Standing Together and Apart

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In southern France live two old horses,
High in the foothills, not even French,
But English, retired steeplechasers
Brought across to accept an old age
Of ambling together in the Pyrenees.
At times they whinny and kick
At one another with impatience,
But they have grown to love each other.

In time the gelding grows ill
And is taken away for treatment.
The mare pines, pokes at her food,
Dallies on her rides until the other
Comes home.
                        She is in her stall
When the trailer rumbles
Through the gate into the field,
And she sings with impatience
Until her door is opened.
                                             Then full
Of sound and speed, in need of
Each other, they entwine their necks,
Rub muzzles, bumping flanks
To embrace in their own way.
Together they prance to
The choicest pasture,
Standing together and apart,
To be glad until
They can no longer be glad.
~Paul Zimmer, “Love Poem”

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There is security in a basic routine, especially on our farm – predictable things happening in predictable ways, day after day, week after week, year after year.  Somehow, dull as it may seem, the “norm” is quite comforting, like each breath taken in and let go, each heart beat following the next. We depend on it, take it for granted, forget it until something doesn’t go as it should.

Mornings are very routine for me.  I wake before the alarm, usually by 5:30 AM, fire up the computer and turn the stove on to get my coffee water boiling.  I head down the driveway to fetch the paper, either feeling my way in the dark if it is winter, or squinting at the glare of early morning sunlight if it is not.  I make my morning coffee, check my emails, eat my share of whole grains while reading the paper, climb into my rubber boots and head out for chores.

Some years ago, as I was leading a mare and her colt out to pasture for their daytime turnout, I was whistling to the wandering colt as he had his own ideas about where he wanted to be, and it wasn’t where I was leading. Fifty yards away, he decided he was beyond his comfort zone so whirled around, sped back to his mom and me, and traveling too fast to put his brakes on ended up body slamming her on her right side, putting her off balance and she side stepped toward me, landing one very sizeable Haflinger hoof directly on my rubber booted foot.  Hard.

I hobbled my way with them to the pasture, let them go, closed the gate and then pulled my boot off to see my very scrunched looking toes, puffing up and throbbing.  I still had more horses to move, so I started to limp back to the barn, biting my lip and thinking “this is no big deal, this is just a little inconvenience, this will feel better in the next few minutes”  but each step suggested otherwise.  I was getting crankier by the second when I passed beneath one of our big evergreen trees and  noticed something I would not have noticed if I hadn’t been staring down at my poor sore foot.  An eagle feather, dew covered, was lodged in the tall grass beneath the tree, dropped there as a bald eagle had lifted its wings to fly off from the tree top, probably to dive down to grab one of the many wild bunnies that race across the open pasture, each vulnerable to the raptors that know this spot as a good place for lunch .  The wing feather lay there glistening, marking the spot, possessing the tree, claiming the land, owning our farm.  It belonged there and I did not–in fact I can’t even legally keep this feather–the law says I’m to leave it where I find it or turn it over to the federal government.

I am simply a visitor on this acreage, too often numbly going through my morning routine, accomplishing my chores for the few years I am here until I’m too old or crippled to continue. The eagles will always be here as long as the trees and potential lunch remain to attract them.

Contemplating my tenure on this earth, my toes didn’t hurt much anymore.  I was reminded that nothing truly is routine about daily life, it is gifted to us as a feather from heaven, floating down to us in ways we could never expect nor deserve.  I’d been body slammed that morning all right, but by the touch of a feather.  Bruised and broken but then built up, carried and sustained, standing together but yet apart.

I am glad for the gifts of this life, for the ache that love inevitably brings, as pain such as this can bring revelation and renewal.  Sometimes it is the only thing that does.

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A Healthy Fence Row

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Brushy fencerows are in a sense a gift from man to nature — at least if, after the posts are dug in and the fence stapled to the posts, nature is given some free reign. Birds sitting on the fence and posts will pass undigested seeds in their droppings. Some of these seeds of blackberry, wild cherry, elderberry, bittersweet, sassafras, mulberry, and unfortunately, in some areas, multiflora rose, will take root in the loose soil around the posts and later in soil dug up by woodchucks. Chipmunks scurrying along the fence will bring and bury acorns and hickory nuts, while the wind will deliver dandelion, milkweed, and thistle seeds — all ingredients for a healthy fencerow.
~David Kline from Great Possessions

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Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
~Robert Frost from “Mending Fences”

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photo by Harry Rodenberger

 

I maintain, in my haphazard and often ineffectual way, our farm’s wood rail and hot wire fences to keep the horses confined, preventing them from wandering into the adjacent orchard, corn field, or most risky of all, the road. As utilitarian as a fence is for that purpose, the fence row itself is the hospitality center for all sorts of diversity of flora and fauna.  It doesn’t repel; it invites.

