The Ripening Fruit

Now the bumbling bees that hover
Over loveliness in flower
Important with their store of pollen
Have had their hour;

Time has come for you to shed your
Silken petals and declare
Whether you are apple, cherry,
Plum or pear,


And all summer take your pleasure
Nourishing the ripening fruit
With the sun and rain you welcome
Through leaf, through root.

~Charles Pratt “Valediction” from From the Box Marked Some Are Missing: New and Selected Poems

apple blossoms
pear blossoms


This is the time of year when so much budding potential has reached the peak of fruitfulness – plums, apples and pears are ready for the table, the oven, the dehydrator and freezer. The cherries had their season weeks ago.

My grandchildren wander the orchard with me, marveling at the bounty that has dropped from its branches, and looking up at what remains to be collected above our heads.

They pick up an apple and take a bite, trying to avoid worm holes and bruises. It seems we always are dodging the daily reality of worms and bruises.

It takes so much to yield bud to blossom to fruit to nourishment and the honeybee is our ticket to preserved winter fruit, making honey in the process. It is a marvelous way that nature is designed to replenish itself and nurture us, year after year.

And to think our fall from the Garden was over one piece of forbidden fruit, especially when there was so much, else available to us.

plum blossoms
cherry blossoms

Now available: a gift from Barnstorming if you donate $50 to support daily Barnstorming posts – three blank notecards of original art from our farm

art by Anja Lovegren
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Where the Joy Came In

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.

I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.

Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
~Christian Wiman, “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing. 

Coming to Christianity is like color slowly aching into things, the world becoming brilliantly, abradingly alive. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Simone Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
~Christian Wiman “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.

Like this old pink dogwood tree, I now lean over more,
I have a few bare branches with no leaves,
I have my share of broken limbs,
I have my share of blight and curl.

Yet each stage and transition of life has its own beauty: 
bursting forth with leaves and blooms
after a long winter of nakedness adorned
only by feathered friends destined to fly away.

Color has literally seeped in overnight,
resulting in a riot of joy.

Yet what matters most is what grows unseen,
underground, in a network that feeds and thrives
no matter what happens above ground,
steadfast roots of faith remain a reason to believe.

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.
Especially me. Oh, and especially me.

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A Darkened Path

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

~Emily Dickinson

photo by Bob Tjoelker

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

~Jane Hirschfield from “The Weighing”

I admit that I’m stumbling about in the dark right now,
bearing the bruises and scrapes of
random collisions with objects hidden in the night.

My eyes must slowly adjust to such bare illumination,
as the Lamp has been carried away.
I must feel my way through this time of life.

I suspect there are fellow darkness travelers
who also have lost their way and their Light,
giving what they can and sometimes more.

And so, blinded as we each are,
we run forehead-first into the Tree
which has always been there and always will be.

Because of who we are and Who loves us,
we, now free and forgiven,
follow a darkened road nearly straight, all the way Home.

May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
may hardness never turn your heart to stone.
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.

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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Sometimes I Feel Discouraged

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

~ African-American Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

At the edge of the woods on our farm stands a stately black cottonwood tree, also known by locals as a “Balm of Gilead” tree in our region. The leaf buds this time of year have a sticky fragrant resin that native peoples prepared as a salve ointment to treat various wounds and skin conditions.

We never have tried harvesting any of the cottonwood resin, but I’ve found the presence of this grand tree in the field seems balm enough when I find myself discouraged. The tall tree adapts so dramatically over the course of the seasons, remaining a fixture of stability and beauty whether golden in the autumn, blowing cottony seeds in the spring, bare with snow in the winter or flourishing with summer leaves.
It is steadfast and reassuring.

Discouragement is so familiar to us, a constant pandemic companion, and certainly is rampant over the past week with images of war filling our screens. No tree resin is capable of fighting a virus or stopping a war but the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah has the power of the Holy Spirit, able to heal our sin sick souls.

