Catastrophic Thinking

(story from the Barnstorming archives)

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These four rascals are two tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasingly gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

Only the Nose Knows

He’s of the colour of the nutmeg.
And of the heat of the ginger….
he is pure air and fire;
and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in him,
but only in patient stillness while his rider mounts him;
he is indeed a horse…

~William Shakespeare from Henry V

Not just because of the long wavy mane,
and bushy ringleted tail,
the feathers on the fetlocks,
the black-rimmed deep brown eyes,
topped with long elegant lashes,
the glistening nutmeg ginger color,
the perfect parallel little ears,
the forelock that almost reaches to the upper lip….

The real reason to love a Haflinger horse is its nose.

Pink noses,
gray noses,
nondescript not-sure-what-color noses,
noses that have white stripes, diamonds,  triangles, hearts
or absolutely no white at all.

With hot breath exuding fragrance
better than pricey perfume,
lips softer than the most exquisite velvet.

Noses reach out in greeting,
blow,
sniff,
nuzzle,
caress,
push,
search,
smudge faces and
shower snot.

Irresistible.
Irrepressible.
Irreplaceable.

Only the Haflinger nose knows.

If Being So Beautiful Isn’t Enough

Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me
as if they have secrets to tell.
I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t.
If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what
could they possibly say?
— Mary Oliver from 
Blue Horses

photo of Wheaton BCH by Emily Vander Haak

This is not a world filled with kindness – I think we all realize that most days. There is so much hurt and misunderstanding and lack of communication leading to all kinds of ugliness between so many of us.

When beauty is bestowed upon us, unexpectedly and silently and bountifully, where can it come from but from God? How can we possibly forget wherein He dwells richly, especially wherever beauty is so desperately needed.

The Haflingers don’t have much to say, but then … they don’t need to.

photo of Noblesse BCH by Krisula Steiger



Tied Up in Knots

Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold 
The stars glitter and sparkle. 
All are asleep on this lonely farm, 
Deep in the winter night. 
The pale white moon is a wanderer, 
snow gleams white on pine and fir, 
snow gleams white on the roofs. 
Only tomten is awake.

Rubs his hand through his beard and hair, 
Shakes his head and his cap. 
Turns at his own command, 
Turns to the task at hand.

He must appreciate what life he’s got
By finding ways to tie time’s knot.

The ponies dream on in the cold moon’s light, 
Summer dreams in each stall. 
And free of harness and whip and rein, 
Tomten starts to twist and twirl each mane
While the manger they drowse over 
Brims with fragrant clover.

Still is the forest and all the land, 
Locked in this wintry year. 
Only the distant waterfall 
Whispers and sighs in his ear. 
The tomten listens and, half in dream, 
Thinks that he hears Time’s endless stream, 
And wonders, how can its knots be bound? 
Where will its eternal source to be found?

~adapted from “Tomten” by Viktor Rydberg

It is hard to say exactly when the first one moved in.  This farm was distinctly gnome-less when we bought it, largely due to twenty-seven hungry barn cats residing here at the time,  in various stages of pregnancy, growth, development and aging.  It took awhile for the feline numbers to whittle down to an equilibrium that matched the rodent population.  In the mean time,  our horse numbers increased from three to seven to over fifteen with a resultant exponential increase in barn chores.   One winter twenty years ago,  I was surprised to walk in the barn one morning to find numerous complex knots tied in the Haflingers’ manes.  Puzzling as I took precious time to undo them, (literally adding hours to my chores), I knew I needed to find the cause or culprit.

It took some research to determine the probable origin of these tight tangles.  Based on everything I read, they appeared to be the work of Gernumbli faenilesi, a usually transient species of gnome called “tomtens” preferring to live in barns and haylofts in close proximity to heavy maned ponies.  In this case, as the tangles persisted for months, they clearly had moved in, lock, stock and barrel.   The complicated knots were their signature pride and joy, their artistic way of showing their devotion to a happy farm and trying to slow down time so they can stay in residence eternally.

All well and good,  but the extra work was killing my fingers and thinning my horses’ hair.  I plotted ways to get them to cease and desist.

I set live traps of cheese and peanut butter cracker sandwiches, hoping to lure them into cages for a “catch and release”. Hoping to drive them away, I played polka music on the radio in the barn at night.  Hoping to be preemptive, I braided the manes up to be less tempting but even those got twisted and jumbled.  Just as I was becoming ever more desperate and about to bring in more feral cats, the tangling stopped.

