Spark of Consciousness

This was our pretty gray kitten,
hence her name; who was born
in our garage and stayed nearby
her whole life. There were allergies;
so she was, as they say,
an outside cat.
But she loved us. For years,
she was at our window.
Sometimes, a paw on the screen
as if to want in, as if
to be with us
the best she could.
She would be on the deck,
at the sliding door.
She would be on the small
sill of the window in the bathroom.
She would be at the kitchen
window above the sink.
We’d go to the living room;
anticipating that she’d be there, too,
hop up, look in.
She’d be on the roof,
she’d be in a nearby tree.
She’d be listening
through the wall to our family life.
She knew where we were,
and she knew where we were going
and would meet us there.
Little spark of consciousness,
calm kitty eyes staring
through the window.

After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.

When we moved, we left her
to be fed by the people next door.
Months after we were gone,
they found her in the bushes
and buried her by the fence.
So many years after,
I can’t get her out of my mind.

~Philip F. Deaver, “Gray” from How Men Pray

Our pets witness the routine of our lives. They know when the food bowl remains empty too long, or when no one offers their lap to stroke their fur.

They sit silently waiting and wondering, a little spark of consciousness, aware of our family life. They know when things aren’t right at home. They hear the raised voices and they hear the strained silences.

Sometimes a farm cat moves on, looking for a place with more consistency and better feeding grounds. Most often they stick close to what they know, even if it isn’t entirely a happy or welcoming place. After all, it’s home; that’s where they stay, through thick and thin.

When my family broke as my parents split, after the furniture was removed and the dust of over thirty five years of marriage swept up, I wondered if our cat and dog had seen it coming before we did. They had been peering through the window at our lives, gauging what amount of spilled-out love might be left over for them.

I still can’t get them out of my mind – they, like me, became children of divorce. We all knew when we left behind the only home we had ever known, we could never truly feel at home again.

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Surrounded By Fog

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

~T.S. Eliot from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
~Carl Sandburg “Fog”

When I was young, fog felt oppressive, as sorrow-filled as the fog horns sounding continually in nearby bay.

Now, as I approach my eighth decade of life, I appreciate fog for slowing me down when life is compelling me to rush too fast.

When forced to take time, I begin to notice what I missed before:
a cloud descends to hug and kiss the ground, bejeweling everything it touches – like a cat luxuriously wrapping itself around the world, so soft and gentle.

This October fog makes the dying of autumn subtly beautiful, all gossamer garland, transparent pearls and glowing whiskers.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

So Like a Queen

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

With the recent loss of Queen Elizabeth II, I must honor a queen of our own here on our farm:

Bobbi was a young calico who arrived on our farm after two years of a luxurious indoor life in town. She couldn’t accompany her physician owner to life in the big city to move in with a cat-allergic boyfriend, so Bobbi arrived to the farm in a van full of her own cat furniture – a climbing tree, a personal chair, toys, and special cuisine. When she strode out of her cat carrier, took a look around and immediately climbed into the nearest real tree, she never looked back at the accoutrements of her former pristine yet restrictive indoor life.  She became Queen of the farm, undisputed and regal, watching the goings-on from a carefully calculated and royal distance, never interacting with her subjects unless it was absolutely necessary.

She tolerated other cats, but barely. They scattered when she came in view.  She thought dogs were a waste of fur covering empty skulls, but when they met her needs, like on a chilly night, she would happily bunk down with them. They were baffled but grateful for her royal blessing when she climbed over their kennel fencing to sleep curled up between them: a two-dog and one-cat night.

She chose only one human to be subject to: our daughter-in-law Tomomi.  On Tomomi’s initial visit from Japan years ago, Bobbi approached her and decided then and there they were meant for each other. During Tomomi’s annual summer visits, Bobbi brought her mice on the welcome mat and followed her like a puppy, coming only when Tomomi called, and deigned to allow her to touch her calico coat.

When she was 16 years old, Bobbi took over the front porch bench throne when our long-lived black cat Jose died.  She preferred a closer view of our comings and goings, seemingly less disdainful and distant.  When two kittens arrived to live in the barn yet within a week formed a coup and took over the front porch, Bobbi retreated again to her other retreats on the farm. I worried a bit that she had given in too easily with no yowls or flying fur.

Still, I was surprised to find her one morning lying still on the grassy slope of our front yard as she was never one to take her naps where her subjects could see her. So I knew her long life of queenly surveillance and service was over.

Long live Queen Bobbi. You remain irreplaceable. May you forever continue to reign in our hearts.

photo by Nate Gibson
Tomomi and Bobbi, photo by Nate Gibson
Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

Take Time to Stand and Stare

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—

No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

~W.H. Davies “Leisure”

…I believe there are certain habits that, if practiced, will stimulate the growth of humble roots in our lives. One of those is a habit of awe and wonder.

