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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A Thought as Small as Vetch

Before the ordinary realities, ordinary failures:
hunger, coldness, anger, longing, heat.
Yet one day, a thought as small as a vetch flower opens.
~Jane Hirschfield from “Flowering Vetch”

Who would have thought it possible that a tiny little flower could preoccupy a person so completely that there simply wasn’t room for any other thought?
~ Sophie Scholl 

Little flower,
but if I could understand what you are,
root and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
~  Alfred Lord Tennyson
from “Flower in the Crannied Wall”

If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?
—G.K. Chesterton

Am I root, or am I bud?
Am I stem or am I leaf?
All in all, I am but
the merest image and tiniest thought
of God’s fruiting glory destined for the heavens.

I am His tears shed when seed is strewn
as He is broken apart and scattered,
spreading the Word to yearning hearts everywhere.

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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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October Colors Shout and Sing

After the keen still days of September, 
the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth…
The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. 
The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. 
The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, 
emerald and topaz and garnet. 
Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her…
In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible.
~Elizabeth George Speare from The Witch of Blackbird Pond

On this early morning
gray clouds lie heavy and unrelenting
hovering low over the eastern hills,
when a moment’s light snuck out from under the covers
throwing back the blankets
to glow golden over the mountain.

Only a minute of unexpected light underneath the gray
gone in a heartbeat
(as are we) yet
O!  the Glory when we too are luminous.

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We May Or Might Never, Meet Here Again

My great grandfather had some fields in North Carolina
and he willed those fields to his sons and his sons
willed them to their sons so there is a two-hundred-year-old
farm house on that land where several generations
of my family fried chicken and laughed and hung

their laundry beneath the trees. There are things you
know when your family has lived close to the earth:
things that make magic seem likely. Dig a hole on the new
of the moon and you will have dirt to throw away
but dig one on the old of the moon and you won’t have

enough to fill it back up again: I learned this trick
in the backyard of childhood with my hands. If you know
the way the moon pulls at everything then you can feel
it on the streets of a city where you cannot see the sky.

I may walk the streets
of this century and make my living in an office
but my blood is old farming blood and my true
self is underground like a potato.

I have taken root in my grandfather’s
fields: I am hanging my laundry beneath his trees.
~Faith Shearin from “Fields”

It just isn’t possible to completely take me off the farm – I have generations of farmers extending back on both sides of my family, so I have dug myself a hole here, resting easy in the soil like a potato and ventured out only as I needed to in order to actually make a living.

A gathering of all my vaccinated clinic colleagues came to our farm yesterday to help me celebrate my retiring from office life. They brought beautiful flowers, plentiful food, kind and restoring words, thirty year old photos and lovely parting gifts, as well as my singing doctor buddy sharing a sea shanty about bittersweet parting. It is helping ease my sorrow at leaving regular doctoring behind, knowing there are more days to come, more time to grow things in the ground, more blissing out over sunrises and sunsets and more hanging laundry on the clothesline.

My dear friends know where they can find me – on the hill above our farm – we may or might never, meet here again but it was such a fine time together yesterday, thank you!

Kind Friend and Companions, Come join me in rhyme,
Come lift up your voices, In chorus with mine,
Come lift up your voices, all grief to refrain,
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the dear lass, that I love so well,
For her style and her beauty, sure none can excel,
There’s a smile on her countenance, as she sits on my knee,
There’s no man in this wide world, as happy as me,
Here’s a health to the company, and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again,
Our ship lies at anchor, she’s ready to dock,
I wish her safe landing, without any shock,
If ever I should meet you, by land or by sea,
I will always remember, your kindness to me,
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass,
Let us drink and be merry, all out of one glass,
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never, all meet here again

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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

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All Barb and Bristle

This upstart thistle
Is young and touchy; it is
All barb and bristle,

Threatening to wield
Its green, jagged armament
Against the whole field.

Butterflies will dare
Nonetheless to lay their eggs
In that angle where

The leaf meets the stem,
So that ants or browsing cows
Cannot trouble them.

Summer will grow old
As will the thistle, letting
A clenched bloom unfold

To which the small hum
Of bee wings and the flash of
Goldfinch wings will come,

Till its purple crown
Blanches, and the breezes strew
The whole field with down.
~Richard Wilbur “A Pasture Poem” from Anterooms

Not unlike the thistles that dot our pastures, I can have a tendency to be a bristly, barbed and sharp – some is simply my nature, but also long years of relentless training to become tough and impenetrable. Perhaps it represents my need for self-protection, but like the thistle, though having spiky thorns may keep me from being “eaten”, it doesn’t deter the gentle approach of butterfly or bee.

As a result, I have been softened over time (in more ways than one!) by forces outside of myself – a ripening that means I am less threat and more welcoming. My unfolding into fluffy blossom became my way of enveloping myself around my world as grace enveloped me.

With the breezes, the softest of thistle down spreads afar rather than standing stock-still in self-defense. I find in my seventh decade, I’m actually meant to fly, settling into nooks and crannies I never could have dreamed while barbed and spiky.

That is how grace and redemption works on thistles and bristly people: from sharp edges to delicate downiness.

We are all in need of such transformation.

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A Miracle of Mucus

In the waning evening light, I stood in the barnyard
holding the hose to fill the water trough,
gazing across a sunset-lit field of grass and weeds,
puzzling over an intermittent flash and glimmer thirty yards away.

Trough filled, I set out to find what glinted and blinked in the breeze,
assuming an errant piece of foil or lost piece of jewelry to be reclaimed,
somehow fallen mysteriously from the sky into the middle of a horse pasture.

As I moved closer, my body blocked the sun’s rays
so the glistening ceased. I moved aside,
hoping to allow the fading light
to re-ignite the spark that drew me there.

Doused by the advancing shadow of sunset,
it vanished as I neared the spot.
Looking closely, I found only a broad blade of grass
shimmering with a silvery trail left behind by a slug tail.

Mere mucus slime scintillating in the setting sun!
A complex mix of proteoglycans, glycosaminoglycans,
glycoprotein enzymes, hyaluronic acid, antimicrobial peptides,
and metal ions of zinc, iron, copper and manganese.

Precious trace metals flashing in the grass, masquerading as jewels.

What a fool to think only something man-made could lure me there.
Instead, this miracle of mucus trailing from a lowly slug proved
a far greater treasure is always hiding in the grass,
if I only bother to look.

Hermaphroditic slugs mating on the side of our field’s water barrel/trough,
hanging form a strand of mucus from the rim.

Girls are like slugs—they probably serve some purpose, but it’s hard to imagine what.
― Bill Watterson, in Calvin and Hobbes

From David Attenborough’s Life on our Planet
(a truly remarkable video of how slug mucus becomes integral in their reproductive cycle)

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Appareled in Celestial Light

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory of a dream.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
~William Wordsworth from Intimations of Immortality

I woke immersed in sadness;
it doesn’t happen often.
Whether a dream surrounded me in sorrow,
or perhaps the weight of grayness of the morning,
I couldn’t tell.

I felt burdened and weepy,
wondering where hope had fled just overnight.

Even though I know true glory lies beyond this soil,
I still look for it here,
seeking encouragement in midst of trouble.
I set out to find light which clothes the ordinary,
becoming resplendent and shimmering
from celestial illumination.

Though I may sometimes grieve for what is lost,
there is enough,
there is always enough each morning
to remind me God’s gift of grace and strength
transforms this day and every day.

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