Of Perfect Sloth

Broad August burns in milky skies,
The world is blanched with hazy heat;
The vast green pasture, even, lies
Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.

Amid the grassy levels rears
The sycamore against the sun
The dark boughs of a hundred years,
The emerald foliage of one.

Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen,
Within the clement twilight thrown
By that great cloud of floating green,
A horse is standing, still as stone.

He stirs nor head nor hoof, although
The grass is fresh beneath the branch;
His tail alone swings to and fro
In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.

He stands quite lost, indifferent
To rack or pasture, trace or rein;
He feels the vaguely sweet content
Of perfect sloth in limb and brain.
~William Canton “Standing Still”

I flunked sloth long ago.  Perhaps I was born driven.  My older sister, never a morning person, was thoroughly annoyed to share a bedroom with a toddler who awoke chirpy and cheerful, singing “Twinkle Twinkle” for all to hear and ready to conquer the day.

Since retiring, I admit I am becoming accustomed now to sloth-dom. I am still too cheerful in the early morning. It is a distinct character flaw.

Even so, I’m not immune to the attractions of a hot hazy day of doing absolutely nothing but standing still switching at flies. I envy our retired ponies in the pasture who spend the day grazing, moseying, and lazing because … I have worked hard to make that life possible for them.

I want to use my days well yet I know August was invented for lulling about. Maybe there is a reason to be here beyond just warning the flies away but I’m not working hard to find out what it might be. So perhaps I’ll get a passing grade in sloth after all.

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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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Be Winged

O! for a horse with wings! 
~William Shakespeare from Cymbeline

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses.
~C.S. Lewis from The Magician’s Nephew

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. 
~Dale Carnegie

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk:
he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
~William Shakespeare from Henry V

We all need someone along for the ride with us, blessing us with their company — a precious friend who has our back and scratches it wonderfully – helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them up.

It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger horse serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.

Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these cowbirds do leave generous “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, cleaning up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.

We’re buds after all – best forever friends, trotting the air while the earth sings along.

And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast while the other provides the wings, even when things get messy.

Be winged. Be fed. Together.

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Roaming Soft About the Slope

The mare roamed soft about the slope,
Her rump was like a dancing girl’s.
Gentle beneath the apple trees
She pulled the grass and shook the flies,
Her forelocks hung in tawny curls,
She had a woman’s limpid eyes,
A woman’s patient stare that grieves.
And when she moved among the trees,
The dappled trees, her look was shy,
She hid her nakedness in leaves.
A delicate though weighted dance
She stepped while flocks of finches flew
From tree to tree and shot the leaves
With songs of golden twittering;
How admirable her tender stance.
And then the apple trees were new,
And she was new, and we were new,
And in the barns the stallions stamped
And shook the hills with trumpeting.
~Ruth Stone, “The Orchard” from What Love Comes To

Our retired mares are aging, the oldest now thirty and the others only a few years younger. Born on this land, they have served us well over the decades, birthing us their foals and working when asked. They deserve this easy life on pasture for as long as their legs and feet will carry them up and down the slopes of our hilly farm – they are more and more resembling our ancient crooked crippled orchard trees, some of which have already toppled in the winter winds..

I’m thinking we are close to the end of these loyal mares’ long lives; hard decisions must be made at some point and I don’t feel quite prepared to determine when they are no longer enjoying their time under the sun but I don’t want them to topple over like an old hollow tree in the wind. I listen for their nickers as I come into the barn each morning and still see their eagerness to be set free to the fields. I look in their eyes when they come in at night to discern what they have to say about how their day went out on the grass.

Perhaps I too identify a bit much with the stiffness as they move and their need for frequent napping times in the field, swishing at flies while they dream of younger days of flirting with stallions, nursing babies, having suppler joints and a wild gallop at twilight.

I’ve been singing a sad lullaby to myself and them as I work about the barn with slow deliberation, knowing there is somber sorrow when life eventually must come to its inevitable end.

Ah, all the pretty little horses…

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Buttercups and Velvet Bums

A week ago I had a fire
To warm my feet, my hands and face;
Cold winds, that never make a friend,
Crept in and out of every place.


