Never Enough Light in November

Taken from our farm–cornfield stubble and feeding swans

That country where it is always turning late in the year.
That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist;
where noons go quickly,
dusks and twilights linger,
and midnights stay.
That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun.
That country whose people are autumn people,
thinking only autumn thoughts.
Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.

~Ray Bradbury from The October Country

Just as a painter needs light
in order to put the finishing touches to his picture,
so I need an inner light,
which I feel I never have enough of in the autumn.
~Leo Tolstoy

A few days of heavy rain in November transforms our farm to mush. Puddles are everywhere, the ground is saturated and mushrooms are sprouting in the most unlikely places. It’s ideal weather for the trumpeter swans and snow geese who glean in the nearby harvested cornfields, filling up on dropped corn kernels. They fly overhead to head out to the fields, noisily honking, their wings swooshing the air as they pass over.

The wet weather means chores are more challenging on our farm. Some of the stalls in the barn have started to get moist from the rising ground water, so the Haflingers appreciate diving into fresh shavings for a good roll and shake. I can appreciate the relief they feel as I like getting back to solid footing too at the end of the day. Much of my day also seems to be spent navigating slippery slopes and muddy terrain, both real and figurative.

It isn’t always apparent what ground is treacherous from appearance alone. The grassy slope heading down to the barn from the house looks pretty benign until I start navigating in a driving rainstorm in the dark, and suddenly the turf becomes a skating rink and I’m finding I’m picking my way carefully with a flashlight. The path I seek is to find the patches of moss, which happily soak up the water like a sponge carpet-like, so not slick to walk on. Even if moss ordinarily is not a welcome addition to lawn or pasture–I appreciate it this time of year.

Another challenge is pushing a wheelbarrow with two 60 pound bales of hay back up that slope to the stalls for the day’s feeding. There is no traction underneath to help my feet stick to the ground for the push uphill. I can feel particularly foolish at this futile effort–my feet sometimes slide out beneath me, landing me on my knees down on the ground, soaked and humiliated, and the wheelbarrow goes skidding right back down to the barn door where it started.

Trusting the footing underneath my feet is crucial day to day. If I am to get work done most efficiently and make progress, I must have solid ground to tread. But the stuff of real life, like our farm’s ground, doesn’t come made to order that way. Some days are slick and treacherous, unpredictable and ready to throw me to my knees, while other days are simple, easy, and smooth sailing. Waking in the morning, I cannot know what I will face that day–whether I need my highest hip boots to wade through the muck or whether I can dash about in comfy house slippers. My attitude has something to do with it too–sometimes my “internal” footing is loose and slippery, tripping up those around me as well as myself. That is when I need most to plant myself in the solid foundation that I know will support me during those treacherous times. I need my faith, my need to forgive and experience forgiveness, my family holding me as I fall, and to help pick them up when they are down. Without those footings every day, I’m nothing more than a muddy soiled mess lying face down on the ground wondering if I’ll ever walk again.

There is good reason I end up on my knees at times. It is the best reminder of where I would be full time if it were not for stronger Hands that lift me up, clean me up and guide my footsteps all my days.

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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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Through Grass and Grain

Mown meadows skirt the standing wheat;
I linger, for the hay is sweet,
New-cut and curing in the sun.
Like furrows, straight, the windrows run,
Fallen, gallant ranks that tossed and bent
When, yesterday, the west wind went
A-rioting through grass and grain.
To-day no least breath stirs the plain;
Only the hot air, quivering, yields
Illusive motion to the fields
Where not the slenderest tassel swings.
Across the wheat flash sky-blue wings;
A goldfinch dangles from a tall,
Full-flowered yellow mullein; all
The world seems turning blue and gold.
Unstartled, since, even from of old,
Beauty has brought keen sense of her,
I feel the withering grasses stir;
Along the edges of the wheat,
I hear the rustle of her feet:
And yet I know the whole sea lies,
And half the earth, between our eyes.
~Sophie Jewett “In Harvest”

Autumn harvest happens outside of me
despite sudden coolness of the air,
thanks to showers that green the fields
for one more month of grazing,
midst the smell of the dying of vines and roots.

Autumn harvest is happening inside of me
as I slow down my walk,
curl up within the lengthening nights,
the color of my thoughts
turning to bronze and gold and red

before I let go
before I let go

A book of beauty in words and photographs, available for order here:

Get Up and Go About the Day

Light wakes us – there’s the sun
climbing the mountains’ rim, spilling across the valley,
finding our faces.
It is July,

between the hay and harvest,
a time at arm’s length from all other time…

It is the time
to set aside all vigil, good or ill,
to loosen the fixed gaze of our attention
as dandelions let seedlings to the wind.
Wake with the light.
Get up and go about the day and watch
its surfaces that brighten with the sun.
~Kerry Hardie from “Sleep in Summer”

Saying good-bye to July
is admitting summer is already half-baked
and so are we–
we are still doughy
and not nearly done enough.

The rush to autumn is breathless.
We want to hold on tight
to our longish days
and our sweaty nights
for just a little while longer…

Please, oh please
grant us light
and steady us for the task
of getting ready and letting go.

