A Galaxy of Grasses

О Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors at evening.
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade.
О Light Invisible, we worship Thee!

~T.S. Eliot from “O Light Invisible”

Look, in the early light, 
   Down to the infinite 
   Depths at the deep grass-roots; 
      Where the sun shoots 
In golden veins, as looking through 
   A dear pool one sees it do; 
   Where campion drifts 
Its bladders, iris-brinded, through the rifts 
      Of rising, falling seed
   That the winds lightly scour—
Down to the matted earth where over 
   And over again crow’s-foot and clover
      And pink bindweed
      Dimly, steadily flower.

~Michael Field “The Depths of the Grass”

We wove hip-high field grass 
into tunnels 

knotting the tops 
of bunched handfuls the drooping 
heads tied together. 

My seven siblings and I 
sheltered ourselves

inside these labyrinths 
in a galaxy of grasses.
~Heather Cahoon “Shelter”

As a child I liked to go out far into our hay field and find the tallest patch of grass. There, like a dog turning circles before a nap,  I’d trample down the tall waving stems that stretched up almost to my eyes, and create a grass nest, just cozy enough for me. I’d sit or lie down in this tall green fortress, gazing up at the blue sky, and watch the clouds lazily drift over top of me.  I’d suck on a hollow stem or two, to savor the bitter grass juice. Time felt suspended.

Scattered around my grassy cage, looking out of place attached to the broad grass stems, would be innumerable clumps of white foam. I’d tease out the hidden green spit bugs with their little black eyes from their white frothy bubble encasement. I too felt “bubble-wrapped” in my green hide-a-way.

My grassy nest was a time of retreat from the world.  I felt protected, surrounded, encompassed and free –at least until I heard my mother calling for me from the house, or a rain shower started, driving me to run for cover, or my dog found me by following my green path.

It has been decades since I hid away in a grass fort trying to defoam spit bugs. Surely, I’m overdue: instead of being determined to mow down and level the grass around me, I long for a galaxy of grassy bubble-wrap.

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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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To Seek the Whole…

… why should I not sit, every morning of my life,
on the hillside, looking into the shining world?
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

 
Be ignited, or be gone.
~Mary Oliver from “What I Have Learned So Far”

How often do we miss the fainter note
Or fail to see the more exquisite hue,
Blind to the tiny streamlet at our feet,
Eyes fixed upon some other, further view.
What chimes of harmonies escape our ears,
How many rainbows must elude our sight,
We see a field but do not see the grass,
Each blade a miracle of shade and light.
How then to keep the greater end in eye
And watch the sunlight on the distant peak,
And yet not tread on any leaf of love,
Nor miss a word the eager children speak?
Ah, what demand upon the narrow heart,
To seek the whole, yet not ignore the part.

~Philip Britts “Sonnet 1” from Water at the Roots

We are born nearly blinded, focused solely on our emptiness – a hunger to be filled and our need to be held.  As we grow, our focus sharpens to fall in love with those who feed and nurture us.

Eventually we discover, challenge and worship He who made us. I need to seek out and harvest the beauty growing in each moment.

This world is often too much for me to take in as a whole — an exquisite view of shadow and light, color and gray, loneliness and embrace, sorrow and joy.

With more years and a broader vision, I scan for the finer details within the whole before it disappears with the changing light.  Time’s a wasting (and so am I) as I try to capture it all with the lenses of our eyes and hearts.

The end of life comes too soon, when once again my vision blurs and the world fades away from view. I will hunger yet again to be filled and held.

And then heaven itself will seem almost too much to take in – my heart full to bursting with light and promise for the rest of eternity.

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A Thought as Small as Vetch

Before the ordinary realities, ordinary failures:
hunger, coldness, anger, longing, heat.
Yet one day, a thought as small as a vetch flower opens.
~Jane Hirschfield from “Flowering Vetch”

Who would have thought it possible that a tiny little flower could preoccupy a person so completely that there simply wasn’t room for any other thought?
~ Sophie Scholl 

Little flower,
but if I could understand what you are,
root and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
~  Alfred Lord Tennyson
from “Flower in the Crannied Wall”

If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?
—G.K. Chesterton

Am I root, or am I bud?
Am I stem or am I leaf?
All in all, I am but
the merest image and tiniest thought
of God’s fruiting glory destined for the heavens.

I am His tears shed when seed is strewn
as He is broken apart and scattered,
spreading the Word to yearning hearts everywhere.

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The Edible World

I came downstairs for Lavina’s scones, butter-ready
from the oven, crusty and cratered, awaiting their dollop
of jam.


The morning clouds had whipped themselves up
to a billow, mounds of soft cream.


