The Edge of Morning

Horse Team by Edvard Munch
The glittering roofs are still with frost; each worn
Black chimney builds into the quiet sky
Its curling pile to crumble silently.
Far out to the westward on the edge of morn,
The slender misty city towers up-borne
Glimmer faint rose against the pallid blue;
And yonder on those northern hills, the hue
Of amethyst, hang fleeces dull as horn.

And here behind me come the woodmen’s sleighs
With shouts and clamorous squeakings; might and main
Up the steep slope the horses stamp and strain,
Urged on by hoarse-tongued drivers–cheeks ablaze,
Iced beards and frozen eyelids–team by team,
With frost-fringed flanks, and nostrils jetting steam.

~Archibald Lampman “A January Morning”
photo by Josh Scholten

The vast majority of the world no longer depends on horse power on hooves to bring us the things we need to live every day.

Few of us depend on wood heat in our homes during these chilly January nights. Chimneys have become obsolete or merely decorative.

We live in a farm house that depended solely on wood heat to keep its original family warm through decades of brisk Pacific Northwest winters – in our remodel twenty plus years ago, we removed two wood stoves and installed a propane furnace and gas stove instead – now dependent on fossil fuels but trying to keep the air clean around us.

We also no longer have to wait, as our parents and grandparents did, on teamsters with frosted beards urging on their teams of steaming horses – pulling sleighs and wagons loaded with firewood or other goods. Now, sleek semis back up to the ramps of grocery stores and off-load their cargo into warehouse and freezers so night stockers can ensure the shelves are full for shoppers each morning.

For most of us living in a time of modern and immediate conveniences, we have little connection to the original source of the daily supplies we need and how they get to us. As descendants of subsistence farmers, my husband and I feel a relationship to the land we live on, fortunate to be able to store much of our garden and orchard produce right here in our pantry, root cellar and freezer.

And what of the horses who were so critical to the economy up until a century ago? Their role has been reduced to recreation and novelty rather than providing the essential horse power that supplied the goods we needed to live and moved us where we needed to go.

No fossil fuel necessary back then.
No exhaust other than steaming nostrils
and a pile of manure here or there.

We are the aging bridge generation between the end of horse power on hooves giving way to universal horse power on wheels. I remind myself of this each day as I do the chores in the barn. I’m a fortunate farmer, working alongside these animals on the edge of a frosty morning, knowing few people will remember how essential they were or have the privilege to continue to care for them as they deserve.

Things Are Not Like They Were

 fencerow
The machine shed is damp,
the dirt floor milled to powder
from years of boot and tractor
and machine traffic.
I look for the spade
I used when I was young,
when my grandfather said dig
and I dug holes
the depth I’d been taught
so the posts would stand,
hold the miles of barbed and hog wire
dividing our ground…
Dig, he would say,
and all morning, afternoon,
until it rained, until dark,
until I couldn’t lift the spade and grub
and he said enough,
I dug through dry brown
until it turned yellow clay
or black earth caked
to the tip of the steel. He taught me to measure
strength by depth,
narrow the hole around the oiled post,
and sturdy the line he’d laid
before I was old enough
to blister from work,
acquire the knowledge of straight,
of strength, cool soil,
rusted staples and splintered wood,
the knowledge of bending spikes
new, splicing wire,
swinging a hammer down hard,
the ache from hours of digging,
calloused hands and sunburn.
He trained me to rake,
tamp, stomp, pack dirt and clay,
the weight of the earth around the post,
its strength into the line.
Now the hammers, pliers and cutters are gone.
No rolls of wire hang from the beams.
No boxes of staples and spikes jam the shelves.
The tamping stick is broken.
Someone has wrapped duct tape around the spade handle;
the steel has rusted brown and rough;
a crack climbs from the tip to the mud-caked neck.
He would say it is useless,
that things are not like they were,
and I could repeat his words
but I have left the machine shed;
my hands have lost their calloused ridges;
my sweat, strain and ache are buried…
~Curtis Bauer from “A Fence Line Running Through It”
The old farmers in our county are dying off,
the ones who remember
when horse and human muscle provided the power
instead of diesel engines.
They have climbed down off their tractors
and into their beds
for a good night’s sleep
and stay good asleep.
Their machine sheds are cleared
in an auction,
their animals trucked away
for butcher,
their fence lines leaning
yet the corner posts,
set solid and sure in the hard ground,
keep standing
when the old farmer no longer does.
These old farmers knew hard work.
knew there were no days off
no shirking duty,
knew if anyone was going to do
what needed doing
it was them,
no one else.
Things are not like they were
though the strong posts remain,
ready to hold up another fence line,
showing a new generation
of farmers
what hard work yields.
mistyfence