Freedom: Being Easy in the Harness

photo by Joel DeWaard
Photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
What is my definition of freedom?
It’s being easy in your harness.

~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Little soul,
you and I will become
the memory
of a memory of a memory.
A horse
released of the traces
forgets the weight of the wagon.
~Jane Hirshfield “Harness”

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

The past was faded like a dream; 
There come the jingling of a team, 
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain, 
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain. 
Up the slow slope a team came bowing

O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…


That Christ was standing there with me, 
That Christ had taught me what to be, 
That I should plough, and as I ploughed 
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud, 
And as I drove the clods apart 
Christ would be ploughing in my heart, 
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots, 
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

We historically have shouldered much burden
in our pursuit of happiness and freedom;
it’s worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
every tear.

We forget the weight of the plow
as it turns over the earth
where someday we will rest as dust.

The soil of our hearts is well-tilled,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow straight and narrow.

Although we are tread upon
yet do we bloom;
though we are turned upside down
yet we produce bread.

Plowing brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms making our simple dust fertile.

Plow deep our hearts this day
of celebrating freedom in You, Dear Lord.
Let us remember to worship You, and not ourselves.

May we plow, sow, grow,
gather and harvest what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
everywhere.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Thank you once again to Joel DeWaard, local farmer, craftsman and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?
Workin’ all day in the heat of the sun
The game’s been caught; the bread’s been won
Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?

What I’m gonna do when the plowin’s done
Is take some time just to have some fun
Say the barn-dance just begun
That’s where I’m goin’ when the plowin’s done

Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Twilight settles and the shade grows long
The whippoorwill sings his favorite song
Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone?

What I’m gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Is take you to the dance if you’ll come along
The down-home past time can’t go wrong
That’s what I’m doing when the daylight’s gone

Whatcha gonna do when the moonlight’s gone
And dewdrops settle on the farmer’s lawn
I’m gonna stay right here and dance till dawn
That’s what I’m doing when the moonlight’s gone

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Be Winged

O! for a horse with wings! 
~William Shakespeare from Cymbeline

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

Be winged. Be the father of all flying horses.
~C.S. Lewis from The Magician’s Nephew

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses. 
~Dale Carnegie

photo by Bette Vander Haak
photo by Bette Vander Haak

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk:
he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
~William Shakespeare from Henry V

We all need someone along for the ride with us, blessing us with their company — a precious friend who has our back and scratches it wonderfully – helping to keep the biting flies away by gobbling them up.

It is symbiosis at its best: a relationship built on mutual trust and helpfulness. In exchange for relief from annoying insects that a tail can’t flick off, a Haflinger horse serves up bugs on a smorgasbord landing platform located safely above farm cats and marauding coyotes.

Thanks to their perpetual full meal deals, these cowbirds do leave generous “deposits” behind that need to be brushed off at the end of the day. Like any good friendship, cleaning up the little messes left behind is a small price to pay for the bliss of companionable comradeship.

We’re buds after all – best forever friends, trotting the air while the earth sings along.

And this is exactly what friends are for: one provides the feast while the other provides the wings, even when things get messy.

Be winged. Be fed. Together.

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Roaming Soft About the Slope

The mare roamed soft about the slope,
Her rump was like a dancing girl’s.
Gentle beneath the apple trees
She pulled the grass and shook the flies,
Her forelocks hung in tawny curls,
She had a woman’s limpid eyes,
A woman’s patient stare that grieves.
And when she moved among the trees,
The dappled trees, her look was shy,
She hid her nakedness in leaves.
A delicate though weighted dance
She stepped while flocks of finches flew
From tree to tree and shot the leaves
With songs of golden twittering;
How admirable her tender stance.
And then the apple trees were new,
And she was new, and we were new,
And in the barns the stallions stamped
And shook the hills with trumpeting.
~Ruth Stone, “The Orchard” from What Love Comes To

Our retired mares are aging, the oldest now thirty and the others only a few years younger. Born on this land, they have served us well over the decades, birthing us their foals and working when asked. They deserve this easy life on pasture for as long as their legs and feet will carry them up and down the slopes of our hilly farm – they are more and more resembling our ancient crooked crippled orchard trees, some of which have already toppled in the winter winds..

