Hollowed

The barn roof sags like an ancient mare’s back.
The field, overgrown, parts of it a marsh
where the pond spills over. No hay or sacks
of grain are stacked for the cold. In the harsh
winters of my youth, Mama, with an axe,
trudged tirelessly each day through deep snow,
balanced on the steep bank, swung down to crack
the ice so horses could drink. With each blow
I feared she would fall, but she never slipped.
Now Mama’s bent and withered, vacant gray
eyes fixed on something I can’t see. I dip
my head when she calls me Mom. What’s to say?
The time we have’s still too short to master
love, and then, the hollow that comes after.
~Kitty Carpenter “Farm Sonnet”

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.
Hollowed.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

photo by Andrea Nipges

New book available to order from Barnstorming!

Reading Over My Shoulder

Ten more miles, it is South Dakota.
Somehow, the roads there turn blue,
When no one walks down them.
One more night of walking, and I could have become
A horse, a blue horse, dancing
Down a road, alone.

I have got this far. It is almost noon. But never mind time:
That is all over.
It is still Minnesota.
Among a few dead cornstalks, the starving shadow
Of a crow leaps to his death.
At least, it is green here,
Although between my body and the elder trees
A savage hornet strains at the wire screen.
He can’t get in yet.

It is so still now, I hear the horse
Clear his nostrils.
He has crept out of the green places behind me.
Patient and affectionate, he reads over my shoulder
These words I have written.
He has lived a long time, and he loves to pretend
No one can see him.
Last night I paused at the edge of darkness,
And slept with green dew, alone.
I have come a long way, to surrender my shadow
To the shadow of a horse.

~James Wright “Sitting in a small screenhouse on a summer morning”

I have a sense of someone reading over my shoulder as I write. It keeps me honest to feel that breath on my hair, that green smell reminding me who I am.

I should not try to be anyone else.

When my words don’t say exactly what I hope, I feel forgiveness from the shadow beside me.

It’s all softness. It’s all okay even when it’s not.

Licked to Its Feet

When we reach the field
she is still eating
the heads of yellow flowers
and pollen has turned her whiskers
gold. Lady,
her stomach bulges out,
the ribs have grown wide.
We wait,
our bare feet dangling
in the horse trough,
warm water
where goldfish brush
our smooth ankles.
We wait
while the liquid breaks
down Lady’s dark legs
and that slick wet colt
like a black tadpole
darts out
beginning at once
to sprout legs.
She licks it to its feet,
the membrane still there,
red, transparent
the sun coming up shines through,
the sky turns bright with morning
and the land
with pollen blowing off the corn,
land that will always own us,
everywhere it is red.

~Linda Hogan, “Celebration: Birth of a Colt” from Red Clay.

First,
her fluid
flows in subtle stream
then
gushes in sudden drench.
Soaking, saturating,
precipitating
inevitability.
No longer cushioned
slick sliding forward
following the rich river
downstream to freedom.

The smell of birth
clings to shoes, clothes, hands
as soaked in soupy brine
I reach to embrace new life
sliding toward me.

I too was caught once;
three times emptied into other hands,
my babies wet on my chest
their slippery skin
under my lips
so salty sweet

In a moment’s scent
the rush of life returns;
now only barn or field birthings
yet still as sweet and rich.
I carry the smell of damp foal fur
with me all day to
recall from whence I came.
I floated once
and will float free someday again.

Heart of the World

The mares go down for their evening feed
                                                                            into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind 
                                                                       some sway, some don’t sway.
The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight
For just a minute or so.
The mares have their heads on the ground,
                                           the trees have their heads on the blue sky.
Two ravens circle and twist.
                On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer.
~Charles Wright “Miles Away”

It isn’t yet time to turn the Haflingers out on pasture.  The fields still squish from our heavy winter rains when I check the grass growth and test how firm the ground feels.

But spring is in the air, with pollens flying from the trees and the faint scent of plum and cherry blossoms wafting across the barn yard.  The Haflingers know there are green blades rising out there.

There is a waning pile of hay bales in the barn being carefully measured against the calendar.  We need to make it last until the fields are sufficiently recovered, dried out and growing well before the horses can be set free from their confinement back on the green.

Haflingers don’t care much about the calendar.  They know what they smell and they know what they see and they know what they want.

One early spring some years ago,  as I opened the gate to a paddock of Haflinger mares to take them one by one back to the barn, their usual good manners abandoned them.  Two escaped before I could shut the gate, the siren call of the green carrying them away like the wind, their tails high and their manes flying.  There is nothing quite as helpless as watching escaped horses running away as fast as their legs can carry them.

They found the nearest patch of green and stopped abruptly, trying to eat whatever the meager ground would offer up.    I approached,  quietly talking to them, trying to reassure them that, indeed,  spring is at hand and soon they will be able to eat their fill of grass.   Understandably suspicious of my motives, they leaped back into escape mode, running this time for the pasture across the road.

We live on a road that is traveled by too many fast moving cars and trucks and our farm on a hill is hampered by visibility issues –my greatest fear is one of our horses on the road would cause an accident simply because there would be no time for a driver to react after cresting a hill at 50 mph and finding a horse a mere twenty yards away.

I yelled and magically the mares turned, veering back from the road.  As I marveled at my ability to verbally redirect them from dashing into potential disaster,  they were heading back to the barn on their own, where their next most attractive feature on the farm dwelled:  our stallion.  He was calling them, knowing things were amiss, and they responded, turning away from the green to respond to the call of the heart.

So that was where I was able to nab them in their distracted posing for the guy in their lives.  Guys can do that to a gal.  You can end up completely abandoning thoughts of running away with the wind when the right guy calls your name.

