Tenderness for Ordinary Things

Last evening,
As I drove into this small valley,
I saw a low-hanging cloud
Wandering through the trees.
It circled like a school of fish
Around the dun-colored hay bales.
Reaching out its foggy hands
To stroke the legs of a perfect doe
Quietly grazing in a neighbor’s mule pasture
I stopped the car
And stepping out into the blue twilight,
A wet mist brushed my face,
And then it was gone.
It was not unfriendly,
But it was not inclined to tell its secrets.
I am in love with the untamed things,
The cloud, the doe,
Water, air and light.
I am filled with such tenderness
For ordinary things:
The practical mule, the pasture,
A perfect spiral of gathered hay.
And although I should not be,
Consistent as it is,
I am always surprised
By the way my heart will open
So completely and unexpectedly,
With a rush and an ache,
Like a sip of cold water
On a tender tooth.
~Carrie Newcomer “In the Hayfield”

I realize that nothing in this life is actually ordinary – at times I could weep over the unordinariness that is around me.

The light falls a certain way, the colors astound, the animals grace the fields with their contentment, the birds become overture, the air is perfumed with rain or blossom.

How can I not ache with this knowledge? How can I not feel the tenderness of my heart feeling so full, it could burst at any moment?

Truly extraordinary to be able to give myself over to this.

Light pools like spilled water on the floor
Cold air slips like silk beneath the door
The sky feels like a grey wool cap
Pulled down round my ears that near

All the ridge is lined with stands of beech
At the tops they’re swaying quietly
So elegant and raw without their leaves
All of these I see

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this

There’s a hidden spring back where it’s hard to find
Someone used it years ago to make moonshine
This forest has a different sense of time
Than yours or mine

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this

There’s a soil horizon
Layers beneath the trees
A sign of outward grace
Unraveling

One bird sits and sings an aching song
One turning leaf, ten circles on the pond
Two careful does wait silently beyond
Then they’re gone they’re gone

I catch a memory a scent another short glimpse
Like someone leaned over and gave my forehead a kiss
I give myself to this
~Carrie Newcomer

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So Much to Remember

The partly open hay barn door, white frame around the darkness,
the broken board, small enough for a child
to slip through.

Walking in the cornfields in late July, green tassels overhead,
the slap of flat leaves as we pass, silent
and invisible from any road.

Hollyhocks leaning against the stucco house, peonies heavy
as fruit, drooping their deep heads
on the dog house roof.

Lilac bushes between the lawn and the woods,
a tractor shifting from one gear into
the next, the throttle opened,

the smell of cut hay, rain coming across the river,
the drone of the hammer mill,
milk machines at dawn.

~Joyce Sutphen, “The Last Things I’ll Remember” from First Words

There are so many memories we keep stored in our neurons; some we revisit regularly through reminiscing, day dreams, night dreams or story telling. Other memories remain buried and untouched. I like to think the last things we remember are those we return to again and again, unlocked by a smell, a taste, or a music passage. Even those with the worst memory loss can sometimes sing a hymn or recite a poem or verse of scripture without hesitation.

Thanks to our Creator, we each have a reservoir of vivid memories we can draw from during the driest and darkest moments of our lives. When we are lost and discouraged, they will take us home again.

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Radical Gratitude

There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.

We are making hay when we should be making whoopee;
we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain,
or Lazarus.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Other than a few exceptional circumstances in my life, I have always played it safe: a down-home, don’t rock the boat, work hard and live-a-quiet-life kind of person. My grandparents lived that way, my parents lived that way so I feel like it is bound in the twists and turns of my DNA.

Even so, I do know a thing or two about sulking on the edge of rage, lost in a morass of seething bitterness about the state of the world.  Yet if I were honest about it, my discontent is all about me, always about me. I want to have accomplished more to deserve taking up space in my days on earth.

But that’s a problem we all have, isn’t it? We’re never worthy of such unmerited grace as has been shown to us.  It is such a pure Gift I wait for, borne out of God’s radical sacrifice that warrants from me a life of radical gratitude, even when I choose to live it out a little quietly, making hay and raising tomatoes.

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The Heart’s Need

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 from “The Country”

…once when he was walking
Along a lane in spring he was deceived
By a shrill whistle coming through the leaves;
Wait a minute, wait a minute-four swift notes;
He turned, and it was nothing, only a Thrush
In the thorn bushes easing its throat.
He swore at himself for paying heed,
The poor hill farmer, so often again
Stopping, staring, listening, in vain,
His ear betrayed by the heart’s need.
~R.S.Thomas from “The Lonely Farmer”

I must not forget my heart’s need:
my utter astonishment
at the beauty around me
even on the hottest and sweatiest of days,
even on the grayest and wettest of days,
while trudging the darkened barnyard path
to attend, although weary, to chores.

