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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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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The Heart of the World

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The mares go down for their evening feed
                                                                            into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind 
                                                                       some sway, some don’t sway.
The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight
For just a minute or so.
The mares have their heads on the ground,
                                           the trees have their heads on the blue sky.
Two ravens circle and twist.
                On the borders of heaven, the river flows clear a bit longer.
~Charles Wright “Miles Away”

 

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It isn’t yet time to turn the Haflingers out on pasture.  The fields still squish from our heavy winter rains when I check the grass growth and test how firm the ground feels.

But spring is in the air, with pollens flying from the trees and the faint scent of plum and cherry blossoms wafting across the barn yard.  The Haflingers know there are green blades rising out there.

There is a waning pile of hay bales in the barn being carefully measured against the calendar.  We need to make it last until the fields are sufficiently recovered, dried out and growing well before the horses can be set free from their confinement back on the green.

Haflingers don’t care much about the calendar.  They know what they smell and they know what they see and they know what they want.

One early spring some years ago,  as I opened the gate to a paddock of Haflinger mares to take them one by one back to the barn, their usual good manners abandoned them.  Two escaped before I could shut the gate, the siren call of the green carrying them away like the wind, their tails high and their manes flying.  There is nothing quite as helpless as watching escaped horses running away as fast as their legs can carry them.

They found the nearest patch of green and stopped abruptly, trying to eat whatever the meager ground would offer up.    I approached,  quietly talking to them, trying to reassure them that, indeed,  spring is at hand and soon they will be able to eat their fill of grass.   Understandably suspicious of my motives, they leaped back into escape mode, running this time for the pasture across the road.

We live on a road that is traveled by too many fast moving cars and trucks and our farm on a hill is hampered by visibility issues –my greatest fear is one of our horses on the road would cause an accident simply because there would be no time for a driver to react after cresting a hill at 50 mph and finding a horse a mere twenty yards away.

I yelled and magically the mares turned, veering back from the road.  As I marveled at my ability to verbally redirect them from dashing into potential disaster,  they were heading back to the barn on their own, where their next most attractive feature on the farm dwelled:  our stallion.  He was calling them, knowing things were amiss, and they responded, turning away from the green to respond to the call of the heart.

So that was where I was able to nab them in their distracted posing for the guy in their lives.  Guys can do that to a gal.  You can end up completely abandoning thoughts of running away with the wind when the right guy calls your name.

Lured from the green grassy borders of heaven, we respond to the call of the heart from the world.

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A Daily Rhythm

sashaeye

tonyeye

When I pull open the barn doors,
every morning
and each evening,
as my grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears.

I do my chores faithfully
as my 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.

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

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

I depend on them
to depend on me
to be there
to open the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
as if today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.
~EPG

 

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Fifty Years Ago Today

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Prankster getting my brother’s attention

 

For the past fifty years, this date especially stands out on my calendar. Whenever November 27 comes around, I think back to a skinny freckled eleven year old girl who wanted nothing more than to have her own horse. Every inch of my bedroom wall had posters of horses, all my shelves were filled with horse books and horse figurines and my bed was piled with stuffed horses. I suffered an extremely serious case of horse fever.

I had learned to ride my big sister’s horse while my sister was off to college, but the little mare had pushed down a hot wire to get into a field of spring oats which resulted in a terrible case of colic and had to be put down. I was inconsolable until I set my mind to buy another horse.   We had only a small shed, not a real barn, and no actual fences other than the electric hot wire.  Though I was earning money as best I could picking berries and babysitting, I was a long way away from the $150 it would take to buy a trained horse back in 1965. So I dreamed my horsey dreams, mostly about golden horses with long white manes, hoping one day those dreams might come true.

In fall 1965, the  local radio station KGY’s Saturday morning horse news program announced their “Win a Horse” contest.  I knew I had to try. The prize was a weanling bay colt, part Appaloosa, part Thoroughbred, and the contest was only open to youth ages 9 to 16 years old. All I had to do was write a 250 word or less essay on “Why I Should Have a Horse”. I worked and worked on my essay, crafting the right words and putting all my heart into it, hoping the judges would see me as a worthy potential owner. My parents took me to visit the five month old colt named “Prankster”, a fuzzy engaging little fellow who was getting plenty of attention from all the children coming to visit him, and that visit made me even more determined. When I read these words now, I realize there is nothing quite like the passion of an eleven year old girl:

“Why I Should Have a Horse”

When God created the horse, He made one of the best creatures in the world.  Horses are a part of me.  I love them and want to win Prankster for the reasons which follow:

To begin with, I’m young enough to have the time to spend with the colt.  My older sister had a horse when she was in high school and her school activities kept her too busy to really enjoy the horse.  I’ll have time to give Prankster the love and training needed.

