Hollowed

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.

photo by Andrea Nipges

New book available to order from Barnstorming!

Reading Over My Shoulder

Ten more miles, it is South Dakota.
Somehow, the roads there turn blue,
When no one walks down them.
One more night of walking, and I could have become
A horse, a blue horse, dancing
Down a road, alone.

I have got this far. It is almost noon. But never mind time:
That is all over.
It is still Minnesota.
Among a few dead cornstalks, the starving shadow
Of a crow leaps to his death.
At least, it is green here,
Although between my body and the elder trees
A savage hornet strains at the wire screen.
He can’t get in yet.

It is so still now, I hear the horse
Clear his nostrils.
He has crept out of the green places behind me.
Patient and affectionate, he reads over my shoulder
These words I have written.
He has lived a long time, and he loves to pretend
No one can see him.
Last night I paused at the edge of darkness,
And slept with green dew, alone.
I have come a long way, to surrender my shadow
To the shadow of a horse.

~James Wright “Sitting in a small screenhouse on a summer morning”

I have a sense of someone reading over my shoulder as I write. It keeps me honest to feel that breath on my hair, that green smell reminding me who I am.

I should not try to be anyone else.

When my words don’t say exactly what I hope, I feel forgiveness from the shadow beside me.

It’s all softness. It’s all okay even when it’s not.

Licked to Its Feet

When we reach the field
she is still eating
the heads of yellow flowers
and pollen has turned her whiskers
gold. Lady,
her stomach bulges out,
the ribs have grown wide.
We wait,
our bare feet dangling
in the horse trough,
warm water
where goldfish brush
our smooth ankles.
We wait
while the liquid breaks
down Lady’s dark legs
and that slick wet colt
like a black tadpole
darts out
beginning at once
to sprout legs.
She licks it to its feet,
the membrane still there,
red, transparent
the sun coming up shines through,
the sky turns bright with morning
and the land
with pollen blowing off the corn,
land that will always own us,
everywhere it is red.

~Linda Hogan, “Celebration: Birth of a Colt” from Red Clay.

First,
her fluid
flows in subtle stream
then
gushes in sudden drench.
Soaking, saturating,
precipitating
inevitability.
No longer cushioned
slick sliding forward
following the rich river
downstream to freedom.

The smell of birth
clings to shoes, clothes, hands
as soaked in soupy brine
I reach to embrace new life
sliding toward me.

I too was caught once;
three times emptied into other hands,
my babies wet on my chest
their slippery skin
under my lips
so salty sweet

In a moment’s scent
the rush of life returns;
now only barn or field birthings
yet still as sweet and rich.
I carry the smell of damp foal fur
with me all day to
recall from whence I came.
I floated once
and will float free someday again.

Bones in the Ground

All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning, led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
~Donald Hall, “Names of Horses”

Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

As a child,  I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in 1965 in an open clearing of our woods where our little chestnut mare, Dolly, rested in the ground.

She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. I had returned to the house, unable to watch, but could not help but hear the gunshot as if it had gone through me as well.

At first her grave was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see.

When my tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear.

Later it became the sanctuary where I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.

Her bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.

No one but me still remembers you.

Like a Century Ago

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

When I pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as my grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

I do my chores faithfully
as my grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

I don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry me to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as my grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm
two or three long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for my constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

I depend on them
to depend on me
to be there
to open the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
as if today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

Absorbing the Shock

There are three kinds of men.
The ones that learn by reading.
The few who learn by observation. 
The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.
~Will Rogers

Learning is a universal human experience from the moment we take our first breath.  It is never finished until the last breath is given up.  With a lifetime of learning, one would think eventually we should get it right.

But we don’t.  We tend to learn the hard way especially when it comes to matters having to do with our (or others’) health.

As physicians in training, we “see one, do one, teach one.”   That kind of approach doesn’t always go so well for the patient.   As patients, we like to eat, drink, and live how we wish, demanding what interventions we want only when we want them – this also doesn’t go so well for the patient.  You’d think we’d know better, but as fallible human beings, we may impulsively make decisions about our health without actually using our heads (is it evidence-based or simply an anecdotal story about what “worked” for someone else?).

The cows and horses on our farm need to touch an electric fence only once when reaching for greener grass on the other side.  That moment provides a sufficient learning curve for them to make an important decision.  They won’t try testing it again no matter how alluring the world appears on the other side.   Humans are smarter sentient beings who should learn as quickly as animals but unfortunately don’t.  I know all too well what a shock feels like and I want to avoid repeating that experience.  Even so, in unguarded careless moments of feeling invulnerable (it can’t happen to me!), and yearning to have what I don’t necessarily need,  I may find myself reaching for the greener grass (or another cookie) even though I know better.   I suspect I’m not alone in my surprise when I’m jolted back to reality when I continually indulge myself and climb on the scale to see the results.

Many great minds have worked out various theories of effective learning, but, great mind or not, Will Rogers confirms a common sense suspicion: an adverse experience, like a “bolt out of the blue,” can be a powerful teacher.  As clinicians, we call it “a teachable moment.”  None of us want to experience a teachable moment — none of us, and we resent it when someone points it out to us.