The love of our Savior is the balm for us, the wounded.
We will become whole again.

cottonwood seeds
cottonwood seed

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…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

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A Lonely Unyielding Fir

A silence slipping around like death,
Yet chased by a whisper, a sigh, a breath,
One group of trees, lean, naked and cold,
Inking their crest ‘gainst a sky green-gold,
One path that knows where the corn flowers were;
Lonely, apart, unyielding, one fir;
And over it softly leaning down,
One star that I loved ere the fields went brown.
~Angelina Weld Grimke “A Winter Twilight”

Some ask for the world
and are diminished

in the receiving
of it. You gave me
only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.
~R.S. Thomas  “Gift” from Experimenting with an Amen

I am astonished my thirstiness is
slaked by such simple things as
a moment of pink in the sky,
a burst of birdsong,
a tree standing steadfast on the hill through the seasons,
a glimpse of tomorrow over the fading horizon of today.

Even
After
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe
Me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole
Sky.
~Daniel Ladinsky, from “The Gift”

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A Life Only Just Begun

As once a Child was planted in a womb
(and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross)
one year we dug a hole to plant a tree.
Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine,
pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip
touched with a red as deep as human blood.
It rooted well, and every year it grows
more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud
into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine.
Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark
speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark.
Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine
radiant, and each cross-blessed,
as if all love and loveliness has been compressed
into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s
new-born presence, a life only just begun.

The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall,
their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls,
each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible.
The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root,
speaks pain and life and love compressed
and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible
that now all Eucharists in our year suggest
the living Jesus is our Christmas guest.
~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from Eye of the Beholder

God is in the manger, wealth in poverty,
light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
No evil can befall us;

whatever men may do to us,
they cannot but serve the God
who is secretly revealed as love
and rules the world and our lives.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger

I ponder the paradox of Christ, the Son of God,
coming to the world through the womb of a woman,
born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.

The uncontainable contained
the infinite made finite
the Deliverer delivered
the Eternal dwelling here and now
already but not yet.

As only one child of many of the
Very God of Very God,
(He is and was and always will be)
I am cross-blessed to realize
my life feels fresh-born – only just begun –
yet we all have been known to the Creator
from the start of time.

(If you are interested in hearing an old old story about the dogwood tree in song, and you don’t mind old-timey honky-tonk music, there is this….)

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: The Frankincense of Fragrant Fir

Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.

My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights—voilà—
She opened it resplendently to shine.

How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.

Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate? We wrap her hopes
Around the tree crowned with a fragile star.
No holiday is holy without ghosts.
~Dana Gioia, “Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,

to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
~Howard Thurman from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations

There are plenty of ghosts hiding in the boxes of ornaments I place on our Christmas tree.

Closing my eyes, I can see my father struggling to straighten our wild cut trees from our woods, mumbling under his breath in his frustration as he lies prone under the branches. I can see my mother, tears in her eyes, arranging ornaments from her parents’ childhoods, remembering times in her childhood that were fraught and fragile.

Each memory, every scratched-up glass ball is so easily breakable, a mere symbol for the fragility of us all this time of year.

Our real work of Christmas isn’t just during these frantic weeks of Advent but lasts year-long — often very hard intensive work, not just fa-la-la-la-la and jingle bells, but badly needed labor in this broken world with its homelessness, hunger, disease, conflict, addictions, depression and pain.

Even so, we enter winter next week replete with a startling splash of orange red that paints the skies in the evenings, the stark and gorgeous snow covered peaks surrounding us during the day,  the grace of bald eagles and trumpeter swans flying overhead, the heavenly lights that twinkle every night,  the shining globe that circles full above us, and the loving support of the Hand that rocks us to sleep when we are wailing loud.

Once again, I prepare myself to do the real work of Christmas, acknowledging the stark reality that the labor that happened in a barn that night was only the beginning of the labor required to salvage this world begun by an infant in a manger.

We don’t need a fragrant fir, full stockings on the hearth, Christmas villages on the side table, or a star on the top of the tree to know the comfort of His care and the astounding beauty of His creation, available for us without batteries, electrical plug ins, or the need of a ladder.

The ghosts and memories of Christmas tend to pull me up from my doldrums, alive to the possibility that even I, broken and fragile, scratched and showing my age, can make a difference, in His name, all year.

