My father climbs into the silo. He has come, rung by rung, up the wooden trail that scales that tall belly of cement.
It’s winter, twenty below zero, He can hear the wind overhead. The silage beneath his boots is so frozen it has no smell.
My father takes up a pick-ax and chops away a layer of silage. He works neatly, counter-clockwise under a yellow light,
then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork and throws them down the chute. They break as they fall and rattle far below.
His breath comes out in clouds, his fingers begin to ache, but he skims off another layer where the frost is forming
and begins to sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” ~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words
Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.
I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.
My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.
We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.
And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.
You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you. Please don’t take our sunshine away.
Just past dawn, the sun stands with its heavy red head in a black stanchion of trees, waiting for someone to come with his bucket for the foamy white light, and then a long day in the pasture. I too spend my days grazing, feasting on every green moment till darkness calls, and with the others I walk away into the night, swinging the little tin bell of my name. ~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”
This is not a usual summer, lacking boisterous gatherings of family and friends, missing our endless July outdoor meals~ instead staying in place, quietly feasting upon each gifted moment while close-crop grazing ’til I’m full up and spilling over, ready to someday again share all I have until empty.
Imagine you wake up with a second chance: The blue jay hawks his pretty wares and the oak still stands, spreading glorious shade. If you don’t look back, the future never happens. How good to rise in sunlight, in the prodigal smell of biscuits – eggs and sausage on the grill. The whole sky is yours to write on, blown open to a blank page. Come on, shake a leg! You’ll never know who’s down there, frying those eggs, if you don’t get up and see. ~Rita Dove “Dawn Revisited” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks
When I was a kid, summer mornings were simply delicious – I loved the smell of breakfast being prepared while I unfolded and stretched my growing legs under the covers, lazily considering how to take on the dawn.
Each new day felt like another chance, a clean slate, a blank page ready to be filled with the knowledge gained from the mistakes made the day before, the urgency of today’s needs, and the hope for grace tomorrow.
Now I’m the one cooking up a breakfast of words and pictures, trying to lure others from their beds with the fragrance of another day, another chance, another opportunity.
There is life to be lived; the whole sky is yours. Time’s a-wasting. Time to get up.
Because I have come to the fence at night, the horses arrive also from their ancient stable. They let me stroke their long faces, and I note in the light of the now-merging moon
how they, a Morgan and a Quarter, have been by shake-guttered raindrops spotted around their rumps and thus made Appaloosas, the ancestral horses of this place.
Maybe because it is night, they are nervous, or maybe because they too sense what they have become, they seem to be waiting for me to say something
to whatever ancient spirits might still abide here, that they might awaken from this strange dream, in which there are fences and stables and a man who doesn’t know a single word they understand. ~Robert Wrigley “After a Rainstorm”from Beautiful Country
Haflinger horses must have a migration center in their brain that tells them that it is time to move on to other territory, a move based on quality of forage, the seasons, or maybe simply a sudden urge for a change in scenery. I imagine, over hundreds of years of living in the rather sparse Alpen meadows, they needed to move on to another feeding area enmasse on a pretty regular basis, or if the weather was starting to get crummy. Or perhaps the next valley over had a better view, who knows? Trouble is, my Haflingers seem to have the desire to “move to other pastures” even if the grass in their own territory is plentiful and the view is great. And there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of natural or man-made barrier that will discourage them.
I have a trio of geldings (the “Three Musketeers”) who are particularly afflicted with wanderlust. There is not a field yet that has held them when they decide together that it is time to move on. We are a hotwire and white tape fenced farm–something that has worked fairly well over the years, as it is inexpensive, easily repaired and best of all, easily moved if we need to change the fencing arrangement in our pasture rotation between five different 2 acre pastures. Previous generations of Haflingers have tested the hotwire and learned not to bother it again. No problem. But not the Three Musketeers.
