The Way I Might Have Gone

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.

And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could

With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
~Robert Frost, “The Wood-pile” from North of Boston

My labor is usually done with fervor and purpose, but there are times when I do not experience the fruits of my labor. It is left to smolder slowly to decay rather than provide the intended warmth and nurture of a fresh hearthfire.

I might have chosen a different way to go if I had known.

Perhaps I will simply follow the birds instead…

fire photo by Josh Scholten

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Eavesdropping on Private Voices

When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
whispers.
                   My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
                                               I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop
peacefully.
~Denise Levertov, “Aware” from This Great Unknowing.

I need to be cautious or I also would be swallowed up inch by inch by a variety of vines surrounding our home and farm buildings. Between the ivy, Virginia creeper and our opportunistic ubiquitous blackberry vines, I’m mere audience to their varied plans of expansive world domination.

As part of generations of human creep, I can’t indict the vines as aggressive interlopers for going where no vine has gone before. Much human migration has been out of necessity due to inadequate food sources or inhospitable circumstances. Some is due to a spirit of adventure and desire for new places to explore. Nevertheless, we human vines end up dominating places where we may not be really welcome.

So we human vines whisper together conspiratorially about where to send out our tendrils next, never asking permission, only sometimes asking for forgiveness later.

I can’t help but listen to those private voices – one of which is my own – who feel discontented with the “here and now” — we suspect somewhere else may be better. Rather than choose to stay and flourish in place, we keep creeping and overwhelming our surroundings.

Dear human vines: creep gently with sensitivity for the ground you occupy. Don’t block the sun from others or quench yourself while others thirst. Be kind and make the spot you cover more beautiful than it was before.https://barnstorming.blog/new-book-available-almanac-of-quiet-days/

A book of beauty in words and photography

To Be Quiet in Heart

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

~Wendell Berry “Wild Geese” from Collected Poems 1957-1982

I hear them coming before I see them:
the wild geese flying overhead,
noisily honking their way across an autumn sky,
drawn to the harvested cornfields
to glean after the machinery has left.

Soon they will leave altogether,
pulled to be content somewhere else.

I remain as witness
rather than move on,
reminding myself,
my heart quiet, my eye clear,
what I need is here
until it is my turn to leave.

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Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

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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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As Quiet As a Feather

Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.

…I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
~Mary Oliver from “Today” from A Thousand Mornings

Some days warrant stillness.
On this Sabbath day of rest,
seek to be quiet as a feather,
silently in place, listening.

Maybe, hear each other again.
Surely, hear the Word of God.

A funny thing about feathers:
alone, each one is merely fluff and air.
Together — feathers become lift and power,
with strength and will to soar
beyond the tether of gravity’s
pull on our flawed humanity back to dust.

As quiet as a feather,
joined and united, one overlapping another,
rise above and fly
as far as your life and breath can take you.

May peace be still.

Thank you, once again, to the chickens displayed at the NW Washington Fair in Lynden last week, who struggled to be still in their cages for these close-up feather photos….

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Unlocked By Hollyhocks

Old-fashioned flowers! I love them all:
The morning-glories on the wall,
The pansies in their patch of shade,
The violets, stolen from a glade,
The bleeding hearts and columbine,
Have long been garden friends of mine;
But memory every summer flocks
About a clump of hollyhocks.


The mind’s bright chambers, life unlocks
Each summer with the hollyhocks.
~Edgar Guest from “Hollyhocks”

The endless well of summer
lies deep in the heart of old-fashioned flowers,
but no well is so deep as hollyhocks –
the veins of their petals
pumping color
as they sway on long-nubbined stems,
carefree in the breeze.

My mind is suddenly unlocked,
opened by a hollyhock key.

hollyhock

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The Redeemed World

You get down on your knees in the dark earth—alone
for hours in hot sun, yanking weed roots, staking trellises,
burning your shoulders, swatting gnats; you strain your muscled
midwestern neck and back, callous your pianist’s hands.

You cut roses back so they won’t fruit, rip out and replace
spent annuals. You fill your garden dense with roots and vines.
And when a humble sprout climbs like a worm up out of death,
you are there to bless it, in your green patch, all spring and summer long,

hose like a scepter, a reliquary vessel; you hum
through the dreamy wilderness—no one to judge, absolve,
or be absolved—purified by labor, confessed by its whisperings, connected to its innocence.

So when you heft a woody, brushy tangle, or stumble
inside grimy, spent by earth, I see all the sacraments in place—
and the redeemed world never smelled so sweet.

~Ken Weisner, “The Gardener” from Anything on Earth.

We are in full-garden produce preservation mode right now on the farm – these are the days when we pick the fruits of Dan’s labors – all the hours he spent this spring preparing the soil with rich compost, meticulously pulling out weeds by the roots, rototilling and cultivating, then staking/stringing/sowing the rows, then standing back to watch the sun and rain coax the seeds from the dark.

