Stitching Together the Edges of Life

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“I make them warm to keep my family from freezing;
I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.”
–From the journal of a prairie woman, 1870
To keep a husband and five children warm,
she quilts them covers thick as drifts against
the door. Through every fleshy square white threads
needle their almost invisible tracks; her hours
count each small suture that holds together
the raw-cut, uncolored edges of her life.
She pieces each one beautiful, and summer bright
to thaw her frozen soul. Under her fingers
the scraps grow to green birds and purple
improbable leaves; deeper than calico, her mid-winter
mind bursts into flowers. She watches them unfold
between the double stars, the wedding rings.
~Luci Shaw “Quiltmaker”
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It could be the world was made this way:
piecemeal, the parts fitting together
as if made for one another~
disparate and separate,
all the edges
coming together in harmony.
The point of its creation
to be forever functional,
a blanket of warmth and security
but its result is so much more:
beauty arising from scraps,
the broken stitched to broken
to become holy and whole.
(all quilts here are on display this week at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden)
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The Thing With Feathers

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson
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Our local fair feels much like I remember when I was a child in the 60’s, accompanying my father to the Lynden fairgrounds during those summers of political and social turmoil.  His job was to supervise the teachers of FFA kids (Future Farmers of America) so he did the rounds of the regional and county fairs and my brother and I tagged along to explore the exhibits and go on rides.

The heart beat of a country fair pulses deep for me: I fell in love with my future husband at a fair, and we spent twenty years from 1992-2012 at the local Lynden fair exhibiting our Haflinger horses together as family and friends. Once our children grew and flew away four years ago, my husband and I were relegated to mere fair-goers, exploring exhibits without the need to show up to muck out stalls at 6 AM.

The chicken exhibit building is one of the same buildings I wandered through as a child over fifty years ago.  As we entered, it struck me I was admiring designs and color schemes, layered with nuance and texture, much like the nearby quilt exhibit — these feathers are God’s threads put to exquisite use to blanket a mere chicken.
So much design, so much detail, so much hope covers something as mere as a chicken … and me.
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Fair Thee Well

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The Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden wrapped up last night and our farm and Haflingers weren’t there waiting in our stalls for a ride home after a week of display.  I can imagine it in my mind: the many smells of fried food in the smoky dark filled with carnival bright flashing lights in a cacophony surreal to humans and horses.  We are no long “doing” the fair as a farm, a fact with which I’m reconciled…finally.

BriarCroft had been a consistent presence at this fair for nearly two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well  decorated display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We petitioned the Fair Board for 5 years in the late eighties to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But our children Nate, Ben and Lea have grown up and moved away so are no longer available to help “man” the horse stalls.  Our other long term helpers like Emily, Chris and David are now adults with “real” jobs and obligations, and our faithful trick riders Kelsy and Chesna who performed daring feats on their Haflingers in front of the grandstand crowds have gone on to other careers.   I miss spending that intense one week time with all of the several dozen “kid” helpers from over the years, many of them now with children of their own.

Every year since 1992, we evaluated whether we had the energy and resources to do it  again–for the initial 6 years when Dan and I were the sole Haflinger farm doing the display, it meant a week of vacation from work, and very very long days, juggling our small children as well as several horses. Then, with the help of the Rodenbergers of 3R Farms and McKees of Teaglach Farm, we were able to rotate shifts, still work at our “real” jobs part days, share duties and expenses together. The older kids watched the younger kids, the inbetween kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sat and shot the breeze.

Did this sell horses for us? Not really. But it sure did create good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on ) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes.

Most of all, why we continued to do this so long, was that we provided what dreams are made of. I’m not sure how many times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some  10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

He was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games of being the starter, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I hope someday to see Gary again–it would be great to see this tall accomplished young man who so recently was a shy quiet little city boy of 6, draped across the broad back of a Haflinger, and lost in his dreams of a “someday” Haflinger of his own. This is why we’ve done what we have at the fair all these years. It was for people like Gary who made a connection with a horse and never ever forget it. I’d like to think that a little bit of who Gary is and what he is becoming is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

We do hope the fair-goers miss the friendly golden horses with the big brown eyes that help make dreams come true.

