Great Expanses

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Not the midnight sun exactly, or endless summer,
just that extra hour holding steady, western
horizon stable, as though shadows won’t lengthen
when in August you can outrun the night
or feel as though you do, latitude in your favor,

North of Sioux City, the sky widens into South Dakota,
turn west and you will think you could see all the way
to Wyoming, and if you drive long enough you will,
crossing the Missouri River, the bluffs gentle,
then the grasslands, the turnoffs for reservations.

As dusk approaches, you may pass a stone house,
long deserted, a star carved over the door, a small pond,
wind stirring over it even now, forming a second thought,
a space you will carry within your speech,
your soul stirred by these great expanses.
~Jane Hoogestraat “At the Edge of a Time Zone” from Border States.

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We have spent long hours in the past week traveling on the great expanses of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho plains. It is a marvel to see so far in every direction yet to feel you are barely moving at 80 miles an hour. The extra hour gained at the edge of a time zone is pure gravy of gifted time.

This is challenging land on which people eke out a living. We have seen a cowboy and herding dog flanking a few dozen Angus cattle alongside the freeway. We’ve seen huge combines kicking up dust clouds as they thresh fields of grain. There are 150 year old remnants of barns and buildings, barely standing against the constant winds and harsh weather.

While we now cross the plains in a day or two, native people and wagon train pioneers spent months by foot or horse, many never managing to reach their destination.

These expanses echo with those lost lives of previous centuries, not to forget hundreds of thousands of bison that also once grazed these basins.

We’ll return to the land of rain and green and ubiquitous trees today. But the great expanses of the plains always enlarge my vision of who lives and works within this vast country.

My heart swells in gratitude with the view of such an endless horizon.

abandoned schoolhouse (now collapsed) near Rapalje, Montana

Fighting a Harder Battle

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

~Mary Oliver from “Dogfish”

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.
~Plato

Our mare Belinda has a two decade history of fighting the hard battle of being consistently on the bottom of the mare hierarchy. She is unusually shy, very submissive and never one to stir up trouble in the herd. Most of the time she simply wants to disappear so the other mares can’t see her to bully her.

I’ve watched her over the years to learn how she copes day in and day out with her low status. She is clearly more clever than the higher-ranking mares who lord it over her, reminding her of their rank.

In the mornings when the mares are turned out to pasture from their individual stalls, I always open Belinda’s door first so she has the option to walk out to pasture ahead of the others if she chooses. Instead, she’ll stand waiting at the open door, watching the other mares leave their stalls and pass by, then follow behind them out to pasture keeping a safe distance between them and herself.

Once outside, she’ll stand at the water barrel just inside the pasture gate, and pretend to drink water for several minutes (I’m convinced she doesn’t actually drink a drop) while the other mares wander into the field to find their preferred grazing spot.

Once the others are clearly settled, she joins them at a safe distance. Then the worst bully will approach her, just as Belinda has started to eat, and will start to groom Belinda’s withers with her teeth. This is a clear invitation to be scratched back, so despite being hungry and clearly fearful, Belinda mutually chews/scratches for at least ten minutes with her mortal enemy. I’d like to think this is their brief truce in the battle for status every day; one clearly has a need and wants Belinda to comply. Belinda is more than willing to set aside her own needs if it means keeping peace in the herd.

At the end of the day, Belinda stays up in the field until the other mares have returned to the barn and are back in their stalls with the doors latched. I know she counts the number of doors she hears closing because she will refuse to come in from outside and return to her stall until she hears the last door closing, knowing it is then safe to some into the barn.

The first thing she does returning to her stall is to drop a pile of manure right inside her door. It is her claim of “mine” – no other horse here does that, since they would have to walk through manure to leave the stall, but for Belinda, it is a way of saying if for some reason the closed door isn’t enough to keep her secure, the pile of manure at least marks her territory.

She does not always have a peaceful night alone in her stall as I would expect. Her stall floor is churned and messy in the morning, as if she continues to be on the move even in the darkness, or perhaps she is a mare having nightmares.

I know her long life has been one of constant worry and vigilance despite always having access to plenty of food, a safe place to rest at night and always being part of a community, though not one that has supported her.

She reminds me that everyone, especially the lowest on the totem pole, deserves kindness because I cannot possibly understand the battles they are fighting, both day and night.

And they deserve respect: to simply survive, they are much smarter than I am.

 

Shift Change

I love to write at dusk,
that time of the day
when the shift is changing,

the sun is clocking out
and the moon is running late

and for just a little while
the sky
is left unattended.

~Sally Clark from “The Joy of Poetry”

I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.
~Mary Oliver “Everything”

I usually write at dawn during the shift change
as the light switch is flipped on
leaving me blinking and squinting
to see what the morning will bring.

