Listen for Returning Feet

I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been;
Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair.
I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring there is a different green.
I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago,
and people who will see a world that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet and voices at the door.

~J.R.R. Tolkien “Bilbo’s Song” from The Lord of the Rings

The shortening days make me greedy
for what is left of daylight –
watching the sky change by the hour,
brown summer fields
greening from rain,
webs clinging when I pass.

More than anything, I hunker down,
waiting for winter, knowing the quiet nights
by the fire will restore me –
hoping I’ll hear visitors at the door,
those I love coming home to spend what time is left.

A dichotomy of sweet peas and pumpkins in October

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Yielding to Change

I went out to cut a last batch of zinnias this
morning from the back fencerow and got my shanks
chilled for sure: furrowy dark gray clouds with
separating fringes of blue sky-grass: and the dew

beaded up heavier than the left-overs of the rain:
in the zinnias, in each of two, a bumblebee 
stirring in slow motion. Trying to unwind
the webbed drug of cold, buzzing occasionally but

with a dry rattle: bees die with the burnt honey 
at their mouths, at least: the fact’s established:
it is not summer now and the simmering buzz is out of 
heat: the zucchini blossoms falling show squash

overgreen with stunted growth: the snapdragons have
suckered down into a blossom or so: we passed
into dark last week the even mark of day and night
and what we hoped would stay we yield to change.
~A.R. Ammons  “Equinox”

We yield now
to the heaviness of the change;
a slowing of our walk
and the darkening of our days.

It is time:
day and night compete,
and neither wins.

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Straining to Win the Sky

The tree is more than first a seed,
then a stem,
then a living trunk,
and then dead timber.
The tree is a slow,
enduring force
straining to win the sky.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

It is always a difficult decision to take down decades-old trees that have become a risk of falling in a windstorm or losing branches that can cause damage. The time had come for the row of Lombardy poplars lining our western property line, originally planted in the 70s to create a buffer for a newly constructed farm building at our neighbors’ place. In their old age, the poplars were breaking and failing.

Yesterday they were felled by a tree expert who knew exactly how to bring them down in a tight area, leaving an open expanse we are adjusting to seeing. We are considering what might eventually take their place.

We have a few other dying trees on the farm we must part with soon, victims of recent drought years. It feels like parting with old friends. Each one reached to win the sky, but like us, must end up as dust.

And so we too are so much more than mere life cycle:
like trees, we are infinite variety and fascinating diversity,
clothed in finery yet at times naked and vulnerable;
we lift burdens in our arms and harbor the frail,
dig our roots deep and hold fast,
shade those overcome by the sun, and sing in the breeze.

Most of all, we aim high to touch and win a sky which remains beyond our grasp.

(Our lone fir on top of the hill is doing just fine and she remains our sentinel tree and farm focal point, trying to touch the jet planes that ascend from the nearby Vancouver, B.C. airport in the top pictures)

The night before they were felled
Last night, the missing poplar row revealed a new mountain view to the north

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Tomorrows Less Long

Let me enjoy
this late-summer day of my heart
while the leaves are still green
and I won’t look so close

as to see that first tint
of pale yellow slowly creep in.
I will cease endless running

and then look to the sky
ask the sun to embrace me
and then hope she won’t tell

of tomorrows less long than today.
Let me spend just this time

in the slow-cooling glow
of warm afternoon light
and I’d think

I will still have the strength
for just one more

last fling of my heart.
– Jonathan Bohrn, Late August

August rushes by like desert rainfall,
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
Expected,
But still catching me unprepared.
Like a match flame
Bursting on the scene,
Heat and haze of crimson sunsets.
Like a dream
Of moon and dark barely recalled,
A moment,
Shadows caught in a blink.
Like a quick kiss;
One wishes for more
But it suddenly turns to leave,
Dragging summer away.
–  Elizabeth Maua Taylor, August 
 

I’m in the time of life when what is to come is ever so much shorter than what has been. I muse now at my sudden revelation as a five year old that a time would come when I would cease to be on this earth. I had no idea how soon that would come or whether I would have many years to think about how I might come to an end. That knowledge has colored all my days, knowing they are numbered and finite.

Now, like the drying leaves, I watch my edges curling and changing color in preparation – a kind of beauty preceding an eventual letting go.

I remember thinking, in my kindergarten-size brain, that I could not waste a minute of this life and needed to pay attention to everything. That has been much harder than I imagined: there is pain in attending to wars and famine, illness and injury, tragedy and tribulation. I was given my ears to hear, my eyes to see, my mouth to speak – for good reason. Though my heart hurts to read headlines, I must fling it into the messiness around me.