As one travels in the United Kingdom and across the plains and mountains of North America, old fences are everywhere. Some fences were built painstakingly of stone centuries ago, some of old barbed wire, now falling and decrepit, no longer effective, but still testimony to a determined farmer’s desire to section off his barren land from another’s barren land, or perhaps the requirement borne of the homesteading laws of the time. Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Mending Fences” that a fence spans the balance between man’s sometimes irrational desire for barriers, acknowledging the order that they bring to an uncertain and sometimes unpredictable world that lays beyond our walls.

Political fences continue to exist in many parts of the world today, created primarily out of fear. Indeed, new walls have been proposed, absurdly ridiculous in their scope and expense.  Much celebration accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall after its years of imposing testimony to the lack of trust and understanding between people who were once relatives, neighbors and friends. The Great Wall of China still stands, now primarily tourist attraction, no longer serving any other useful purpose other than to illustrate the lengths to which man goes to barricade himself off from others.

So why maintain life’s fences, even if the building and maintaining of these fences seems a futile and foolish task when they are pushed down, blown over in the winds, with trees fallen over them, and overgrown with brush and wild blackberries?

Fences, like rules and laws, define order and structure. They can bite back if they are breached. If crashed and broken, they are hazardous in and of themselves, not withstanding the potential dangers that lay beyond them. Remove them altogether and we risk losing the diversity represented in the fence row itself.

So, in the best of times, we are mending walls out of continuing need for contact with our neighbors. We meet across the barriers to shake hands and visit while we repair the fences together, leaving the barriers standing and strong, and the space in the fence row becomes even more diverse and welcoming. In the worst of times, we fortify and hide behind the walls, making them taller, wider, deeper, creating greater and greater gulfs between us and eventually losing touch forever as the walls themselves deteriorate without the necessary mutual “mending”.

So we must not love walls themselves, but must maintain them with our neighbor. We don’t worship the walls themselves but instead respect the foundation they rest on and the life they protect within the row itself.

We accept such boundaries with humility, recognizing their necessity is due to our own imperfections, as we too are full of prickles and barbs that too easily draw blood when breached.

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A Sprung Metronome

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“A devout but highly imaginative Jesuit,”
Untermeyer says in my yellowed
college omnibus of modern poets,
perhaps intending an oxymoron, but is it?
Shook foil, sharp rivers start to flow.
Landscape plotted and pieced, gray-blue, snow-pocked
begins to show its margins. Speeding back
down the interstate into my own hills
I see them fickle, freckled, mounded fully
and softened by millennia into pillows.
The priest’s sprung metronome tick-tocks,
repeating how old winter is. It asks
each mile, snow fog battening the valleys,
what is all this juice and all this joy?
~Maxine Kumin “Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins”

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These summer mornings I awake in a Hopkins landscape~
the priest who died too young at 44
would have created even more beauty
if he had lived twice as long,
combining words in suspended rhythm,
recreating the world outside our windows
entirely in our minds.

What is this joy I feel when witnessing
what must have moved him to write?
What could be more powerful
than words that awaken in us dawn’s redeeming light?

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Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
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Holding Fast By Letting Go

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard

 

We find by losing.
We hold fast by letting go.
We become something new by ceasing to be something old.
This seems to be close to the heart of that mystery.
I know no more now than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all,
but I begin to know that I do not need to know and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing.
God knows.
That is all that matters.
Out of Nothing he creates Something.
Out of the End he creates the Beginning.
Out of selfness we grow, by his grace, toward selflessness,
and out of that final selflessness,
which is the loss of self altogether,
“eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man”
what new marvels he will bring to pass next.
All’s lost.
All’s found.
And if such words sound childish, so be it.
Out of each old self that dies
some precious essence is preserved for the new self that is born;
and with in the child-self that is part of us all,
there is perhaps nothing more precious than the fathomless capacity to trust.
~Frederick Buechner
– Originally published in A Room Called Remember

