Sweating Under the High Arc of Midsummer

What is the hayfield in late afternoon
that it can fly in the face of time,

and light can be centuries old, and even
the rusted black truck I am driving

can seem to be an implement born
of some ancient harvest,

and the rhythmic baler, which spits out
massive bricks tied up in twine,

can seem part of a time before now
because light glitters on the hay dust,

because the sun is sinking and we sweat
under the high arc of mid-summer,

because our bodies cast such long shadows–
Rebecca, with the baby strapped to her back,

the men who throw impossible weight
to the top of the truck, the black and white

dog that races after mice or moles
whose lives have been suddenly exposed.

How does the taste of my sweat take me
down through the gate of childhood,

spinning backwards to land in a field
painted by Bruigel, where the taste of salt

is the same, and the same heat
rises in waves off a newly flattened field.

In the duskiness of slanted light, we laugh
just as we laughed then, because there is

joy in what the earth gives, allowing
our bodies to mingle with it, our voices

small on the field, our work assuring the goats
can give milk, the sheep can grow wool,

and we will have in our bones the taste
of something so old it travels in light.
~Susie Patlove “First Cutting” from Quickening

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson
1994
2005
2011

There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.

Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.

I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.

But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most:
-the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked
-the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains
-the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us

Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.

photo by Tayler Rae
Pieter Bruegel “Hay Harvest”
My grandparents Leslie Polis and Kittie Lovelace standing in a hayfield with loose hay shocks — 1915

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The Delicate Sadness of Dusk

The talkative guest has gone,
and we sit in the yard
saying nothing. The slender moon
comes over the peak of the barn.

The air is damp, and dense
with the scent of honeysuckle. . . .
The last clever story has been told
and answered with laughter.

With my sleeping self I met
my obligations, but now I am aware
of the silence, and your affection,
and the delicate sadness of dusk.
~Jane Kenyon, “The Visit” from Collected Poems

As we slowly adapt to evenings spent with family and friends again, taking off our masks to actually witness the emotion on a familiar, now unveiled, face:

There are smiles and laughter again. We are trying to remember how to be ourselves outside the fearfulness that contagion wrought. More important: there are tears again. And wistfulness. And regret. And longing.

This delicate sadness happened – even to those of us who were never directly touched by sickness. We will never be the same, never so light of heart again, remembering what this past year has cost.

It is a slow transition to dusk. We sit together now and watch it come.

The Outside of a Horse

There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse
~Long time equestrian wisdom attributed to many famous riders

Nineteen years ago today in 2001, two days before the world changed forever, I helped organize a gathering of Haflinger horse owners from western Canada and the United States in our nearby town of Lynden, Washington. We received permission to have a Haflinger parade on a quiet Sunday morning while the townspeople were all in church. We wanted to be sure we would not interfere with traffic coming to town and leaving after worship services.

It was a remarkable morning of over ninety Haflingers – riding, driving, walking their horses, enjoying the quiet peace of a Sabbath morning in a friendly little town.

After September 11, 2001, nothing has felt quiet or calm in the same way ever again.

This is to remember the day we spent together, in the insides of us enjoying the outsides of our horses.

The Suspense of August

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No wind, no bird. The river flames like brass.
On either side, smitten as with a spell
Of silence, brood the fields. In the deep grass,
Edging the dusty roads, lie as they fell
Handfuls of shriveled leaves from tree and bush.
But ’long the orchard fence and at the gate,
Thrusting their saffron torches through the hush,
Wild lilies blaze, and bees hum soon and late.
Rust-colored the tall straggling briar, not one
Rose left. The spider sets its loom up there
Close to the roots, and spins out in the sun
A silken web from twig to twig. The air
Is full of hot rank scents. Upon the hill
Drifts the noon’s single cloud, white, glaring, still.
~Lizette Woodworth Reese,  “August” from A Branch of May: Poems by Lizette Woodworth Reese

 

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August suspends me timeless. There is little that is new on the horizon, only a fading and withering of that which is already spent.  The carefully woven web frays and shreds, the blossom wilts, the dawn flares in, the twilight flames out.

I wake to dry stillness – no wind, no bird song –  the suspense of waiting and wondering what is coming next.

I prepare as best I can: today I gather.  Today I waste no time.

 

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Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, 
Old Time is still a-flying; 
And this same flower that smiles today 
Tomorrow will be dying. 
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, 
The higher he’s a-getting, 
The sooner will his race be run, 
And nearer he’s to setting. 
That age is best which is the first, 
When youth and blood are warmer; 
But being spent, the worse, and worst 
Times still succeed the former. 
Then be not coy, but use your time, 
And while ye may, go marry; 
For having lost but once your prime, 
You may forever tarry.
~Robert Herrick “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”

 

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Like Pearls Slipping Off a String

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I believe the nicest and sweetest days
are not those on which anything very splendid
or wonderful or exciting happens
but just those that bring simple little pleasures,
following one another softly,
like pearls slipping off a string.
~L.M. Montgomery from Anne of Avonlea

 

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Pearl by pearl, the simple pleasures slip away so softly in these precious few days of family fullness and warmth.

It is almost too much to bear knowing these pearls can never be strung together again in quite the same way, but I rush to gather them up together in the deep pocket of my memory for safe-keeping.

And then I remember they will always be there, ready to be touched and treasured when I need them, each one more splendid and wonderful and exciting than I would ever have imagined at the time.

 

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It is Time

photo by Josh Scholten

“Lord, it is time.  The summer was very big.  Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose.  Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine.”
~  Rainer Maria Rilke

The wind is shifting, the sky filling with moody clouds, the temperatures dropping.  The fruit still hanging is being naturally chilled.  There is something about a near-frost that sweetens the flesh of the grapes, the apples, the pears and the corn cobs as if each is gathering up every sugar molecule for self-protection.  We are the beneficiaries.

October is time for a hurried harvest before the hard freeze hits, leaving all in ruin, turned to mush.  The window of time to accomplish the gathering and preserving has narrowed.  No longer is the picking done leisurely with a temptation for it to be put off until tomorrow.  Today is the day.

It is time.  All is ripe.

photo by Josh Scholten