Even the leaves bleed red as tomorrow is less long.

It is the waning light and shortening days that colors my view like smoky haze in the sky painting a sunset deep orange.  The coming darkness is temporary and, like me, is inevitably finite; it will never conquer the light that is everlasting.

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Middle Age Gals Stick Together

I’m deep into my sixties now and some days I’m reminded how deep more than others. Though I’m well past the hot flashes of my fifties, I now deal with the typical aches and pains of my seventh decade on earth. Every once in awhile, I compare notes with our aging Haflinger mares (now all well into their twenties) on our farm and watch how well they too are coping with their advancing years.

For instance:

These mares still have a lot of life left. They sometimes run like the wind when turned loose, their manes and tails flying in the wind. They can buck, kick and fart with the best of them. And then limp around for the rest of the day, regretting their momentary indiscretion.

These mares know who they are. There is no identity crisis here. They are mothers who have finished their mothering years, and are well into the grandmothering years. Even so, they still like to flirt – although they aren’t sure they remember why they want to attract attention from a certain fella in the neighboring field.

These mares aren’t thrilled about work anymore. They are a bit out of shape with a tendency toward the fluffy side of fitness, so require a moment to catch their breath once in awhile. Their muscles hurt the next day. They break out in sweat easily. They appreciate a break for a mid-day nap – or two – or three.

These mares are opinionated. There is no question they know their own minds, what they want and how they are going to get it and they keep no one around them guessing. They want to make sure everyone else knows how right they are even if they (so very rarely) are wrong.

These mares are stubborn. Once they’ve decided something, it takes more than soft sweet persuasion, like a whack on the behind, to change course. Once they’ve decided they don’t like another horse, the only way to change that opinion is for the other horse to adopt an attitude of complete servitude and submission, giving way whenever approached and grooming the boss mare whenever asked.

These mares are hungry. Always. See “fluffy” above although chewing isn’t as easy as it used to be. Grazing is now classified as “work.”

These mares don’t sleep all that much, but wish they could sleep more.  Even though they might look like they are napping (see “mid-day naps” above), they are actually meditating, with their eyes closed, on the next plan of action.

These mares’ feet and joints hurt at times – sometimes dealing with broken and cracked nails, trouble walking over uneven surfaces, and being impatient and touchy about manicures.

These mares are not as fussy about their appearance as they used to be. Their fur coats are no longer as sleek and smooth – their hair can stick out at weird angles, their beards grow long and their eyes aren’t quite as clear. Their four foot manes have been rubbed down to two foot manes and have a few more tangles in them. Their tails have stains (don’t ask why). They stride through mud puddles without a second thought, whereas when they were younger, there was no way one hoof was going to set foot in such mucky stuff.

These mares don’t keep as tidy a bedroom as they used to. Why bother? Life is too short for making neat piles in pristine surroundings.

These mares know how to be the best of friends. If their best forever friend is not turned out with them in the field, they will stand at the gate, and call nonstop for an hour asking where she is. And when they are reunited, they mutually groom for a long time, until their mouths are so full of hair they can’t stand each other – until tomorrow, that is.

These mares know how to give great kisses and hugs. Especially if you are hiding a carrot on your person, you’ll be mugged.

Yes, we “deep-in-the-middle ages” gals, human and equine, do seem to have a lot in common.

I do appreciate knowing we can always stick together, through thick and …well, thick.

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Like Time’s Insidious Wrinkle

Like Time’s insidious wrinkle
On a beloved Face
We clutch the Grace the tighter
Though we resent the crease
~Emily Dickinson

People are more than just the way they look.
~Madeleine L’Engle from A Wrinkle in Time

1971 – not a wrinkle in sight
2021

Just a glance in the mirror tells me all I need to know:

the creases I see remind me
each wrinkle shows my life in action,
so tangible, so telling, so mobile –
they multiply particularly when I smile and laugh
so I must do both more often.

I won’t hide them
nor tighten them away
or inject them smooth.

Instead I’ll grin at the wrinkle of time’s passing
knowing each line gained
is grace clutched tightly
in my otherwise loosening grasp.

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Wind-Wandering Trees

felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
  Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
  All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
                Not spared, not one
                That dandled a sandalled
         Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.


  O if we but knew what we do
         When we delve or hew —
     Hack and rack the growing green!
          Since country is so tender
     To touch, her being só slender,
     That, like this sleek and seeing ball
     But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
                 To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
     Strokes of havoc unselve
           The sweet especial scene,
     Rural scene, a rural scene,
     Sweet especial rural scene.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Binsey Poplars”

Our farm is bookshelved between two poplar rows, one short, the other longer. The trees are showing their advanced age and struggle now with winter storms with heavy winds and icy build-up, branches shattering like toothpicks.