I need the quiet clarity of daybreak
to prepare myself for what is to come.

Yet the fading light of dusk
and advancing shadow of twilight
soothes my soul and calms my heart
as sky relinquishes sun to moon and stars.

The stage is bare, the audience hushed,
waiting expectantly for the moment
the curtain will be pulled back
to reveal earth’s secrets once again.


Pounding the Earth

Nothing approaches a field like me. Hard
gallop, hard chest – hooves and mane and flicking
tail. My love: I apprehend each flower,
each winged body, saturated in a light
that burnishes. I would make a burnishing 
of you, by which I mean a field in flower,
by which i mean, a breaching – my hands
making an arrow of themselves, rooting
the loosened dirt. I would make for you
the barest of sounds, wing against wing,
there, at the point of articulation. Love, 
I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth. 

~Donika Kelly (2017) “Love Poem: The Centaur” from Bestiary

When Haflingers gallop in the field, it sounds like thunder as their hooves pound the earth. It can be a particularly ominous sound, especially in the middle of the night when the pounding hooves are going past our bedroom window which means only one thing: their field gate or the barn door has been breached. Haflingers are also Houdinis.

Their hooves may hug the ground, treading clover blossoms and blades of grass but I can see invisible wings as I watch them run. Their manes and tails float free even when the rest of their bodies are entirely earth-bound.

I know most of the time I move ponderously over the earth as well leaving my footprints behind. Some days I feel literally tethered to the ground, with no lightness of being whatsoever.

But once I breach the gate, I grow wings. The ground cannot hold me any longer and it rises to meet me as I fly.

A Barn Revival

Just down the road… around the bend,
Stands an old empty barn; nearing the end.
It has sheltered no animals for many years;
No dairy cows, no horses, no sheep, no steers.
The neigh of a horse; the low of a cow;
Those sounds have been absent for some time now.
There was a time when the loft was full of hay,
And the resounding echoes of children at play.
At one time the paint was a bold shade of red;
Gradually faded by weather and the sun overhead.
The doors swing in the wind… the hinges are loose,
Windows and siding have taken a lot of abuse.
The fork, rope and pulleys lifted hay to the mow,
A task that always brought sweat to the brow.
But those good days are gone; forever it seems,
And that old barn now stands with sagging beams.
It is now home to pigeons, rats and mice;

The interior is tattered and doesn’t look very nice.
Old, abandoned barns have become a trend,
Just down the road… around the bend.

~Vance Oliphant “Old Barn”

photo by Nate Gibson

There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores. Our old barn has stood empty for several years; we and our neighbors who have used it for years to house a winter hay supply have found other more convenient places to put our hay. The winter winds have worn away its majesty: missing shingles have torn away holes in the roof, the mighty beams providing foundational support were sinking and rotting in the ground, a gap opened in the sagging roof crest, and most devastating of all, two walls collapsed in a particularly harsh blow.

The old barn was in death throes after over one hundred years of history.
Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.
Dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight,
seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.

There was no heart beat left in this dying barn. It was in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I could hardly bear to go inside much less take pictures of its deteriorating shell.

We had people show up at our front door offering to demolish it for the lumber, now all the fad for expensive modern “vintage” look in new house construction. A photo of our barn showed up in local media declaring “another grand old barn in the county has met its end.” That stung. Meanwhile we were saving our money, waiting until we could afford to bring our old red barn back to life.

It started with one strong young man digging out the support posts to locate the rot. Then another remarkable young man was able to jack up the posts one by one, putting in reinforcing steel and concrete and straightening the gaping sagging roof line, providing the old barn its first ever foundation.

And over the last two weeks a crew of two men have replaced the damaged roof and absent walls with metal siding. The barn is looking whole again.

There is a lot of clean up left to do inside: decades of old hay build up and damaged lumber and untold numbers of abandoned mouse nests and scattered barn owl pellets.

Soon, the barn will be shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. It will go on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity.

It will once again serve as the back up sanctuary on Easter morning when we are rained out up on the hill for Sunrise Service.

Now vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another 100 years.

Another old barn is resuscitated back to life when so many are left to die. It is revived and breathing on its own again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales and walls will groan with the pressure of stacks.

I must remember there is always hope for the shattered and weary among us. If an old barn can be saved, then so can we.

So can we.

photo by Nate Gibson

Springing

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts at night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.
~Robert Frost “A Prayer in Spring”

photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten

We are wisely warned what may happen in the next few months: a second or third wave of virus, more disruption, more closures, more deaths. There seems no end in sight on this long COVID road. Or perhaps the end is prematurely near for too many.