Another reason is that I’m shy.  When I was younger I found it hard to talk to anybody except my family.  When my sister got the horse I soon became a more friendly person.  When her horse recently died (about when Prankster was born), I became very sad.  If I could win that colt, I couldn’t begin to describe my happiness. 

Also I believe I should have a horse because it would be a good experience to learn how to be patient and responsible while teaching Prankster the same thing. 

When we went to see Prankster, I was invited into the stall to brush him.  I was never so thrilled in my life!  The way he stood there so majestically, it told me he would be a wonderful horse. 

If I should win him, I would be the happiest girl alive.  I would work hard to train him with love and understanding.  If I could only get the wonderful smell and joy of horses back in our barn!

I mailed in my essay and waited.

On November 27, 1965, my mother and I listened to the local horse program that was always featured on the radio at 8 AM on Saturday mornings. They said they had over 300 essays to choose from, and it was very difficult for them to decide who the colt should go to. I knew then I didn’t have a chance. They had several consolation prizes for 2nd through 4th place, so they read several clever poems and heartfelt essays, all written by teenagers.  My heart was sinking by the minute.

The winning essay was next.  The first sentence sounded very familiar to me, but it wasn’t until several sentences later that we realized they were reading my essay, not someone else’s. My mom was speechless, trying to absorb the hazards of her little girl owning a young untrained horse. I woke up my dad, sick in bed with an early season flu, who opened one eye, looked at me, and said, “I guess I better get a fence up today, right?”  I have been forever grateful to him that he pulled himself together and put up a wood corral that afternoon, despite feeling so miserable.

That little bay colt came home to live with me the next day. Over the next few months he and I did learn together, as I checked out horse training books from the library, and joined a 4H group with helpful leaders to guide me. I made plenty of mistakes along the way, learning from each one, including those that left behind scars I still bear. Prankster was a typical adolescent gelding who lived up to his name — full of mischief with a sense of humor and a penchant for finding trouble, but he was mine and that was all that mattered.

By the time he was two, I was sitting on him, and when he was three, my Christmas present that year was a beautiful western saddle. We spent many happy hours riding trails in the nearby woods and enjoying life in the moment.

When it was time for me to leave for college, I knew I could no longer afford to keep him, so found Prankster a forever home to live out his days as I spent the next 13 years of my life living and learning in the city. Horse dreams still visited me in my sleep and swept me into book stores to pore over horse books. I knew I’d had my once-in-a-lifetime special “gift” by winning my first horse, so the next horse I would have to earn on my own. I worked long hours, many nights and many holidays, earning what I could to eventually move from Seattle to own land for a farm.

Along the way, I met a farm boy also temporarily displaced to Seattle and together we worked toward building our farm dream while planning our future together. During our weekly Friday evening bookstore visit, I had opened one discount picture book and discovered the golden horses of my childhood dreams, running wild through green mountain meadows, their white manes and tails streaming out behind them. I bought that book in a heartbeat, and began my search for a breed previously unknown to me before — the magical Haflinger. Within a month of our moving to the farm, on November 27, 1985, our first Haflinger mare joined us. Over the past thirty years, we’ve owned dozens of Haflingers, most born and raised here, and today six are still happily munching hay out in our barn.

Twenty years separated my first horse from my second horse, but November 27 stands out as the day a kid’s dream came true. As I clean our barn every morning, I marvel at the privilege it has been to share this land and this farm life with my husband, my children, and these beautiful horses. They all owned me, heart and soul, because of a first prize fuzzy bay colt fifty years ago.

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Prankster helping my dad build a new farm building

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Prankster’s favorite drinking fountain

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Galaxy, the first Haflinger born on our farm, entertaining at the fair

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A few of our many BriarCroft Haflingers raised here over the years

Thirty Halloweens Ago

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On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car and headed north out of Seattle. I don’t recall looking back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. I was leaving the city for a new rural home and an uncertain professional future.

I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family was on its way, and we were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn. A real (sort of) farm. Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that simple commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed very complete.

I will never forget the freedom I felt on that drive north. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting: the ideal family practice with a delightfully diverse patient population of African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Muslims and Orthodox Jews. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. Again, we had new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.

Thirty years later our children have long ago grown and gone, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons are married to wonderful women, our daughter is finishing her student teaching and starting the job hunt. Each child moved to a different big city spread out in three different time zones from us. A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. Our second larger farm is more than we can realistically manage by ourselves in our spare time. My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fits me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day.

My husband is talking retirement in a little over two years. I’m not so sure for myself. I have never not worked and don’t know how I can stop when the need in health care is greater than ever.

The freedom I felt that rainy Halloween day three decades ago, as Seattle disappeared in the rear view mirror,  meant I no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church and serving on various community boards. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty years and three grown children later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together, still pregnant with the possibility that life is never truly complete when there is always a new day just around the corner.

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