The Sparkle That Lingers

Lea and Marlee
Rosie playing with her toy while Marlee entertains kids on her back
Emily Vander Haak hearing a secret from Rosie
Emily VH and Marlee cuddling at the fair
Haflinger display right before the fair opened

Another fair is over, the Haflingers are back in their own beds, as are we.  What was remarkable about this year was the heat requiring fans and misters for the horses (over 90 degrees several days of the week) and the number of children we put up on Trillium and Marlee’s backs for their first ever opportunity to “ride a horse.”  The reality was, there wasn’t any riding to be done, only sitting, but a “pony sit” was so popular at a fair with no pony rides, we at times had a line up of 10-12 children waiting their turn.

I had never seen so many children, some as old as ten, who had never even sat on a horse before.  In a rural county, that is a sad fact of life.  There are fewer families able to afford to keep a horse, or who know someone with a horse to share, and the liability of pony rides as a business has jumped insurance to the point where they simply aren’t offered in carnivals or fairs any longer.  Horse camps and riding lessons are too expensive for many families in tough economic times.  These are children who will never know the wonder and challenge of feeling a large animal under them, learning to work together as a team and to be confident enough to ask for and expect obedience.

So we started putting kids up on the horses, for a minute or two each, just so they could sit on those broad Haflinger bare backs, hanging on to manes rather than a saddle horn, and have a basic lesson in mounts and dismounts.  They learned to find favorite scratch/itch spots on the horse’s neck and withers, learned to move slowly and talk softly, remembered to say thank you with a stroke on the shoulder.

My favorite part, over and over, was watching those children as they first settled into place behind the withers and then looked out at their parents and siblings standing out of reach outside the stall, with the line up of other children waiting their turn.  Their eyes would get large and sparkly as they felt the horse warm, strong and soft beneath them, and that spark ignited a smile that never stopped as they realized this was a “real” horse, not a video game, or a bouncy plastic horse on springs.  There was a time for them to be speechless as they took in the sensation, and then becoming very talkative, if I asked them questions, like what the horse felt like to them, or what it felt like to be up so high.  They would sometime share the most remarkable thoughts in those few minutes.  It felt almost like a confessional.

There were a number of special needs kids, some autistic, some with cerebral palsy and other physical limitations.  They struggled to relax their limbs onto the horse’s back, but once in place, muscles finally cooperating, they never wanted to leave.  One Down’s Syndrome child, so excited to sit on a horse for the first time, couldn’t stop hugging her neck and kissing her mane.  He didn’t even want to sit upright because it would mean losing the hug that meant everything to him.

Our mares were very patient with the process, as we gave them regular breaks.  They enjoyed the hugs and kisses given so freely, and blew back plenty of their own.

Within our rapidly urbanizing and risk-averse society, our children are losing any direct connection with larger animals aside from the typical house dog or cat.   As long as we are able to do this, we need to offer this opportunity, brief as it is, to hundreds of children during fair week.  They need to feel the warmth of the horse’s muzzle, the expansion of their ribs with each breath, the flicker of the skin when touched lightly.  They need to know the respect and honor owed to these animals who have adapted to life with humans, to serve us and work alongside us.

The spark in these children’s eyes keeps the fire from going out for me.   The memory of Haflingers lingers.  There will always be good reason to keep coming back.

It’s “Fair Thee Well” Time Again…

Jessie, Kelsey and Chesna bowing during their grandstand performance

It is Fair time again, a traditional August activity I’ve cherished most of my life, and we celebrate the Centennial of the Northwest Washington Fair this week.  As I worked today preparing our horses’ stalls at the Lynden fairgrounds for moving in our Haflingers tomorrow, I could remember being at this Fair not quite fifty years ago, tagging along with my father as he did his job supervising FFA teachers in the region.   Although he had taken a state job in Olympia with the Department of Agriculture, he was responsible for the Future Farmers of America programs and teaching in Whatcom, Skagit, Island and Snohomish Counties, so made regular visits to all the high schools.   He never missed any of the county fairs as that was the place the FFA students competed, learned, judged and developed their skills and character.  I came along because I loved going anywhere with my dad that had to do with animals, and I absolutely loved the fairs.  The Lynden Fair, in particular, was my favorite because it was one fair that my dad felt safe about my taking off and exploring on my own.     Hanging out in the cow barns was okay, but the fair was a contained microcosm of the wider world, in my view, and I wanted to absorb every bit of it.   There were kitchens with competitive food preparation, table settings and an array of preserves and desserts.   There was the sewing building with girls busy at handwork and modeling their designs.  There were Grange displays artfully designed into intricate maps with positive messages about farming and community.  There were rows and rows of flowers, each bloom more fantastic than the last.  There were huge pumpkins, and perfect ears of corn and collections of kewpie and Barbie dolls.  There were intricate quilts and embroidery and tatting.   I watched children show their poultry and rabbits, learned about all the different breeds of sheep and pigs, and observed what it took to be a gracious winner and loser.

