrom is available for order here:

A Sultry Day

It is a sultry day; the sun has drunk
The dew that lay upon the morning grass;

There is no rustling in the lofty elm
That canopies my dwelling, and its shade
Scarce cools me. All is silent, save the faint
And interrupted murmur of the bee,
Settling on the sick flowers, and then again
Instantly on the wing. The plants around
Feel the too potent fervors: the tall maize
Rolls up its long green leaves; the clover droops
Its tender foliage, and declines its blooms.
But far in the fierce sunshine tower the hills,
With all their growth of woods, silent and stern,
As if the scorching heat and dazzling light
Were but an element they loved.


…I woo the wind
That still delays his coming. Why so slow,
Gentle and voluble spirit of the air?
Oh, come and breathe upon the fainting earth
Coolness and life! Is it that in his caves
He hears me? See, on yonder woody ridge,
The pine is bending his proud top, and now
Among the nearer groves, chestnut and oak
Are tossing their green boughs about. He comes;
Lo, where the grassy meadow runs in waves!
The deep distressful silence of the scene
Breaks up with mingling of unnumbered sounds
And universal motion. He is come,
Shaking a shower of blossoms from the shrubs,
And bearing on their fragrance; and he brings
Music of birds, and rustling of young boughs,
And sound of swaying branches, and the voice
Of distant waterfalls. All the green herbs
Are stirring in his breath; a thousand flowers,
By the road-side and the borders of the brook,
Nod gayly to each other; glossy leaves
Are twinkling in the sun, as if the dew
Were on them yet, and silver waters break
Into small waves and sparkle as he comes.

~William Cullen Bryant from “Summer Wind”

In the Pacific Northwest, we are going through another string of hot dry days with smoky landscapes and horizons. This is becoming all too familiar: the temperatures are rising each year, the forests are burning, our usual pristine air quality deteriorating.

Even the birds are silent in this weather. The bees, discouraged by the wilting blooms, don’t linger. Our animals covered with fur are listlessly seeking shade and anything green in the pasture.

So I pray for relief – any breeze to move this humid air – something, anything that can break this cycle of sweatiness.

Yesterday, in the midst of 102 degree temperatures, out of nowhere came a northeast wind – as strong and determined as our northeast midwinter arctic blasts – but hot. It was so disorienting to be blown about by furnace heat. Branches and leaves fell from bewildered and already stressed trees. Plants withered as the moisture was sucked from leaves and blossoms. The garden sagged.

As suddenly as it came, it was gone again. And all around me – me included – wondered what had just hit us.

I am reminded to be careful what I pray for, knowing that my petition may well be heard and heeded. Perhaps the answer to prayer won’t be quite what I hoped for or expected, but it is nonetheless an answer.

I only need to listen…

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We Stand Grounded

My father will not
climb into the trees
today.

He is eighty-four
and tells me
that he was never

fond of heights,
that he hated
putting up the pipes

to fill the silo,
that he did not enjoy
climbing to the top

of the barn
to fix the pulley
on the hay-sling.

I have no desire
to be in the air,
he says.

And I always thought
he loved walking
the rim of the silo,

waving his hat
in circles overhead,
shouting down to
where we stood
grounded and gazing
up at him.

~Joyce Sutphen “Grounded” from First Words

As much as I loved it, riding on my father’s shoulders when I was small was more than high enough for me: he was a tall man and I felt I could reach the sky when I was up there. He would dip me down and swoop around and I felt I was flying with my tummy tickling the whole time. It was sheer delight but only because my dad was attached to the ground and I was held tightly by him. I was safe because he was.

When I was five, it took me months to be brave enough to climb the steps to go down the slide on my kindergarten playground – I lied to my parents that I had done it way before I actually did and they were so proud for me. This meant when I actually screwed up the courage and did it months later, there was no one I could brag to – I had ruined my own achievement with my previous deceptive bravado.

Climbing ladders into the hay loft to fetch hay bales still requires bravery that I sorely lack. Going up the steps doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact I must eventually come down…somehow… and it is the descent that seems far more terrifying.

When our barn needed a major repair of new roof and walls, the workers used ladders but also a hydraulic lift – something the turn of the century carpenters didn’t have access to. When I look at the hay sling/hook pulley hanging high from the peak of the barn, I realize someone over 100 years ago had to climb up to put it up there, so there it remains even though its working days are long past.

As much as possible, I now stay grounded, firmly attached to the soil, convinced it is where I belong. I’ll look and act as if I’m brave when I dare to climb up high, but only because I know Whose shoulders bear me up when I’m going beyond my comfort zone.

I’m safe because He is and always will be.

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Mist in the Fields

A girl comes out
of the barn, holding
a lantern
like a bucket of milk

or like a lantern.
Her shadow’s there.
They pump a bucket of water
and loosen their blouses,

they lead the mare out
from the field
their thin legs
blending with the wheat.

Crack a green kernel
in your teeth.  Mist
in the fields,
along the clay road

the mare’s footsteps
fill up with milk.
~Franz Wright  “Morning” from Ill Lit:Selected and New Poems

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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Sweating Under the High Arc of Midsummer

What is the hayfield in late afternoon
that it can fly in the face of time,

and light can be centuries old, and even
the rusted black truck I am driving

can seem to be an implement born
of some ancient harvest,

and the rhythmic baler, which spits out
massive bricks tied up in twine,

can seem part of a time before now
because light glitters on the hay dust,

because the sun is sinking and we sweat
under the high arc of mid-summer,

because our bodies cast such long shadows–
Rebecca, with the baby strapped to her back,

the men who throw impossible weight
to the top of the truck, the black and white

dog that races after mice or moles
whose lives have been suddenly exposed.

How does the taste of my sweat take me
down through the gate of childhood,

spinning backwards to land in a field
painted by Bruigel, where the taste of salt

is the same, and the same heat
rises in waves off a newly flattened field.

In the duskiness of slanted light, we laugh
just as we laughed then, because there is

joy in what the earth gives, allowing
our bodies to mingle with it, our voices

small on the field, our work assuring the goats
can give milk, the sheep can grow wool,

and we will have in our bones the taste
of something so old it travels in light.
~Susie Patlove “First Cutting” from Quickening

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson
1994
2005
2011

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.

photo by Tayler Rae
Pieter Bruegel “Hay Harvest”
My grandparents Leslie Polis and Kittie Lovelace standing in a hayfield with loose hay shocks — 1915

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Missing the Right Things

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.

A Down Comforter of Relief

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.

A new book from Barnstorming (with poetry from today’s poet Lois Edstrom) can be ordered here: