I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
A definition of freedom:
It’s being easy in your harness.
~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday
The past was faded like a dream;
There come the jingling of a team,
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain,
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain.
Up the slow slope a team came bowing,
Old Callow at his autumn ploughing,
Old Callow, stooped above the hales,
Ploughing the stubble into wales.
His grave eyes looking straight ahead,
Shearing a long straight furrow red;
His plough-foot high to give it earth
To bring new food for men to birth.
O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…
At top of rise the plough team stopped,
The fore-horse bent his head and cropped.
Then the chains chack, the brasses jingle,
The lean reins gather through the cringle,
The figures move against the sky,
The clay wave breaks as they go by.
I kneeled there in the muddy fallow,
I knew that Christ was there with Callow,
That Christ was standing there with me,
That Christ had taught me what to be,
That I should plough, and as I ploughed
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud,
And as I drove the clods apart
Christ would be ploughing in my heart,
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots,
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.
We shoulder much burden in the pursuit of happiness and freedom,
worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
Our heart land is plowed,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow should be straight and narrow.
We are tread upon
yet still bloom;
we are turned upside down
yet still produce bread.
The plowing under brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms now making fertile simple dust.
Plow deep our hearts this day of celebrating freedom, dear Lord.
May we grow what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
Thank you once again to Joel deWaard, local farmer and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match
All day he’s shoveled green pine sawdust
out of the trailer truck into the chute.
From time to time he’s clambered down to even
the pile. Now his hair is frosted with sawdust.
Little rivers of sawdust pour out of his boots.
I hope in the afterlife there’s none of this stuff
he says, while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked
with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks.
I hope there’s no bedding, no stalls, no barn
no more repairs to the paddock gate the horses
burst through when snow avalanches off the roof.
Although the old broodmare, our first foal, is his,
horses, he’s fond of saying, make divorces.
let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset
and off we go, a couple of aging fools.
I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot
less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools.
~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”
We know that comfortable silence when all that needs to be said is said and the rest is shared without words. And so it will be.
Two weeks from now, you’ll pack up the files in your desk, box up the legal books, take down the diplomas from your office wall, and close the door on a long lawyering life. The next day you’ll pull on your worn-thin coveralls, lace up your work boots, grab your cap and head out to the barn and wonder what needs fixing next.
There is so much to be done yet, so many tools to use, so much more to be lived.
Let’s walk up the field to catch the sunset, just a couple of aging fools.
Let the end of all bathtubs
be this putting out to pasture
of four Victorian bowlegs
anchored in grasses.
Let all longnecked browsers
come drink from the shallows
while faucets grow rusty
and porcelain yellows.
Where once our nude forebears
soaped up in this vessel
come, cows, and come, horses.
Bring burdock and thistle,
come slaver the scum of
timothy and clover
on the cast-iron lip that
our grandsires climbed over
and let there be always
green water for sipping
that muzzles may enter thoughtful
and rise dripping.
~Maxine Kumin “Watering Trough”
Farmers became the original recyclers before it was a word or an expectation — there isn’t anything that can’t be used twice or thrice for whatever is needed, wherever and whenever, especially far from the nearest retail outlet or farm supply store.
The water troughs on the farm where I grew up were cast-off four-legged bath tubs hauled home from the dump, exactly like the old tub I bathed in when staying overnight at my grandma’s farm house. She needed her tub to stay put right in the bathroom, never considering an upgrade and remodel; she would never offer it up to her cows.
But there were people who could afford to install showers and molded tubs so out their tubs went to find new life and purpose on farms like ours.
We kept goldfish in our bathtub water trough, to keep the algae at bay and for the amusement of the farm cats. The horses and cows would stand drowsily by the tub, their muzzles dripping, mesmerized by flashes of orange circling the plugged drain.
I often wondered what they thought of sharing their drinking water with fish, but I suspect they had more weighty things to ponder: where the next lush patch of grass might be, how to reach that belly itch, finding the best shade with fewest flies to take that afternoon nap.
When it comes to sharing a tub, maybe farm animals aren’t that different from their farmer keepers after all: they both stand dripping and thoughtful alongside the tub, wondering about the next thing to be done, which may well be a well-earned rest.
And on those hot afternoons in July,
when my father was out on the tractor
cultivating rows of corn, my mother
would send us out with a Mason jar
filled with ice and water, a dish towel
wrapped around it for insulation.
Like a rocket launched to an orbiting
planet, we would cut across the fields
in a trajectory calculated to intercept—
or, perhaps, even—surprise him
in his absorption with the row and the
turning always over earth beneath the blade.
