~Billy Collins from “Morning”
~Billy Collins from “Morning”
It did seem odd this morning during my barn chores that our six year old Haflinger gelding stood facing the back wall as I opened his stall door to give him his hay. For a moment I wondered if there was a problem with his appetite as he usually would dive right into his hay as soon as I threw it to him. A closer look told me the problem was with his hind end, not his front end: his heavy white tail was wrapped snugly around a J hook hanging on the stall wall meant to hold his water bucket. Instead now it held him — and wasn’t letting go. He had apparently been itching his butt back and forth, round and round on the handy hook and managed to wrap his tail into such tight knots on the hook that he was literally tethered to the wall. He was very calm about the whole thing only maybe just a little embarrassed.
He turned his head to look at me, pitiful. How long he’d been standing there like that through the night was anyone’s guess. I bet he no longer was itchy.
I started to work at untying the tail knots to free him and found them wound so tight that loosening them required significant cooperation from my 1200 pound buddy. Unfortunately, any time I managed to almost unloop a knot over the hook end, he would pull forward, snugging it even tighter. Out of desperation I pulled out the scissors I keep in my barnjacket pocket. I cut one knot hoping that would be sufficient. Then I cut through another knot. Still not enough. I cut a third big knot and thank God Almighty, he was free at last. He sauntered over to his hay now with a chunk of his tail in my hand and a big gap in what was still left hanging on him. It may take a year to grow that missing hair back out. But hey, it is only hair and at least someone kind and caring came along with a set of shears to release him painlessly from his captivity. We aren’t all so lucky.
I know what it is like to get tangled up in things I should probably give wide berth. I have a tendency, like my young horse, to butt in where I best not be and then become so bound I can’t get loose again. It can take forever to free myself, sometimes painfully leaving parts of my hide behind.
So when I inevitably get tied up in knots again, I hope someone will come along to save me. Better yet, I hope someone might warn me away from the things that hook me before I foolishly back right into them. I’ve got to loosen up and quit pulling the knots tighter.
It’s best to always have a detangler handy. You never know when you might need one.
Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods. Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death. Even the sun has gone off somewhere… Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.
~Jane Kenyon from “Good-by and Keep Cold”
Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer. The usual day-long symphony of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering, the occasional dog barking, with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.
In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth. The horses confined to their stalls in the barns snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.
But there is no birdsong arias, leaving me bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wake me at 4 AM in the spring. No peeper orchestra from the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.
It is too too quiet.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
Every day this time of year I scramble to the top of the hay pile in the barn to push down two bales to feed to our horses, now that the pastures are resting and “left to grace” for the winter. My husband has been busy spreading our composted manure out on the fields to give them an extra fertilizer boost for next spring’s growth, only a little more than four months away.
As farmers, we have to always be thinking one or two seasons ahead: the hay brought into the barn in June or July does not leave the barn until late-autumn. The manure piled up in winter gets spread on pastures the following fall. The tilled cornfields surrounding us are seeded in May and not harvested until October after several months of rain and sun and rain again.
More than practicing forethought, as farmers we know our meager efforts, as tangible as they are, are dependent solely on grace: that there will be enough rain, that there will not be too much rain, that there will be enough days of sunlight, that the seed will sprout, that the machinery will work when needed, that there will be no blight or pests, and that the hay crew will materialize when needed for harvest. So much of this is not due to the labor of our hands, no matter how much we sweat and ache, but due to the great work of the Creator in His Creation.
“Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly”.
We may be three days into summer but aside from the date on the calendar, it would be difficult to prove otherwise. It is unseasonably cool, the skies stony gray, the rivers running full and fast, the ground peppered with puddles. Rain fell in torrents last night, hiding behind the cover of darkness as if ashamed of itself. As it should be. Then a mid-afternoon thunder and lightening gully-washing storm passed through and completely drenched my drying laundry on the clothesline.
Enough is enough.
What all this moisture yields is acres and acres of towering grass growth, more grass than imaginable, more grass than we can keep mowed, burying the horses up to their backs as they dive head long into the pasture. The Haflingers don’t need to lower their necks to graze, choosing instead to simply strip off the ripe tops of the grasses as they forge paths through five foot forage. It is like children at a birthday party swiping the frosting off cupcake after cupcake, licking their fingers as they go. Instead of icing, the horses’ muzzles are smeared with dandelion fluff, grass seed and buttercup petals.
