The Original Self


The original shimmering self gets buried so deep
that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.
Instead we live out of all our other selves,
which we are constantly putting on and taking off
like coats and hats against the world’s weather.

~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets


Generally late September is when we start to see our Haflinger horses growing in their longer coat for winter. Their color starts to deepen with the new hair as the sun bleached summer coat loosens and flies with the late summer breezes. The nights here, when the skies are cloudless, can get perilously close to freezing this time of year, though our first frost is generally not until well into October. The Haflingers, outside during the day, and inside their snug stalls at night, don’t worry too much about needing their extra hair quite yet, especially when the day time temperatures are still comfortably in the 70s. So they are not in a hurry to be furrier. Neither am I. But I enjoy watching this daily change in their coats, as if they were ripening at harvest time. Their copper colors are so rich against the green fields and trees, especially at sunset when the orange hue of their coat is enhanced by the sunlit color palette of fall leaves undergoing their own transformation in their dying.

In another six months, it will be a reverse process once again. This heavy hair will have served its purpose, dulled by the harsh weather it has been exposed to, and coming out in clumps and tufts, revealing that iridescent short hair summer coat that shines and shimmers metallic in comparison, although several shades lighter, sometimes with nuances of dapples peeking through. Metamorphosis from fur ball to shimmering copper penny.

It occurs to me our old barn buildings on our farm are in need of a similar transformation, having received a new coat of paint over ten years ago and overdue for another.  As a dairy farm for its previous owners starting in the early 1900s until a few years before we purchased it in the late 80s, it has accumulated more than its share of sheds and buildings constructed over the years to serve one purpose or another: the big hay barn with mighty old growth beams and timbers in its framework (still hay storage), the attached milking parlor (converted by us to individual box stalls for our weanlings and yearlings) and milk house where the bulk tank once stood, the older separate milk house where the milk used to be stored in cans waiting for pick up by the milk truck (now garden shed and harness storage), the old smoke house for smoking meats (was our chicken coop, but now the dogs claim it), the old bunk house and root cellar (more storage), the old large chicken coop (now parking for our carts and carriage), and the garage (a Methodist church in its former life and moved 1/4 mile up the road to our farm some 70 years ago when the little community of Forest Grove that had formed around a saw mill, store, school and church disbanded after 30 years of prosperity when there were no more trees to cut down in the area). When we bought this farm, these buildings had not seen a coat of paint in many many years. They were weathering badly–we set to work right away in an effort to save them if we could, and got them repainted–“barn red” for the barn and cream white for the other buildings with red trim around the windows and roof lines.

That was over 25 years ago now and we’ve been trying to hold off on another round of painting. With a fresh coat of paint, these old buildings would appear to have new life again, though it is only on the surface. We know there are roofs that need patching, wiring that needs to be redone, plumbing that needs repair, foundations that need shoring up, broken windows that are drafty and need replacing, doors that don’t shut properly anymore–the list goes on. That superficial coat of paint does not solve all those problems–it will help prolong the life of the buildings, to be sure, but in many ways, all we’ve done is cosmetic surgery. What we really need is a full time carpenter –which neither of us is and at this point can’t afford.

In my late middle age, there are times when I wish fervently for that “new coat” for myself–i.e. fewer gray hairs, fewer pounds, fewer wrinkles and one less chin, less achy stronger muscles. I buy a new fall jacket and realize that all my deficiencies are simply covered for the time being. I may be warmer but I’m not one bit younger. That jacket will, I hope, protect me from the brisk northeast winds and the incessant drizzle of the region, but it will not stop the inevitable underneath. It will not change my original self and what I will become.

True shimmering change can only come from within, from deep inside our very foundations, requiring a transforming influence that comes from outside. For the Haflingers, it is the diminishing light and lower temperatures. For the buildings, it is the hammer and nail, and the capable hands that wield them. For me, it is knowing there is salvage for people too, not just for old barns and sheds. Our foundations are hoisted up and reinforced, and we’re cleaned, patched and saved despite who we have become. And unlike new paint, or a winter coat, it lasts forever.




When It Doesn’t Matter a Hill of Beans

Fall begins again even though I’m unprepared.  No matter which way I turn,  autumn’s kaleidoscope displays new patterns, new colors, new empty spaces as I watch the world die into itself once again.

Some dying blazes out in fury — a calling out for attention.  Then there is the dying that happens without anyone taking much notice: a plain, tired, rusting away letting go.