It appeared the tomtens had moved on to a more hospitable habitat.   I had succeeded in my gnome eradication plan.  Or so I thought.

Not long after, I had the distinct feeling of being watched as I walked past some rose bushes in the yard.  I stopped to take a look, expecting to spy the shining eyes of one of the pesky raccoons that frequents our yard to steal from the cats’ food dish.  Instead, beneath the thorny foliage, I saw two round blue eyes peering at me serenely.   This little gal was not at all intimidated by me, and made no move to escape.   She was an ideal example of Gernumbli gardensi, a garden gnome known for their ability to keep varmints and vermin away from plants and flowers.  They also happen to actively feud with Gernumbli Faenilesi so that explained the sudden disappearance of my little knot-tying pests in the barn.

It wasn’t long before more Gardensi moved in, a gnomey infestation.  They tended to arrive in pairs and bunches, liked to play music, smoked pipes, played on a teeter totter, worked with garden tools, took naps on sun-warmed rocks and one even preferred a swing.  They are a bit of a rowdy bunch but I enjoy their happy presence and jovial demeanor.  

As long as they continue to coexist peaceably with us and each other, keep the varmints and their knot tying cousins away,  and avoid bad habits and swear words, I’m quite happy they are here.   Actually, I’ve given them the run of the place.  I’ve been told to be cautious as there are now news reports of an even more invasive species of gnome,  Gernumbli kitschsi, that could move in and take over if I’m not careful.

I shudder to think.  One has to consider the neighborhood.

She lingered in that charming little garden to say hello to the gnomes, such a glorious infestation!  How few wizards realize just how much we can learn from the wise little gnomes-or, to give them their correct names, the  Gernumbli gardensi.
‘Ours do know a lot of excellent swear words,’ said Ron…
~J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Recovering The Lost

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noblesse8141

 

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The songs of small birds fade away
into the bushes after sundown,
the air dry, sweet with goldenrod.
Beside the path, suddenly, bright asters
flare in the dusk. The aged voices
of a few crickets thread the silence.
It is a quiet I love, though my life
too often drives me through it deaf.
Busy with costs and losses, I waste
the time I have to be here—a time
blessed beyond my deserts, as I know,
if only I would keep aware. The leaves
rest in the air, perfectly still.

I would like them to rest in my mind
as still, as simply spaced. As I approach,
the sorrel filly looks up from her grazing,
poised there, light on the slope
as a young apple tree. A week ago
I took her away to sell, and failed
to get my price, and brought her home
again. Now in the quiet I stand
and look at her a long time, glad
to have recovered what is lost
in the exchange of something for money. 
~Wendell Berry “The Sorrel Filly”

 

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I am reminded at the end of a long work week in town
-when it is dark and wet and cold
and chores aren’t done yet
when horses are waiting to be fed-
of the value of moments spent
with long-lashed eyes, wind-swept manes, and velvet muzzles.

True, it appears to be time and money wasted.
But for a farmer,
not all gold is preserved in a lock box.

Golden treasure can have
four hooves, a tail, with a rumbling greeting
asking if I’d somehow gotten lost
since I’m a little later than usual
and they were a bit concerned I’d forgotten them.

I remember then where home is
and how easy it is to wander from the path
that always leads me back here.

 

homertony

 

noblesse11316

 

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She Breathed Me

alleye

 

noblesseeye1

 

…and there was once, oh wonderful,
a new horse in the pasture,
a tall, slim being–a neighbor was keeping her there–
and she put her face against my face,
put her muzzle, her nostrils, soft as violets,
against my mouth and my nose, and breathed me,
to see who I was,
a long quiet minute–minutes–
then she stamped her feet and whisked tail
and danced deliciously into the grass away, and came back.
She was saying, so plainly, that I was good, or good enough.
~Mary Oliver from “The Poet Goes to Indiana”

 

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photo by Lea Gibson

 

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photo by Emily Vander Haak

 

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wally617

 

Our farm has had many muzzles here over the years–

Pink noses,
gray noses,
nondescript not-sure-what-color noses,
noses that have white stripes, diamonds,  triangles,
or absolutely no marks at all.

Hot breath that exudes warm grassy fragrance
better than any pricey perfume,
lips softer than the most elegant velvet.

