Expecting Catastrophe


photo by Nate Gibson

photo by Nate Gibson

(originally published in Country Magazine in 2007)

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These rascals are two gray tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasing gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.

photo by Nate Gibson

photo by Nate Gibson


Handing Off Dreams

photo by Dan Gibson

photo by Dan Gibson




Originally published in Country Magazine in 2008, now updated

Our treehouse is almost twenty years old, lonesome and empty in our front yard, a constant reminder of abandoned Swiss Family Robinson dreams. Over the years, it has been the setting for a local children’s TV show, laser tag wars, sleep overs and tea parties, even a writer’s retreat with a deck side view of the Cascades to the east, the Canadian Coastal Range to the north and Puget Sound to the west. Now it is a sad shell no longer considered safe, as the support branches in our 100 year old walnut tree are weakening with age and time.

The dream began in February 1995 when our sons were 8 and 6 years old and our daughter just 2. We had plenty of recycled lumber on our old farm and an idea about what to build. My father, retired from his desk job and having recently survived lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, had many previous building projects to his credit, and a few in his mind that he was yet to get to. He was eager to see what he could construct for his grandkids by spring time. He doodled out some sketches of what might work in the tree, and contemplated the physics of a 73 year old man scaling a tree vs. building on the ground and hoisting it up mostly completed. I got more nervous the more I thought about it and hoped we could consider something a little less risky, and hoping the weather wouldn’t clear enough for construction to start any time soon.

The weather cleared, yet my father’s health faded. His cancer relapsed and he was sidelined with a series of doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations and treatment courses. He hung on to that hope of getting the treehouse going by summer, still thinking it through in his mind, still evaluating what he would need to buy to supplement the materials already gathered and piled beneath the tree. In the mean time he lost physical strength day by day.

His dream needed to proceed as he fought his battle, so I borrowed library books on treehouses, and hired two college age brothers who lived down the road to get things started. I figured if my dad got well enough to build again, at least the risky stuff could be already done by the young guys. These brothers took their job very seriously. They pored over the books, took my dad’s plans, worked through the details and started in. They shinnied up the tree, put up pulleys on the high branches and placed the beams, hoisting them by pulling on the ropes with their car bumper. It was working great until the car bumper came off.

I kept my dad updated long distance with photos and stories. It was a diversion for him, but the far off look in his eye told me he wasn’t going to be building anything in this world ever again. He was gone by July. The treehouse was done a month later. It was everything my dad had dreamed of, and more. It had a deck, a protective railing, a trap door, a staircase. We had a open tree celebration and had 15 neighbors up there at once. I’m sure dad was sipping lemonade with us as well, enjoying the view.

Now all these years later, the treehouse is tilting on its foundation as a main weight bearing branch is weakening. We’ve declared it condemned, not wanting to risk an accident.  It remains a daily reminder of past dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled as I look out my window. Much like my father’s body, the old walnut tree is weakening, hanging on by the roots but its muscle failing. It will, sometime, come down in one of our frequent fierce windstorms, just as its nearby partner did a few years ago.

The treehouse dream branched out in another way. One of the construction team brothers decided to try building his own as a place to live in his woods, using a Douglas Fir tree as the center support and creating an octagon, two stories, 30 feet off the ground. He worked on it for two years and moved in, later marrying someone who decided a treehouse was just fine with her, and now they are raising five children there. The next generation is carrying on with the Swiss Family Robinson dream that began in my father’s mind and our front yard.

I still have a whole list full of dreams, some realized and some deferred by time, resources and the limits of my imagination. I feel the clock ticking too, knowing that time slips by me faster and faster. It would be a blessing to see others live out the dreams I have held so close.

Though I may be teetering in the wind like my old tree, barely hanging on, and ready to fall to the ground, I’ll reach out with my branches and hand them off. The time will have come to let go.






Stumbling Upon Spring Again



repost from 2004 (published in May 2007  Country Magazine)

The past few weeks have been particularly dark and dank.  February often feels like this: the conviction winter will never be finished messing with us.
Our doldrums are deep; brief respite of sun and warmth too rare.