The plink plink song of a chaffinch dotted the air like currants.
Daffodils, pats of butter on thin stems, did their little dance, and the edible world spread its feast before me on the fresh green tablecloth.

Oh, how delicious, this sweet Irish spring.
~Barbara Crooker, “Morning Tea” from The Book of  Kells

Northern Ireland
Whatcom County
Northern Ireland
Home
Whatcom County
Whatcom County

It was nine years ago we visited Northern Ireland where we were surrounded by ever-delicious colors and landscape and gracious hospitality where ever we went.

As I look out at our own rolling green hills and billowy clouds of a Whatcom County springtime, I am filled as if it were all edible feast, reminded of the vibrant green of the Irish countryside, backed by the silhouettes of the nearby Mourne Mountains.

If only all the world could be blessed and tasty as fresh warm scones with jam and a pot of tea.

Mourne Mtns – Northern Ireland
Whatcom County
Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland

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A Longed-For Beauty

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.
~Anne Porter “Music” from Living Thing
s

One evening, when our daughter was only a toddler,
just learning the words to tell us what she needed,
I was preparing dinner, humming along to
a Celtic choral music piece playing in the background.

She sat on the kitchen floor, looking up at me,
her eyes welling full with tears
like pools of reflected light spilling over
from some deep-remembered reservoir of sorrow.

At first I thought she was hurt or upset
but then could see she was feeling
an ache a desolation
deep as a homesickness

as she wept for wonder
at the sad beauty of the music
of the land her ancestors left long ago –
it spoke for her the words she herself could not express:

Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: We Wait For We Have Seen His Footsteps

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 My soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5-6 from a Song of Ascents

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life.
But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting.
It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts
that makes already present what we are waiting for.

We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus.
We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit,
and after the ascension of Jesus
we wait for his coming again in glory.

We are always waiting,
but it is a waiting in the conviction that
we have already seen God’s footsteps.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread For The Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come. 
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

~R.S. Thomas “The Absence”

To wait is hard when we know the value of the gift that awaits us. We know exactly what is in the package since we have watched it being carefully chosen, wrapped and presented to us to open.

We have seen His footprints on our landscape: in the hottest dessert, in the deepest snow, in the meadows and in the forests, in the mud and muck and mire of our lives; we know He has been here and wait for His return.

Not yet though, not quite yet.  So we wait, and continue to wait.

Even more so, we wait and hope for what we do not see but know is coming, like a groaning in the labor of childbirth.

The waiting is never easy; it is painful to be patient, staying alert to possibility and hope when we are exhausted, barely able to function.  Others won’t understand why we wait,  nor do they comprehend what we could possibly be waiting for when it remains unseen, with only the footprints left behind to remind us.

Yet we persevere together, with patience, watching and hoping, like Mary and Joseph, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, like the shepherds, like the Magi of the east, like Simeon and Anna in the temple.

This is the meaning of Advent:
we are a community groaning together in sweet anticipation and expectation of the gift of Morning to come.

photo by Josh Scholten

I pray my soul waits for the Lord
My hope is in His word
More than the watchman waits for dawn
My soul waits for the Lord

1) Out of the depths I cry to You;
From darkest places I will call.
Incline Your ear to me anew,
And hear my cry for mercy, Lord.
Were You to count my sinful ways
How could I come before Your throne?
Yet full forgiveness meets my gaze –
I stand redeemed by grace alone.

CHORUS I will wait for You, I will wait for You,
On Your word I will rely.
I will wait for You, surely wait for You
Till my soul is satisfied.

2) So put Your hope in God alone,
Take courage in His power to save;
Completely and forever won
By Christ emerging from the grave.

3) His steadfast love has made a way,
And God Himself has paid the price,
That all who trust in Him today Find healing in his sacrifice.

I will wait for You, I will wait for You
Through the storm and through the night.
I will wait for You, surely wait for You,
For Your love is my delight.

Wait for the Lord, his day is near
Wait for the Lord, be strong take heart
Prepare the way for the Lord
Make a straight path for Him
The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed
All the Earth will see the Lord
Rejoice in the Lord always
He is at Hand
Joy and gladness for all who seek the Lord

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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:

Much Too Beautiful to Stay

I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meagre sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.

~Elinor Wylie from “Wild Peaches”

An amber light stretches from sky to ground
this beautiful morning, another mid-summer dawning-
today a clone of yesterday’s and the day before.

A stretch of forty identical days cannot last and will not stay.
I long again for rain and chill nights.

Drying up and pock-marked with holes,
I feel punched and withering in this browning landscape,
wondering on this Sabbath day of communing together
where holiness is to be found.

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