Noses that reach out in greeting to:
blow,
sniff,
nuzzle,
caress,
push,
search,
breathe me in
and breathe for me,

smudge my face and
shower snot.

I’m just good enough
to warrant
such a baptism blessing.

 

tonynose

 

wetmuzzle

 

nose3

 

An Indecision of Weather

silverthawfeverfew
silverthawblackberryvine

 

…step outside into an indecision of weather,
night rain having fallen into frozen air,
a silver thaw where nothing moves or sings
and all things grieve under the weight of their own shining.
~ James McKean  from “Silver Thaw”

 

silverthawwire

icytop2

 

silverthawthorns

 

Freezing rain needs to happen once a decade just to remind Pacific Northwesterners that regular rain isn’t such a bad thing.  We’re in the midst of just such a silver thaw right now. Trees and heavy branches are crashing everywhere, the power is off, the farm generator is on and life as we know it comes to a standstill under an inch thick blanket of ice.

We webfoot Washingtonians tend to grouse about our continuously gray cloud-covered bleak dreary drizzly wet mildew-ridden existence. But that’s not us actually grumbling.  That’s just us choosing not to exhibit overwhelming joy.  They don’t call Bellingham, the university town ten miles from our farm,  the “city of subdued excitement” for no good reason.

 

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When the temperatures drop in our moderate climate and things start to ice up, or the snowflakes start to fall, we celebrate the diversion from rain.  Our children are out building snowmen when there is a mere 1/2 inch of snow on the ground, leaving lawns bare and green with one large snowman in the middle.  Schools start to cancel at 2 inches because of the lack of snow removal equipment and no bunkers of stored sand for the roads.  We natives are pitifully terrible snow drivers compared to the highly experienced (and at times overconfident) midwestern and northeastern transplants in our midst.

But then the weather gets indecisive and this little meteorologic phenomenon known as freezing rain with its resultant silver thaw happens.  It warms up enough that it really isn’t snowing but it also really isn’t raining because the temperatures are still subfreezing at ground level, so it spills ice drops from the sky–noisy little splatters that land and stay beaded up on any surface.  Branches resemble botanical popsicles, sidewalks become bumpy rinks, roads become sheer black ice, cars are encased in an impenetrable glaze of ice and windows are covered with textured glass twice as thick as usual.

In the midst of this frozen concoction coming from the sky, we delay farm chores as long as possible, knowing it will take major navigation aids to simply make our way out the back steps, across the sidewalk and down the hill, then up the slick cement slope to open the big sliding barn doors.  Chains on our muck boots help, to a degree.  The big rolling barn doors ice together when the northeast wind blows freezing rain into the tiny gap between them, so it is necessary to break foot holds into the ice on the cement to roll back the doors just enough to sneak through before shutting them quickly behind us, blocking the arctic wind blast.  Then we can drink in the warmth of six stalls of hungry Haflinger horses, noisily greeting us by chastising us for our tardiness in feeding them dinner.

 

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Wintertime chores are always more time-consuming but ice time chores are even more so.  Water buckets need to be filled individually because the hoses are frozen solid.  Hay bales stored in the hay barn must be hauled up the slick slope to the horse barn.  Frozen manure piles need to be hacked to pieces with a shovel rather than a pitchfork.   Who needs a bench press and fancy weight lifting equipment when you can lift five gallon buckets, sixty pound bales and fifteen pounds of poop per shovel full?  Why invest in an elliptical exerciser?  This farm life is saving us money… I think.

 

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Once inside each stall, I take a moment to run my ungloved hand over a fluffy golden winter coat, to untangle a mane knot or two, and to breathe in sweet Haflinger hay breath from a velvety nose.   It is the reason I will slide downhill, land on my face pushing loads of hay uphill to feed these loved animals no matter how hazardous the footing or miserable the weather.  It is why their stalls get picked up more often than our bedrooms, their stomachs are filled before ours, and we pay for hoof trims for the herd but never manicures and pedicures for the people residing in the house.

 

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Tonyasleep1

 

The temperatures will rise, the overwhelming ice covering will start to thaw and our farm will be happily back to drippy and overcast.  No matter what the weather,  the barn will always be a refuge of comfort, even when the work is hard and the effort is a challenge for these middle aged farmers.

It’s enough to melt even the most grumbly heart and therefore the thickest coating of ice.

 

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brrrr

 

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