A Thing With Feathers

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson
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Our local fair feels much like I remember when I was a child in the 60’s, accompanying my father to the Lynden fairgrounds during those summers of political and social turmoil.  His job was to supervise the teachers of FFA kids (Future Farmers of America) so he did the rounds of the regional and county fairs and my brother and I tagged along to explore the exhibits and go on rides.

The heart beat of a country fair pulses deep for me: I fell in love with my future husband at a fair, and we spent twenty years from 1992-2012 at the local Lynden fair exhibiting our Haflinger horses together as family and friends. Once our children grew and flew away four years ago, my husband and I were relegated to mere fair-goers, exploring exhibits without the need to show up to muck out stalls at 6 AM.

As we walked through this year’s home made quilt exhibit (see my photos and post tomorrow), I marveled, as always, at the multifaceted and intricate designs, with a distinctly planned out mix and match of colors in each quiltmaker’s entry.
Only a short stroll away is the chicken exhibit building, one of the same buildings I wandered through as a child over fifty years ago.  As we entered, it struck me that here too I was admiring designs and color schemes, layered with nuance and texture, just like the quilts — the feathers are God’s threads put to exquisite use to blanket a mere chicken.
So much design, so much detail, so much hope covers something as mere as me.
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barn owl and woodpecker feathers found on our farm this week

Dancing in Dust Motes

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ready
emptied and ready

They put up hay loose there, the old way,
forking it into the loft from the wagon rack
while the sweaty horses snorted and switched off flies
and the littlest kids were commanded to trample it flat
in between loads until the entire bay
was alight with its radiant sun-dried manna….
It was paradise up there with dusty sun motes
you could write your name in as they skirled and drifted down.
There were ropes we swung on and dropped from and shinnied up
and the smell of the place was heaven, hurling me back
to some unknown plateau, tears standing up in my eyes
and an ancient hunger in my throat, a hunger….
~Maxine Kumin from “Hay”

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filling up

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My parents knew that ancient hunger, both born on farms with teams of horses that brought in hay the old way while the children tramped and stamped the loose piles firm.

I’ve known that ancient hunger, having grown up on a farm that brought in to the barn loose hay the old way by tractor and wagon, having danced in the dusty sun motes on the top of the hay on a bright afternoon, the light cut in stripes over the sweet smelling grass.

We’ve made sure our three children knew that ancient hunger, born to a farm that brought in hay bales stacked to the rafters through community effort, those same dusty sun motes swirling about their heads as they learned their jobs, from bale rolling to lifting to tossing and stacking.

And now the next generation of neighborhood children arrive with shouts on haying days to clamor up and down the bale mountains, answering to the same hunger, blowing the same dusty snot and thrilling to the adventure of tractors, wagons and trucks, celebrating the gathering in of sun-dried manna together.

Surely this is what heaven will be like: we are all together, dancing in the light of the sun motes, our hunger filled to the brim by manna provided from above.

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Bound to the Earth

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My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black. © MoonPath Press, 2016.

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

I am old enough to have parents who grew up on farms worked by horses, one raising wheat and lentils in the Palouse country of eastern Washington and the other logging in the woodlands of Fidalgo Island of western Washington.  The horses were crucial to my grandparents’ success in caring for and tilling the land, seeding and harvesting the crops and bringing supplies from town miles away.  Theirs was a hardscrabble life in the early 20th century with few conveniences.  Work was year round from dawn to dusk; caring for the animals came before any human comforts.  Once night fell, work ceased and sleep was welcome respite for man and beast.

In the rural countryside where we live now, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past.  Watching a good team work with no diesel motor running means hearing bird calls from the field, the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission.  No ear protection is needed.  There is no clock needed to pace the day.   There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of engines are part of the work day.   The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing. It is time to stop and take a breather, it is time to start back up and do a few more rows, it is time to water, it is time for a meal, it is time for a nap, it is time for a rest in a shady spot.  This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before.