By awe and wonder, I mean the regular practice of paying careful attention to the world around us. Not merely seeing but observing. Perceiving. Considering. Asking thoughtful questions about what we see, smell, hear, touch, taste. In other words, attending with love and curiosity to what our senses sense. (How often do we eat without tasting? How often do we look without seeing? Hear without listening?) Admiring, imagining, receiving the beauty of the world around us in a regular, intentional way: this is the habit of a wonder-filled person. And it leads to humility.

A regular habit of awe and wonder de-centers us. It opens a window in our imaginations, beckoning us to climb out of our own opinions and experiences and to consider things greater and beyond our own lives. It strengthens our curiosity, which in turn lowers the volume on our anxieties and grows our ability to empathize. Over time, we become less self-focused and can admit without embarrassment what we don’t know. In short, we grow more humble.
~Kelly Givens from “Teaching Children to See” from Mere Orthodoxy

This would be a poor life indeed if we didn’t take time to stand and stare at all that is displayed before us – whether it is the golden cast at the beginning and endings of the days, the light dancing in streams or simply staring at God’s creatures staring back at us.

I need to be a child for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, or forever, just to experience the wonder of what is before me. There is nothing sweeter.

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Everything is Meant for You

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—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk

and August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;


And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone —
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass
.
~Wallace Stevens, from “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts”

This summer has brimmed with fullness ready for emptying:
a spilling over of light and sun and heat and life,
almost too much to take in.

I tried to blend in, almost disappear into my surroundings,
as evening fell, catching me just-so, immobile,
captured by failing light as the day darkened.

Then I prepared to dream unthinkingly
peaceful in the night
when all is stilled anticipation.

With pulsing vessels in twitching transparent ears,
both warming and cooling, aglow yet fading,
my empty spaces are filled.

I welcome the relief of sitting still as a statue
in the cool whiff of this misty August morning.

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Your Licorice Nose

Something about that nose,
round as a licorice gumdrop
and massively inquiring.

It brings the world to him,
the lowdown on facts
denied to us.

He knows the rabbit
has been in the garden and where
the interloper has traveled.

He knows who has wandered
through the neighborhood and
can sniff out the bad guys.

He would like to get a whiff of you.
He has an inside track and will know
more about you than you can imagine.

But for now, he has other concerns.
The cat got into my pen and is making me
nervous, so let me out now please.

~Lois Edstrom “Homer” from Almanac of Quiet Days

As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.
Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.
And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass
~Billy Collins “A Dog on his Master”

Oh, Homer, dog of my heart, when I open the gate to your pen to set you free for farm chores, you race after your corgi buddy Sam who must get to the cat food bowl before you, but then you stop mid-run, each time, and circle back to me to say hello, thank you, jumping high enough to put that licorice gumdrop nose in my glove as a greeting, so I can stroke your furry brow without bending down. You jump one, two, three times – for those three pats on the head (I think you can count) – and then you are off again running, having greeted your human with respect and affection.

You watch me do chores with your nose in the straw, checking out the smells of the day – I work at the cleaning and feeding the ponies as the barn cat embarrasses you with her attention. You wait patiently, connecting your brown eyes to my gray eyes when you want my attention. You are listening carefully for those words that mean you can race back to your pen for breakfast – “All done!”

We speak the same language, you and I. Your eyes and your nose tell me all I need to know about what you are thinking.

And I have no doubt whatsoever you read my thoughts completely.

More poems and photos in this book, available to order here:

Where the Field Ends and the Cat Begins

It takes a peculiar vision to be able to detect
Precisely where

The field grasses brushed by blowing
Stars and the odor of spring
In the breath of sweet clover buds
And the star-mingled calls of the toads

In the threading grasses and the paws
Of the clover brushing through the field
Of stars and the star-shaped crickets
In the ears of the sweet grasses
And the tail of the night flicking
Through the calls of the clover and the spring
Stars slinking past the eyes of midnight
And the hour of the field mouse passing
Through the claws of the stars and the brushing
Haunches of the weeds and starry grasses
Threading through the eyes of the mouse
And the buds of the stars calling
With the sweet breath of the field

End
And the cat begins.
~Pattiann Rogers “Finding the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight”

The knock on the door seemed urgent: – “did we know we have an injured cat?” –
the pest control serviceman was spraying the perimeter of our house for carpenter ants and saw our young calico farm cat crawling along the ground in the bushes, unable to use her hind legs.

I grabbed my jacket and a towel to wrap her in, preparing for a quick trip to the vet clinic, but she had vanished by the time I got outside. I searched for an hour in all the likely places Nala typically hangs out but she was no where. I kept an eye out for her every day, calling her, but I never saw her or heard her distinctive voice.

