A Surprise No Longer

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About living in the country?
…peace can deafen one, beauty surprise
No longer.  There is only the thud
Of the slow foot up the long lane
At morning and back at night.
~R.S. Thomas “The Country”

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I must not forget my
astonishment
at the beauty around me
even on the grayest of days,
trudging the barnyard path
on dark nights to exhausted chores.
If ever I fail to see
what is right in front of me,
this grace-given gift
to my eyes and ears,
I do not deserve to put on boots
or hold a pitchfork.

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Fifty Years Ago Today

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Prankster getting my brother’s attention

 

For the past fifty years, this date especially stands out on my calendar. Whenever November 27 comes around, I think back to a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined. When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

On November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, sick in bed with an early season flu, who opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  I have been forever grateful to him that he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

By the time he was two, I was sitting on him, and when he was three, my Christmas present that year was a beautiful western saddle. We spent many happy hours riding trails in the nearby woods and enjoying life in the moment.

When it was time for me to leave for college, I knew I could no longer afford to keep him, so found Prankster a forever home to live out his days as I spent the next 13 years of my life living and learning in the city. Horse dreams still visited me in my sleep and swept me into book stores to pore over horse books. I knew I’d had my once-in-a-lifetime special “gift” by winning my first horse, so the next horse I would have to earn on my own. I worked long hours, many nights and many holidays, earning what I could to eventually move from Seattle to own land for a farm.

Along the way, I met a farm boy also temporarily displaced to Seattle and together we worked toward building our farm dream while planning our future together. During our weekly Friday evening bookstore visit, I had opened one discount picture book and discovered the golden horses of my childhood dreams, running wild through green mountain meadows, their white manes and tails streaming out behind them. I bought that book in a heartbeat, and began my search for a breed previously unknown to me before — the magical Haflinger. Within a month of our moving to the farm, on November 27, 1985, our first Haflinger mare joined us. Over the past thirty years, we’ve owned dozens of Haflingers, most born and raised here, and today six are still happily munching hay out in our barn.

Twenty years separated my first horse from my second horse, but November 27 stands out as the day a kid’s dream came true. As I clean our barn every morning, I marvel at the privilege it has been to share this land and this farm life with my husband, my children, and these beautiful horses. They all owned me, heart and soul, because of a first prize fuzzy bay colt fifty years ago.

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Prankster helping my dad build a new farm building

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Prankster’s favorite drinking fountain

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Galaxy, the first Haflinger born on our farm, entertaining at the fair

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A few of our many BriarCroft Haflingers raised here over the years

Yet One Rich Smile

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Yet one smile more, departing, distant sun!
One mellow smile through the soft vapory air,
Ere, o’er the frozen earth, the loud winds run,
Or snows are sifted o’er the meadows bare.
One smile on the brown hills and naked trees,
And the dark rocks whose summer wreaths are cast,
And the blue gentian flower, that, in the breeze,
Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last.
Yet a few sunny days, in which the bee
Shall murmur by the hedge that skirts the way,
The cricket chirp upon the russet lea,
And man delight to linger in thy ray.
Yet one rich smile, and we will try to bear
The piercing winter frost, and winds, and darkened air.
~William Cullen Bryant “November”

 

The window of richness is brief these November mornings,
enough time to feed and water animals,
watch the geese fly overhead,
capture the light and fog in soft vapory air
before it dissipates back to
just another ordinary day.
This blessing of light is
beyond my understanding,
beyond my ability to preserve,
beyond any gratitude I can offer.
It is freely given with a smile
and I delight to linger…

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The Bounds of the Infinite

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God is not infinite;
He is the synthesis
of infinity and boundary.

~Coventry Patmore

He chose the boundaries of the finite;
to be helpless as a baby,
to love flawed parents,
to be dusty and tired and tempted,
to weep,
to be hurt, bleeding, bound by nails,
dead and buried as man,
to await rising as God.

Living and dying within such boundaries as ours
show us His infinite Truth:
He knows what it means
to be finite,
like us.

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A Hot Day on the Farm

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These hot humid summer days have been barely tolerable for a temperate climate sissy pants like me.  I am melting even as I get up in the morning, and our house has been two degrees warmer (93 degrees) than the out of doors.

One morning as I drove the ten miles of country roads to get to work in town,  I was listening to the news on the car radio when I puzzled over why the radio station would be playing cat meows over the news.  I turned off the radio, and realized the meows didn’t go away.

As soon as I was able, I pulled into a parking lot and surveyed my car from back to front, looking under seats, opened the back, scratched my head.  Then the plaintive meowing started again—under the hood.  I struggled with the latch, lifted up the hood and a distressed bundle of kitten fur hurtled out at me, clinging all four little greasy paws to my shirt.  Unscathed except for greasy feet, this little two month old kitten had survived a 50 mile per hour ride for 20 minutes, including several turns and stops.  He immediately crawled up to my shoulder, settled in by my ear, and began to purr.  I contemplated showing up at a meeting at work with a kitten and grease marks all over me vs. heading back home with my newly portable neck warmer.  I opted to call in with the excuse “my cat hitchhiked to work with me this morning and is thumbing for a ride back home” and headed back down the road to take him back to the barn where he belongs.