Today the fields are rich in grass,
And buttercups in thousands grow;
I’ll show the world where I have been–
With gold-dust seen on either shoe.


Till to my garden back I come,
Where bumble-bees for hours and hours
Sit on their soft, fat, velvet bums,
To wriggle out of hollow flowers.

~William Henry Davies “All in June”

This has been the coldest wettest June in decades here in the Pacific Northwest: we have the stove lit for warmth, the fields are too wet to till, the gardens lie idle because planted seeds will rot. Despite the chill, the buzzing pollinators have been out doing their important work in fields of buttercups where the Haflinger horses graze, sometimes getting too soppy in the rain to return to their hives. It is hard work to move those chunky bodies with those little tiny wings – but they manage.

The Haflingers and bumblebees have something in common — pudgy generous backsides. There is nothing quite as deceptive as a bumblebee bum – fat, soft, velvety….yet with a sting in the middle. I know this from personal experience: I sat down on one as a kid wearing a bathing suit and never forgot it.

But all is forgiven. I now appreciate bumblebee bums. They make me feel less self-conscious about my fluffy horses’ hind ends …
and my own.

photo by Andrea Nipges (Z’s Happy Bees)

Some things that fly there be,—             
Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:  
Of these no elegy.
~Emily Dickinson from “XIV”

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The Dignity of Being

Two horses were put together in the same paddock.
Night and day. In the night and in the day
wet from heat and the chill of the wind
on it. Muzzle to water, snorting, head swinging
and the taste of bay in the shadowed air.
The dignity of being. They slept that way,
knowing each other always.

Withers quivering for a moment,
fetlock and the proud rise at the base of the tail,
width of back. The volume of them, and each other’s weight.
Fences were nothing compared to that.
People were nothing. They slept standing,
their throats curved against the other’s rump.
They breathed against each other,
whinnied and stomped.
There are things they did that I do not know.
The privacy of them had a river in it.
Had our universe in it. And the way
its border looks back at us with its light.
This was finally their freedom.
The freedom an oak tree knows.
That is built at night by stars.
~Linda Gregg, “The Weight” from All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems

When the pasture gate opens
after a long winter, they are let out on grass
to a world vast and green and lush
beyond their wildest imaginings.

They run leaping and bounding,
hair flying in the wind, heels kicked up
in a new freedom to re-form together
their binding trust of companionship.

They share feasting and grooming with one another,
as grace grows like grass
stretching to eternity yet bounded
safely within fence rows.

When cold rains come, as miserable times will,
and this spring day feels far removed,
when covered in the mud or frost or drought of life,
they still have warm memories of one another.

Even though fences lean and break, as they will,
the ponies are reminded where home is,
whistled back to the barn if they lose your way,
pointing them back to the gate to night’s rest and quiet.

Once there they long again for the gift of pasture freedom:
how blessed is this opened gate, these fences,
and most of all their dignity of being together
as they feast with joy on the richness of spring.

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Pull Open the Barn Doors

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

The barn is old, and very old,
But not a place of spectral fear.
Cobwebs and dust and speckling sun
Come to old buildings every one.
Long since they made their dwelling here,
And here you may behold


Nothing but simple wane and change;
Your tread will wake no ghost, your voice
Will fall on silence undeterred.
No phantom wailing will be heard,
Only the farm’s blithe cheerful noise;
The barn is old, not strange.

~Edward Blunden from “The Barn”

When we pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as our grandfathers did
over a hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

We do our chores faithfully
as our grandfathers 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.

We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandfathers did.

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

And we depend on them
to depend on us
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.