I’m thinking we are close to the end of these loyal mares’ long lives; hard decisions must be made at some point and I don’t feel quite prepared to determine when they are no longer enjoying their time under the sun but I don’t want them to topple over like an old hollow tree in the wind. I listen for their nickers as I come into the barn each morning and still see their eagerness to be set free to the fields. I look in their eyes when they come in at night to discern what they have to say about how their day went out on the grass.

Perhaps I too identify a bit much with the stiffness as they move and their need for frequent napping times in the field, swishing at flies while they dream of younger days of flirting with stallions, nursing babies, having suppler joints and a wild gallop at twilight.

I’ve been singing a sad lullaby to myself and them as I work about the barn with slow deliberation, knowing there is somber sorrow when life eventually must come to its inevitable end.

Ah, all the pretty little horses…

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A Wet and Trembling Solstice

The light stretched and tangy, up on its horse
and riding through the ripening meadows,
buzzing the leaves and the
birds who’ve been at it for hours.
Light that in its excess has become something else.
The way you look from a hill’s highest point,
your head full of chlorophyll,
heart shucking winter like a clayload of guilt,
like pollen with its open fire policy
compensating loss. You exceed yourself,
tanked on the light and the birds
who’ve been singing forever.
~Donna Kane from Summer Solstice

Green was the silence, wet was the light
the month of June trembled like a butterfly
~Pablo Neruda from “Sonnet XL”

Why do we bother with the rest of the day,
the swale of the afternoon,
the sudden dip into evening,
then night with his notorious perfumes,
his many-pointed stars?

This is the best—
throwing off the light covers,
feet on the cold floor,
and buzzing around the house on espresso—
maybe a splash of water on the face,
a palmful of vitamins—

but mostly buzzing around the house on espresso,
dictionary and atlas open on the rug,
the typewriter waiting for the key of the head,
a cello on the radio,
and, if necessary, the windows—
trees fifty, a hundred years old
out there,
heavy clouds on the way
and the lawn steaming like a horse
in the early morning.
~Billy Collins “Morning”

Early this morning, the northern hemisphere transitioned to summer, but aside from the date on the calendar, here it would be difficult to prove otherwise.  It has been unseasonably cool and wet, the skies stony gray, the rivers running full and fast, the ground peppered with puddles. Rain has chosen to fall at night, hiding behind the cover of darkness as if ashamed of itself.   As it should be.

What all this moisture will yield is acres and acres of towering grass growth, more grass than imaginable, more grass than we can keep mowed,  burying the horses up to their backs as they dive head long into the pasture.  The Haflingers don’t need to lower their necks to graze,  choosing instead to simply strip off the ripe tops of the grasses as they forge paths through five foot forage.   It is like children at a birthday party swiping the frosting off cupcake after cupcake, licking their fingers as they go.  Instead of icing, the horses’ muzzles are smeared with dandelion fluff,  grass seed and buttercup petals.

Here in the northwest, June can tend to shroud its promise of longer days under clouds.  Outdoor weddings brace for rain and wind with a supply of umbrellas, graduation potlucks are served on covered porches and Fourth of July picnics stay inside, sheltered and dry. 

Despite the cool and wet, people here still have that universal wary anticipation of solstice as it signals the slow inexorable return of darkness from which we have not yet fully recovered.

I got up early this morning to witness the beginning of summer just to see what might happen. You never know what might be just over the horizon as we round this corner to face the darkening.

Trembling, I splash through this squishy morning, quivering like a wet butterfly emerging from its cocoon ready to unfurl its wings to dry, but unsure how to fly and uncertain of the new world that awaits.  In fact the dark empty cocoon can look mighty inviting on a rainy June night or during a loud mid-day thunderstorm.   If I could manage to squeeze myself back in, it might be worth a try.

After all, there is no place like home, sweet (but damp) home.