At that point, my meeting at work was already over so I dawdled in the barn before heading back down the road.   I noticed the Haflinger horses had broken through our electric wire fencing into a more inviting adjacent field so I wandered out to check fence line.   The hot wire must have been shorting out somewhere in the pasture.  As I approached the fence, I heard numerous snaps and pops that I interpreted as hot wire shorting out in the dry grass and weeds, creating a potential fire hazard with the winds whipping up.  I could hear snaps all up and down the fenceline, but could not see sparks to lead me to the problem spot.

As I studied the wire, I heard a little “snap” and a tiny seed pod burst open in front of my eyes, scattering its contents very effectively on the ground below.  It was dried common vetch seed pods that were snapping and popping, not hot wire shorting out.  They were literally exploding all up and down the fenceline in a symphony of seed release.  Not a spark to be seen — at least not of the electrical variety — only botanical.

So I learned practical advice to be content on a hot day on the farm:

Remember to bang on my car hood before I start the ignition, cats do have nine lives, keep the hotwire hot to keep the horses where they belong,  and especially, vetch doesn’t start wildfires, but explodes wildly in its noisy reproductive cycle.  If vetch can find ecstasy on a hot day, so can we all.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

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A Fence Post

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If you stand here you can see the barn.
You can see it from every point on these two hundred acres,
but this spot is the closest.

Here’s a fence post–use your imagination–
that used to be a corner post
for all the fences on this farm.
~Curtis Bauer from “Imaginary Homecoming”

 

Standing in certain spots on our farm,
at certain times of day
and certain times of year,I think I can see and be seen
into forever,
the expanse of sky unending,
touching shadowy hilltop silhouettes.

I become the corner post from which
all boundaries extend,
fencing in the known world from this spot.
I become the barn visible for miles,
though aging and sagging,
still safe haven to all that need to find rest,
a hub for homecoming.

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Fenced Off

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My grandmother’s house had been torn down after she sold her property on Similk Bay near Anacortes, Washington to a lumber company.  This was the house where her four babies were born, where she and my grandfather loved and fought and separated and loved again, and where our family spent chaotic and memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.  After Grandpa died suddenly, she took on boarders, trying to afford to remain there on the wooded acreage fronted by stump farm meadows where her Scottish Highland cattle grazed.   She reached an age when it was no longer possible to make it work.   A deal was struck with the lumber company and she had moved to a small apartment, bruised by the move from her farm.

My father realized what her selling to a lumber company meant and it was a crushing thought.  The old growth woods would soon also be stumps on the rocky hill above the bay, opening a view to Mt. Baker to the east, to the San Juan Islands to the north, and presenting an opportunity for development into a subdivision.   He woke my brother and me early one Saturday in May and told us we were driving the 120 miles to Anacortes.  He was on a mission.

As a boy growing up on that land, he had wandered the woods, explored the hill, and helped his dad farm the rocky soil.  There was only one thing he felt he needed from that farm and he had decided to take us with him, to trespass where he had been born and raised to bring home a most prized treasure–his beloved lady slippers from the woods.

These dainty flowers enjoy a spring display known for its brevity–a week or two at the most–and they tend to bloom in small little clusters in the leafy duff mulch of the deep woods, preferring only a little indirect sunlight part of the day.  They are not easy to find unless you know where to look.  My father remembered exactly where to look.

We hauled buckets up the hill along with spades, looking as if we were about to dig for clams at the ocean.  Dad led us up a trail into the thickening foliage, until we had to bushwhack our way into the taller trees where the ground was less brush and more hospitable ground cover.  He would stop occasionally to get his bearings as things were overgrown.   We reached a small clearing and he knew we were near.  He went straight to a copse of fir trees standing guard over a garden of lady slippers.

There were almost thirty of them blooming, scattered in an area about the size of my tiny bedroom at home.  Each orchid-like pink and lavender blossom had a straight backed stem that held it with sturdy confidence.  To me, they looked like they could be little shoes for fairies who may have hung them up while they danced about barefoot.    To my father, they represented the last redeeming vestiges of his often traumatic rearing by an alcoholic father, and were about to be trammeled by bulldozers.  We set to work gently digging them out of their soft bedding, carefully keeping their bulb-like corms from losing a protective covering of soil and leafy mulch.  Carrying them in the buckets back to the car, we felt some vindication that even if the trees were to be lost to the saws, these precious flowers would survive.

When we got home, Dad set to work creating a spot where he felt they could thrive in our own woods.  He found a place with the ideal amount of shade and light, with the protection of towering trees and the right depth of undisturbed leaf mulch.  We carefully placed the lady slippers in their new home, scattered in a pattern similar to how we found them.  Then Dad built a four foot split rail fence in an octagon around them, as a protection from our cattle and a horse who wandered the woods, and as a way to demarcate that something special was contained inside.

The next spring only six lady slippers bloomed from the original thirty.  Dad was disappointed but hoped another year might bring a resurgence as the flowers established themselves in their new home.  The following year there were only three.  Two years later my father left us and them, not looking back.

Sometime after, when my mother had to sell our farm after the divorce, I visited our lady slipper sanctuary in the woods for the last time in the middle of May.  The split rail fence was still there, guarding nothing but old memories.  No lady slippers bloomed.  There was not a trace they had ever been there.  They had simply given up and disappeared.

The new owners of our farm surely puzzled over the significance of the small fenced-off area in the middle of our woods.  They probably thought it surrounded a graveyard of some sort.

And so it did.