in the early morning. ~Billy Collins from “Morning”
He had driven half the night From far down San Joaquin Through Mariposa, up the Dangerous Mountain roads, And pulled in at eight a.m. With his big truckload of hay behind the barn. With winch and ropes and hooks We stacked the bales up clean To splintery redwood rafters High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa Whirling through shingle-cracks of light, Itch of haydust in the sweaty shirt and shoes. At lunchtime under Black oak Out in the hot corral, —The old mare nosing lunchpails, Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds— “I’m sixty-eight” he said, “I first bucked hay when I was seventeen. I thought, that day I started, I sure would hate to do this all my life. And dammit, that’s just what I’ve gone and done.” ~Gary Snyder – “Hay for the Horses” from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems
Sure enough, I’ve gone and done it — spent over 50 years of my life taking care of horses. I’m hoping for at least a decade more if this little herd of mostly retired Haflingers continues to bless me with their good health and mine.
No one said I had to do this and plenty of people saw it as folly, including a few folks who continue to aid and abet my horse ownership.
When I was young and agile and full of energy, I didn’t really project ahead fifty years to see that picking up hay bales, moving manure piles and being stepped on by a 1000 pound animal is a bigger deal than it once was.
But fifty years hasn’t changed anything else: the smell of a muzzle, the feel of a powerful muscle under my hand, my reflection in their eyes.
When I lived in a city apartment so many years ago, I knew I sure would love to wake up every morning to take care of horses the rest of my life. And you know what?
All day he’s shoveled green pine sawdust out of the trailer truck into the chute. From time to time he’s clambered down to even the pile. Now his hair is frosted with sawdust. Little rivers of sawdust pour out of his boots.
I hope in the afterlife there’s none of this stuff he says, while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks. I hope there’s no bedding, no stalls, no barn
no more repairs to the paddock gate the horses burst through when snow avalanches off the roof. Although the old broodmare, our first foal, is his, horses, he’s fond of saying, make divorces.
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”
They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now…
~Wendell Berry from “They Sit Together on the Porch”
We know that comfortable silence when all that needs to be said is said and the rest is shared without words. And so it will be.
Two weeks from now, you’ll pack up the files in your desk, box up the legal books, take down the diplomas from your office wall, and close the door on a long lawyering life. The next day you’ll pull on your worn-thin coveralls, lace up your work boots, grab your cap and head out to the barn and wonder what needs fixing next.
There is so much to be done yet, so many tools to use, so much more to be lived.
Let’s walk up the field to catch the sunset, just a couple of aging fools.
It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall,
driving horses, sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory if being in his grace
you do it as your duty.
To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give him glory too.
He is so great that all things give him glory
if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins fromSeeking Peace
Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place. As an act of worship, we must keep cleaning up after ourselves. The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.
I spend over an hour every day year round through all seasons and weather, carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork and moving manure down this barnyard lane because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life. It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes.
In so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.
I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am. I never want to forget to clean up after myself. I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship our God with dungfork and slop pail and wheelbarrow.
It is my privilege. It is His gift to me.
It is Grace that comes alongside me, helping me to live out each day, pitching the muck and carrying the slop and making me clean again – spring, summer, fall and winter.
For years I was convinced that vapor lights turning on at dusk had no place on our farm.
Light pollution and all that.
Then I got older and awkward enough to stumble in the dark on uneven ground while walking to the barn — I needed a light to help me avoid a face plant.
We now have motion detection lights that turn on when I approach. They provide illumination just long enough to get me where I need to go and once I’m safely inside, they fade out and allow the sleeping barnyard the cover of darkness it needs.
The sun itself is a kind of motion detector in reverse – a motion activator/deactivator. When it is time, it turns on to get us moving and we are spurred to the work of the day. When it is time to rest, it shuts off and we become still as chickens in a roost.
It is the rhythm of work and sleep that we need in our lives – a cycle of activity and rest.
And today is Sabbath – the Light is On us.
Even so, we are to stop and listen, cease work and rest.
It is not only prayer that gives God glory,
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam,
whitewashing a wall, driving horses,
everything gives God some glory
if being in his grace you do it as your duty. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too. God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins
Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place. As an act of worship, we keep cleaning up after ourselves. The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.