If ever I fail to see
what is right in front of me,
this grace-given gift
to my eyes and ears and heart,
I do not deserve to put on boots
or hold a pitchfork.

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

He knows every stone that’s been struck by the plow
There’s a pile by the barn by the sweat of his brow
The land has his heart and he rarely complains
And it holds his knees when he prays for rain

He’s a dusty old carhartt and the light in the barn
He’ll work the late hours and he’s up before dawn
Every man has a story and the story goes on
From grandad’s eyes to a new born son

Why I farm is in my blood, like the sunlight is on my skin
Is who I meant to be, is who I’ve always been
Is more than just a living, it’s my way of life
And it grows like seed inside my heart
That’s why I farm

We always pull through when we thought we would break
In the flood ’93, in the draught ’88
The Lord has his timing ’cause only he knows
That when next year comes the crops will grow
Find more lyrics at 

Tough the world may shake around me, still I am stable
For as long as I am able, I’ll work this way
‘Cause when heaven comes this close to what you’re holding
This life is but a moment in a bigger plan
~The Henningsens

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Summer Nap

In the afternoon of summer, sounds
come through the window: a tractor
muttering to itself as it

Pivots at the corner of the
hay field, stalled for a moment
as the green row feeds into the baler.

The wind slips a whisper behind
an ear; the noise of the highway
is like the dark green stem of a rose.

From the kitchen the blunt banging
of cupboard doors and wooden chairs
makes a lonely echo in the floor.

Somewhere, between the breeze
and the faraway sound of a train,
comes a line of birdsong, lightly
threading the heavy cloth of dream.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Soundings” from Naming the Stars

As a young child, I remember waking from my summer afternoon naps to the sights and sounds of our rural community. I could hear tractors working fields in the distance, farm trucks rumbling by on the road, the cows and horses in the fields, a train whistle in the distance and the ever-present birdsong from dawn to dusk.

These were the sounds of contentment and productivity, both together. Surely this is how heaven must be: always a sense of something wonderful happening, always a reason to celebrate, always a profound sense of respite and sanctuary.

Even now, there is that moment of awakening of my heart and soul from a summer nap when I try to listen for the chorus of angels outside my open window.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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In a Cloud of Gold

Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae
Benjamin Janicki of Sedro Woolley raking hay with his team of Oberlanders

Travel as a backward step.
You journey until you find
a meadow where wildflowers
grow with pre-factory-farming
copiousness, a horse-drawn
landscape where hay is saved
in older ways, to revive
the life you lived once,
catch up with your past.
~Dennis O’Driscoll from Time Pieces (2002)

… The Amish have maintained what I like to think is a proper scale, largely by staying with the horse. The horse has restricted unlimited expansion. Not only does working with horses limit farm size, but horses are ideally suited to family life. With horses you unhitch at noon to water and feed the teams and then the family eats what we still call dinner. While the teams rest there is usually time for a short nap. And because God didn’t create the horse with headlights, we don’t work nights.
Amish farmer David Kline in Great Possessions

photo by Tayler Rae

One evening I stopped by the field to watch the hay rake
drawn toward me by two black, tall, ponderous horses
who stepped like conquerors over the fallen oat stalks,
light-shot dust at their heels, long shadows before them.
At the ditch the driver turned back in a wide arc,
the off-horse scrambling, the near-horse pivoting neatly.
The big side-delivery rake came about with a shriek—
its tines were crashing, the iron-bound tongue groaned aloud—
then, Hup, Diamond! Hup, Duke! and they set off west,
trace-deep in dust, going straight into the low sun.

The clangor grew faint, distance and light consumed them;
a fiery chariot rolled away in a cloud of gold
and faded slowly, brightness dying into brightness.
The groaning iron, the prophesying wheels,
the mighty horses with their necks like storms—
all disappeared; nothing was left but a track
of dust that climbed like smoke up the evening wind.

~Kate Barnes “The Hay Rake” from Where the Deer Are

My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black.

Nearing 68, I am old enough to have parents who both grew up on farms worked by horses, one raising wheat and lentils in the Palouse country of eastern Washington and the other logging in the woodlands of Fidalgo Island of western Washington.  The horses were crucial to my grandfathers’ success in caring for and tilling the land, seeding and harvesting the crops and bringing supplies from town miles away.  Theirs was a hardscrabble life in the early 20th century with few conveniences.  Work was year round from dawn to dusk; caring for the animals came before any human comforts.  Once night fell, work ceased and sleep was welcome respite for man and beast.

In the rural countryside where we live now, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past.  Watching a good team work with no diesel motor running means hearing bird calls from the field, the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission.  No ear protection is needed.  There is no clock needed to pace the day.   There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of engines are part of the work day.   The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing. It is time to stop and take a breather, it is time to start back up do a few more rows, it is time to water, it is time for a meal, it is time for a nap, it is time for a rest in a shady spot.  This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before.