All this happens in a mere few weeks – we never tire of this illustration of redemption and renewal we’re shown year after year – how a mess of weeds and dirt can be cleared, refined and cleansed to once again become productive and fruitful, feeding those who hunger – both now and deep into winter and next spring.

It gives me hope; even when I myself am feeling full of weeds and despairingly dirty and overwhelmed, I can be renewed. It takes a persistent Gardener who is willing and eager to prune away what is useless, and sow anew what is needed for me to thrive and produce – His hands and knees are covered with my grime.

And the fruit that results! – so very sweet…

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Resting in the Grace of the World

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

When our grandchildren visit our farm,
I watch them rediscover
what I know are the joys and sorrows of this world.
I am reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

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Wonder in Their Eyes

Serene the silver fishes glide,
Stern-lipped, and pale, and wonder-eyed!
As through the aged deeps of ocean,    
They glide with wan and wavy motion.   
They have no pathway where they go,
They flow like water to and fro,    
They watch with never-winking eyes,
They watch with staring, cold surprise,    
The level people in the air,  
The people peering, peering there:
Who wander also to and fro, 
And know not why or where they go,    
Yet have a wonder in their eyes,  
Sometimes a pale and cold surprise.

~ Max Eastman, “At the Aquarium”  Max Eastman: A Life

The fish are drifting calmly in their tank
between the green reeds, lit by a white glow
that passes for the sun. Blindly, the blank
glass that holds them in displays their slow
progress from end to end, familiar rocks
set into the gravel, murmuring rows
of filters, a universe the flying fox
and glass cats, Congo tetras, bristle-nose
pleocostemus all take for granted. Yet
the platys, gold and red, persist in leaping
occasionally, as if they can’t quite let
alone a possibility—of wings,
maybe, once they reach the air? They die
on the rug. We find them there, eyes open in surprise.
~Kim Addonizio “Aquarium,” from The Philosopher’s Club

Our shadows bring them from the shadows:
a yolk-yellow one with a navy pattern
like a Japanese woodblock print of fish scales.
A fat 18-karat one splashed with gaudy purple
and a patch of gray. One with a gold head,

a body skim-milk-white, trailing ventral fins
like half-folded fans of lace.
A poppy-red, faintly disheveled one,
and one, compact, all indigo in faint green water.
They wear comical whiskers and gather beneath us
as we lean on the cement railing
in indecisive late-December light,
and because we do not feed them, they pass,
then they loop and circle back. Loop and circle. Loop.
“Look,” you say, “beneath them.” Beneath them,
like a subplot or a motive, is a school
of uniformly dark ones, smaller, unadorned,
perhaps another species, living in the shadow
of the gold, purple, yellow, indigo, and white,
seeking the mired roots and dusky grasses,
unliveried, the quieter beneath the quiet.
~Susan Kolodny “Koi Pond, Oakland Museum”

The water going dark only
makes the orange seem brighter,
as you race, and kiss, and spar
for food, pretending not
to notice me. For this gift
of your indifference, I am
grateful. I will sit until
the pond goes black, the last
orange spark extinguished.
~Robert Peake from “Koi Pond”

the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 
Matthew 13: 47-48

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. 
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
– It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
– if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels- until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! 
And I let the fish go. 
~Elizabeth Bishop  from “The Fish”

All my life, I’ve taken care of a variety of fish in tanks and ponds.  As a child, I would watch, mesmerized, as our tropical fish glided around, happily exploring their little ten gallon world.  I willingly cleaned away the algae, rinsed the gravel and changed the filter. As a teenager, I boasted at least three different tanks aerating away in my bedroom, my own little aqua-cultural world of bubbles and fins.

During college and medical school, I chose to share my room with goldfish and bettas, thriving on their apparent contentment within a clear glass bowl.  I didn’t think of them as emotional support animals, but there was a joy obvious in their albeit limited existence: they still thrived when I was away, not missing me, but were always thrilled when I fed them, and tolerated my messing with their home maintenance.

My current thirty gallon aquarium is decades old and boasts over two dozen fish and plenty of furry algae and plants. Some of my watery friends have lived ten years or more and when they pass, I miss them.  Even the dozen koi and goldfish in our farm pond have expressive faces and individual personalities that I’ve gotten to know well as they come when I call.

I know the heart of compassion I feel for any creature I’m responsible for, as I know and have experienced the compassion of our Creator.

I would hope when the time comes that I end up in His net, that He’ll look me in the eye, see the wonder there as I gape at Him. He’ll count my blemishes and wounds and the number of hooks in my mouth from the times I’ve been caught and escaped, and if He’s not yet ready to take me home, or deems me not yet ready to leave this world, He’ll throw me back rather than throw me away to keep trying to get it right.

He has promised us that.

Rainbows, rainbows, rainbows indeed…

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