I spend an hour every day carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life. It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.
I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am. I never want to forget to clean up after myself. I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail in hand.
It is my privilege to work. It is His gift to me.
It is Grace who has come alongside me, pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary, and most amazing of all, cleans me up as well.
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.
…step outside into an indecision of weather, night rain having fallen into frozen air, a silver thaw where nothing moves or sings and all things grieve under the weight of their own shining. ~ James McKean from “Silver Thaw”
Freezing rain needs to happen once a decade just to remind Pacific Northwesterners that regular rain isn’t such a bad thing. We’re in the midst of just such a silver thaw right now. Trees and heavy branches are crashing everywhere, the power is off, the farm generator is on and life as we know it comes to a standstill under an inch thick blanket of ice.
We webfoot Washingtonians tend to grouse about our continuously gray cloud-covered bleak dreary drizzly wet mildew-ridden existence. But that’s not us actually grumbling. That’s just us choosing not to exhibit overwhelming joy. They don’t call Bellingham, the university town ten miles from our farm, the “city of subdued excitement” for no good reason.
When the temperatures drop in our moderate climate and things start to ice up, or the snowflakes start to fall, we celebrate the diversion from rain. Our children are out building snowmen when there is a mere 1/2 inch of snow on the ground, leaving lawns bare and green with one large snowman in the middle. Schools start to cancel at 2 inches because of the lack of snow removal equipment and no bunkers of stored sand for the roads. We natives are pitifully terrible snow drivers compared to the highly experienced (and at times overconfident) midwestern and northeastern transplants in our midst.
But then the weather gets indecisive and this little meteorologic phenomenon known as freezing rain with its resultant silver thaw happens. It warms up enough that it really isn’t snowing but it also really isn’t raining because the temperatures are still subfreezing at ground level, so it spills ice drops from the sky–noisy little splatters that land and stay beaded up on any surface. Branches resemble botanical popsicles, sidewalks become bumpy rinks, roads become sheer black ice, cars are encased in an impenetrable glaze of ice and windows are covered with textured glass twice as thick as usual.
In the midst of this frozen concoction coming from the sky, we delay farm chores as long as possible, knowing it will take major navigation aids to simply make our way out the back steps, across the sidewalk and down the hill, then up the slick cement slope to open the big sliding barn doors. Chains on our muck boots help, to a degree. The big rolling barn doors ice together when the northeast wind blows freezing rain into the tiny gap between them, so it is necessary to break foot holds into the ice on the cement to roll back the doors just enough to sneak through before shutting them quickly behind us, blocking the arctic wind blast. Then we can drink in the warmth of six stalls of hungry Haflinger horses, noisily greeting us by chastising us for our tardiness in feeding them dinner.
Wintertime chores are always more time-consuming but ice time chores are even more so. Water buckets need to be filled individually because the hoses are frozen solid. Hay bales stored in the hay barn must be hauled up the slick slope to the horse barn. Frozen manure piles need to be hacked to pieces with a shovel rather than a pitchfork. Who needs a bench press and fancy weight lifting equipment when you can lift five gallon buckets, sixty pound bales and fifteen pounds of poop per shovel full? Why invest in an elliptical exerciser? This farm life is saving us money… I think.
Once inside each stall, I take a moment to run my ungloved hand over a fluffy golden winter coat, to untangle a mane knot or two, and to breathe in sweet Haflinger hay breath from a velvety nose. It is the reason I will slide downhill, land on my face pushing loads of hay uphill to feed these loved animals no matter how hazardous the footing or miserable the weather. It is why their stalls get picked up more often than our bedrooms, their stomachs are filled before ours, and we pay for hoof trims for the herd but never manicures and pedicures for the people residing in the house.
The temperatures will rise, the overwhelming ice covering will start to thaw and our farm will be happily back to drippy and overcast. No matter what the weather, the barn will always be a refuge of comfort, even when the work is hard and the effort is a challenge for these middle aged farmers.
It’s enough to melt even the most grumbly heart and therefore the thickest coating of ice.