 

 

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard

 

With a blue line of mountains north of the wall,
And east of the city a white curve of water,

Here you must leave me and drift away
Like a loosened water-plant hundreds of miles….
I shall think of you in a floating cloud;
So in the sunset think of me.
…We wave our hands to say good-bye,
And my horse is neighing again and again.
~Li Po “A Farewell to a Friend”

 

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard

‘Tis Hay Time

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Tis haytime & the red complexioned sun
Was scarcely up ere blackbirds had begun
Along the meadow hedges here & there
To sing loud songs to the sweet smelling air
Where breath of flowers & grass & happy cow
Fling oer ones senses streams of fragrance now
While in some pleasant nook the swain & maid
Lean oer their rakes & loiter in the shade
Or bend a minute oer the bridge & throw
Crumbs in their leisure to the fish below
—Hark at that happy shout—& song between
Tis pleasures birthday in her meadow scene
What joy seems half so rich from pleasure won
As the loud laugh of maidens in the sun.
~John Clare “Hay Making”

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Every hay crew is the same
Though the names change;
Young men flexing their muscles,
A seasoned farmer defying his age
Tossing four bales high,
Determined girls bucking up on the wagon,
Young children rolling bales closer,
Add a school teacher, pastor,
Professor, lawyer and doctor
Getting sweaty and dusty
United in being farmers
If only for an evening.

Stacking
Basket weave
Interlocking
Cut side up
Steadying the load
Riding over hills
Through valleys
In slow motion
Eagles over head
Searching the bare fields
Evening alpen glow
Of snowbound
Eastern peaks

Friends and neighbors
Walking the dotted pastures,
Piling on the wagons,
Driving the truck,
Riding the top of hay stack
In the evening breeze,
Filling empty barn space to the rafters,
Making gallons of lemonade in the kitchen.
A hearty meal consumed
In celebration
Of summer baled, stored, preserved
For another year.

Hay crew
Remembered on
Frosty autumn mornings before dawn
When bales are broken for feed
And fragrant summer spills forth.
In the dead of winter

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Best of Barnstorming: Winter/Spring 2016

The last six months of documenting frozen to budding to blossoming to fruiting:

so may it be from the soil and from the heart.

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For more “Best of Barnstorming” photos:

Summer/Fall 2015

Winter/Spring 2015

Summer/Fall 2014

Best of 2013

Seasons on the Farm:

BriarCroft in Summer, in Autumn, in Winter,
at Year’s End

Turn the Earth Upside Down

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 There is a treasure in the earth
that is a food tasty and pleasing
to the Lord.
Be a gardener.
Dig and ditch,
toil and sweat,
and turn the earth upside down
and seek the deepness
and water the plants in time.
Continue this labor
and make sweet floods to run
and noble and abundant fruits
to spring.
Take this food and drink
and carry it to God
as your true worship.
~Julian of Norwich
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In Summer, in a burst of summertime
Following falls and falls of rain,
When the air was sweet-and-sour of the flown fineflower of
Those goldnails and their gaylinks that hang along a lime;
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “Cheery Beggar”

Sweet and sour extends far beyond a Chinese menu; it is the daily air we breathe.  Dichotomy is so much of our life and times,  more distinct than the bittersweet of simple pleasures laced with twinges and tears.

We are but cheery beggars in this world, desiring to hang tight to the overwhelming sweetness of each glorious moment — the startling sunrise, the lush green and golden blooms following spring showers, the warm hug of a compassionate word, the house filled with love and laughter.  But as beggars aren’t choosers, we can’t only have sweet alone;  we must endure the sour that comes as part of the package — the deepening dark of a sleepless night, the muddy muck of endless rain, the sting of a biting critique, the loneliness of an home emptying and much too quiet.

So we slog through sour to revel some day, even more so, in sweet.  Months of manure-permeated air is overcome one miraculous morning by the unexpected and undeserved fragrance of apple and pear blossoms, so sweet, so pure, so full of promise of the fruit to come.  The manure makes the sweet sweeter and once again the earth turns upside down.

And we breathe in deeply, content and grateful for a moment of grace and bliss, wanting to hold it in the depths of our lungs forever.

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