They will eventually, like Hopkins’ Binsey poplars, be felled before they tumble weakened and withered in a gale, landing where they mustn’t.

I will miss their blowhard boldness, their noisy leaves and branches, their dance in the wind and their orderliness as they stand like guardians to the farm. I’m being sentimental but there will be a sadness when it comes time to say goodbye.

Once they are gone, who in the future would know they once stood there, towering above everything else.

Unlike the poplars, I must leave something behind to be remembered.

Orchard in bloom with poplars- Van Gogh
Two Poplars in the Alpilles near Saint-Remy by Van Gogh
Avenue of Poplars in Autumn– Van Gogh Museum

Poplar trees Van Gogh

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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

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Four Seasons

Autumn

Winter is an etching,
spring a watercolor,
summer an oil painting

and autumn a mosaic of them all.
~Stanley Horowitz
, a poem in Readers’ Digest Nov. 1983

Winter
Winter

L’Inverno (Winter)
Opus 8, No. 4, in F minor

I. Allegro non molto–
Frozen and trembling in the icy snow,
In the severe blast of the horrible wind,
As we run, we constantly stamp our feet,
And our teeth chatter in the cold.
II. Largo–
To spend happy and quiet days near the fire,
While, outside, the rain soaks hundreds.
III. Allegro–
We walk on the ice with slow steps,
And tread carefully, for fear of falling.
Symphony, If we go quickly, we slip and fall to the ground.
Again we run on the ice,
Until it cracks and opens.
We hear, from closed doors,
Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds in battle.
This is winter, but it brings joy.

~Vivaldi (Winter poem)

Spring
Spring
Spring
Spring

La Primavera (Spring)
Opus 8, No. 1, in E Major

I. Allegro–
Festive Spring has arrived,
The birds salute it with their happy song.
And the brooks, caressed by little Zephyrs,
Flow with a sweet murmur.
The sky is covered with a black mantle,
And thunder, and lightning, announce a storm.
When they are silent, the birds
Return to sing their lovely song.
II. Largo e pianissimo sempre–
And in the meadow, rich with flowers,
To the sweet murmur of leaves and plants,
The goatherd sleeps, with his faithful dog at his side.
III. Danza pastorale. Allegro–
To the festive sound of pastoral bagpipes,
Dance nymphs and shepherds,
At Spring’s brilliant appearance.

~Vivaldi (Spring poem)

Summer
Summer
Summer
Summer

L’Estate (Summer)
Opus 8, No. 2, in G minor

I. Allegro non molto–
Under the heat of the burning summer sun,
Languish man and flock; the pine is parched.
The cuckoo finds its voice, and suddenly,
The turtledove and goldfinch sing.
A gentle breeze blows,
But suddenly, the north wind appears.
The shepherd weeps because, overhead,
Lies the fierce storm, and his destiny.
II. Adagio; Presto–
His tired limbs are deprived of rest
By his fear of lightning and fierce thunder,
And by furious swarms of flies and hornets.
III. Presto–
Alas, how just are his fears,
Thunder and lightening fill the Heavens, and the hail
Slices the tops of the corn and other grain.
~Vivaldi (Summer poem)

Autumn
Autumn
Autumn

Autumn
Autumn

L’Autunno (Autumn)
Opus 8, No. 3, in F Major

I. Allegro–
The peasants celebrate with dance and song,
The joy of a rich harvest.
And, full of Bacchus’s liquor,
They finish their celebration with sleep.
II. Adagio molto–
Each peasant ceases his dance and song.
The mild air gives pleasure,
And the season invites many
To enjoy a sweet slumber.
III. Allegro–
The hunters, at the break of dawn, go to the hunt.
With horns, guns, and dogs they are off,
The beast flees, and they follow its trail.
Already fearful and exhausted by the great noise,
Of guns and dogs, and wounded,
The exhausted beast tries to flee, but dies.

~Vivaldi (Autumn poem)

I walk this path to stand at the same spot
countless times through the year,
to witness the palette changing
around me.

The Artist chooses His color and technique
lovingly, with a gentle touch for each season.

My life too is painted with richness and variety:
from the bare lines of winter,
to a green emergence of spring,
a summer sweet fruitfulness
and a mosaic crescendo of autumn.

This ever-new pathway extends
beyond the reach of the canvas.


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.