Lured from the green grassy borders of heaven, we respond to the call of the heart from the world.

Bones in the Ground

All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning, led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
~Donald Hall, “Names of Horses”

Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

As a child,  I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in 1965 in an open clearing of our woods where our little chestnut mare, Dolly, rested in the ground.

She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. I had returned to the house, unable to watch, but could not help but hear the gunshot as if it had gone through me as well.

At first her grave was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see.

When my tears dried up, it was a place to sing loudly where no one but chipmunks and my dog could hear.

Later it became the sanctuary where I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.

Her bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.

No one but me still remembers you.

Like a Century Ago

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

When I pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as my grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

I do my chores faithfully
as my grandparents 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.

I don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry me to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as my grandparents did.

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

I depend on them
to depend on me
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.

Pleading To Be Let Out

Though the barn is so warm
that the oats in his manger,
the straw in his bed
seem to give off smoke—

though the wind is so cold,
the snow in the pasture
so deep he’d fall down
and freeze in an hour—

the eleven-month-old
palomino stallion
has gone almost crazy
fighting and pleading
to be let out.
~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.

It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.

In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.

I’ll try not to bite if you promise not to kick.

Christmas Eve at BriarCroft

For years, before the birth of this Barnstorming blog, I would sit down Christmas Eve to write a (sort of) rhyming farm poem — here are several from 15-18 years ago

Growing up as a child on our farm,
I remember the magic of Christmas eve night,
Bundling up in layers to stay warm,
To the barn to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
And spoke in words we could all understand.
They worshiped a Child born in a tiny town,
In a barn such as theirs held in God’s hand.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
The blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
In a barn, while shepherds and kings came by.

Yet my childhood trips to the barn were always too late,
Our cows would be chewing, our chickens fast asleep,
Our horse breathing softly, our cat climbing the gate,
In the barn there was never a peep.

But I knew they had done it, just too quick to see!
They were plainly so happy and at peace.
In the sweet smelling hay, and no longer hungry,
In our barn, though so humble, a miracle had taken place.

I still bundle to go out each Christmas eve,
In the hope I’ll catch them this time.
Though I’m older now I still must believe
In the barn, birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Yet our horses nicker as I come near,
They tell me the time is now!
They drop to their knees without any fear
In our barn, all living things bow.

Imagine the wonder of God’s immense trust
For the loving creatures who were there that night.
Now I know why this special Child must
Be born in a barn, it was only right.
(written Christmas Eve 1999)

Sometimes it seems time flies too fast
Amid our daily work and play
We want to make each moment last
and value in every day.

A place we’ve found that time slows
Is the Haflinger barn on our farm.
As we listen to the chewing among the stall rows
We know each horse is safe and loved and warm.

Years ago, such peace was found
In a Baby lying in a manger.
Sung a lullaby of animals’ sounds
Sleeping protected from earthly danger.

We can know that peace apart
From the rest of our worldly care
The Baby’s found within our heart
A knowledge we gladly share.

(written 2000 Christmas Eve)

noblesseeye1

I walk to the barn tonight as I do each year,
Counting my blessings, knowing my flaws,
Praying for family and friends so dear,
And for each precious creature with hooves or paws.

Each horse is content and a witness to peace,
And I wish every person could know,
Sadness and worry for a moment can cease,
While patting noses down a stall row.

For once I see the sky is clear
And stars are shining bright
The northeast wind is coming near
And briskly chills this special night.

For weeks stars hid behind a cloud
Of doubt, of fear, of weeping rain,
Explosions at once so horrid and loud
The whole world instantly felt the pain.

Like stars that glow through blackest dark
Good overwhelms bad with barely left trace
All owed to a Child who left His mark
By giving Himself in infinite grace.

(written Christmas Eve 2001)

On a night long ago
The two traveled far
After days on the road
Sought rest beneath a brightening star.

Yet no room was found
As they asked all they could
Instead they were bound
for a cave in the wood.

In a barn dry and warm
Farm animals welcomed them
Safely sheltered from harm
And the closed doors of Bethlehem.

Where else can the birth be
But deep in a cave?
Where the heart is set free
Our lives and souls saved.

My barn, like my heart
Should always have “room”
For the Word had its start
In a manger assumed.

As your Haflingers welcome you
To their barn home today
A heart is shown what it must do–
Always give Love and Peace a place to stay.

(written Christmas Eve 2002)

Beyond Communion

I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion,
beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly
take corncobs, pulling away as I hold
until the mid-points snap.
They are careful of my fingers,
offering that animal-knowledge,
the respect which is due to strangers;
and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
~Jane Hirshfield “After Work”from Of Gravity and Angels.

I’ve been picking up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this communion meal, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and it is how we receive it that makes all the difference.

Some Missing One

All winter
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one—
not knowing even
that was what he did—
in the blowing
sounds in the dark,
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
He slept
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
put away.
~Jane Hirshfield “Hope and Love” from The Lives of the Heart

I know what it is like to feel out of step with those around me, an alien in my own land. At times I wonder if I belong at all as I watch the choices others make. I grew up this way, missing a connection that I could not find, never quite fitting in, a solitary kid becoming a solitary adult. The aloneness bothered me, but not in a “I’ve-got-to-become-like-them” kind of way.

I went my own way, never losing hope.

Somehow misfits find each other. Through the grace and acceptance of others, I found a soul mate and community. Even so, there are times when the old feeling of not-quite-belonging creeps in and I wonder whether I’ll be a misfit all the way to the cemetery, placed in the wrong plot in the wrong graveyard.

We disparate creatures are made for connection of some kind, with those who look and think and act like us, or with those who are something completely different. I’ll keep on the lookout for my fellow misfits, just in case there is another one out there looking for company along this journey.