June tends to shroud its promise of longer days under clouds in the northwest. Outdoor weddings brace for rain and wind with a supply of umbrellas, graduation picnics are served in the garage and Fathers’ Day barbeques under tent canopies. There is a wary anticipation of solstice as it signals the slow inexorable return of darkness from which we have not yet recovered.
So I tremble as I splash through the squishiness of June, quivering like a wet butterfly emerging from its cocoon ready to unfurl its wings to dry, but unsure how to fly and uncertain of the new world that awaits. In fact the dark empty cocoon can look mighty inviting on a rainy June night or during a loud mid-day thunderstorm. If I could manage to squeeze myself back in, it might be worth a try.
After all, there is no place like home.
Name of Horses by Donald Hall
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.
As a child, not yet a teenager, I regularly visited the horse grave dug by hand by my father in an open clearing of our woods where our horse rested in the ground. She was felled by a vet’s bullet to the head after an agonizing bout with colic. At first it was a place to cry where no one but the trees and wild flowers could see. When the 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 I retreated to talk to God when my church no longer was.
Your bones lie there still and no one but me knows where. The dent in the ground will always betray the spot.
I remember you.
As a horse keeper, I know how important a predictable routine is to my animals. They thrive on a schedule, with meal times at the same time every day and familiar people feeding and handling them. But it doesn’t always work out to keep things comfortably identical day to day.
Some days I have to feed early due to my work schedule, so I’m flipping lights on in the barn when it is still night outside. The horses blink in their adjustment to the sudden light, leaping up from their shavings beds to shake off the sawdust remnants that cling to their coats. Some days I don’t get out to the barn quite when I’m expected, and I can hear them bouncing their empty water buckets and knocking the sides of their stalls with their hoofs, declaring their impatience at my tardiness.
On the days when the weather is terribly windy, wet and cold, the routine of going outside for the day is changed, and the horses must adapt to a day inside their stalls. After several days of establishing their indoor routine, the weather brightens and they are able to go back outside again. I vary their stalls so they become used to going in and out of any stall I ask them to use. I vary the walk to their outdoor enclosures as much as I’m able, to get them accustomed to a new path with unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells, and to trust me that I will get them safely to their destination even if it isn’t the way we took yesterday.
And I expect obedience even if things aren’t the same. Sometimes there is a subtle change in the scenery that I haven’t noticed but the horses always do. If something is a bit out of place from the previous day, or there is something new that wasn’t there before, the horse I’m leading often stops, gives a soft snort, and takes in the new configuration, trying to absorb it and accept it. Once settled, then the horse will move on, satisfied that all is well, even if everything is not the same.
One day, I moved one of our garden gnomes to a new outpost in the yard. The horses were not amused. In their minds, she was not where she belonged and seeing her someplace unfamiliar undid them one by one. Once they accepted her in her new home, it was no longer a problem for them–until I moved her again just to keep them on their toes.
On this New Year’s Day, I feel I’m too often like my horses in my reluctance to gracefully accept change. I prefer things familiar, safe and comfortable. Life rarely serves that up tidily, and in fact, most days are a jumble of coping with the unexpected. I’m not always sure the path I’m on is the straightest one, or the one with the fewest potholes, nor am I that confident that I’ve chosen the best path. I may stop, pull back, try to turn around, even snort a bit. Sometimes I may refuse to take another step.
But there is no turning back. Time leads irrevocably forward, with us in tow, and we must follow, however reluctant we may be. I’m grateful for the gentle flow of the hours and days into years, all too aware of the quickening pace as more of my life has been lived out than lies ahead of me.
Perhaps what I’m needing most this new year is a slower walk, taking the time to look at all things with new eyes, and to breathe each breath appreciatively, keenly aware it was not my last.
This is the week of the year our barn is at its emptiest, right before it fills up again. There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores. Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices, whether soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking, or uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft, possibly shouting orders to a steady workhorse, even startling out loud as a barn owl flies low overhead, or grumbling over a dead tractor battery. The dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.
There is no heart beat left in an empty barn. It is in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I can hardly bear to go inside.
If the weather cooperates before July 4, we’ll be cutting the grass the first day, strewing it about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding” the next, raking it into windrows the third, and then baling it for pick up by our “family and friends” hay crew. Suddenly, the barn is shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. This often goes on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity. It almost looks as if it is on fire.
Vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another year.