They know when the wire is grounding out somewhere, so the current is low. They know when the weather is so dry that the conduction is poor through the wire. They know when I’ve absent mindedly left the fencer unplugged because I’ve had someone visit and we wanted to climb unshocked through the fences to walk from field to field. These three actually have little conferences out in the field together about this–I’ve seen them huddled together, discussing their strategy, and fifteen minutes later, I’ll look out my kitchen window and they are in another field altogether and the wire and tape is strewn everywhere and there’s not a mark on any of them. Even more mysteriously, often I can’t really tell where they made their escape as they leave no trace–I think one holds up the top wire with his teeth and the others carefully step over the bottom wire. I’m convinced they do this just to make me crazy.
Last night, when I brought them in from a totally different field from where they had started in the morning, they all smirked at me as they marched to their stalls as if to say, “guess what you have waiting for you out there.” It was too dark to survey the damage last night but I got up extra early to check it out this morning before I turned them out again.
Sure enough, in the back corner of the field they had been put in yesterday morning, (which has plenty of grass), the tape had been stretched, but not broken, and the wires popped off their insulators and dragging on the ground and in a huge tangled mass. I enjoyed 45 minutes of Pacific Northwest cloudy morning putting it all back together. Then I put them out in the field they had escaped to last night, thinking, “okay, if you like this field so well, this is where you’ll stay”.
Tonight, they were back in the first field where they started out yesterday morning. Just to make me crazy. They are thoroughly enjoying this sport. I’m ready to buy a grand poobah mega-wattage fry-their-whiskers fence charger.
But then, I’d be spoiling their fun and their travels. As long as they stay off the road, out of our garden, and out of my kitchen, they can have the run of the place. I too remember being afflicted with wanderlust, long long ago, and wanting to see the big wide world, no matter what obstacles had to be overcome or shocks I had to endure to get there. And I got there after all that trouble and effort and realized that home was really where I wanted to be. Now, prying me away from my little corner of the world gets more difficult every year. I hope my Haflinger trio will eventually decide that staying home is the best thing after all.
Nothing approaches a field like me. Hard gallop, hard chest – hooves and mane and flicking tail. My love: I apprehend each flower, each winged body, saturated in a light that burnishes. I would make a burnishing of you, by which I mean a field in flower, by which i mean, a breaching – my hands making an arrow of themselves, rooting the loosened dirt. I would make for you the barest of sounds, wing against wing, there, at the point of articulation. Love, I pound the earth for you. I pound the earth. ~Donika Kelly (2017) “Love Poem: The Centaur” from Bestiary
When Haflingers gallop in the field, it sounds like thunder as their hooves pound the earth. It can be a particularly ominous sound, especially in the middle of the night when the pounding hooves are going past our bedroom window which means only one thing: their field gate or the barn door has been breached. Haflingers are also Houdinis.
Their hooves may hug the ground, treading clover blossoms and blades of grass but I can see invisible wings as I watch them run. Their manes and tails float free even when the rest of their bodies are entirely earth-bound.
I know most of the time I move ponderously over the earth as well leaving my footprints behind. Some days I feel literally tethered to the ground, with no lightness of being whatsoever.
But once I breach the gate, I grow wings. The ground cannot hold me any longer and it rises to meet me as I fly.
This is the grip, like this: both hands. You can close your eyes if you like. When I say, “Now,” it’s time. Don’t wait or it’s all over. But not too soon, either—just right. Don’t worry. Let’s go. Both hands. ~William Stafford, “Survival Course” from Even in Quiet Places.
I know well the feeling of pulling against a momentum determined to break free of the strength I can muster to keep it under control. This is how my life, personally and professionally has often felt over the decades. It seems I am barely hanging on, at times losing my grip, my feet braced but slipping beneath me.