Daylight comes and nighttime goes, nighttime falls, day flies
Round and round the cycle goes,
we live and then we die and then we live and then we die.
The seasons of my life go round, the sunshine and the rain
The fallow and the fruitful days,
the joy and then the pain and then the joy and then the pain.
As light below, so light above, so light in all we see

The light is in the act of love, the light that sets us free,
yes, it’s the light that sets free.
Daylight comes…
~Libby Roderick

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Trusting All This to be True

Trust that there is a tiger, muscular
Tasmanian, and sly, which has never been
seen and never will be seen by any human
eye. Trust that thirty thousand sword-
fish will never near a ship, that far
from cameras or cars elephant herds live
long elephant lives. Believe that bees
by the billions find unidentified flowers
on unmapped marshes and mountains. Safe
in caves of contentment, bears sleep.
Through vast canyons, horses run while slowly
snakes stretch beyond their skins in the sun.
I must trust all this to be true, though
the few birds at my feeder watch the window
with small flutters of fear, so like my own.
~Susan Kinsolving “Trust”

When I stand at the window watching the flickers, sparrows, finches, chickadees, and red-winged blackbirds come and go from the feeders, I wonder who is watching who.  They remain wary of me, fluttering away quickly if I approach.  They fear capture, even within a camera.  They have a life to be lived without my witness or participation.  So much happens that I never see or know about; it would be overwhelming to absorb it all.

I understand:  I fear being captured too.

Even if only for a moment as an image preserved forever, I know it doesn’t represent all I am, all I’ve done, all I feel, all my moments put together.  The birds are, and I am, so much more than one moment.

Only God sees me fully in every moment that I exist, witness to my freedom and captivity, my loneliness and grief, my joy and tears, knowing my very best and my very worst.

And He is not overwhelmed by what He sees of me. He knows me so well, in Him I must trust.

photo by Larry Goldman (Gombe National Park, Tanzania)

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The Dignity of Being

Two horses were put together in the same paddock.
Night and day. In the night and in the day
wet from heat and the chill of the wind
on it. Muzzle to water, snorting, head swinging
and the taste of bay in the shadowed air.
The dignity of being. They slept that way,
knowing each other always.

Withers quivering for a moment,
fetlock and the proud rise at the base of the tail,
width of back. The volume of them, and each other’s weight.
Fences were nothing compared to that.
People were nothing. They slept standing,
their throats curved against the other’s rump.
They breathed against each other,
whinnied and stomped.
There are things they did that I do not know.
The privacy of them had a river in it.
Had our universe in it. And the way
its border looks back at us with its light.
This was finally their freedom.
The freedom an oak tree knows.
That is built at night by stars.
~Linda Gregg, “The Weight” from All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems

When the pasture gate opens
after a long winter, they are let out on grass
to a world vast and green and lush
beyond their wildest imaginings.

They run leaping and bounding,
hair flying in the wind, heels kicked up
in a new freedom to re-form together
their binding trust of companionship.

They share feasting and grooming with one another,
as grace grows like grass
stretching to eternity yet bounded
safely within fence rows.

When cold rains come, as miserable times will,
and this spring day feels far removed,
when covered in the mud or frost or drought of life,
they still have warm memories of one another.

Even though fences lean and break, as they will,
the ponies are reminded where home is,
whistled back to the barn if they lose your way,
pointing them back to the gate to night’s rest and quiet.

Once there they long again for the gift of pasture freedom:
how blessed is this opened gate, these fences,
and most of all their dignity of being together
as they feast with joy on the richness of spring.

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Time to Stand and Stare

What is this life is, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

~William Henry Davies “Leisure”

Fingers of twilight shadow
begin to reach over the hill
crawling down through the field
up unto the bank of blackberries
covering fences along the alder grove.

Our horses chew their last
clover leafs before
coming to the barn for night, eyelids heavy,
relaxed and full, drowsy with spring evening
peace at hand and hoof.

A sudden change in the air forces
their heads up and ears forward;
they form a line, standing and staring at the hilltop
above them, riveted to the spot, alert
to an coming intruder, unfamiliar and foreign.

The roar is intermittent, like a warm wind
rattling a barn roof, but inconstant;
then peaking over the crest of the hill
a rounded top of technicolor glory:
The hot air balloon rises.

