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.
There’s a certain Slant of light On winter afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft of cathedral tunes. When it comes, the Landscape listens — Shadows hold their breath — When it goes, ’tis like the Distance On the look of Death. ~Emily Dickinson
How valuable it is in these short days, threading through empty maple branches, the lacy-needled sugar pines.
Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.
We can make do with so little, just the hint of warmth, the slanted light... ~Molly Fisk, “Winter Sun” from The More Difficult Beauty
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind — ~Emily Dickinson
I like the slants of light; I’m a collector. That’s a good one, I say… ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
During our northwest winters, there is usually so little sunlight on gray cloudy days that I routinely turn on the two light bulbs in the big hay barn any time I need to fetch hay bales for the horses. This is so I avoid falling into the holes that inevitably develop in the hay stack between bales. Winter murky lighting tends to hide the dark shadows of the leg-swallowing pits among the bales, something that is particularly hazardous when carrying a 60 pound hay bale.
Yesterday when I went to grab hay bales for the horses at sunset, before I flipped the light switch, I could see light already blazing in the big barn. The last of the day’s sun rays were at a precise winter slant, streaming through the barn slat openings, ricocheting off the roof timbers onto the bales, casting an almost fiery glow onto the hay. The barn was ignited and ablaze without fire and smoke — the last things one would even want in a hay barn.
I scrambled among the bales without worry.
In my life outside the barn I’ve been falling into more than my share of dark holes lately. Even when I know where they lie and how deep they are, some days I will manage to step right in anyway. Each time it knocks the breath out of me, makes me cry out, makes me want to quit trying to lift the heavy loads. It leaves me fearful to venture where the footing is uncertain.
Then, on the darkest of days, light comes from the most unexpected of places, blazing a trail to help me see where to step, what to avoid, how to navigate the hazards to avoid collapsing on my face. I’m redirected, inspired anew, granted grace, gratefully calmed and comforted amid my fears. Even though the light fades, and the darkness descends again, it is only until tomorrow. Then it reignites again.
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”
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.
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.
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 tell you… if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” ~Luke 19: 39-40
A stable-lamp is lighted Whose glow shall wake the sky; The stars shall bend their voices, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, And straw like gold shall shine; A barn shall harbor heaven, A stall become a shrine.
This child through David’s city Shall ride in triumph by; The palm shall strew its branches, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, Though heavy, dull, and dumb, And lie within the roadway To pave his kingdom come.
Yet he shall be forsaken, And yielded up to die; The sky shall groan and darken, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry For stony hearts of men: God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.
But now, as at the ending, The low is lifted high; The stars shall bend their voices, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry In praises of the child By whose descent among us The worlds are reconciled. ~Richard Wilbur “A Christmas Hymn”
Feeling heavy, dull and dumb, I am convinced I’m no better than a simple rock, inconsequential and immobile, trod upon and paved over, forgettable and forgotten.
I could believe there exists no pulse in my stony heart, incapable of love if I turn away from a God who has come to walk with me on this humble ground .
Yet the low are lifted high by His descent– every stone, even the dumb and lifeless, shall cry out in community with Him, even the silent will find a voice to praise.
Even my own voice, meager and anemic, shall be heard.
Even a barn can harbor heaven, straw a bed of spun gold, a stall becomes a shrine, as a glow shall wake the sky.
I am no longer forgotten. In fact, never have been forgotten. So hard to reconcile: if the stones and barn and stalls have known Him all along, so should I.
I wanted a horse. This was long after we sold the work horses, and I was feeling
restless on the farm. I got up early to help my father milk the cows, talking
a blue streak about TV cowboys he never had time to see and trying to
convince him that a horse wouldn’t cost so much and that I’d do all the work.
He listened while he leaned his head against the flank of a Holstein, pulling
the last line of warm milk into the stainless bucket. He kept listening
while the milk-machine pumped like an engine, and the black and silver cups fell off and
dangled down, clanging like bells when he stepped away, balancing the heavy milker
against the vacuum hose and the leather belt. I knew he didn’t want the trouble
of a horse, but I also knew there was nothing else I wanted the way I wanted a horse—
another way of saying I wanted to ride into the sunset and (maybe)
never come back—I think he knew that too. We’ll see, he said, we’ll see what we can do. ~Joyce Sutphen “What Every Girl Wants”
I once was a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.
I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse. We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire. Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. I pestered my father about my dreams of another horse, and since he was the one to dig the hole for my sister’s horse to be buried, he was not enthusiastic. “We’ll see,” he said. “We will see what we can do.”
So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.
In fall 1965, the local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest. I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined.
When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:
“Why I Should Have a Horse”
When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world. Horses are a part of me. I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:
To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt. My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse. I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.
Another reason is that I’m shy. When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family. When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person. When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad. If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness.
Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing.
When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him. I was never so thrilled in my life! The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse.
If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive. I would work hard to train him with love and understanding. If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!
I mailed in my essay and waited.
Fifty five years ago on this day, November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers. My heart was sinking by the minute.
The winning essay was next. The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, who was sick in bed with an early season flu. He opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?” Somehow, fueled by the excitement of a daughter whose one wish had just come true, he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.
That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.
That and a dad who saw what he needed to do for his passionate kid. I’ll never forget.
Even without family gathered around us this day, we do have each other and that is a blessing in and of itself. May we revel in our thanksgiving feast for two because, through thick and thin and COVID, we are still together.
The wild November come at last Beneath a veil of rain; The night wind blows its folds aside – Her face is full of pain.
The latest of her race, she takes The Autumn’s vacant throne: She has but one short moon to live, And she must live alone.
A barren realm of withered fields, Bleak woods, and falling leaves, The palest morns that ever dawned; The dreariest of eves.
It is no wonder that she comes, Poor month! With tears of pain; For what can one so hopeless do But weep, and weep again? ~Richard Henry Stoddard “November”
Leaves wait as the reversal of wind comes to a stop. The stopped woods are seized of quiet; waiting for rain bird & bug conversations stutter to a stop.
…the rain begins to fall. Rain-strands, thin slips of vertical rivers, roll the shredded waters out of the cloud and dump them puddling to the ground.
Whatever crosses over through the wall of rain changes; old leaves are now gold. The wall is continuous, doorless. True, to get past this wall there’s no need for a door since it closes around me as I go through. ~Marie Ponsot from “End of October”
I reluctantly bid October good-bye to face forward into a darkening November.
Summer is mere memory now; all color drained from leaves fallen, dissolving in frost and rain.
There’s no turning around now that the clock has fallen back. We commit our stumbling feet to the path that trudges toward winter, silenced and seized by the relentless momentum of doorless darkness. There appears no escape hatch.
Yet when the light rises on the hills, even briefly, I feel a veil lift enough that I am able to see far beyond my reach. The horizon extends on and on forever and I only then I know I will endure another winter.