Our Eyes Locked…

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The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.

Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains, with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders. But we don’t. We keep our skulls. So.
~Annie Dillard from “Living Like Weasels”

I watch you.  And you me.  Our eyes locked and someone threw away the key.

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A Hot Day on the Farm

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These hot humid summer days have been barely tolerable for a temperate climate sissy pants like me.  I am melting even as I get up in the morning, and our house has been two degrees warmer (93 degrees) than the out of doors.

One morning as I drove the ten miles of country roads to get to work in town,  I was listening to the news on the car radio when I puzzled over why the radio station would be playing cat meows over the news.  I turned off the radio, and realized the meows didn’t go away.

As soon as I was able, I pulled into a parking lot and surveyed my car from back to front, looking under seats, opened the back, scratched my head.  Then the plaintive meowing started again—under the hood.  I struggled with the latch, lifted up the hood and a distressed bundle of kitten fur hurtled out at me, clinging all four little greasy paws to my shirt.  Unscathed except for greasy feet, this little two month old kitten had survived a 50 mile per hour ride for 20 minutes, including several turns and stops.  He immediately crawled up to my shoulder, settled in by my ear, and began to purr.  I contemplated showing up at a meeting at work with a kitten and grease marks all over me vs. heading back home with my newly portable neck warmer.  I opted to call in with the excuse “my cat hitchhiked to work with me this morning and is thumbing for a ride back home” and headed back down the road to take him back to the barn where he belongs.

At that point, my meeting at work was already over so I dawdled in the barn before heading back down the road.   I noticed the Haflinger horses had broken through our electric wire fencing into a more inviting adjacent field so I wandered out to check fence line.   The hot wire must have been shorting out somewhere in the pasture.  As I approached the fence, I heard numerous snaps and pops that I interpreted as hot wire shorting out in the dry grass and weeds, creating a potential fire hazard with the winds whipping up.  I could hear snaps all up and down the fenceline, but could not see sparks to lead me to the problem spot.

As I studied the wire, I heard a little “snap” and a tiny seed pod burst open in front of my eyes, scattering its contents very effectively on the ground below.  It was dried common vetch seed pods that were snapping and popping, not hot wire shorting out.  They were literally exploding all up and down the fenceline in a symphony of seed release.  Not a spark to be seen — at least not of the electrical variety — only botanical.

So I learned practical advice to be content on a hot day on the farm:

Remember to bang on my car hood before I start the ignition, cats do have nine lives, keep the hotwire hot to keep the horses where they belong,  and especially, vetch doesn’t start wildfires, but explodes wildly in its noisy reproductive cycle.  If vetch can find ecstasy on a hot day, so can we all.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

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The Gate Flung Open

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To young friends on their wedding day

Today is the day the pasture gate is flung open
after a long winter; you are let out on grass
to a world vast and green and lush
beyond your wildest imaginings.

You run leaping and bounding,
hair flying in the wind, heels kicked up
in the freedom to form together
a binding trust of covenant love.

You share with us your rich feast today,
as grace grows like grass
that stretches to eternity yet bound safely
within the fence rows of your vows.

When rains come, as hard times always do,
and this spring day feels far removed,
when covered in the mud or frost or drought of life,
know your promises were made to withstand any storm.

Even though leaning and breaking, as fences tend to do,
they remind you to whom you belong and where home is,
anchoring you if you lose your way,
pointing you back to the gate you bounded through.

Once there you will remember the gift of today:
a community of faith and our God blessed
this opened gate, these fences, and most of all your love
as you feast with joy on the richness of His spring pasture.
2013

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Turning the Light Off

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Marlee has gone home this morning, far sooner than we planned.  She was only twenty two, born only two months after our daughter’s birth, much too young an age for a Haflinger to die.

But something dire was happening to her over the last two weeks — not eating much,  an expanding girth, then shortness of breath, and last week it was confirmed she had untreatable lymphoma.

Her bright eyes were shining to the end so it was very hard to ask the vet to turn the light off.  But the time had come.

Marlee M&B came to us as a six month old “runty orphan” baby by the lovely stallion Sterling Silver,  but she was suddenly weaned at three days when her mama Melissa died of sepsis.  She never really weaned from her bottle/bucket feeding humans Stefan and Andrea Bundshuh at M&B Farm in Canada. From them she knew people’s behavior, learned their nonverbal language, and understood human subtleties that most horses never learn. This made her quite a challenge as a youngster as it also meant there was no natural reserve nor natural respect for people. She had no boundaries taught by a mother, so we tried to teach her the proper social cues.