A Barn Revival

Just down the road… around the bend,
Stands an old empty barn; nearing the end.
It has sheltered no animals for many years;
No dairy cows, no horses, no sheep, no steers.
The neigh of a horse; the low of a cow;
Those sounds have been absent for some time now.
There was a time when the loft was full of hay,
And the resounding echoes of children at play.
At one time the paint was a bold shade of red;
Gradually faded by weather and the sun overhead.
The doors swing in the wind… the hinges are loose,
Windows and siding have taken a lot of abuse.
The fork, rope and pulleys lifted hay to the mow,
A task that always brought sweat to the brow.
But those good days are gone; forever it seems,
And that old barn now stands with sagging beams.
It is now home to pigeons, rats and mice;

The interior is tattered and doesn’t look very nice.
Old, abandoned barns have become a trend,
Just down the road… around the bend.

~Vance Oliphant “Old Barn”

photo by Nate Gibson

There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores. Our old barn has stood empty for several years; we and our neighbors who have used it for years to house a winter hay supply have found other more convenient places to put our hay. The winter winds have worn away its majesty: missing shingles have torn away holes in the roof, the mighty beams providing foundational support were sinking and rotting in the ground, a gap opened in the sagging roof crest, and most devastating of all, two walls collapsed in a particularly harsh blow.

The old barn was in death throes after over one hundred years of history.
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.
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 was no heart beat left in this dying barn. It was in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I could hardly bear to go inside much less take pictures of its deteriorating shell.

We had people show up at our front door offering to demolish it for the lumber, now all the fad for expensive modern “vintage” look in new house construction. A photo of our barn showed up in local media declaring “another grand old barn in the county has met its end.” That stung. Meanwhile we were saving our money, waiting until we could afford to bring our old red barn back to life.

It started with one strong young man digging out the support posts to locate the rot. Then another remarkable young man was able to jack up the posts one by one, putting in reinforcing steel and concrete and straightening the gaping sagging roof line, providing the old barn its first ever foundation.

And over the last two weeks a crew of two men have replaced the damaged roof and absent walls with metal siding. The barn is looking whole again.

There is a lot of clean up left to do inside: decades of old hay build up and damaged lumber and untold numbers of abandoned mouse nests and scattered barn owl pellets.

Soon, the barn will be 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. It will go on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity.

It will once again serve as the back up sanctuary on Easter morning when we are rained out up on the hill for Sunrise Service.

Now vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another 100 years.

Another old barn is resuscitated back to life when so many are left to die. It is revived and breathing on its own again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales and walls will groan with the pressure of stacks.

I must remember there is always hope for the shattered and weary among us. If an old barn can be saved, then so can we.

So can we.

photo by Nate Gibson

Sepia September Light

Wheat Field with Sheaves -Vincent Van Gogh

This far north, the harvest happens late.
Rooks go clattering over the sycamores
whose shadows yawn after them, down to the river.
Uncut wheat staggers under its own weight.

Summer is leaving too, exchanging its gold
for brass and copper. It is not so strange
to feel nostalgia for the present; already
this September evening is as old

as a photograph of itself. The light, the shadows
on the field, are sepia, as if this were
some other evening in September, some other
harvest that went ungathered years ago.
~Dorothy Lawrenson “September” from Painted, spoken, 22

Sheaves of Wheat in a Field –Vincent Van Gogh

September/remember naturally go together in every rhyming autumnal poem and song.

For me, the nostalgia of this season is for the look and feel of the landscape as it browns out with aging – gilded, burnt and rusted, almost glistening in its dying.

I gather up and store these images, like sheaves of wheat stacked in the field. I’ll need them again someday, when I’m hungry, starving for the memory of what once was, and, when the light is just right, how it could be again someday.

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
⁠Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
⁠Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
⁠Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
⁠And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
⁠Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
⁠Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
⁠And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins “Hurrahing for Harvest”

Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

Moving at Summer’s Pace

mowingfield

 

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.~
~Philip Larkin “Cut Grass” from The Complete Poems

Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had 
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind”

The uncut field grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut; the undulations of summer breezes urge it back upright.  It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand unsupported.  We must work fast to save it and more rain is on the way.

Light and wind work magic on a field of melting tall grass.  The blades of the mower will come to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes.  It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.

It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn,
no longer bending but bent,
no longer flowing but flown,
no longer growing but grown

We move at summer’s pace to ensure the grasses become fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors. It will melt in their mouths, as it was meant to be.  

A Farmer of Dreams

Each day I go into the fields 
to see what is growing
and what remains to be done.
It is always the same thing: nothing
is growing, everything needs to be done.

A farmer of dreams
knows how to pretend.

A farmer of dreams
knows what it means to be patient.
Each day I go into the fields.

~W. D. Ehrhart, from “The Farmer” in Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War

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.

A Certain Slant

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.

The Light returns and so will I.

Baling Twine Beatitudes

My hands are torn 
by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance.
~Hayden Carruth from “Emergency Haying”

Blessed are the
miles of baling twine encircling
tons of hay in our barn,
twice daily cut loose,
freed of grasses
and hung up to reuse again
in myriad ways:

~~tighten a sagging fence
latch a swinging gate
tie shut a gaping door
replace a broken handle
hang a water bucket
suspend a sagging overalls
fix a broken halter
entertain a bored barn cat
snug a horse blanket belt~~

Blessed be this duct tape of the barn
when even duct tape won’t work;
a fix-all handy in every farmer’s pocket
made beautiful
by a morning fog’s weeping.