Nothing is too little to be loved…even me.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Let Me Go There

photo from NASA

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.
~R.S. Thomas “The Coming”

You have answered
us with the image of yourself
on a hewn tree, suffering
injustice, pardoning it;
pointing as though in either
direction; horrifying us
with the possibility of dislocation.
Ah, love, with your arms out
wide, tell us how much more
they must still be stretched
to embrace a universe drawing
away from us at the speed of light.
~R.S.Thomas “Tell Us”

Ah, Love~
You the Incarnate,
stretched and fettered to a tree

arms out wide
embracing us
who try to grasp
a heaven which eludes us.

This heaven, Your heaven
You brought down to us
knowing our pain and weakness.

You wanted to come here,
knowing all this.

Holding us firmly
within your wounded grip,
You the Son
handed us heaven.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

O living Word
Please come and dwell in us
Lord wipe away these tears
O ancient Son, so long foretold
We’re desperate souls, draw near

And we will stand
Securely in the strength of the Lord
Every heart will surely come and adore
The Great I Am

O our Shepherd King
Please come and dwell with us
To fields of grace
Lead on

We need You now
Break our chains by Your glory and power
Make us captive to a holy desire
Come to us O Lord
Come to us O Lord

Prince of Peace, Emmanuel
Lord draw us close, unto Thyself
King of kings, God’s chosen One
We need you now, to Thee we run

We need You now
Break our chains by Your glory and power
Make us captive to a holy desire
Come to us O Lord
Come to us O Lord
Songwriter: Eric Marshall

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Holy Moley

Cold morning. November, taking a walk,
when up ahead, suddenly, the trees unleave,
and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense
river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves
over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered
with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings,
their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/
reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb-
struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moley,
And then, they’re gone.
~Barbara Crooker, “Murmuration” from Some Glad Morning. 

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.

The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is like muffled weeping.

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The Scar of Proud Flesh

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.

The way things stay so solidly whenever they’ve been set down –
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses, when it comes back darker and raised:
proud flesh, as all flesh is proud of its wounds,
wears them as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest –

And when two people have loved each other,
see how it is like a scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
~Jane Hirshfield  “For What Binds Us”

Scars come in various sizes and shapes, some hidden, some quite obvious to all.  How they are inflicted also varies–some accidental, others therapeutic, and too many intentional. 

The most insidious are the ones so deep inside,  no one can see or know they are there.

Back in our woodlot stands a sawed off stump of a cedar that was old growth in virgin forest over a hundred years ago.  One day clearcut loggers came through and took every tree they could to haul to the local sawmills to become beams and lumber for the growing homesteading population in the region.  This cedar once was grand and vast, covering an immense part of the forest floor, providing protection to trillium at its feet and finches’ nests and raptors hunting in its branches.   It nurtured its environment until other plans were made, and one day, axes fell on its sides to cut out the notches for the springboards where two loggers stood either side of the proud trunk to man the saw which brought the tree down. 

Where the wood went is anyone’s guess.  It could be one of the mighty beams supporting our old hay barn roof or it could have become the foundation flooring of a nearby one room school house.  It surely had a productive and meaningful life as part of a structure somewhere until rot or carpenter ants or fire brought it once again to its knees.

But this ghost of a stump remains, a tombstone of remembrance of a once grand tree, the notch scars embedded deep in its sides, nursing new seedlings from its center and moss, lichen and ferns from its sides.

I come from logger stock so I don’t begrudge these frontier settlers their hard scrabble living, nor minimize their dangerous work in order to feed themselves and their families.  It’s just I’m struck by those scars over one hundred years later — such a visible reminder of what once was a vital living organism toppled for someone’s need and convenience.

Trees are not unique.  It happens to people too.  Everyday scars are inflicted for reasons hard to justify.  Too often I see them self-inflicted in an effort to feel something other than despair.  Sometimes they are inflicted by others out of fear or need for control.

Sometimes they are simply the scars of living – on our horses they are a dark tough scar of leathery “proud flesh”. These are the wounds that accumulate on our journey through our numbered days.

None of them are as deep and wide as the scars that were accepted on our behalf, nor as wondrous as the Love that oozed from them, nor as amazing as the Grace that abounds to this day because of the promise they represent. 

These are scars from the Word made Flesh, a proud flesh that won’t give way, lasting forever.

As a result, that Tree lives, and so do we.

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