I feel it in the barn as I go about my daily routine.   The Haflingers are impatient and yearn for freedom, over-eager when handled, sometimes banging on the stall doors in their frustration at being shut in,  not understanding that the alternative is  to stand outside all day in cold rain and wind.  To compensate for their confinement, I do some grooming of their thick winter coats, urging their hair to loosen and curry off in sheets over parts of their bodies, yet otherwise still clinging tight.  The horses are a motley crew right now, much like a worn ’60s shag carpet, uneven and in dire need of updating.  I prefer that no one see them like this and discourage visitors to the farm, begging people to wait a few more weeks until they (and I) are more presentable. Eventually I know the shag on my horses will come off, revealing the sheen of new short hair beneath, but when I look at myself, I’m unconvinced there is such transformation in store for me. Cranky, I  put one foot ahead of the other, get done what needs to be done, oblivious to the subtle renewal around me, refusing to believe even in the possibility.

It happened today.  Dawn broke bright and blinding and after escorting horses out to daytime paddocks for a sun bath, I heard the fields calling, so I heeded, climbing the hill and turning my face to the eastern light, soaking up all I could.  It was almost too much to keep my eyes open, as they are so accustomed to gray darkness. And then I stumbled across something extraordinary.

A patch of snowdrops sat blooming in an open space on our acreage, visible now only because of the brush clearing that was done last fall. Many of these little white upside down flowers were planted long ago around our house and yard, but  I had no idea they were also such a distance away, hiding underground. Yet there they’ve been, year after year, harbingers of the long-awaited spring to come in a few short weeks, though covered by the overgrowth of decades of neglect and invisible to me in my self-absorbed blindness.  I was astonished that someone, many many years ago, had carried these bulbs this far out to a place not easy to find, and planted them, hoping they might bless another soul sometime somehow.  Perhaps the spot marks a grave of a beloved pet, or perhaps it was simply a retreat of sorts, but there the blossoms had sprung from their sleep beneath the covering of years of fallen leaves and blackberry vines.

It was if I’d been physically hugged by this someone long dead,  now flesh and blood beside me, with work-rough hands, and dirty fingernails, and broad brimmed hat, and a satisfied smile.  I’m certain the secret gardener is no long living, and I reach back across those years in gratitude, to show my deep appreciation for the time and effort it took to place a foretaste of spring in an unexpected and hidden place.

I am thus compelled to look for ways to leave such a gift for someone to find 50 years hence as they likewise stumble blindly through too many gray days full of human frailty and flaw. Though I will be long gone,  I can reach across the years to grab them, hug them in their doldrums, lift them up and give them hope for what is to come.  What an astonishing thought that it was done for me and in reaffirming that promise of renewal,  I can do it for another.


Another Story in Country Magazine!

Country Magazine June/July 2012 issue

I am so pleased that another one of my Barnstorming stories has found its way into Country Magazine and out to thousands of subscribers–this one is “High Noon in the Veggie Garden.”  I believe this is my 17th story published by Reiman Publications (now Readers’ Digest Milwaukee) over the past five years.   Thank you to editors Deb Mulvey, Robin Hoffman and Marija Potkonjak for their continued encouragement of my writing and allowing me to gain new friends all over the country.  Some write letters to me addressed to Emily Gibson @ Haflinger Farm, Everson, Washington  and they find their way to my mailbox in my little country town.   I joke that the average age of my readers is 85, but they are some of the most enthusiastic letter writers!

If you haven’t ever seen this magazine, celebrating its twenty fifth year of publication, click on the picture above and it will take you to the on line subscription form.  It is a visual treat, and the stories take you right into the country life that we all long for.

Emily @BriarCroft Haflingers

Barnstorming Blog

Putting On a New Coat

photo of Noblesse by Krisula Steiger

photo of Noblesse by Krisula Steiger

This story, written in 2003, is now published in the Oct/Nov 2009 issue of Country Magazine. Photos by Lynden Christian student Krisula Steiger.

