A Deep Fear of Emptiness

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Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun:
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field,
They seem arranged as if each one
Has found its place; together they appeal
To some glimpsed order in my mind
Preceding my chance pausing here —
A randomness that also seems designed.
Gold circles strewn across the sloping field
Evoke a silence deep as my deep fear
Of emptiness; I feel the scene requires
A listener who can respond with words, yet who
Prolongs the silence that I still desire,
Relieved as clacking crows come flashing through,
Whose blackness shows chance radiance of fire.
Yet stillness in the field remains for everyone:
Wheels of baled hay bask in October sun.
~Robert Pack “Baled Hay” from Rounding it Out: A Cycle of Sonnetelles (1999).

 

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Each day I am called to see and listen,
to open fully to all that is around me.
From the simple stillness of the fields
surrounding our farm,
to the weeping of those who sit with me
day after day
in their deep fear of emptiness,
their struggle with whether to try to live
or give up and die.

Their deep fear of emptiness renders me silent;
I struggle to respond with words
that might offer up a healing balm
assuring them even in the darkest time
hope lies waiting, wrapped and baled,
radiant as fire,
ready to spill out fragrant,
to bear us silently to a new morning,
to a stillness borne of grace.

 

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Fall’s Warm Milk of Light

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portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

 

I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”
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I know all too well that the end of October means the light changes, the colors fade, and the chill sets in.  I grasp and bundle up what scenes I can preserve now, like harvesting hay to be tied up in bales and stored safely until the middle of winter.  Then, at the right time, when I’m most hungry for color and light,  I loosen the strings and let the images tumble out, feeding me like mother’s milk.
And I am filled…
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To Dwell in Sovereign Barns

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

The grass so little has to do,—    
A sphere of simple green,   
With only butterflies to brood,
And bees to entertain, 
    
And stir all day to pretty tunes        
The breezes fetch along,
And hold the sunshine in its lap   
And bow to everything; 
    
And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
And make itself so fine,—            
A duchess were too common 
For such a noticing.   
    
And even when it dies, to pass    
In odors so divine,    
As lowly spices gone to sleep,        
Or amulets of pine.    
    
And then to dwell in sovereign barns,    
And dream the days away,— 
The grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a hay!
~Emily Dickinson

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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:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.

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.

The weather is cooperating so the grass was cut two days ago.  Today it will be tossed about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding”, then tomorrow raked into windrows and baled 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. 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.

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Photo of Aaron Janicki raking hay with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

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Melted and Flowed

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Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind”

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It will soon be haying time, as soon as a stretch of clear days appear on the horizon.  Today was to be cloudless but ended up drizzly and windy — not good hay cutting weather.

The headed grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut, with the undulations of moist breezes flowing over the hill.   It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand.  It is melting, pulled back to the soil.  We must work fast to save it.

The light and wind works its magic on our hill.  The blades of the mower will come soon to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes.  It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.

It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn, no longer bending but bent, no longer flowing but flown, no longer growing but grown and salvaged.

It becomes fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors.   It melts in their mouths, as it was meant to.

Truly.

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

Turn Aside and Look: Cleaning Up the Mess

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It is not only prayer that gives God glory,
but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam,
whitewashing a wall, driving horses,
sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory
if being in his grace you do it as your duty.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dungfork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give Him glory, too.
God is so great
that all things give Him glory
if you mean that they should.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place.   As an act of worship, we keep cleaning up after ourselves.  The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend an hour every day carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail in hand.

It is my privilege to work.  It is His gift to me.

It is Grace who has come alongside me, pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary, and most amazing of all, cleans me up as well.

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Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer
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Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

 

The Farmer’s Duct Tape

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My hands are torn
by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance.
~Hayden Carruth from “Emergency Haying”

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Miles of baling twine encircle
tons of hay in our barn,
twice daily cut loose,
freed of grasses
and hung up to reuse again
in myriad ways:

~~tighten a sagging fence
latch a swinging gate
tie shut a gaping door
replace a broken handle
hang a water bucket
suspend a sagging overalls
fix a broken halter
entertain a bored barn cat
snug a horse blanket belt~~

It is the duct tape of the barn
whenever duct tape won’t work;
a fix-all handy in every farmer’s pocket
made beautiful
by a morning fog’s weeping.

 

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Preparing the Heart: Restless and Longing

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Everlasting God,
in whom we live and move and have our being:
You have made us for yourself,
so that our hearts are restless
until they rest in you.
—Augustine of Hippo

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Advent is a time when I feel an “inconsolable longing, almost like a heartbreak”, as C.S. Lewis writes in his memoir. He describes “the stab, the pang” accompanying the experience of Joy. I feel it too, in a powerfully visceral way, within my chest, within the rhythm of my heart.The restlessness drives me to seek rest, taking me right where I belong in the still sanctuary of a manger of hay, quieted and swaddled alongside the Son of God.

 

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You have got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth,
Sleep in feathers at their birth.

(But) Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You have got a manger bed.

Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mother came to the stable,
On that Christmas Eve so late?
Winds were blowing.
Cows were lowing.
Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You have got a manger bed.

~Appalachian Carol

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