By the time I was eleven, I had the good fortune to win a weanling colt in a radio essay contest and part of the commitment the winner had to make was to join 4H and participate in the Thurston County Fair.  This was a dream come true for a kid who considered sawdust a favored brand of perfume.   I accepted the responsibility of not only training and preparing my horse, but learned how to be a part of a club with shared duties, including getting up at 5 AM to get to the fairgrounds in time for the morning cleaning.

My husband-to-be had no idea what life-long commitment he was making when he agreed to tag along as one of a group of friends I invited to go to the fair together, and after that day spent riding the ferris wheel, talking about our shared farming backgrounds and simply getting to know each other, we were together forever.  I don’t think we’ve missed a fair in thirty years, and for eighteen of those, we have become the exhibitors, watching fair-goers pass by as we dwell long hours in the noisy, smelly, bright and bold community that forms for one week of the year.

It begins again this week,  as we move in, settle our horses, and get back into the early to rise, late to bed routine.   Over the years, our children and their friends have taken the bulk of the responsibility so we pop in and out as we need to.    I’ll breathe deeply of the smell of sawdust, horse sweat, corndogs and curly fries and remember the freedom it represented for an eight year old girl allowed to explore a safe and fascinating world all on her own.  I’m still exploring, seeing with the eyes of an eight year old now housed in a fifty six year old body.

And that’s what brings me back, year after year.

Fair Weather Farewell

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For the first time since 1992, we are not preparing this weekend to spend the week displaying our Haflinger horses at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden.  BriarCroft has been a consistent presence at this fair for almost two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well  decorated display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We begged the Fair Board for 5 years to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But this year, it was not to be.  Our faithful trick riders Kelsy and Chesna who performed daring feats on their Haflingers in front of the grandstand crowds are busy with their horse training in Tenino, our adult sons have headed off to work in Tokyo, Japan, and college in Chicago, leaving us short of the crew needed to man the display for the week as Dan and I have to work our day jobs.  It was a painful decision to make, but it was simply not going to be possible to do it this year.  I will miss spending time with our dedicated young helpers–my daughter Lea, and the Vander Haak family–Emily, Christopher and David.  Over the years we’ve had many young helpers spend the week with us, now many of them grown with children of their own.

Every year since 1992, we evaluated whether we had the energy and resources to do it  again–for the initial 6 years when Dan and I were the sole farm doing  the display, it meant a week of vacation from work, and very very long days, juggling our small children as well as several horses. Then, with the help of 3R Farms and Teaglach Farm as well as older children, we were able to rotate shifts, still work at our “real” jobs part days, share duties and expenses together. The older kids watched the younger kids, the inbetween kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sit and shoot the breeze.

Did this sell horses for us? Not really. But it sure did create good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on ) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes.

Most of all, why we continued to do this so long, was that we provided what  dreams are made of. I’m not sure how many times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some  10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

He was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I hope someday to see Gary again–it would be great to see this tall accomplished young man who so recently was a shy quiet little city boy of 6, draped across the broad back of a Haflinger, and lost in his dreams of a “someday” Haflinger of his own. This is why we’ve done what we have at the fair all these years. It was for people like Gary who made a connection with a horse and never ever forget it. I’d like to think that a little bit of who Gary is and what he is becoming is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

Perhaps we’ll be back again at the Lynden Fair in the future if we can organize enough helpers.  We do hope the fair-goers miss the friendly golden horses with the big brown eyes that help make dreams come true.