The full-uddered cow in the painting is compelled to join her herd in a pastoral scene just across the creek, but the milk maid must resist the cow’s escape. For the cow’s benefit and comfort, she must be milked. The cow has another agenda. She has snapped her rope tie, almost pulled up the stake, and in a show of strength and determination, the maid braces to pull a much larger animal around to retie her and restore things to how they were.
The action suggests the maid may succeed, but the cow’s attention is directed far afield. She doesn’t even feel the tug on her halter. We’re not fully convinced the cow won’t suddenly pull loose and break away from the maid’s grip, leaping the stream, tail raised straight in the air like a flag of freedom.
Right now, as spring advances rapidly with grass growing thick in the pastures, our horses smell that richness in the air. Sometimes this tug of war takes place when my plan is different than the horse’s. The fields are too wet for them to be out full time yet, so they must wait for the appropriate time to be released to freedom. The grass calls to them like a siren song as I feed them their portion of last summer’s uninviting hay. They can pull my shoulders almost out of joint when they are determined enough, they break through fences in their pursuit of green, they push through stall doors and lift gates off hinges. Right now I’m barely an adequate counterbalance to the pursuit of their desires and I struggle to remind them I’m on the other end of their lead rope.
Each day I find I try too hard to restore order in my life, on the farm, in the house, in my work, with my family. I want to pull that cow back around, get her tied up and relieved of her burden of milk so that it can nurture and replenish others. Sometimes I hang on, only to be pulled roughly along on the ground, scraped and yelling in the process.
Sometimes I just let go and have to try to catch that cow all over again.
Once in awhile I successfully get the cow turned around and actually milked without a spill.
I’ve held on with both hands. I’m clasping them together in prayer and petition that I won’t get pulled into the mud. I’ve got a grip. And maybe, just maybe, I will make cheese….
It’s frail, this spring snow, it’s pot cheese packing down underfoot. It flies out of the trees at sunrise like a flock of migrant birds. It slips in clumps off the barn roof, wingless angels dropped by parachute. Inside, I hear the horses knocking aimlessly in their warm brown lockup, testing the four known sides of the box as the soul must, confined under the breastbone. Horses blowing their noses, coming awake, shaking the sawdust bedding out of their coats. They do not know what has fallen out of the sky, colder than apple bloom, since last night’s hay and oats. They do not know how satisfactory they look, set loose in the April sun, nor what handsprings are turned under my ribs with winter gone. ~Maxine Kumin “Late Snow” from Selected Poems: 1960 – 1990
This past weekend we had it all: sun, rain, windstorm, hail, and some local areas even reported a late April snowfall. It is indeed disorienting to have one foot still in winter and the other firmly on grass that needs mowing.
It is also disorienting to look at pandemic data and hear varying experts’ interpretations about what is happening, what they predict and what strategies are recommended.
It may be time to loosen the tight grip on social distancing yet many are reticent to emerge from their confinement, for good reason.
Just last week, we released the Haflingers from their winter lock-in back onto the fields – their winter-creaky barn-confined joints stretched as they joyfully ran the perimeter of the fields before settling their noses into fresh clover. Their ribs sprung with the fragrance of the apple blossom perfume of the orchard and it lifted my sagging spirit to see them gallop. But even the horses are not ready for complete freedom either – I whistled them in after two hours, not wanting them to eat themselves sick with too much spring grass. Their time on the outside will be tightly controlled until it is safe for them to be out unrestricted.
Surprisingly, the horses come in willingly to settle back into their stalls and their confinement routine.
I’m not so different. I long to be set loose in the April sun and the freedom to go when and where I wish. But the new reality means winter is not entirely gone yet and may not be for some time. There are still tragic and untimely losses of life, still plenty of weeping and lament from the grief-stricken who have been robbed prematurely of loved ones due to a virus that is circulating indiscriminately.
So we must ease out slowly, carefully and cautiously, with one ear cocked and ready to be whistled back in when we are called to return to safety.
