Turn Aside and Look: Cleaning Up the Mess

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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 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

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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.

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Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer
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Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

 

So God Made a Farmer

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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 a meeting 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)

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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

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The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
~Masanobu Fukuoka 

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photo by Nate Gibson

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.

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An Indecision of Weather

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…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”

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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A Search for Solid Footing

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A few days of heavy rain have transformed our farm to mush. Puddles are everywhere, the ground is saturated and mushrooms are sprouting in the most unlikely places. Slugs are seeking out mushrooms for refuge from the deluge. It’s even too wet for the trumpeter swans and Canadian geese who glean in the nearby harvested cornfields, filling up on dropped corn kernels. They now are flying overhead to head south to drier places, noisily honking, their wings swooshing the air as they pass over.

The wet weather means chores are more challenging on our farm. Some of the stalls in the barn have flooded so moving the horses out to pasture for the day means braving wind and rain and soppy footing. At the end of the day, they eagerly walk back to the barn, soaked and dripping, diving into fresh shavings for a good roll and shake. I can appreciate the relief they feel as I like getting back to solid footing too at the end of the day. Much of my day also seems to be spent navigating slippery slopes and muddy terrain, both real and figurative.

It isn’t always apparent what ground is treacherous from appearance alone. The grassy slope heading down to the barn from the house looks pretty benign until I start navigating in a driving rainstorm in the dark, and suddenly the turf becomes a skating rink and I’m finding I’m picking my way carefully with a flashlight. The path I seek is to find the patches of moss, which happily soaks up the water like a sponge carpet, so not as slick to walk on. Even if moss ordinarily is not a welcome addition to lawn or pasture–I do appreciate it this time of year.

Another challenge is pushing a wheelbarrow with two 60 pound bales of hay back up that slope to our largest paddock for the day’s feeding. There is no traction underneath to help my feet stick to the ground for the push uphill. I can feel particularly foolish at this futile effort–my feet sometimes slide out beneath me, landing me on my knees down on the ground, soaked and humiliated, and the wheelbarrow goes skidding right back down to the barn door where it started.

Trusting the footing underneath my feet is crucial day to day. If I am to get work done most efficiently and make progress, I must have solid ground to tread. But the stuff of real life, like our farm’s ground, doesn’t come made to order that way. Some days are slick and treacherous, unpredictable and ready to throw me to my knees, while other days are simple, easy, and smooth sailing. Waking in the morning, I cannot know what I will face that day–whether I need my highest hip boots to wade through the muck or whether I can dash about in comfy house slippers. My attitude has something to do with it–sometimes my “internal” footing is loose and slippery, tripping up those around me as well as myself. That is when I need most to plant myself in the solid foundation that I know will support me during those treacherous times.

I need my faith, my need to forgive and experience forgiveness, my people holding me when I fall, and to help pick them up when they are down. Without those footings every day, I’m nothing more than a muddy soiled mess lying face down on the ground wondering if I’ll ever walk again.

There is good reason I end up on my knees at times. It is the best reminder of where I should be full time if it were not for stronger hands that lift me up, clean me up and guide my footsteps all the rest of my days.

 

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Each Day’s Chores

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There is much about autumn farm chores that is good for the weary heart.

When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of six different equine voices.

The routine:  loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am generally calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from six sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.

The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may have had a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promise to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.

Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite to remind me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky.  They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.

There is balance of the ordinary and extraordinary within the profundity of farm chores,  and within the rhythm of autumn’s transition to winter.

Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.

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photo of colors in New Hampshire by Ben Gibson

Restoration

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The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something undone.
~Rae Armantrout from “Unbidden”

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What is it that goes on within the soul,
that it takes greater delight if things it loves are found
or restored to it than if it had always possessed them?

…The storm tosses seafarers about and threatens them with shipwreck:
they all grow pale at their coming death.
Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly,
just as they had feared exceedingly.

Or a dear friend is ill.…
All those who long to see him in good health are in mind sick along with him.
He gets well again, and although he does not yet walk with his former vigor,
there is joy such as did not obtain before when he walked well and strong.…

Everywhere a great joy is preceded by a greater suffering.
~Augustine of Hippo from Confessions

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(written 15 years ago today)
Tonight was a moment of epiphany in my life as a mother and farmer. This world suddenly feels so uncertain after the horrific and tragic events today, yet simple moments of grace-filled routine offer themselves up unexpectedly.  I know the Lord is beside us no matter what has happened.

For me, the routine is tucking the horses into bed, almost as important to me as tucking our children into bed. In fact, my family knows I cannot sit down to dinner until the job is done out in the barn–so human dinner waits until the horses are fed and their beds prepared.

My work schedule is usually such that I must take the horses out to their paddocks from their cozy box stalls while the sky is still dark, and then bring them back in later in the day after the sun goes down. We have quite a long driveway from barn to the paddocks which are strategically placed by the road so the horses are exposed to all manner of road noise, vehicles, logging, milk and hay trucks, school buses, and never blink when these zip past their noses. They must learn from weanling stage on to walk politely and respectfully alongside me as I make that trek from the barn in the morning and back to the barn in the evening.

Bringing the horses in tonight was a particular joy because I was a little earlier than usual and not needing to rush: the sun was setting golden orange, the world had a glow, the poplar and maple leaves carpeting the driveway and each horse walked with me without challenge,  no rushing, pushing, or pulling–just walking alongside me like the partner they have been taught to be.

I enjoy putting each into their own box stall bed at night, with fresh fluffed shavings, a pile of sweet smelling hay and fresh water. I see them breathe a big sigh of relief that they have their own space for the night–no jostling for position or feed, no hierarchy for 12 hours, and then it is back out the next morning to the herd, with all the conflict that can come from coping with other individuals in the same space.  My horses love their stalls, because that is their safe sanctuary where peace and calm is restored, that is where they get special scratching and hugs, and visits from a little red haired girl who loves them and sings them songs.

Then comes my own restoration of returning to the sanctuary of our house, feeding my human family and tucking three precious children into bed, even though two are now taller than me. The world feels momentarily predictable within our walls, comforting us in the midst of devastation and tragedy elsewhere.   Hugging a favorite pillow and wrapping up in a familiar soft blanket, there is warmth and safety in being tucked in.

I’ll continue to search for these moments of restoration whenever I’m frightened, hurting and unable to cope.  I need a quiet routine to help remind me how blessed we are to be here to wake each morning to regroup, renew and restore when it seems the ground has given way.

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A Silken Ladder

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The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
~E.B. White “Natural History”

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No matter where I go to complete farm chores this time of year, I’m getting a face full of spider web and often a spider or two or three in my hair.  The spinners are very busy in the night dropping from rafters and branches, leaping courageously into uncharted territory with only their thread as rescue cable.

I am not so brave as they, nor as diligent.  Instead, I’m lollygagging in the art gallery of their fine work,  simply appreciating the abundant crop of silken ladders and hammocks, while trying not to destroy them.

I’m drawn back morning after morning to see what they’ve caught and how well they endure.  As long as I keep my face out of their masterpiece, all is well.

All is well.

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