When physicians and patients learn the hard way, we need to come along aside one another rather than work at cross-purposes.

It just might help absorb the shock.

The Edge of Morning

Horse Team by Edvard Munch
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn
Black chimney builds into the quiet sky
Its curling pile to crumble silently.
Far out to the westward on the edge of morn,
The slender misty city towers up-borne
Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue;
And yonder on those northern hills, the hue
Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.

And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs
With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main
Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain,
Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze,
Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team,
With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam.

~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
photo by Josh Scholten

The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.

Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.

We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.

We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.

For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.

And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.

No fossil fuel necessary back then.
No exhaust other than steaming nostrils
and a pile of manure here or there.

We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.

Pleading To Be Let Out

Though the barn is so warm
that the oats in his manger,
the straw in his bed
seem to give off smoke—

though the wind is so cold,
the snow in the pasture
so deep he’d fall down
and freeze in an hour—

the eleven-month-old
palomino stallion
has gone almost crazy
fighting and pleading
to be let out.
~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.

It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.

In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.

I’ll try not to bite if you promise not to kick.

The Swarm Fell on His Back

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

When the plowblade struck   
An old stump hiding under   
The soil like a beggar’s   
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up   
& Mister Jackson left the plow   
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.   
The horse was midnight   
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s   
Pocketwatch.  He shivered, but not   
The way women shook their heads   
Before mirrors at the five   
& dime—a deeper connection   
To the low field’s evening star.   
He stood there, in tracechains,   
Lathered in froth, just   
Stopped by a great, goofy   
Calmness. He whinnied   
Once, & then the whole   
Beautiful, blue-black sky   
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

Death by a thousand stings.

This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.

The farmer saves himself.

The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.

How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?

A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:

-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.

Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.

He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.

Christmas Eve at BriarCroft

For years, before the birth of this Barnstorming blog, I would sit down Christmas Eve to write a (sort of) rhyming farm poem — here are several from 15-18 years ago

Growing up as a child on our farm,
I remember the magic of Christmas eve night,
Bundling up in layers to stay warm,
To the barn to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
And spoke in words we could all understand.
They worshiped a Child born in a tiny town,
In a barn such as theirs held in God’s hand.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
The blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
In a barn, while shepherds and kings came by.

Yet my childhood trips to the barn were always too late,
Our cows would be chewing, our chickens fast asleep,
Our horse breathing softly, our cat climbing the gate,
In the barn there was never a peep.

But I knew they had done it, just too quick to see!
They were plainly so happy and at peace.
In the sweet smelling hay, and no longer hungry,
In our barn, though so humble, a miracle had taken place.

I still bundle to go out each Christmas eve,
In the hope I’ll catch them this time.
Though I’m older now I still must believe
In the barn, birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Yet our horses nicker as I come near,
They tell me the time is now!
They drop to their knees without any fear
In our barn, all living things bow.

Imagine the wonder of God’s immense trust
For the loving creatures who were there that night.
Now I know why this special Child must
Be born in a barn, it was only right.
(written Christmas Eve 1999)

Sometimes it seems time flies too fast
Amid our daily work and play
We want to make each moment last
and value in every day.

A place we’ve found that time slows
Is the Haflinger barn on our farm.
As we listen to the chewing among the stall rows
We know each horse is safe and loved and warm.

Years ago, such peace was found
In a Baby lying in a manger.
Sung a lullaby of animals’ sounds
Sleeping protected from earthly danger.

We can know that peace apart
From the rest of our worldly care
The Baby’s found within our heart
A knowledge we gladly share.

(written 2000 Christmas Eve)

noblesseeye1

I walk to the barn tonight as I do each year,
Counting my blessings, knowing my flaws,
Praying for family and friends so dear,
And for each precious creature with hooves or paws.

Each horse is content and a witness to peace,
And I wish every person could know,
Sadness and worry for a moment can cease,
While patting noses down a stall row.

For once I see the sky is clear
And stars are shining bright
The northeast wind is coming near
And briskly chills this special night.

For weeks stars hid behind a cloud
Of doubt, of fear, of weeping rain,
Explosions at once so horrid and loud
The whole world instantly felt the pain.

Like stars that glow through blackest dark
Good overwhelms bad with barely left trace
All owed to a Child who left His mark
By giving Himself in infinite grace.

(written Christmas Eve 2001)

On a night long ago
The two traveled far
After days on the road
Sought rest beneath a brightening star.

Yet no room was found
As they asked all they could
Instead they were bound
for a cave in the wood.

In a barn dry and warm
Farm animals welcomed them
Safely sheltered from harm
And the closed doors of Bethlehem.

Where else can the birth be
But deep in a cave?
Where the heart is set free
Our lives and souls saved.

My barn, like my heart
Should always have “room”
For the Word had its start
In a manger assumed.

As your Haflingers welcome you
To their barn home today
A heart is shown what it must do–
Always give Love and Peace a place to stay.

(written Christmas Eve 2002)