A healthy rhythm is elusive in this modern age of full time jobs off the farm, necessitating careful coordination with the schedule of the farmer who cuts and bales for many neighbors all within the same window of good weather, plus adding in the high cost of fuel and labor. The farmer races his equipment from field to field, swooping around with a goliath tractor taking 12 foot swaths, raising dust clouds, and then on to the next job. It is so unlike the rhythm of a century ago when a horse drawn mower cut the tall grass in a gentle four foot swath, with a pulsing shh shh shh shh shh shh tempo that could be heard stretching across the fields. It is an unfamiliar sound today, the almost-silence of no motor at all, just the jingle of the harness and the mower blades slicing back and forth as the team pulls the equipment down the field. We’ve lost the peacefulness of a team of horses at work, necessitating a slower pace and the need to stop at the end of a row for a breather.
The old barn will be resuscitated once again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales, the walls will groan with the pressure of stacks. The missing shingles on the roof will be replaced and the doors locked tight against the winter winds. But it will be breathing on its own, having needed only a short rest these last few weeks.
Inside, once again, filled to the brim, life is held tight by twine, just waiting to be released.
He was a horse of few words. After twenty five years of living with human beings, he didn’t find it necessary to call or greet us as the other Haflingers did when they were hungry. He stood patiently despite his voracious appetite, waiting his turn, knowing and trusting he would always be fed. He knew his family took care of him, no matter what.
Amos was a do-it-all Haflinger. He could be ridden, driven in a cart, taken on trail rides, jump in a show, and even was the platform for horse back gymnastics, or “vaulting.” He knew his job, did it well, and raised many children in the process.
One night, while I was heading to the barn for evening chores, my husband greeted me at the barn door with a concerned look on his face.
“We’ve got trouble. Amos is down.”
Sure enough, he was cast up against the wall of his huge double stall and, covered in sweat, and clearly had been there for some time. Incredibly, when he saw us, he nickered a “huh huh huh huh” greeting in his deep throaty voice. When we approached the stall with lead ropes ready to loop around his legs, it was if his “huh?” was clearly saying, “whatever took you so long?”
He lay still as we snugged the ropes on his legs and using every ounce of strength, we hauled him over. He lay on his side, breathing heavily, then pulled himself up, put his front legs out in front of him and staggered to his feet. Every muscle was quivering.
He had never had a bout of colic before so I called the vet as our daughter, his biggest fan, started walking him. He passed several loose stools but whenever he stopped walking, he was ready to lie down again, or would paw or kick at this belly. However, even with such bad cramping, he also tried to snatch at hay bales as he passed them and nibbled clumps of grass in the lawn.
By the time the vet arrived, Amos was not as shaky and looking brighter eyed. The vet was quite impressed by Amos’ strength for his age and was very amazed at his appetite in spite of being in pain. I reminded him he was dealing with no ordinary horse. This was a Haflinger. The vet chuckled, “I guess maybe he would be chewing during his dying breath if he could, wouldn’t he?”
Once the necessary medication was administered, we allowed him back to his stall to lie down and rest. He no longer needed to roll in pain. He was exhausted and wanted to sleep. I cut up some apple pieces and a few carrots from our garden and put them in his food bin in case he decided he wanted to have a treat to eat. Then we went to bed too.
At 2 AM I got up to check on him. When I turned on the barn aisle lights and started toward his stall down at the end, I heard his low nickering “huh huh huh huh” again. What a wonderful sound! And then I saw his velvety nose poking out of his stall window by his food bin, grabbing for apple pieces lying on the sill. There is no better sight than a hungry horse after such an ordeal!
He was absolutely fine for seven weeks when it happened again, but worse. This time, nothing the vet could do could turn things around for Amos. He remained in pain despite all our efforts, and the vet told us we were at the end. My daughter and I stroked his sweaty neck, seeing the fear and agony in his eyes, and knew the time had come. Amos took his final walk with us out to a grassy slope in the moonlight. We offered him a bite of grass; his big lips picked it up and held it for a moment, but then he let it drop.
He sighed, giving us one more “huh huh huh huh” as the vet prepared to administer the sedative. Soon he would be lifted to a place where the sun would forever shine warm on his withers, the tender spring grass was always tasty, and there would never again be a need for goodbyes.
Someday again we will see him galloping toward us, his mane flying in the wind, calling out with the few words he knows, as if to say, “whatever took you so long?”