My father climbs into the silo. He has come, rung by rung, up the wooden trail that scales that tall belly of cement.
It’s winter, twenty below zero, He can hear the wind overhead. The silage beneath his boots is so frozen it has no smell.
My father takes up a pick-ax and chops away a layer of silage. He works neatly, counter-clockwise under a yellow light,
then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork and throws them down the chute. They break as they fall and rattle far below.
His breath comes out in clouds, his fingers begin to ache, but he skims off another layer where the frost is forming
and begins to sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” ~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words
Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.
I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.
My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.
We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.
And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.
You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you. Please don’t take our sunshine away.
How much better it is to carry wood to the fire than to moan about your life. How much better to throw the garbage onto the compost, or to pin the clean sheet on the line, With a gray-brown wooden clothes pin. ~Jane Kenyon “The Clothespin”
I get easily overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done: a full day of telehealth computer visits with patients from home but all the usual household and farm tasks waiting for me –grass to mow, flower beds to weed, garden to plant, fences to fix, manure to haul, animals to brush out — the list is endless and there are never enough hours in the day.
So of course, I moan and whine and write about it.
Or I can set to work, tackling one thing at a time. A simple task is accomplished, and then another, like hanging clothes on the line: this one is done, and now this one, pinned and hanging to freshen, renewed, in the spring breezes.
At the end of the day, I pull them down, bury my face in them and breathe deeply, knowing how much better I am than before I began.
It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, gives him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Thanks in large part to how messily we humans live, this world is a grimy place.
As an act of worship, we work at cleaning up after ourselves. Hands that clean toilets, scrub floors, carry bedpans, pick up garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.
I spend time every day carrying buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life. It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.
I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am. I never want to forget to clean up after myself. I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail.
It is my privilege. It is His gift to me. It is Grace that comes alongside me, to keep pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary to do it myself.
It will not always be like this, The air windless, a few last Leaves adding their decoration To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up From the day’s chores, pause a minute, Let the mind take its photograph Of the bright scene, something to wear Against the heart in the long cold. ~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn
Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.
When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.
The routine: loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.
The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.
Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky. They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.
Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.
Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.
A hill, a farm, A forest, and a valley. Half a hill plowed, half woods. A forest valley and a valley field.
Sun passes over; Two solstices a year Cow in the pasture Sometimes deer
A farmhouse built of wood. A forest built on bones. The high field, hawks The low field, crows
Wren in the brambles Frogs in the creek Hot in summer Cold in snow
The woods fade and pass. The farm goes on. The farm quits and fails The woods creep down
Stocks fall you can’t sell corn Big frost and tree-mice starve Who wins who cares? The woods have time. The farmer has heirs. ~“Map” by Gary Snyder from Left Out in the Rain.
We have now passed from the season when our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold. In June, the cherry orchard blossoms yield to fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass. During the summer months, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM. So many hours of light to work with!
I yearn for the coming dark rainy days to hide inside with a book.
Instead the lawnmower and weed whacker call our names, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be prepared for winter. It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this. It’s just that nothing we do is enough. Blackberry brambles have taken over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially. The fences always need fixing.
Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.
We spent many years dreaming about the farm as we hoped it would be. We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful. Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe. We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 35 year old hand me down truck with almost 200,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming as well as a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year. Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents. We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup. The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything. We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses. Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.
And our house would always stay clean.
Dream on. Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes. I know ours is. Yet here we be and here we stay.
It’s home. We’ve raised three wonderful children here. We’ve bred and grown good horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields. We breathe clean air and hear dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven. Eagles land in the trees in our front yard. It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm. I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality. Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older. Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.
We have been blessed with one another, with the sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between. This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.
This time of year our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold. The cherry orchard blossoms have yielded fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass. By mid-June, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM. So many hours of light to work with!
Yet today I yearn for a dark rainy day to hide inside with a book even when the lawnmower and weed whacker call my name, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be weeded. It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this. It’s just that nothing we do is enough. Blackberry brambles take over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially.