I spent the morning adjusting to this change in season by occupying myself with the familiar task of moving manure.  Cleaning barn is a comforting chore, allowing me to transform tangible benefit from something objectionable and just plain stinky to the nurturing fertilizer of the future. It feels like I’ve actually accomplished something.

As I scooped and pushed the wheelbarrow, I remembered another barn cleaning fifteen years ago, when I was one of a few friends left cleaning over ninety stalls after a Haflinger horse event that I had organized at our local fairgrounds. Some people had brought their horses from over 1000 miles away to participate for several days.  There had been personality clashes and harsh words among some participants along with criticism directed at me that I had taken very personally.  As I struggled with the umpteenth wheelbarrow load of manure, tears stung my eyes and my heart.  I was miserable with regrets.   After going without sleep and making personal sacrifices over many months planning and preparing for the benefit of our group,  my work felt like it had not been acknowledged or appreciated.

A friend had stayed behind with her family to help clean up the large facility and she could see I was struggling to keep my composure.  Jenny put herself right in front of my wheelbarrow and looked me in the eye, insisting I stop working for a moment and listen.

“You know,  none of these troubles and conflicts will amount to a hill of beans years from now.  People will remember a fun event in a beautiful part of the country,  a wonderful time with their horses, their friends and family, and they’ll be all nostalgic about it, not giving a thought to the infighting or the sour attitudes or who said what to whom.   We are horse people and human beings, for Pete’s sake, prone to complain and grouse about life.  So don’t make this about you and whether you did or didn’t make everyone happy.  You loved us all enough to make it possible to meet here and the rest was up to us.  So quit being upset about what you can’t change.  There’s too much you can still do for us.”

During tough times, Jenny’s advice replays, reminding me to stop expecting or seeking appreciation from others, or feeling hurt when harsh words come my way.   She was right about the balm found in the tincture of time and she was right about giving up the upset in order to die to self and self absorption, and keep focusing outward.

I have remembered.

Subsequently, unknown to both of us at the time,  Jenny herself spent over six years dying from breast cancer, while living her life sacrificially and sacramentally every day, fighting a relentless disease that was, for a time, immobilized in the face of her faith and intense drive to live. She became a rusting leaf, fading imperceptibly over time, crumbling at the edges until the day when she finally let go.   Her dying did not flash brilliance, nor draw attention at the end.  Her intense focus during the years of her illness had always been outward to others, to her young family and friends, to the healers she spent so much time with in medical offices, to her belief in the plan God had written for her and others.

So four years ago she let go her hold on life here. And we reluctantly have let her go.   Brilliance now cloaks her as her focus is on things eternal.

You were so right, Jenny.  Nothing from fifteen years ago amounts to a hill of beans; it simply doesn’t matter any more.

Except the words you spoke to me.

And I won’t be upset that I can’t change the fact that you have left us.

We’ll catch up later.

photo of Jenny Rausch in her last year on earth, by sister Ginger-Kathleen Coombs


Never Forgotten




“All in all, it was a never-to-be-forgotten summer — one of those summers which come seldom into any life, but leave a rich heritage of beautiful memories in their going — one of those summers which, in a fortunate combination of delightful weather, delightful friends and delightful doing, come as near to perfection as anything can come in this world.” ~ L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams

Time lurches ahead in imprecisely measured chunks.  Sometimes the beginning and ending of seasons are the yardstick,  or celebrating a holiday or a birthday.  Memories tend to be stickiest surrounding a milestone event: a graduation, a move, a wedding, a birth, a road trip, a funeral.

But Summer needs nothing so remarkable to be memorable.  It simply stands on its own in all its extravagant abundance of light and warmth and growth and color stretching deep within the rising and setting horizons.  Each long day can feel like it must last forever, never ending, yet it does eventually wind down, spin itself out, darkening gradually into shadow.  We let go with reluctance; we feel as if no summer like it will ever come again.

Yet another will, somehow, somewhere, someday.  Surely a never-ending summer is what heaven itself will be.

Perfectly delightful and delightfully perfect.  We’ve already had a taste.






Fair Thee Well





The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden wrapped up last night and our farm and Haflingers weren’t there waiting in our stalls for a ride home after a week of display.  I can imagine it in my mind: the many smells of fried food in the smoky dark filled with carnival bright flashing lights in a cacophony surreal to humans and horses.  We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, a fact with which I’m reconciled…finally.