Our modern agribusiness megafarm fossil-fuel-powered approach to food production has bypassed the small family farm which was so dependent on the muscle power of humans and animals.    In our move away from horses worked by skilled teamsters,  what has been gained in high production values has meant loss of self-sufficiency and dedicated stewardship of a particular plot of ground.  Draft breeds, including the Haflinger horses we own, now are bred for higher energy with lighter refined bone structure meant more for eye appeal and floating movement,  rather than the sturdy conformation and unflappable low maintenance mindset needed for pulling work.   Modern children are bred for a different purpose as well, no longer raised to work together with other family members for a common purpose of daily survival.   Their focus at school is waning as they have no morning farm chores when they get up, too little physical work to do before they arrive at their desks in the morning.   Their physical energy, if directed at all,  is directed to competitive sports, engaged in fantasy combat rather than winning a very real victory over hunger.

I am encouraged when young people still reach for horse collars and bridles, hitch up their horses and do the work as it used to be done.   All is not lost if we can still make incremental daily progress,  harnessed together as a team with our horses, tilling for truth and harvesting hope.

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I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods.  It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life.  I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature.  That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. –Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor

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photo by Tayler Rae

 

A Free Servitude

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And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.

In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.

Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

~Edwin Muir from “The Horses”

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There is nothing that truly compels a horse to wear a saddle, pull a heavy burden, chew a cold bit until it foams warm — no fear of whip or spur or harsh word.  They, so much more powerful than we are, choose the work, to do what is needed, to serve freely, to be there because they were asked — whether asked nicely or not.

How much more we learn from the lather of their sweaty grace —  how to choose the labor that changes lives, how to offer up love in gratitude for the reward of a scratch in just the right place and a nose buried in sweet clover.

 

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To Catch the Sunset

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…he says
let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset
and off we go, a couple of aging fools.

I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot
less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools.
~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”

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When I pull open the barn doors
every morning
and close them again each evening,
as our grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears,
rumble grumble back a response.

We do our chores faithfully
as our grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm
two long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for our constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

And we depend on them
to depend on us
to be there
to open and close the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
sunrises and sunsets,
as if yesterday, today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.

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The Headed Grass

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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”

It will soon be haying time, as soon as another stretch of clear days appears on the horizon.  We missed a haying window last week, and now are staring at 10 days of forecast rain and clouds.

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, as we are meant to melt and flow.

Truly.

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Reflecting Back the Light

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With the close approach of Mars this week (maximum size in the sky will be May 30), I recalled a similar time a few years back:

It was a treasured late summer evening when temperatures hover around 70 degrees, there was a slight cooling breeze, clear starlit skies, and barely a mosquito buzzing.  We had just returned from a lovely evening outdoor wedding for two special young friends,  with a special message from our pastor about the profound mystery of marriage, not just for newlyweds, but also for those of us married for many years. We are blessed in the knowledge we depend on God’s grace every day, trying to reflect it back to our children, our community, to each other.

We decided to hike up to the top of our hill after dark to catch the best view of our neighbor Mars before we brought our Haflinger horses in for the night.  Mars was there to see, orange and bright in the southeast sky. But the Haflingers seemed to be afflicted by strange Martian fever, or perhaps it was simply because we rarely wander out into the field in the dark with flashlights in hand. There was no moon yet when we were out –simply starlight and the far-off lights from Vancouver,  British Columbia to the north and Bellingham to the south.

The Haflingers started running in the dark, kicking and snorting and bucking with the joy of a starlit, Martian-lit summer evening. Only all we could see of the Haflingers were their ghostly white manes and tails moving across the fields, jumping and twisting and cavorting.

I’m sure over the generations, in the alpine meadows of the South Tyrol, there must have been some starlit moonless lights when the Haflinger herds would run together, and all you could see in the dark were floating disembodied white manes and tails.

Perhaps that is what enchanted the mountain peasants the most about their sturdy reliable golden companions—at night they become spirit and light. They shine like the stars, even from the ground, reflecting back the lights from the heavens.

And so, in our companionship with each other and with God, do we glow with His light and reflect it to those around us.

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