My hands are torn by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced by my ulcer, not a lance. ~Hayden Carruth from “Emergency Haying”
Blessed are the miles of baling twine encircling tons of hay in our barn, twice daily cut loose, freed of grasses and hung up to reuse again in myriad ways:
~~tighten a sagging fence latch a swinging gate tie shut a gaping door replace a broken handle hang a water bucket suspend a sagging overalls fix a broken halter entertain a bored barn cat snug a horse blanket belt~~
Blessed be this duct tape of the barn when even duct tape won’t work; a fix-all handy in every farmer’s pocket made beautiful by a morning fog’s weeping.
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 almost three 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.
Deep in the grip of the midwinter cold The stars glitter and sparkle. All are asleep on this lonely farm, Deep in the winter night. The pale white moon is a wanderer, snow gleams white on pine and fir, snow gleams white on the roofs. Only tomten is awake.
Rubs his hand through his beard and hair, Shakes his head and his cap. Turns at his own command, Turns to the task at hand. He must appreciate what life he’s got By finding ways to tie time’s knot.
The ponies dream on in the cold moon’s light, Summer dreams in each stall. And free of harness and whip and rein, Tomten starts to twist and twirl each mane While the manger they drowse over Brims with fragrant clover.
Still is the forest and all the land, Locked in this wintry year. Only the distant waterfall Whispers and sighs in his ear. The tomten listens and, half in dream, Thinks that he hears Time’s endless stream, And wonders, how can its knots be bound? Where will its eternal source to be found? ~adapted from “Tomten” by Viktor Rydberg
It is hard to say exactly when the first one moved in. This farm was distinctly gnome-less when we bought it, largely due to twenty-seven hungry barn cats residing here at the time, in various stages of pregnancy, growth, development and aging. It took awhile for the feline numbers to whittle down to an equilibrium that matched the rodent population. In the mean time, our horse numbers increased from three to seven to over fifteen with a resultant exponential increase in barn chores. One winter twenty years ago, I was surprised to walk in the barn one morning to find numerous complex knots tied in the Haflingers’ manes. Puzzling as I took precious time to undo them, (literally adding hours to my chores), I knew I needed to find the cause or culprit.
It took some research to determine the probable origin of these tight tangles. Based on everything I read, they appeared to be the work of Gernumbli faenilesi, a usually transient species of gnome called “tomtens” preferring to live in barns and haylofts in close proximity to heavy maned ponies. In this case, as the tangles persisted for months, they clearly had moved in, lock, stock and barrel. The complicated knots were their signature pride and joy, their artistic way of showing their devotion to a happy farm and trying to slow down time so they can stay in residence eternally.
All well and good, but the extra work was killing my fingers and thinning my horses’ hair. I plotted ways to get them to cease and desist.
I set live traps of cheese and peanut butter cracker sandwiches, hoping to lure them into cages for a “catch and release”. Hoping to drive them away, I played polka music on the radio in the barn at night. Hoping to be preemptive, I braided the manes up to be less tempting but even those got twisted and jumbled. Just as I was becoming ever more desperate and about to bring in more feral cats, the tangling stopped.
It appeared the tomtens had moved on to a more hospitable habitat. I had succeeded in my gnome eradication plan. Or so I thought.
Not long after, I had the distinct feeling of being watched as I walked past some rose bushes in the yard. I stopped to take a look, expecting to spy the shining eyes of one of the pesky raccoons that frequents our yard to steal from the cats’ food dish. Instead, beneath the thorny foliage, I saw two round blue eyes peering at me serenely. This little gal was not at all intimidated by me, and made no move to escape. She was an ideal example of Gernumbli gardensi, a garden gnome known for their ability to keep varmints and vermin away from plants and flowers. They also happen to actively feud with Gernumbli Faenilesi so that explained the sudden disappearance of my little knot-tying pests in the barn.
It wasn’t long before more Gardensi moved in, a gnomey infestation. They tended to arrive in pairs and bunches, liked to play music, smoked pipes, played on a teeter totter, worked with garden tools, took naps on sun-warmed rocks and one even preferred a swing. They are a bit of a rowdy bunch but I enjoy their happy presence and jovial demeanor.
As long as they continue to coexist peaceably with us and each other, keep the varmints and their knot tying cousins away, and avoid bad habits and swear words, I’m quite happy they are here. Actually, I’ve given them the run of the place. I’ve been told to be cautious as there are now news reports of an even more invasive species of gnome, Gernumbli kitschsi, that could move in and take over if I’m not careful.
I shudder to think. One has to consider the neighborhood.
She lingered in that charming little garden to say hello to the gnomes, such a glorious infestation! How few wizards realize just how much we can learn from the wise little gnomes-or, to give them their correct names, the Gernumbli gardensi. ‘Ours do know a lot of excellent swear words,’ said Ron… ~J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.
Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.
The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.
This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring. ~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”
As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.
Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.
Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.
Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.
There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.
If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future, then surely so can we.
Jesus our brother, kind and good Was humbly born in a stable rude And the friendly beasts around Him stood, Jesus our brother, kind and good.
Thus every beast by some good spell, In the stable dark was glad to tell Of the gift he gave Immanuel, The gift he gave Immanuel.
There fared a mother driven forth Out of an inn to roam; In the place where she was homeless All men are at home.
A Child in a foul stable, Where the beasts feed and foam, Only where He was homeless Are you and I at home;
To an open house in the evening Home shall men come, To the end of the way of the wandering star, To the things that cannot be and that are, To the place where God was homeless And all men are at home. ~G.K. Chesterton from “The House of Christmas” (1915)
If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the grocery store check-out racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween just past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. We have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beaten to a “best ever holiday” pulp.
All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying helpless and homeless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs – it is home for them. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.
The shepherds in the hills that night were starving and homeless too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them and the invitation to “home”, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.
His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”.
Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.
Now I too am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times homeless, hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: He offers us a home within his homelessness, a treasure to be shared plain and simple, and nurture without end.
Who needs Christmas cookies, fancy toys and the latest fads to fill the empty spot deep inside?
Instead, you are invited home to eat your fill – just look to the manger.
O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in præsepio.
…let me live in a small room up the narrow stairs from the stalls, the horse shifting comfortably below, browsing and chewing sweet hay. A single bed with blanket the color of factory-sweepings will suffice, each day shaped to the same arc, because days can only end when the lock slides free on the stall’s Dutch door, and I lead the horse in, then muscle the corroded bolt shut. That’s what days are for: I cannot rest until the horse comes home. ~Julie Bruck from “To Bring the Horse Home”
The best moment in the barn is in the evening just following the hay feeding, as the animals are settling down to some serious chewing. I linger in the center aisle, listening to the rhythmic sounds coming from six stalls. It is a most soothing contented cadence, first their lips picking up the grass, then the chew chew chew chew and a pause and it starts again. It’s even better in the dark, with the lights off.
I’ve enjoyed listening to the eating sounds at night from the remote vantage point of my bedroom TV monitor system set up to watch my very pregnant mares before foaling. A peculiar lullaby of sorts, strange as that seems, but when all my farm animals are chewing and happy, I am at peace and sleep better.
It reminds me of those dark deep nights of feeding my own newborns, rocking back and forth with the rhythm of their sucking. It is a moment of being completely present and peaceful, and knowing at that moment, nothing else matters–nothing else at all.
If I am very fortunate, each day I live has a rhythm that is reassuring and steady, like the sounds of hay chewing, or rocking a baby. I awake thinking about where my next step will bring me, and then the next, like each chew of sweet hay. I try to live in each moment fully, without distraction by the worry of the unknown.
But the reality is:
life’s rhythms are often out of sync,
the cadence is jarring,
the sounds are discordant,
sometimes I’m the one being chewed on, so pain replaces peacefulness.
Maybe that is why this lullaby in the barn~~this sanctuary~~is so treasured. It brings me home to that doubting center of myself that needs reminding that pain is fleeting, and peace, however elusive now, is forever. I always know where to find it for a few minutes at the end of every day, in a pastoral symphony of sorts.
Someday my hope for heaven will be angel choruses of glorious praise, augmenting a hay-chewing lullaby.
The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice;
talked of warm kitchens,
of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings,
of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings,
when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender;
of the purring of contented cats,
and the twitter of sleepy canaries. ~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know certain smells transport me more effectively than any other mode of travel. One whiff of a familiar scent can take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode. I am so in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, tastes, feels everything just as it was before.
The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure. Cinnamon becomes my Grandma’s farm kitchen full of rising breakfast rolls, roasting turkey is my mother’s chaotic kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread is my own kitchen during those years I needed to knead as therapy during medical training.
Sometimes I have the privilege of holding infants whose skin smells of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvet of my own childrens’. The newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own. My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.
The garden yields its own treasure: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, mint, lemon verbena and lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes wafting through open bedroom windows in my childhood home. And of course the richness of petrichor: the fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain will remind me of how things smell after a dry spell.
I doubt any aromatherapy kit available includes my most favorite farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding, the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.
Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep forever. Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer, I can sit by my fireplace, close my eyes, open it up and take a whiff now and then and remind me of all I’m grateful for. It’ll take me back to a day just like today when I cooked in the kitchen, held a friend’s sweet infant, moved hay to the horses and cleaned the barn:
I’ll breathe deeply of the smells that speak to me with no uncertain voice.