The horses riveted, baffled, fascinated;
no wild instinct prepares their response
to this wizard’s act from Oz in their own backyard.
The basket riders wave and laugh at the equine audience below
standing in formation with golden noses in the air
and white manes blowing in the breeze.

The balloon summits the hill, dipping low, almost touchable
before moving back up to race the sunset,
and search out other pastures, other valleys and hills.
The horses released from the spell of “stand and stare”
leap in response, snowy tails high, noses flared-

To race up the hill to catch impending darkness,
our night mares cavort, float suspended
until their air is let out, gently, in softening snorts,
to settle down in a shavings bed in the barn
where night, blissful, becomes ordinary again.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: The Storm Will All Be Over

Soon we shall reach the distant shining shore,
Free from all the storms, we’ll rest forevermore.
Safe within the veil, we’ll furl the riven sail,
And the storm will all be over, Hallelujah!

We’ve had two days of intermittent chilly winds with rain and noisy hale storms. I wish I had not left the barn doors wide open after morning chores, as the storm also blew through the barn. Hay, empty buckets, horse halters and cat food were strewn about. The Haflinger horses stood wide-eyed and fretful in their stalls as the hail on the metal roof was deafening.

Once I got the doors closed and secured, all was soon made right. The horses relaxed and got back to their meals and things felt normal again.

The barn is still standing with the roof still on, the horses are where they belong and all seems to be as it was before the barnstorming wind.

Or so it might appear.

This wind heralds another storm beginning this week that hits with such force that I’m knocked off my feet, blown away, and left bruised and breathless. No latches, locks, or barricades are strong enough to protect me from what will come over the next few days.

Today he rides in on a donkey softly, humbly, and wept at what he knew must come.

Tomorrow he curses the fig tree that is all show with plenty of leaves, and no fruit. Then at the temple, he overturns the money-changers’ tables in His fury at their corruption of a holy place.

Tuesday he describes the destruction of Jerusalem that is to happen, yet no one understands.

Wednesday, a woman boldly anoints him with precious oil, as preparation.

On Thursday, he kneels before his friends, pours water over their dusty feet, presides over a simple meal, and later, abandoned, sweats blood in agonized prayer.

By Friday, all culminates in a most perfect storm, transforming everything in its path, leaving nothing untouched, the curtain torn, the veil removed.

The silence on Saturday is deafening.

Next Sunday, the Son rises, sheds his shroud and neatly folds what is no longer needed. He is nearly unrecognizable in his glory.

He calls my name, my heart burns within me at his words and I can never be the same again.

I am, once again, barnstormed to the depths of my soul. Doors flung open wide, my roof pulled off, everything of no consequence blown away and now replaced, renewed and reconciled.

The storm is passing over, again and yet again, year after year, life after life.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Courage, my soul, and let us journey on,
Tho’ the night is dark, it won’t be very long.
Thanks be to God, the morning light appears,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

Chorus: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! The storm is passing over, Hallelujah!

2. Billows rolling high, and thunder shakes the ground,
Lightnings flash, and tempest all around,
Jesus walks the sea and calms the angry waves,
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah! [Chorus]

3. The stars have disappeared, and distant lights are dim,
My soul is filled with fears, the seas are breaking in.
I hear the Master cry, “Be not afraid, ’tis I,”
And the storm is passing over, Hallelujah!
[Chorus]

4. Soon we shall reach the distant shining shore,
Free from all the storms, we’ll rest forevermore.
Safe within the veil, we’ll furl the riven sail,
And the storm will all be over, Hallelujah! [Chorus]

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Pull Open the Barn Doors

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

The barn is old, and very old,
But not a place of spectral fear.
Cobwebs and dust and speckling sun
Come to old buildings every one.
Long since they made their dwelling here,
And here you may behold


Nothing but simple wane and change;
Your tread will wake no ghost, your voice
Will fall on silence undeterred.
No phantom wailing will be heard,
Only the farm’s blithe cheerful noise;
The barn is old, not strange.