Generally late September is when we start to see our Haflinger horses growing in their longer coat for winter. Their color starts to deepen with the new hair as the sun bleached summer coat loosens and flies with the late summer breezes. The nights here, when the skies are cloudless, can get perilously close to freezing this time of year, though our first frost is generally not until well into October. The Haflingers, outside during the day, and inside their snug stalls at night, don’t worry too much about needing their extra hair quite yet, especially when the day time temperatures are still comfortably in the 70s. So they are not in a hurry to be furrier. Neither am I. But I enjoy watching this daily change in their coats, as if they were ripening at harvest time. Their copper colors are so rich against the green fields and trees, especially at sunset when the orange hue of their coat is enhanced by the sunlit color palette of fall leaves undergoing their own transformation in their dying.

In another six months, it will be a reverse process once again. This heavy hair will have served its purpose, dulled by the harsh weather it has been exposed to, and coming out in clumps and tufts, revealing that iridescent short hair summer coat that shines and shimmers metallic in comparison, although several shades lighter, sometimes with nuances of dapples peeking through. Metamorphosis from fur ball to copper penny.

It occurs to me our old barn buildings on our farm have also undergone a similar transformation, having received a new coat of paint this summer. As a dairy farm for its previous owners starting in the early 1900s until a few years before we purchased it in the late 80s, it has accumulated more than its share of sheds and buildings constructed over the years to serve one purpose or another: the big hay barn with mighty old growth beams and timbers in its framework (still hay storage), the attached milking parlor (converted by us to individual box stalls for our weanlings and yearlings) and milk house where the bulk tank once stood, the older separate milk house where the milk used to be stored in cans waiting for pick up by the milk truck (now garden shed and harness storage), the old smoke house for smoking meats (was our chicken coop, but now the dogs claim it), the old bunk house and root cellar (more storage), the old large chicken coop (now parking for our carts and carriage), and the garage (a Methodist church in its former life and moved 1/4 mile up the road to our farm some 70 years ago when the little community of Forest Grove that had formed around a saw mill, store, school and church disbanded after 30 years of prosperity when there were no more trees to cut down in the area). When we bought this farm, these buildings had not seen a coat of paint in many many years. They were weathering badly–we set to work right away in an effort to save them if we could, and got them repainted–“barn red” for the barn and cream white for the other buildings with red trim around the windows and roof lines.

That was over 10 years ago now and we’ve been trying to hold off on another round of painting but it was clear this summer that it needed to happen. Now that they have their fresh paint coats, these old buildings appear to have new life again, though it is only on the surface. We know there are roofs that need patching, wiring that needs to be redone, plumbing that needs repair, foundations that need shoring up, windows that are drafty and need replacing, doors that don’t shut properly anymore–the list goes on. That superficial coat of paint does not solve all those problems–it will help prolong the life of the buildings, to be sure, but in many ways, all we’ve done is cosmetic surgery. What we really need is a full time carpenter –which neither of us is and at this point can’t afford.

In my middle age, there are times when I wish fervently for that “new coat” for myself–i.e. fewer gray hairs, fewer pounds, fewer wrinkles and one less chin, less achy stronger muscles. I buy a new fall jacket and realize that all my deficiencies are simply covered for the time being. I may be warmer but I’m not one bit younger. That jacket will, I hope, protect me from the brisk northeast winds and the incessant drizzle of the region, but it will not stop the inevitable underneath. It will not change who I am and what I will become.

True change can only come from within, from deep inside our very foundations, requiring a transforming influence that comes from outside. For the Haflingers, it is the diminishing light and lower temperatures. For the buildings, it is the hammer and nail, and the capable hands that wield them. For me, it is knowing there is salvage for people too, not just for old barns and sheds. Our foundations are hoisted up and reinforced, and we’re cleaned, patched and saved despite who we have become. And unlike new paint, or a winter coat, it lasts forever.

Watercolor of our hay barn by Dick Laninga

Watercolor of our hay barn by Dick Laninga