Every now and then, I forget to turn off the lights in the barn. I usually notice just before I go to bed, when the farm’s boundaries seem to have drawn in close. That light makes the barn seem farther away than it is — a distance I’m going to have to travel before I sleep. The weather makes no difference. Neither does the time of year.
Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses. ~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn
My favorite thing about walking up from the barn at night is looking at the lights glowing in our house, knowing there is life happening there, even though each child has flown away to distant cities. There is love happening there as Dan and I adjust to an “alone” life together. There are still future years there – as many as God grants us to stay on the farm.
It is home and it is light and if all it takes is a walk from a darkened barn to remind me, I’ll leave the lights on in the barn at night more often.
A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing,
a weather-vane, a wind-mill, a winnowing flail,
the dust in the barn door; a moment,
– -and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect;
but it leaves a relish behind it,
a longing that the accident may happen again. ~Walter Pater from “The Renaissance”
The accident of light does happen, again and again, but only when I least expect it. I need to be ready; in a blink, it can be gone. Yet in that moment, everything is changed and transformed forever.
The thing itself, trivial and transient, becomes something other, merely because of how it is illuminated.
As am I, trivial and transient: lit from outside myself, transfigured by a love and sacrifice that I can never expect or deserve. I need to be ready for it.
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”
When I stroll in the fields on summer evenings,
the horses raise their heads in greeting,
still chewing, they walk up slowly from pasture
to follow me inside for the night.
They could choose not to leave the field,
to enjoy freedom all night under the stars outside,
yet they choose the walls and doors of the barn,
and joining with me when I call.
Come and go gently, my friends. Come and go gently.
And so will I.
Underneath the stars I’ll meet you Underneath the stars I’ll greet you There beneath the stars I’ll leave you Before you go of your own free will
Underneath the stars you met me Underneath the stars you left me I wonder if the stars regret me At least you’ll go of your own free will
Here beneath the stars I’m mending I’m here beneath the stars not ending Why on eartham I pretending? I’m here again, the stars befriending They come and go of their own free will
Go gently Go gently
Underneath the stars you met me And underneath the stars you left me I wonder if the stars regret me I’m sure they’d like me if they only met me They come and go of their own free will
Go gently ~Kate Rusby “Underneath the Stars”
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Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass The water in the horse-trough shines. Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.
A hen stares at nothing with one eye, Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky A swallow falls and, flickering through The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.
I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass, Afraid of where a thought might take me – as This grasshopper with plated face Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand Lift the farm like a lid and see Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
~Norman MacCaig “Summer Farm”
Most of my life, a barn has stood a few dozen yards from my back door. As a small child, I learned to ride a tricycle on the wooden planks of the chicken coop, sat on the bony back of a Guernsey cow while my father milked by hand, found new litters of kittens in cobweb-filled hideaways, and leaped with abandon into stacks of loose hay in a massive loft.
As a young girl, I preferred to clean stalls rather than my bedroom. The acoustics in the barn were first rate for singing loud and the horses and cows never covered their ears, although the dog would usually howl. A hay loft was the perfect spot for hiding a writing journal and reading books. It was a place for quiet contemplation and sometimes fervent prayer when I was worried: a sanctuary for turbulent adolescence.
Through college and medical training, I managed to live over twelve years in the city without access to a barn or the critters that lived inside. I searched for plenty of surrogate retreats: the library stacks, empty chapels within the hospitals I worked, even a remote mountainous wildlife refuge in central Africa.
It is hard to ignore one’s genetic destiny to struggle as a steward of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. My blood runs with DNA of wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called me to come back home and so I heeded over thirty years ago, along with a husband from a dairy farming background himself, and eventually there followed three children, now grown and flown far from the farm.
Like a once sturdily built barn now sagging and leaning, I too am buffeted by the gales of mid-life. My doors have been flung open wide, my roof/lid lifted and pulled off, at times leaving me reeling. More and more now I need restoration, renewal and reconciliation. And so I set to work to fix up my life with all the skill I can muster: setting things right where they’ve been upended, painting a fresh coat where chipped and dulled, shoring up rotted foundations.
If only I can get it done well enough, with sufficient perseverance, I surely can recover from the latest blow. But my hard work and determination is not enough. It is never enough. I am never finished.
The only true sanctuary isn’t found in a weather-beaten barn of rough-hewn old growth timbers vulnerable to the winds of life.
The barnstorming must happen within me, in the depths of my soul, comforted only by the encompassing and salvaging arms of God.
There I am held, transformed and restored, grateful beyond measure.
The grass so little has to do,— A sphere of simple green, With only butterflies to brood, And bees to entertain, And stir all day to pretty tunes The breezes fetch along, And hold the sunshine in its lap And bow to everything; And thread the dews all night, like pearls, And make itself so fine,— A duchess were too common For such a noticing. And even when it dies, to pass In odors so divine, As lowly spices gone to sleep, Or amulets of pine. And then to dwell in sovereign barns, And dream the days away,— The grass so little has to do, I wish I were a hay! ~Emily Dickinson
This is the week of the year our barn is at its emptiest, right before it fills up again. There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores.
Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.
The dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.
There is no heart beat left in an empty barn. It is in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I can hardly bear to go inside.
The weather is cooperating so the grass was cut two days ago. Today it will be tossed about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding”, then tomorrow raked into windrows and baled for pick up by our “family and friends” hay crew.
Suddenly, the barn is shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. This often goes on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity. It almost looks as if it is on fire.
Vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another year.
A healthy rhythm is elusive in this modern age of full time jobs off the farm, necessitating careful coordination with the schedule of the farmer who cuts and bales for many neighbors all within the same window of good weather. The farmer races his equipment from field to field, swooping around with a goliath tractor taking 12 foot swaths, raising dust clouds, and then on to the next job. It is so unlike the rhythm of a century ago when a horse drawn mower cut the tall grass in a gentle four foot swath, with a pulsing shh shh shh shh shh shh tempo that could be heard stretching across the fields. It is an unfamiliar sound today, the almost-silence of no motor at all, just the jingle of the harness and the mower blades slicing back and forth as the team pulls the equipment down the field. We’ve lost the peacefulness of a team of horses at work, necessitating a slower pace and the need to stop at the end of a row for a breather.
The old barn will be resuscitated once again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales, the walls will groan with the pressure of stacks. The missing shingles on the roof will be replaced and the doors locked tight against the winter winds. But it will be breathing on its own, having needed only a short rest these last few weeks.
Inside, once again, filled to the brim, life is held tight by twine, just waiting to be released.
(I’ve been asked how my blog came to be named “Barnstorming” — most assume it is a doctor-farmer’s twist on “brainstorming” which didn’t occur to me until someone mentioned it to me. Instead, the name has nothing to do with brains, baseball teams, politics or daredevil piloting of small airplanes. It has everything to do with a storm taking place in our barn at the beginning of Holy Week years ago.)
An unexpected southerly wind hit suddenly late Sunday night, gusting up to 40 miles an hour and slamming the house with drenching rain as we prepared to go to bed. Chores in the barn had been done hours before, but as we had not been expecting a storm, the north/south center aisle doors were still open, and I could hear banging and rattling as they were buffeted in the wind. I quickly dressed to go latch the doors for the night, but the tempest had done its damage. Hay, empty buckets, horse blankets, tack and cat food had blown all over the barn aisle, while the Haflingers stood wide-eyed and fretful in their stalls.
A storm was blowing inside the barn as well as outside it.
It took some time to tidy up the mess after the doors were secured but all was soon made right. The wind continued to bash at the doors, but it no longer could touch anything inside them. The horses relaxed and got back to their evening meal though the noise coming from outside was deafening. I headed back up to the house and slept fitfully listening to the wind blow all night, wondering if the metal barn roof might pull off in a gust, exposing everything within.
Yet in the new daylight this Monday morning, all is calm. The barn is still there, the roof still on, the horses are where they belong and all seems to be as it was before the barnstorming wind. Or so it might appear.
This wind heralds another storm coming this week that hits with such force that I’m knocked off my feet, swept away, and left bruised and breathless. No latches, locks, or barricades are strong enough to protect me from what will come over the next few days.
Yesterday He rode in on a donkey softly, humbly, and wept at what He knew.
Today, He overturns the tables in His fury.
Tomorrow he echoes the destruction that is to happen.
Wednesday, He teaches the people to prepare them, then rests in anticipation.
On Thursday, He kneels, pours water over dusty feet, presides over a simple meal, and then, abandoned, sweats blood in agonized prayer.
By Friday, all culminates in the perfect storm, transforming everything in its path, leaving nothing untouched.
The silence on Saturday is deafening.
Next Sunday, the Son rises and returns, all is calm, all is well, all set to right. He calls my name, my heart burns within me at His words and I can never be the same again.
Barnstormed to the depths of my soul. Doors flung open wide, the roof pulled off, everything blown away and now replaced, renewed and reconciled.
May it be done as He has said, again and yet again.
And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at ameeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.
“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon — and mean it.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bails, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.
“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.'” So God made a farmer. ~Paul Harvey (1978)
Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land’s inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery. ~Wendell Berry
Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. ~Wendell Berry from Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food
The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” ~Masanobu Fukuoka
It is hard for my husband and I to ignore our genetic destiny to struggle as stewards of the land through the challenges of economics and weather. Our blood runs with DNA of dairy farmers, wheat and lentil growers, loggers, cattle ranchers, work horse teamsters, and flower and vegetable gardeners. A farm eventually called us from the city and our professional lives to come back home and care for a piece of ground and its animals. So we heeded and here we remain, some 32 years later, children raised and gone.
Perhaps the call of the farmer genes will bring one of them back to the land. Because farmers are hand-picked for the job by God Himself.