~Edward Blunden from “The Barn”

When we pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as our grandfathers did
over a hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

We do our chores faithfully
as our grandfathers once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandfathers did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
some born on this farm
three long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for our constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

And we depend on them
to depend on us
to be there
to open the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
as if today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

Click on this link for a typical barn moment: https://www.facebook.com/707166118/videos/10156035185231119/

Lyrics:

This is a barn and I know it’s haunted
The corn rattles and the shadows move
It’s just the way, it’s just the way I’m feeling
I want to lie down in a field of rain

This is a river and I pray for the bottom
Some kind of measure of the way things change
I’ve been stuck in the middle of a slow storm, counting the days, love

I know we’re in the dark, and the cold comes
Through the very cracks that let the light through
Bring me something back from that sunny coast, and keep us, moving on

These are the shadowlands, I’ve known them
And I think it’s going to be the long way down
But I’ll be the tiny flame, that you carry around, around, around

I know we’re in the dark, and the cold comes
Through the very cracks that let the light through
Bring me something back from that sunny coast, and keep us, moving on

This is a blessing and I don’t date doubt it
We built a boat out of willow trees
We caught the moonlight, like a mirror
Shine right through to the best of me
Shine right through to the best of me
We’ve been living in abandoned houses
Sometimes we’re tending to abandoned fields
It’s just the way it’s just the way I’m feeling
I want to wake up with the sun in my head
~Chris Pureka

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A World Without a Sky

Heaven-invading hills are drowned
In wide moving waves of mist,
Phlox before my door are wound
In dripping wreaths of amethyst.

Ten feet away the solid earth
Changes into melting cloud,
There is a hush of pain and mirth,
No bird has heart to speak aloud.

Here in a world without a sky,
Without the ground, without the sea,
The one unchanging thing is I,
Myself remains to comfort me.
~Sara Teasdale “White Fog”

We’ve had all-day fog up and down Puget Sound over the past few days, atypical for a Pacific Northwest winter. This is fog that literally drips from the trees and soaks like rain, swallowing up visible landscape, hushing bird song, erasing all color by homogenizing everything.

When not barn-bound in the winter, a foggy day means our horses are literally sucked up into the morning mist as I send them out one by one to the field from the barn. Stopping at the barn door, they sniff the wet air, hesitant to be turned out into the grey sea surrounding them. What could there be to eat out in this murk? Each one, when turned loose, would wander into the soup, disappearing, as if never to be seen again. One by one they wander out to look for their buddies, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, smelling nothing. They are lost and alone and bewildered until somehow they meet up out in the pasture, forming a pod of Haflingers.

I muse at their initial confusion and then their utter conviction there must be “something out there” worth finding. They are dependent on the usual cues–visual, auditory, olfactory–all limited in the fog. Instead they rely on some inner sonar to find each other and bunch together in a protective knot, drops of fog dew clinging to their manes, their eyelashes and their muzzle whiskers. As day wears on, the fog usually dissipates, their coats drying under a warming sun, and the colors of the fields and trees and chestnut horses emerge from the cocoon of haze.

This winter, I have felt lost in fog too. I’m disconnected from a regular work schedule since retiring as a physician, so am helping as a volunteer in a variety of service opportunities. I am still feeling afloat and circling somewhat aimlessly, searching for a touch point of purpose and direction. Every so often I bump into a fellow fog wanderer and we’ll knot together for a bit, relieved to be connected to something solid and familiar.

My isolation is likely a combination of pandemic limitations and my own self-absorbed state of mind, sucking me in deep, separating me from others, distancing me from joy. At times, I feel soaked, dripping and shivering. If I only had the faith shown by my horses in the mist, I’d charge into the fog fearlessly, knowing there are others out there ready to band together for company, comfort and support, awaiting the sun. When warming and rejuvenation do come, I hope it will be enough to dry my whiskers, put color back in my cheeks and refresh my hopes and dreams.

Most importantly, I am reminded yet again — no fog is forever.

An absolute
patience.
Trees stand
up to their knees in
fog. The fog
slowly flows
uphill.
White
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
have looked for apples.
The woods
from brook to where
the top of the hill looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.

~Denise Levertov “The Breathing”

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