The fences always need fixing. The old hay barn is falling down and needing to be resurrected. The weather is becoming iffy with rain in the forecast so we may not have anything but junk hay in the barn this winter in a year when hay will cost a premium. For a decade now we have stopped breeding our Haflinger horses as even the demand for well bred horses is not robust enough to justify bringing more into the world.
Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.
We spent many years dreaming about our farm as we hoped it would be. We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful. Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe. We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 30 year old hand me down truck with almost 250,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming and a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year. Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents. We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup. The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits (even the occasional cougar, lynx and bear!) would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything. We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses. Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.
And our house would always stay clean.
Dream on. Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes. I know ours is. Yet here we be and here we stay.
It’s home. We raised three wonderful children here. We’ve bred and grown good beef and horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields. We breathe clean air and enjoy hearing dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven. Eagles land in the trees in our front yard.
It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm. I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality. Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older. Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.
We are blessed with one another, with the continuing sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between. This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.
She rarely made us do it—we’d clear the table instead— so my sister and I teased that some day we’d train our children right and not end up like her, after every meal stuck with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring. The one chore she spared us: gummy plates in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas, globs of egg and gravy. Or did she guard her place at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss of the magnolia, the school traffic humming. Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon, delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news. ~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”
My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.
….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink. ~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women
Even the mundane task of washing dishes by hand is an example of the small tasks and personal activities that once filled people’s daily lives with a sense of achievement. ~B.F. Skinner, behavioral psychologist
I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.
What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?
Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?
No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.
The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.
Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.
It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.
“He (the professor) asked what I made of the other students (at Oxford) 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)
In our barn we have a very beat up old AM/FM radio that sits on a shelf next to the horse stalls and serves as company to the horses during the rainy stormy days they stay inside, and serves as distraction to me as we clean stalls of manure and wet spots in the evening. We live about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, so most stations that come in well on this radio’s broken antenna are from the lower mainland of British Columbia. This includes a panoply of stations spoken in every imaginable language– a Babel of sorts that I can tune into: Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, French and of course, proper British accent English. But standard issue American melting pot genetic mix that I am, I prefer to tune into the “Oldies” Station and reminisce.
There is a strange comfort in listening to songs that I enjoyed 40-50+ years ago, and I’m somewhat miffed and perplexed that they should be called “oldies”. Oldies always referred to music from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, not the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s! I listen and sing along with a mixture of feeling ancient and yet transported back to my teens. I can think of faces and names I haven’t thought of in decades, remember special summer days picking berries and hear long lost voices from school days. I can smell and taste and feel things all because of the trigger of a familiar song. There is something primordial –deep in my synapses– that is stirred by this music. In fact, I shoveled manure to these same songs 50 years ago, and somehow, it seems not much as changed.
Or has it? One (very quick) glance in the mirror tells me it has and I have.
Yesterday, I Got You, Babe and you were a Bridge Over Troubled Waters for this Natural Womanwho just wants to be Close to Youso You’ve Got a Friend. There’sSomething in the way ICherish The Way We Were and of courseLove Will Keep Us Together.If You Leave Me Now, You’re So Vain. I’ve always wanted it My Way but How Sweet It Is when I Want To Hold Your Hand. Come Saturday Morningwe’re Born to Be Wild.
Help!Do You Know Where You’re Going To?Me and You and A Dog Named Boo will travel Country Roadsand Rock Around the Clock even though God Didn’t Make the Little Green Apples. Fire and Rain will make things All Right Nowonce Morning is Broken, I’ll Say a Little Prayer For You.
I Can’t Get No Satisfactionfrom the Sounds of Silence —If— Those Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Stand By Me as It’s Just My Imaginationthat I am a Rock,when really I only want Time in a Bottle and to just Sing, Sing a Song.
They just don’t write songs like they used to. I seem to remember my parents saying that about the songs I loved so well. Somehow in the midst of decades of change, there are some constants. Music still touches our souls, no matter how young or old we are.
And there will always be manure that needs shoveling.
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
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 even venture out.
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.