When turned out with the herd as a youngster, she was completely clueless–she’d approach the dominant alpha mare incorrectly, without proper submission, get herself bitten and kicked and was the bottom of the social heap for years, a lonesome little filly with few friends and very few social skills. She had never learned submission with people either, and had to have many remedial lessons on her training path. Once she was a mature working mare, her relationship with people markedly improved as there was structure to her work and predictability for her, and after having her own foals, she picked up cues and signals that helped her keep her foal safe, though she had always been one of our most relaxed “do whatever you need to do” mothers when we handled her foals as she simply never learned that she needed to be concerned.

Over the years, as the herd has changed, Marlee became the alpha mare, largely by default and seniority, so I don’t believe she really trusted her position as “real”. She tended to bully, and react too quickly out of her own insecurity about her inherited position. She was very skilled with her ears but she was also a master at the tail “whip” and the tensed upper lip–no teeth, just a slight wrinkling of the lip.  The herd scattered when they saw her face change.  The irony of it all is that when she was  “on top” of the herd hierarchy, she was more lonely than when she was at the bottom and I think a whole lot less happy as she had few grooming partners any more.

She accompanied us to the fair for a week of display of our Haflingers year after year after year — she could be always counted on to greet the public and enjoy days of braiding and petting and kids sitting on her back.

The day she started formal under saddle training under Val Bash was when the light bulb went off in her head–this was a job she could do! This was constant communication and interaction with a human being, which she craved! This was what she was meant for! And she thrived under saddle, advancing quickly in her skills, almost too fast, as she wanted so much to please her trainer.

She has had a still unequaled record among North American Haflingers. She was not only regional champion in her beginner novice division of eventing as a pregnant 5 year old, but also received USDF Horse of the Year awards in First and Second Level dressage that year as the highest scoring Haflinger.

With Jessica Heidemann she did a “bridleless” ride display in front of hundreds of people at the annual Haflinger event, and with Garyn Heidemann as instructor,  she became an eventing pony for a young rider whose blonde hair matched Marlee’s.  She galloped with abandon in the field on bareback rides with Emily Vander Haak and became our daughter Lea’s special riding horse over the last few years.

She had a career of mothering along with intermittent riding work, with 5 foals –Winterstraum, Marquisse, Myst, Wintermond, and Nordstrom—each from different stallions, and each very different from one another.

This mare had such a remarkable work ethic, was “fine-tuned” so perfectly with a sensitivity to cues–that our daughter said:   “Mom, it’s going to make me such a better rider because I know she pays attention to everything I do with my body–whether my heels are down, whether I’m sitting up straight or not.”  Marlee was, to put it simply,  trained to train her riders.

We will miss her high pitched whinny from the barn whenever she heard the back door to the house open. We will miss her pushy head butt on the stall door when it was time to close it up for the night.  We will miss that beautiful unforgettable face and those large deep brown eyes where the light was on.

What a ride she had for twenty two years, that dear little orphan.  What a ride she gave to many who trained her and who she trained over the years.   Though I never climbed on her back, what joy she gave me,  the surrogate mom who loved and fed her, unable to resist those bright eyes, which are now closed in peace.

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Photo Montage by Emily Dieleman

Best of Barnstorming Photos Summer/Fall 2014

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photo by Tomomi Gibson

photo by Tomomi Gibson

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Twenty Nine Halloweens

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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 before to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health 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 live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with five 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 little sister tortoise shell calico kittens 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 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 with me into the Mazda, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding a dog Tango, then a Haflinger horse Greta, then Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the 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, new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added another baby, Ben and then another, Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.

Twenty nine years later our children have long ago grown and gone, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons each married in the last year, our daughter becoming more independent as she finishes her college career in another year, each child to a different big city spread out in three different time zones from us. A few cats, two corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends. Our second larger farm seems 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 three 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, watching Seattle disappear in the rear view mirror,  meant I no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams for an hour, but now 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 at church and serving on various community boards. I love how 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 more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet me in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids me good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin beside me in a little Mazda and a husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, twenty nine years and three grown children later,  I celebrate my Halloween transition anniversary once more.  We find ourselves on our own yet again, still pregnant with possibility for our future together.

 

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The Borders of Heaven

photo by Heather Bullis

photo by Heather Bullis

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 “The Evening is Tranquil, and Dawn is a Thousand Miles Away”

 

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