There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.
I won’t have it.The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.
We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus. ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Other than a few exceptional circumstances in my life, I have always played it safe: a down-home, don’t rock the boat, work hard and live-a-quiet-life kind of person. My grandparents lived that way, my parents lived that way so I feel like it is bound in the twists and turns of my DNA.
Even so, I do know a thing or two about sulking on the edge of rage, lost in a morass of seething bitterness about the state of the world. Yet if I were honest about it, my discontent is all about me, always about me. I want to have accomplished more to deserve taking up space in my days on earth.
But that’s a problem we all have, isn’t it? We’re never worthy of such unmerited grace as has been shown to us. It is such a pure Gift I wait for, borne out of God’s radical sacrifice that warrants from me a life of radical gratitude, even when I choose to live it out a little quietly, making hay and raising tomatoes.
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Travel as a backward step. You journey until you find a meadow where wildflowers grow with pre-factory-farming copiousness, a horse-drawn landscape where hay is saved in older ways, to revive the life you lived once, catch up with your past. ~Dennis O’Driscoll from Time Pieces (2002)
… The Amish have maintained what I like to think is a proper scale, largely by staying with the horse. The horse has restricted unlimited expansion. Not only does working with horses limit farm size, but horses are ideally suited to family life. With horses you unhitch at noon to water and feed the teams and then the family eats what we still call dinner. While the teams rest there is usually time for a short nap. And because God didn’t create the horse with headlights, we don’t work nights. Amish farmer David Kline in Great Possessions
One evening I stopped by the field to watch the hay rake drawn toward me by two black, tall, ponderous horses who stepped like conquerors over the fallen oat stalks, light-shot dust at their heels, long shadows before them. At the ditch the driver turned back in a wide arc, the off-horse scrambling, the near-horse pivoting neatly. The big side-delivery rake came about with a shriek— its tines were crashing, the iron-bound tongue groaned aloud— then, Hup, Diamond! Hup, Duke! and they set off west, trace-deep in dust, going straight into the low sun.
The clangor grew faint, distance and light consumed them; a fiery chariot rolled away in a cloud of gold and faded slowly, brightness dying into brightness. The groaning iron, the prophesying wheels, the mighty horses with their necks like storms— all disappeared; nothing was left but a track of dust that climbed like smoke up the evening wind. ~Kate Barnes “The Hay Rake” from Where the Deer Are
My grandparents owned the land, worked the land, bound to the earth by seasons of planting and harvest.
They watched the sky, the habits of birds, hues of sunset, the moods of moon and clouds, the disposition of air. They inhaled the coming season, let it brighten their blood for the work ahead.
Soil sifted through their fingers imbedded beneath their nails and this is what they knew; this rhythm circling the years. They never left their land; each in their own time settled deeper. ~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black.
Nearing 68, I am old enough to have parents who both grew up on farms worked by horses, one raising wheat and lentils in the Palouse country of eastern Washington and the other logging in the woodlands of Fidalgo Island of western Washington. The horses were crucial to my grandfathers’ success in caring for and tilling the land, seeding and harvesting the crops and bringing supplies from town miles away. Theirs was a hardscrabble life in the early 20th century with few conveniences. Work was year round from dawn to dusk; caring for the animals came before any human comforts. Once night fell, work ceased and sleep was welcome respite for man and beast.
In the rural countryside where we live now, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past. Watching a good team work with no diesel motor running means hearing bird calls from the field, the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day. There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of engines are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing.It is time to stop and take a breather, it is time to start back up do a few more rows, it is time to water, it is time for a meal, it is time for a nap, it is time for a rest in a shady spot. This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before.
Our modern agribusiness megafarm fossil-fuel-powered approach to food production has bypassed the small family farm which was so dependent on the muscle power of humans and animals. In our move away from horses worked by skilled teamsters, what has been gained in high production values has meant loss of self-sufficiency and dedicated stewardship of a particular plot of ground. Draft breeds, including the Haflinger horses we raise, now are bred for higher energy with lighter refined bone structure meant more for eye appeal and floating movement, rather than the sturdy conformation and unflappable low maintenance mindset needed for pulling work. Modern children are bred for different purpose as well, no longer raised to work together with other family members for a common purpose of daily survival. Their focus at school is waning as they have no morning farm chores when they get up, too little physical work to do before they arrive at their desks in the morning. Their physical energy, if directed at all, is directed to competitive sports, engaged in fantasy combat rather than winning a very real victory over hunger.
I am encouraged when young people still reach for horse collars and bridles, hitch up their horses and do the work as it used to be done. All is not lost if we can still make incremental daily progress, harnessed together as a team with our horses, tilling for truth and harvesting hope.
I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. ~Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor
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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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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.
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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
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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.
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”
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.
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
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”
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.
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.