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing And the sky is clear and red, When the summer’s ceased its gleaming When the corn is past its prime, When adventure’s lost its meaning – I’ll be homeward bound in time
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
If you find it’s me you’re missing If you’re hoping I’ll return, To your thoughts I’ll soon be listening, And in the road I’ll stop and turn Then the wind will set me racing As my journey nears its end And the path I’ll be retracing When I’m homeward bound again
Bind me not to the pasture Chain me not to the plow Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow
In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing I’ll be homeward bound again. ~Marta Keen “Homeward Bound”
In my father’s near daily letters home to my mother during WWII, month after month after month, he would say, over and over while apologizing for the repetition: “I will come home to you, I will return, I will not let this change me, we will be joined again…”
This was his way of convincing himself even as he carried the dead and dying after island battles: men he knew well and the enemy he did not know. He knew they were never returning to the home they died protecting and to those who loved them.
He shared little of battle in his letters as each letter was reviewed and signed off by a censor before being sealed and sent. This story made it through:
“You mentioned a story of Navy landing craft taking the Marines into Tarawa. It reminded me of something which impressed me a great deal and something I’m sure I’ll never forget.
So you’ll understand what I mean I’ll try to start with an explanation. In training – close order drill- etc. there is a command that is given always when the men form in the morning – various times during the day– after firing– and always before a formation is dismissed. The command is INSPECTION – ARMS. On the command of EXECUTION- ARMS each man opens the bolt of his rifle. It is supposed to be done in unison so you hear just one sound as the bolts are opened. Usually it is pretty good and sounds O.K.
Just to show you how the morale of the men going to the beach was – and how much it impressed me — we were on our way in – I was forward, watching the beach thru a little slit in the ramp – the men were crouched in the bottom of the boat, just waiting. You see- we enter the landing boats with unloaded rifles and wait till it’s advisable before loading. When we got about to the right distance in my estimation I turned around and said – LOAD and LOCK – I didn’t realize it, but every man had been crouching with his hand on the operating handle and when I said that — SLAM! — every bolt was open at once – I’ve never heard it done better – and those men meant business when they loaded those rifles.
A man couldn’t be afraid with men like that behind him.”
My father did return home to my mother after almost three years of separation. He was “bound to the pasture and chained to the plow” as he resumed his love of farming the land and teaching others how it is done.
He never forgot those who died, making it possible for him to return home. I won’t forget either.
It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. ~Ray Bradbury from Dandelion Wine
However you may come, You’ll see it suddenly Lie open to the light Amid the woods: a farm Little enough to see Or call across—cornfield, Hayfield, and pasture, clear As if remembered, dreamed And yearned for long ago, Neat as a blossom now With all the pastures mowed And the dew fresh upon it, Bird music all around. That is the vision, seen As on a Sabbath walk: The possibility Of human life whose terms Are Heaven’s and this earth’s.
The land must have its Sabbath Or take it when we starve. The ground is mellow now, Friable and porous: rich. Mid-August is the time To sow this field in clover And grass, to cut for hay Two years, pasture a while, And then return to corn.
This way you come to know That something moves in time That time does not contain. For by this timely work You keep yourself alive As you came into time, And as you’ll leave: God’s dust, God’s breath, a little Light. ~Wendell Berry from The Farm
Farming is daily work outside of time – the labor of this day is the care for the eternal. There is a timelessness about summer: about preparing and planting and preserving, this cycle of living and dying repeating through generations. We, as our many great great grandparents did, must become God’s dust yet again.
So I’m reminded, walking through the pasture’s clover patch, of all the ways to become seed and soil for the next generation. For a blossom that appears so plain and goes so unnoticed during its life, it dies back, enfolding upon itself, with character and color and drama, each a bit differently from its neighbor.
Just like us.
Perhaps it is the breath of clover we should remember at the last; God’s own breath comes to us disguised in so many ways as we walk this ground. Inhale deeply of Him and remember we too are made fruits of His eternal labor.