He would look up and see us, throttle
down, stop, and step from the tractor
with the grace of a cowboy dismounting
his horse, and receive gratefully the jar
of water, ice cubes now melted into tiny
shards, drinking it down in a single gulp,
while we watched, mission accomplished.
~Joyce Sutphen “Carrying Water to the Field”
It was a special responsibility to carry cold water out to my father when he was on the tractor. Yes, he could have carried a thermos-full along with him all day but then he would not have seen his daughter walking carefully from the house over the fresh-turned dirt, he would not have an excuse for a short break to wipe the sweat from his face or survey the straightness of the furrows, he would not have lifted her up to sit beside him on the tractor and allowed her to “drive”, steering down the rows, curving around the killdeer nests so their young are spared.
Such a special responsibility to nurture someone hard at work who doesn’t stop to refill themselves. It happens rarely any more – whether field or factory or the family home. What wondrous love to carry water to those who thirst; what wondrous grace fills furrowed lives.
Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.
A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.
I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me – as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
~Norman MacCaig “Summer Farm”
Most of my life, a barn has stood a few dozen yards from my back door. As a small child, I learned to ride a tricycle on the wooden planks of the chicken coop, sat on the bony back of a Guernsey cow while my father milked by hand, found new litters of kittens in cobweb-filled hideaways, and leaped with abandon into stacks of loose hay in a massive loft.
As a young girl, I preferred to clean stalls rather than my bedroom. The acoustics in the barn were first rate for singing loud and the horses and cows never covered their ears, although the dog would usually howl. A hay loft was the perfect spot for hiding a writing journal and reading books. It was a place for quiet contemplation and sometimes fervent prayer when I was worried: a sanctuary for turbulent adolescence.
Through college and medical training, I managed to live over twelve years in the city without access to a barn or the critters that lived inside. I searched for plenty of surrogate retreats: the library stacks, empty chapels within the hospitals I worked, even a remote mountainous wildlife refuge in central Africa.
It is hard to ignore one’s genetic destiny to struggle as a steward of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. My blood runs with DNA of wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called me to come back home and so I heeded over thirty years ago, along with a husband from a dairy farming background himself, and eventually there followed three children, now grown and flown far from the farm.
Like a once sturdily built barn now sagging and leaning, I too am buffeted by the gales of mid-life. My doors have been flung open wide, my roof/lid lifted and pulled off, at times leaving me reeling. More and more now I need restoration, renewal and reconciliation. And so I set to work to fix up my life with all the skill I can muster: setting things right where they’ve been upended, painting a fresh coat where chipped and dulled, shoring up rotted foundations.
If only I can get it done well enough, with sufficient perseverance, I surely can recover from the latest blow. But my hard work and determination is not enough. It is never enough. I am never finished.
The only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.
The barnstorming must happen within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted only by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God.
There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure.
The grass so little has to do,—
A sphere of simple green,
With only butterflies to brood,
And bees to entertain,
And stir all day to pretty tunes
The breezes fetch along,
And hold the sunshine in its lap
And bow to everything;
And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
And make itself so fine,—
A duchess were too common
For such a noticing.
And even when it dies, to pass
In odors so divine,
As lowly spices gone to sleep,
Or amulets of pine.
And then to dwell in sovereign barns,
And dream the days away,—
The grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a hay!
This is the week of the year our barn is at its emptiest, right before it fills up again. There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores.
Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.
The dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.
There is no heart beat left in an empty barn. It is in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I can hardly bear to go inside.
The weather is cooperating so the grass was cut two days ago. Today it will be tossed about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding”, then tomorrow raked into windrows and baled for pick up by our “family and friends” hay crew.
Suddenly, the barn is shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. This often goes on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity. It almost looks as if it is on fire.
Vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another year.
A healthy rhythm is elusive in this modern age of full time jobs off the farm, necessitating careful coordination with the schedule of the farmer who cuts and bales for many neighbors all within the same window of good weather. The farmer races his equipment from field to field, swooping around with a goliath tractor taking 12 foot swaths, raising dust clouds, and then on to the next job. It is so unlike the rhythm of a century ago when a horse drawn mower cut the tall grass in a gentle four foot swath, with a pulsing shh shh shh shh shh shh tempo that could be heard stretching across the fields. It is an unfamiliar sound today, the almost-silence of no motor at all, just the jingle of the harness and the mower blades slicing back and forth as the team pulls the equipment down the field. We’ve lost the peacefulness of a team of horses at work, necessitating a slower pace and the need to stop at the end of a row for a breather.
The old barn will be resuscitated once again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales, the walls will groan with the pressure of stacks. The missing shingles on the roof will be replaced and the doors locked tight against the winter winds. But it will be breathing on its own, having needed only a short rest these last few weeks.
Inside, once again, filled to the brim, life is held tight by twine, just waiting to be released.