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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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Bowl of Frozen Tears

Something has descended
like feathered prophecy.
Someone has offered the world
a bowl of frozen tears,

has traced the veins and edges
of leaves with furred ink.
The grass is stiff as the strings
of a lute.

And, day by day, the tiny windows
crack their cardboard frames
seizing the frail light. The sun,
moving through

these waxy squares, undiminished
as a word passing
from mind to speech.
Every breath a birth,

a stir of floating limbs within me.
I stay up late and waken early
to feel beneath my feet
the silence coming.
~Anya Silver “Advent, First Frost”

When I am weary,
putting one foot in front of the other
in the humble chores of the barn,
feeling so cold at times, I no longer
remember this was
once sweaty summer work ~
now my hands ache in an arctic wind
that shows no mercy.

Yet I know respite will come,
refuge is near, salvation is imminent.
Each breath I breathe a cloud of hope.

I will remember what our good God
has prepared for us in such a place as this,
what He has done to come down to dwell with us,
melting our frozen tears,
aching in silence alongside us.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day

In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born
The night before that happy tide
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town

But mark right well what came to pass
From every door repelled, alas
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep

To whom God’s angel did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Arise and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born
With thankful heart and joyful mind

The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side a virgin maid

Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife
There were three wise men from afar
Directed by a glorious star
And on they wandered night and day

Until they came where Jesus lay
And when they came unto that place
Where our beloved Messiah lay
They humbly cast them at his feet
With gifts of gold and incense sweet.
~Traditional Irish — the Wexford Carol 12th century

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Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

A new shipment of this book is arriving soon – you can order here:

The Redeemed World

You get down on your knees in the dark earth—alone
for hours in hot sun, yanking weed roots, staking trellises,
burning your shoulders, swatting gnats; you strain your muscled
midwestern neck and back, callous your pianist’s hands.

You cut roses back so they won’t fruit, rip out and replace
spent annuals. You fill your garden dense with roots and vines.
And when a humble sprout climbs like a worm up out of death,
you are there to bless it, in your green patch, all spring and summer long,

hose like a scepter, a reliquary vessel; you hum
through the dreamy wilderness—no one to judge, absolve,
or be absolved—purified by labor, confessed by its whisperings, connected to its innocence.

So when you heft a woody, brushy tangle, or stumble
inside grimy, spent by earth, I see all the sacraments in place—
and the redeemed world never smelled so sweet.

~Ken Weisner, “The Gardener” from Anything on Earth.

We are in full-garden produce preservation mode right now on the farm – these are the days when we pick the fruits of Dan’s labors – all the hours he spent this spring preparing the soil with rich compost, meticulously pulling out weeds by the roots, rototilling and cultivating, then staking/stringing/sowing the rows, then standing back to watch the sun and rain coax the seeds from the dark.

All this happens in a mere few weeks – we never tire of this illustration of redemption and renewal we’re shown year after year – how a mess of weeds and dirt can be cleared, refined and cleansed to once again become productive and fruitful, feeding those who hunger – both now and deep into winter and next spring.

It gives me hope; even when I myself am feeling full of weeds and despairingly dirty and overwhelmed, I can be renewed. It takes a persistent Gardener who is willing and eager to prune away what is useless, and sow anew what is needed for me to thrive and produce – His hands and knees are covered with my grime.

And the fruit that results! – so very sweet…

If you enjoy Barnstorming posts like this, you’ll enjoy this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

Pause for the Parable

Every happening, great and small,
is a parable whereby God speaks to us,
and the art of life is to get the message.
~Malcolm Muggeridge

Every day is filled with storied moments
though I feel too rushed to listen.

If I take time to be changed
by what I see or feel or hear,
when I pause
for the parable,
it makes all the difference:

A steaming manure pile
becomes the crucible for my failings
transformed into something useful,
a fertilizer to be spread
to grow what it touches.

An iced-over water barrel
reflects distant clouds
above me as I peer inside,
its frozen blue eye focused
past my brokenness
to mirror a beauty
far beyond.

An old barn roof with gaps torn by fierce winds,
is repaired and renewed,
no longer allowing rain and snow
and invading vines inside;
once again safe and secure,
a sanctuary protected from storms.

I am looking.
I am listening.
Feeling in desperate need of repair
before I topple over:
to be transformed,
and forever changed.

You Are My Sunshine

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.

So Much Better

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.

So much better.

So Then, Live

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

Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae
photo by Tayler Rae

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.

Let the Mind Take a Photograph

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.

The Farm Goes On

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.