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

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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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Stay Gold, Ponyboy

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Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
~Robert Frost “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”
~S.E. Hinton from The Outsiders
Man’s innocence was lost
the moment we chose
knowledge over obedience.
The gold in our creation
sinks to grief as
we make the same mistakes
again and again;
each dawn reenacts our beginnings
and each winter our endings.
Our only salvage is a rescue
borne of selflessness,
an obedience beyond imagining.
He stays gold for us
so we are illuminated.
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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

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Fair Thee Well

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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.