Nine days later, she was on the front porch, thin and weak and hungry, meowing for a meal. She was walking but with still-weakened hind legs and two healing wounds on either side of her lower spine. Something very traumatic had certainly happened, but she had survived, using up several of her nine lives.

As I inspected the wounds, I began to surmise what may have happened:
We have nesting bald eagles who spend time in the high trees around our farm house, watching for wild rabbits or other small prey. This cat is smallish, with plenty of white fur to be easily seen in the tall grass with sharp eagle vision. I suspect she was picked up by eagle talons as a tempting meal, pierced on either side of her spine to carry her away up to a treetop, but feisty as she is, she would have been more trouble than she was worth, so dropped from a significant height, causing a spinal cord contusion and temporary lower leg paralysis.

Little Nala has since recovered completely except for the bald patch scars on either side of her spine. She is a noisy communicator, insistent and bold. I think her loud voice and attitude saved her from becoming a raptor’s lunch.

Not many more lives to go, dear feisty Nala. Spend them well.

photo by Nate Gibson

A book of beauty in words and photography available to order here:

Waiting in Wilderness: The Depth of the Wounds

…by his wounds you have been healed.
1Peter 2:24b

The first time I saw him it was just a flash of gray ringed tail
disappearing into autumn night mist as I opened the back door
to pour kibble into the empty cat dish on the porch:
just another stray cat among many who visit the farm.

A few stay.

So he did, keeping a distance in the shadows under the trees,
a gray tabby with white nose and bib, serious yet skittish,
watching me as I moved about feeding dogs, cats, birds, horses,
creeping to the cat dish only when the others drifted away.

There was something in the way he held his head,
an oddly forward ear; a stilted swivel of the neck.
I startled him one day as he ate his fill at the dish.

He ran, the back of his head flashing red, scalp completely gone.

Not oozing, nor something new, but recent. A nearly mortal scar
from an encounter with coyote, or eagle or bobcat.
This cat thrived despite trauma and pain, tissue still raw, trying to heal.

He had chosen to live; life had chosen him.

My first thought was to trap him, to put him humanely to sleep
to end his suffering, in truth to end my distress at seeing him every day,
envisioning florid flesh even as he hunkered invisible
in the shadowlands of the barnyard.

Yet the scar did not keep him from eating well or licking clean his pristine fur.

As much as I want to look away, to avoid confronting his mutilation,
I always greet him from a distance, a nod to his maimed courage,
through wintry icy blasts and four foot snow,
through spring rains and summer heat with flies.

His wounds remain unhealed, a reminder of his inevitable fate.

I never will stroke that silky fur,
or feel his burly purr, assuming he still knows how,
but still feed his daily fill,
as he feeds my need to know:
the value of a life so broken,
each breath taken filled with sacred air.

The depth of his wounds shows how much he bleeds.

The Feeling of Being Watched

We must have known,
Even as we reached
Down to touch them
Where we’d found them
 
Shut-eyed and trembling
Under a straw bale
In the haymow, that
She would move them
 
That night under cover
Of darkness, and that
By finding them
We were making certain
 
We wouldn’t see them again
Until we saw them
Crouching under the pickup
Like sullen teens, having gone
 
As wild by then as they’d gone
Still in her mouth that night
She made a decision
Any mother might make
 
Upon guessing the intentions
Of the state: to go and to
Go now, taking everything
You love between your teeth.
~Austin Smith “Cat Moving Kittens”

I’ve never known a farm cat who doesn’t hold something back in their loyalty to their human. They are never “all in” like a dog who lavishes love without thought or hesitation.

Cats live at a bit of a remove here, particularly if they grew up without being regularly handled and cuddled.

I don’t mind our barn cats’ autonomy and self-sufficiency as they need those characteristics when they live independently outside rather than as part of furniture in the house with us. They must view the rest of the world with some suspicion and caution, viewing things from afar with their keen eyes rather than leaping in without thinking.

As I go about my day on the farm, moving from shed to barn to garage to house, I have the distinct feeling of being watched. The reality is — they could run this place on their own if they needed to — and they do.

photo by Nate Gibson

A Rub Behind the Ears

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her dog house
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.


Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.


If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.
~Billy Collins, from “Dharma” from Sailing Alone Around the Room

We all should know, at least once in our lives, the complete and total enthusiastic and worshipful devotion that comes without hesitation from a dog. No other living creature grants us this: not a spouse, certainly not our children, never a cat or a horse, but dogs worship the ground we walk on.

It doesn’t take long when living with one or two dogs, to realize they are only human too – with insatiable appetites for independent defiance as they follow their noses rather than respond promptly to a call and whistle.

I love them anyway, even though they are wholly misinformed about my apparent divinity on earth.

In my view, our farm dogs exist solely so I can rub behind their divinely designed corgi ears.
Is that not reason enough?