BriarCroft had been a consistent presence at this fair for nearly two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well  decorated display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We petitioned the Fair Board for 5 years in the late eighties to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But our children Nate, Ben and Lea have grown up and moved away so are no longer available to help “man” the horse stalls.  Our other long term helpers like Emily, Chris and David are now adults with “real” jobs and obligations, and our faithful trick riders Kelsy and Chesna who performed daring feats on their Haflingers in front of the grandstand crowds have gone on to other careers.   I miss spending that intense one week time with all of the several dozen “kid” helpers from over the years, many of them now with children of their own.

Every year since 1992, we evaluated whether we had the energy and resources to do it  again–for the initial 6 years when Dan and I were the sole Haflinger farm doing the display, it meant a week of vacation from work, and very very long days, juggling our small children as well as several horses. Then, with the help of the Rodenbergers of 3R Farms and McKees of Teaglach Farm, we were able to rotate shifts, still work at our “real” jobs part days, share duties and expenses together. The older kids watched the younger kids, the inbetween kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sat and shot the breeze.

Did this sell horses for us? Not really. But it sure did create good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on ) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes.

Most of all, why we continued to do this so long, was that we provided what dreams are made of. I’m not sure how many times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some  10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

He was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games of being the starter, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I hope someday to see Gary again–it would be great to see this tall accomplished young man who so recently was a shy quiet little city boy of 6, draped across the broad back of a Haflinger, and lost in his dreams of a “someday” Haflinger of his own. This is why we’ve done what we have at the fair all these years. It was for people like Gary who made a connection with a horse and never ever forget it. I’d like to think that a little bit of who Gary is and what he is becoming is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

We do hope the fair-goers miss the friendly golden horses with the big brown eyes that help make dreams come true.

A Meadow to Wander


On days when there was a break in the fighting, the two of us drank hot tea.
We were rattled by the same passions.
Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May
over which women and horses wander.

~Isaac Babel “The Story of a Horse”

War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder,
we can never break free from the dark and degrading past.
Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel
as a meadow over which women and horses wander.
~Maxine Kumin “Women and Horses”

I believe in the gift of the horse, which is magic,
their deep fear-snorts in play when the wind comes up,
and the ballet of nip and jostle, plunge and crow hop.

I trust them to run from me, necks arched in a full
swan’s S, tails cocked up over their backs
like plumes on a Cavalier’s hat. I trust them
to gallop back, skid to a stop, their nostrils

level with my mouth, asking for my human breath
that they may test its intent, taste the lure of it.
I believe in myself as their sanctuary
and in the earth with its summer plumes of carrots,

its clamber of peas, beans, masses of tendrils
as mine.
~Maxine Kumin from “Credo”


So this is a picture of peacefulness,
the carelessness of a summer afternoon on horseback,
wandering along a hilltop
a gallop through a meadow,
a sharing of breath with an animal that chooses,
instead of running far away,
to circle around
and come back
again and yet again.


Crooked Furrow


photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

My father swerves the team
to miss the quail’s nest
hidden in the furrow
she rises up beating her wings
her cries fill all the world
of sky and cloud echoing her call…

and so he passes
the caring farmer with his crooked furrow
saluting life the warm round eggs
hidden in the spring grass
the quail rising and falling
pulled by invisible heartstrings.
~Dorothy Hewitt  “Quail’s Nest”


I remember my father driving a stake
where the killdeer nest held 6 speckled eggs,
and the mother would run off crying,
flapping and appearing wounded
to lure him away from her precious brood.

He would drive the plow around those nests,
marking their spot for the season,
respecting their presence,
preserving their future,
without anyone telling him
he should or he must
because his heart told him
it was the right thing to do.

thank you to Joel DeWaard for giving me permission to use his recent photos from the Lynden International Plowing Match that takes place just down the road apiece.

photo by Joel DeWaard

photo by Joel DeWaard

All These Gone Years


photo by Josh Scholten

photo by Josh Scholten


That long-ago morning at Ruth’s farm
when I hid in the wisteria
and watched hummingbirds. I thought
the ruby or gold that gleamed on their throats
was the honeyed blood of flowers.
They would stick their piercing beaks
into a crown of petals until their heads
disappeared. The blossoms blurred into wings,
and the breathing I heard
was the thin, moving stems of wisteria.
That night, my face pressed against the window,
I looked out into the dark
where the moon drowned in the willows
by the pond. My heart, bloodstone,
turned. That long night, the farm,
those jeweled birds, all these gone years.
The horses standing quiet and huge
in the moon-crossing blackness.
~Joseph Stroud “First Song”