Click on this link for a typical barn moment: https://www.facebook.com/707166118/videos/10156035185231119/

Lyrics:

This is a barn and I know it’s haunted
The corn rattles and the shadows move
It’s just the way, it’s just the way I’m feeling
I want to lie down in a field of rain

This is a river and I pray for the bottom
Some kind of measure of the way things change
I’ve been stuck in the middle of a slow storm, counting the days, love

I know we’re in the dark, and the cold comes
Through the very cracks that let the light through
Bring me something back from that sunny coast, and keep us, moving on

These are the shadowlands, I’ve known them
And I think it’s going to be the long way down
But I’ll be the tiny flame, that you carry around, around, around

I know we’re in the dark, and the cold comes
Through the very cracks that let the light through
Bring me something back from that sunny coast, and keep us, moving on

This is a blessing and I don’t date doubt it
We built a boat out of willow trees
We caught the moonlight, like a mirror
Shine right through to the best of me
Shine right through to the best of me
We’ve been living in abandoned houses
Sometimes we’re tending to abandoned fields
It’s just the way it’s just the way I’m feeling
I want to wake up with the sun in my head
~Chris Pureka

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Mucking About

I’ve banked nothing, or everything.
Every day
the chores need doing again.
Early in the morning,

I clean the horse barn with a manure fork.
Every morning, it feels as though it could be

the day before or a year ago or a year before that.
With every pass, I give the fork one final upward flick
to keep the manure from falling out, and every day I remember

where I learned to do that and from whom.
Time all but stops.
But then I dump the cart on the compost pile.
I bring out the tractor and turn the pile,

once every three or four days.
The bucket bites and lifts,

and steam comes billowing out of the heap.
It’s my assurance that time is really moving forward,
decomposing us all in the process.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from More Scenes from the Rural Life

He <the professor> asked
what I made of the other Oxford students
so I told him:
They were okay, but they were all very similar…
they’d never failed at anything or been nobodies,
and they thought they would always win.
But this isn’t most people’s experience of life.

He asked me what could be done about it.
I told him the answer was to send them all out for a year
to do some dead-end job
like working in a chicken processing plant
or spreading muck with a tractor.
It would do more good than a gap year in Peru. 

He laughed and thought this was tremendously witty.
It wasn’t meant to be funny.

~James Rebanks from The Shepherd’s Life
(how a sheep farmer succeeds at Oxford and then goes back to the farm)

For well over thirty years, my husband and I have spent about an hour a day shoveling manure out of numerous horse stalls and I’m a better person for it. The last few weeks of sub-freezing snow/icy weather while running low on trucked-in supplies of shavings and straw bedding has been a particular character-building experience. It feels like everything, myself included, is in a process of decomposition.

Wheeled to a mountainous pile in our barnyard,  our daily collection of manure happily composts year round, becoming rich fertilizer in a matter of months through a crucible-like heating process of organic chemistry, bacteria and earthworms.  Nothing mankind has achieved quite matches the drama of useless and basically disgusting stuff transforming into the essential elements needed for productive growth and survival.   This is a metaphor I can <ahem> happily muck about in.

I’m in awe, every day, at being part of this process — in many ways a far more tangible improvement to the state of the world than anything else I manage to accomplish every day.  The horses, major contributors that they are, act underwhelmed by my enthusiasm.  I guess some miracles are relative, depending on one’s perspective, but if the horses understood that the grass they contentedly eat in the pasture, or the hay they munch on during the winter months, was grown thanks to their carefully recycled waste products, they might be more impressed.

Their nonchalance about the daily mucking routine is understandable.  If they are outside, they probably don’t notice their beds are clean when they return to the stalls at night.  If they are inside during the heavy rain days, they feel duty-bound to be in our faces as we move about their stall, toting a pitchfork and pushing a wheelbarrow.  I’m a source of constant amusement as they nose my jacket pockets for treats that I never carry, as they beg for scratches on their unreachable itchy spots, and as they attempt to overturn an almost full load, just to see balls of manure roll to all corners of the stall like breaking a rack of billiard balls in a game of pool.

Good thing I’m a patient person always seeking an object lesson in whatever I see or do ~ mucking out stalls every day helps me tolerate the proverbial muck I encounter every day off the farm.  And spending an hour a day getting dirty in the real stuff somehow makes the virtual manure less noxious. 

Everyone should be spending time daily mucking out;
I think the world would generally be a better place.