Thinking so far away to uncertain times ahead, we need to remember the future has always been uncertain; we just aren’t reminded so starkly. Instead we are reminded to dwell in the present here and now, appreciating these quiet moments at home for what they may bestow.

The earth is springing even while our hearts are weary of distancing and isolation. Each breath is filled with new fragrance, the greens startlingly verdant, each blossom heavy with promise.

There is reassurance in this renewal we witness yet again.

This, now, is love springing.
This is His love, reminding us He has not abandoned us.
This is love and nothing else can be as certain as that.

The Soul Confined

 
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese
packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees
at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds.
It slips in clumps off the barn roof,
wingless angels dropped by parachute.
Inside, I hear the horses knocking
aimlessly in their warm brown lockup,
testing the four known sides of the box
as the soul must, confined under the breastbone.
Horses blowing their noses, coming awake,
shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats.
They do not know what has fallen
out of the sky, colder than apple bloom,
since last night’s hay and oats.
They do not know how satisfactory
they look, set loose in the April sun,
nor what handsprings are turned under
my ribs with winter gone.
~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990

photo of spring snow by Paul Dorpat

This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.

It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.

It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.

Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.

Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.

I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.

So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.

Go Make the Call

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.
~Stuart Kestenbaum “April Prayer”

The buds have been poised for weeks and then,
as if all responding to an identical summons to action,
let go of all their pent up potential~
exploding with harmonious energy
enough to make us want to donate all we have,
over and over again.

How much may I pledge to witness this miracle?
Nothing, nothing at all.
It’s free. It’s totally free.

Did You Cry?

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
~Li-Young Lee, “The Gift”

Your father enters the poem
early,
storying past
the metal splinter
in your palm.

I set your paternity
—and the poem—
aside,
to reach back for my mother
and try to remember

what kind of day it was
when I played by the barn
where, it is said,
my own father raised pigs
(I do not remember this).

And what kind of day it was
when I found the barn,
door open,
silent

and tried to pluck silver lines
from silver webs
long-left,
then tendered my hand
on noiseless silvered wood

until my palms
were rife with the evidence
of my trying,

and mother
spent the night
with a silver tweezer,
counting as she went…
ninety-eight
ninety-nine
one hundred—

a ritual for my
tears.

And now I wonder,
Li-Young—did you cry,
and who was in the story,
and how many times
have you counted it since,
to forget,
and to remember.

~L. L. Barkat, “Li-Young Lee’s Splinter” from  Love, Etc.

I did, without ever wanting to, remove my child’s splinter, lance a boil, immobilize a broken arm, pull together sliced skin, clean many dirty wounds. It felt like I was always crossing the line between mommy and doctor.  But someone had to do it, and a four hour wait in the emergency room didn’t seem warranted.

My own child learned to cope with hurt made worse by someone they trusted to be comforter. I dealt with inflicting pain, temporary though it may be, to flesh that arose from my own flesh.  It hurt as much as if it were my own wound needing cleansing, not theirs.

Our wounds are His – He is constantly feeling our pain as He performs healing surgeries in our lives, not because He wants to but because He must, to save us from our own destruction.

Too often we yell and kick and protest in our distress, wanting it our way, not His way, making it all that much more difficult for both of us.

If only we can come to acknowledge His intervention is our salvage:
our tears to flow in relief, not anguish, we cling to His protection rather than pushing Him away, we kiss Him in gratitude as we are restored again and yet again.

The Dead Center of January

The night’s drifts
Pile up below me and behind my back,
Slide down the hill, rise again, and build
Eerie little dunes on the roof of the house.  
 

The moon and the stars
Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain   
Appears, pale as a shell.

Look, the sea has not fallen and broken   
Our heads. How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. I get up from the stone.   
My body mumbles something unseemly
And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely   
On top of the sunlight.

~James Wright, “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.

This is our fourth day of house arrest with roads icy and drifted and temperatures sub-freezing – a windchill below zero. What sun has appeared is ineffective, as if it were fake news on a winter day.

The prediction is for a dramatic turn-around in the next couple hours with temperatures rising 16 degrees with the advent of southerly “pineapple express” breezes.

I’ll believe it when I feel it. In the past, the drama of a south wind breaking the curse of the icy cold happens so rapidly, we could hear it before we felt it. The sound of ice and snow falling, taking branches with them in the woods was like the rat-a-tat of target shooting. None of us were ready for it and the trees were literally breaking in response to the warming winds.

We can grumble and mumble (and do) but this is the only life we have in the dead center of a January snow and wind storm. We’ll just sit tight braced against the cold, like the hungry birds that flock by the dozens at our feeders, waiting for the warming winds to carry us right into February, preferably unbroken.