Our modern agribusiness megafarm fossil-fuel-powered approach to food production has bypassed the small family farm which was so dependent on the muscle power of humans and animals.  In our move away from horses worked by skilled teamsters,  what has been gained in high production values has meant loss of self-sufficiency and dedicated stewardship of a particular plot of ground.  Draft breeds, including the Haflinger horses we raise, now are bred for higher energy with lighter refined bone structure meant more for eye appeal and floating movement,  rather than the sturdy conformation and unflappable low maintenance mindset needed for pulling work.   Modern children are bred for different purpose as well, no longer raised to work together with other family members for a common purpose of daily survival.   Their focus at school is waning as they have no morning farm chores when they get up, too little physical work to do before they arrive at their desks in the morning.   Their physical energy, if directed at all,  is directed to competitive sports, engaged in fantasy combat rather than winning a very real victory over hunger.

I am encouraged when young people still reach for horse collars and bridles, hitch up their horses and do the work as it used to be done.   All is not lost if we can still make incremental daily progress,  harnessed together as a team with our horses, tilling for truth and harvesting hope.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard


I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods.  It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life.  I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature.  That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. ~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor

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Wired With Alertness

Edmund Darch Lewis – Susquehanna
Agnes Wallace by Robert Sivell

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.


Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,


a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.


There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,


rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.


But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,


when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend


under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana


sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.


That is something I am unlikely

ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.


Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,


even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame. 
~Billy Collins Fishing On The Susquehanna In July

A Hare in the Forest by Hans Hoffman (Getty Museum)
Susquehanna by Jasper Francis Cropsey
Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

I live a quiet life in a quiet place. There are many experiences not on my bucket list that I’m content to simply imagine.

I’m not a rock climber or a zip liner or willing to jump out of an airplane. I won’t ride a horse over a four foot jump or race one around a track. Not for me waterskis or unicycles or motorcycles.

I’m grateful there are those who are eagerly wired with alertness for the next experience: adventurers who seek out the extremes of life so the rest of us can sit back and admire their courage and applaud their explorations and achievement.

My mind’s eye and imagination is powerful enough, thanks to the words and pictures of others. I find I’m content to explore the corners of my quiet places, both inside and outside, to see what I can build from what I find right here under my nose.

When the light is right, and I’m open enough to it, what I see is ready to spring right out of the frame.

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

….and August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

You become a self that fills the four corners of
night.
~Wallace Stevens, from “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts”

More of my images along with Lois Edstrom’s ekphrastic poetry can be found in this book, available for order here:

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

Enjoy this blog post? A new book from Barnstorming is available to order here:

Through Grass and Grain

Mown meadows skirt the standing wheat;
I linger, for the hay is sweet,
New-cut and curing in the sun.
Like furrows, straight, the windrows run,
Fallen, gallant ranks that tossed and bent
When, yesterday, the west wind went
A-rioting through grass and grain.
To-day no least breath stirs the plain;
Only the hot air, quivering, yields
Illusive motion to the fields
Where not the slenderest tassel swings.
Across the wheat flash sky-blue wings;
A goldfinch dangles from a tall,
Full-flowered yellow mullein; all
The world seems turning blue and gold.
Unstartled, since, even from of old,
Beauty has brought keen sense of her,
I feel the withering grasses stir;
Along the edges of the wheat,
I hear the rustle of her feet:
And yet I know the whole sea lies,
And half the earth, between our eyes.
~Sophie Jewett “In Harvest”

Autumn harvest happens outside of me
despite sudden coolness of the air,
thanks to showers that green the fields
for one more month of grazing,
midst the smell of the dying of vines and roots.

Autumn harvest is happening inside of me
as I slow down my walk,
curl up within the lengthening nights,
the color of my thoughts
turning to bronze and gold and red

before I let go
before I let go

A book of beauty in words and photographs, available for order here:

Get Up and Go About the Day

Light wakes us – there’s the sun
climbing the mountains’ rim, spilling across the valley,
finding our faces.
It is July,

between the hay and harvest,
a time at arm’s length from all other time…

It is the time
to set aside all vigil, good or ill,
to loosen the fixed gaze of our attention
as dandelions let seedlings to the wind.
Wake with the light.
Get up and go about the day and watch
its surfaces that brighten with the sun.
~Kerry Hardie from “Sleep in Summer”

Saying good-bye to July
is admitting summer is already half-baked
and so are we–
we are still doughy
and not nearly done enough.

The rush to autumn is breathless.
We want to hold on tight
to our longish days
and our sweaty nights
for just a little while longer…

Please, oh please
grant us light
and steady us for the task
of getting ready and letting go.