Wally, our former stallion, now gelded, discovered a way to make my life easier rather than complicating it.  He hauled a rubber tub into his stall from his paddock, by tossing it into the air with his teeth and throwing it, and it finally settled against one wall.  Then he began to consistently pile his manure, with precise aim, right in the tub.  I didn’t ask him to do this.  It had never occurred to me.  I hadn’t even thought it was possible for a horse to house train himself.  But there it is, proof that some horses prefer neat and tidy rather than the whirlwind eggbeater approach to manure distribution.  After a day of his manure pile plopping, it is actually too heavy for me to pick up and dump into the wheelbarrow all in one tub load, but it takes 1/4 of the time to clean his stall than the others, and he spares all this bedding.

What a guy.  He provides me unending inspiration in how to keep my own personal muck concentrated rather than spreading it about,  contaminating the rest of the world.

Now, once I teach him to put the seat back down when he’s done, he’s welcome to move into the house…

teaching my city nephews how to muck out a stall
Wally’s purposeful pile

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And It Was Autumn…

it rained in my sleep
and in the morning the fields were wet
I dreamed of artillery
of the thunder of horses

in the morning the fields were strewn
with twigs and leaves
as if after a battle
or a sudden journey
I went to sleep in the summer
I dreamed of rain
in the morning the fields were wet
and it was autumn
~Linda Pastan “September” from Carnival Evening

photo by Harry Rodenberger

The dogs eat hoof slivers and lie under the porch.
A strand of human hair hangs strangely from a fruit tree
like a cry in the throat. The sky is clay for the child who is past
being tired, who wanders in waist-deep
grasses. Gnats rise in a vapor,
in a long mounting whine around her forehead and ears.

The sun is an indistinct moon. Frail sticks
of grass poke her ankles,
and a wet froth of spiders touches her legs
like wet fingers. The musk and smell
of air are as hot as the savory
terrible exhales from a tired horse.

At evening a breeze dries and crumbles
the sky and the clouds float like undershirts
and cotton dresses on a clothesline. Horses
rock to their feet and race or graze.
Parents open their shutters and call
the lonely, happy child home.
The child who hates silences talks and talks
of cicadas and the manes of horses.
~Carol Frost – lines from “All Summer Long” from Love and Scorn: New and Collected Poems.

I was one of those lonely but happy youngsters who dreamt of horses all summer long, immersed in my own made-up stories of forest rides on hidden trails, of spending hours decorating long manes and tails of golden horses, of performing daring rescues and races, of battles and bravery I didn’t experience in real life. The imaginings took me beyond the mundane into the fanciful where I could be completely lost until I was called to come in for dinner or return to the confines of a school classroom.

Some dreams do come true when you want them badly enough: I’ve now had decades gazing out at fields of grass with those thundering hooves, back-dropped by endless skies of ever-changing clouds. I’ve also found that fairy tales can have broken fences and growing manure piles.

It has been worth it for a kid whose own story bloomed when I became a wife, a mother, a physician and a horse farmer. As this summer yet again has transitioned to autumn, so does my story: it is full of aging horses and tired fields, yet still I find myself dreaming like a kid as I comb out those long flowing manes.

Consider this book of beautiful words and photography, available to order here:

Riding at Dusk

At dusk, everything blurs and softens…

The horse bears me along, like grace,
making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken.  Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,

or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
the whole weeping body of the world?
~Linda McCarriston from “Riding Out At Evening”

“Last Light” photo of Twin Sisters at dusk by Joel de Waard

We all need to remember transcendent moments in our lives, those brief times when all was well, our worries left behind in the dust.

Wounds healed, hearts full, senses filled with wonder, feeling whole rather than broken.

The summer evening rides of my younger years were just such a time: lifted by such powerful grace and transported to another time and place. It can feel like flying but mostly it feels like an embrace, one creature with another, exploring the world together.

All these years later, I am held fast by the memories and in remembering, I weep.

Surely, someday,
heaven will be something like this.

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
alone
Of shadows on the stars.

~James Agee

More photos like this in a new book from Barnstorming, available to order here: