Leaving a Footprint

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…And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~Robert Frost from “The Road Not Taken”

 

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photo by Per Wolfisberg this morning from north-central Montana

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Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled.

Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.

But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out.

I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.
~Robert Frost from “Selected Letters”

 

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When a man thinks happily, he finds no foot-track in the field he traverses.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Quotation and Originality”

 

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Robert Frost enjoyed how readers misinterpreted his ironic “The Road Not Taken” poem.  His point was not “the road less traveled”  “made all the difference” but that the roads were in fact the same.  As humans living our daily lives, we have to make decisions that take us one way or the other, not knowing and very uncertain where our choices may lead us.

Our assurance lies in understanding the Hand that guides us, should we allow Him.  We may choose a path that leads us astray; God continually puts up signposts that will guide us home.  Our journey may be arduous, we may get terribly lost, we may walk alone for long stretches, we may end up crushed and bleeding in the ditch.

He follows the footprints we have left behind, and we are found, rescued and brought home, no matter what, and that — not the road we chose at the beginning — is what makes all the difference.

 

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God Was Here: My Soul to Thrive

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But I am done with apple-picking now. 
Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 
I got from looking through a pane of glass 
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 
And held against the world of hoary grass. 
It melted, and I let it fall and break. 
But I was well 
Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 
And I could tell 
What form my dreaming was about to take. 
For I have had too much 
Of apple-picking: I am overtired 
Of the great harvest I myself desired. 
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. 
For all 
That struck the earth, 
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 
Went surely to the cider-apple heap 
As of no worth. 
One can see what will trouble 
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 
Were he not gone, 
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 
Or just some human sleep.
~Robert Frost from “After Apple-Picking”
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This fall I picked up windfall apples to haul down to the barn for a special treat each night for the Haflingers. These are apples that we humans wouldn’t take a second glance at in all our satiety and fussiness, but the Haflingers certainly don’t mind a bruise, or a worm hole or slug trails over apple skin.

I’ve found over the years that our horses must be taught to eat apples–if they have no experience with them, they will bypass them lying in the field and not give them a second look. There simply is not enough odor to make them interesting or appealing–until they are cut in slices that is. Then they become irresistible and no apple is left alone from that point forward.

When I offer a whole apple to a young Haflinger who has never tasted one before, they will sniff it, perhaps roll it on my hand a bit with their lips, but I’ve yet to have one simply bite in and try. If I take the time to cut the apple up, they’ll pick up a section very gingerly, kind of hold it on their tongue and nod their head up and down trying to decide as they taste and test it if they should drop it or chew it, and finally, as they really bite in and the sweetness pours over their tongue, they get this look in their eye that is at once surprised and supremely pleased. The only parallel experience I’ve seen in humans is when you offer a five month old baby his first taste of ice cream on a spoon and at first he tightens his lips against its coldness, but once you slip a little into his mouth, his face screws up a bit and then his eyes get big and sparkly and his mouth rolls the taste around his tongue, savoring that sweet cold creaminess. His mouth immediately pops open for more.

It is the same with apples and horses. Once they have that first taste, they are our slaves forever in search of the next apple.

The Haflinger veteran apple eaters can see me coming with my sweat shirt front pocket stuffed with apples, a “pregnant” belly of fruit, as it were. They offer low nickers when I come up to their stalls and each horse has a different approach to their apple offering.

There is the “bite a little bit at a time” approach, which makes the apple last longer, and tends to be less messy in the long run. There is the “bite it in half” technique which leaves half the apple in your hand as they navigate the other half around their teeth, dripping and frothing sweet apple slobber. Lastly there is the greedy “take the whole thing at once” horse, which is the most challenging way to eat an apple, as it has to be moved back to the molars, and crunched, and then moved around the mouth to chew up the large pieces, and usually half the apple ends up falling to the ground, with all the foam that the juice and saliva create. No matter the technique used, the smell of an apple as it is being chewed by a horse is one of the best smells in the world. I can almost taste the sweetness too when I smell that smell.

What do we do when offered such a sublime gift from Someone’s hand? If it is something we have never experienced before, we possibly walk right by, not recognizing that it is a gift at all, missing the whole point and joy of experiencing what is being offered. How many wonderful opportunities are right under our noses, but we fail to notice, and bypass them because they are unfamiliar?

Perhaps if the Giver really cares enough to “teach” us to accept this gift of sweetness, by preparing it and making it irresistible to us, then we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the generosity and are transformed by the simple act of receiving.

We must learn to take little bites, savoring each piece one at a time, making it last rather than greedily grab hold of the whole thing, struggling to control it, thereby losing some in the process. Either way, it is a gracious gift, and how we receive it makes all the difference.

 

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1. The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

2. His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

3. For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

4. I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

5. This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.
~Elizabeth Poston From Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs,
compiled by Joshua Smith, New Hampshire, 1784

 

 

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I Sha’n’t Be Gone Long — You Come Too

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I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
~Robert Frost “The Pasture”

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We all need an invitation to work together about now.  In these times when it feels like everything is going to hell in a handbasket, we all have some picking up and cleaning and clearing to do — and we can accomplish more if we do it side by side.
The world is continually trying to renew itself despite our attempts to destroy it so we need to pay attention.  The air and water can clear if we put in some effort,  there is new life all around us ready to thrive if we tend it lovingly like a mother.
Come with me to do what needs to be done.  You are invited.  We sha’n’t be gone long.
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Forgiving the Scythe

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To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
~Robert Frost in “Mowing”

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Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field

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The grass around our orchard and yet-to-be-planted garden is now thigh-high. It practically squeaks while it grows. Anything that used to be in plain sight on the ground is rapidly being swallowed up in a sea of green: a ball, a pet dish, a garden gnome, a hose, a tractor implement, a bucket. In an effort to stem this tidal flood of grass, I grab the scythe out of the garden shed and plan my attack. The pastures are too wet yet for heavy hooves so I have hungry horses to provide for and there is more than plenty fodder to cut down for them.

I’m not a weed whacker kind of gal. First there is the necessary fuel, the noise necessitating ear plugs, the risk of flying particles requiring goggles–it all seems too much like and act of war to be remotely enjoyable. Instead, I’m trying to take scything lessons from my husband. Emphasis on “trying”.

I grew up watching my father scythe our hay in our field because he couldn’t afford a mower for his tractor. He enjoyed physical labor in the fields and woods–his other favorite hand tool was a brush cutter that he’d take to blackberry bushes. He would head out to the field with the scythe over this shoulder, grim reaper style. Once he was standing on the edge of the grass needing to be mowed, he would then lower the scythe, curved blade to the ground, turn slightly, positioning his hands on the two handles just so, raise the scythe up past his shoulders, and then in a full body twist almost like a golf swing, he’d bring the blade down. It would follow a smooth arc through the base of the standing grass, laying clumps flat in a tidy pile alongside the 2 inch stubble left behind. It was a swift, silky muscle movement — a thing of beauty.

I’ve yet to manage anything nearly as graceful. I tend to chop and mangle rather than effect an efficient slicing blow. I unintentionally trample the grass I mean to cut. I get blisters from holding the handles too tightly. It feels hopeless that I’ll ever perfect that whispery rise and fall of the scythe, with the rhythmic shush sound of the slice that is almost hypnotic.

Not only am I an ineffective scything human, but I have also learned what it is like to be the grass I am unintentionally mutilating, on the receiving end of a glancing blow that misses the mark. I bear plenty of footprints from the trampling. It can take awhile to stand back up after being knocked repeatedly to the ground.

Sometimes it makes more sense to simply start over as stubble, oozing and bleeding green, with deep roots that no one can reach. As I grow back, I will sing rather than squeak, and I’ll forgive the scythe every time it comes down on my head.

 

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Smelling Their Sweetness

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A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.
~Robert Frost “Unharvested”

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Our trees are heavy-laden — the dropping fruit thuds to the ground with such finality,  it wakes me in the night and reminds me how far I’ve fallen.

“Fall” is just that: nothing will remain as it was. Autumn replays our desire for an apple that smelled so sweet, tempted with shiny sheen and lured with such color that we fell hard and fast for just one taste.

We ignored the worm hole.

And ended up in a hole ourselves, unharvested, hoping one day for the sweetness to return.

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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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The Grey Disguise of Years

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Well-away and be it so,
To the stranger let them go.
Even cheerfully I yield
Pasture, orchard, mowing-field,
Yea and wish him all the gain
I required of them in vain.
Yea and I can yield him house,
Barn, and shed, with rat and mouse
To dispute possession of.
These I can unlearn to love.
Since I cannot help it? Good!
Only be it understood,

It shall be no trespassing
If I come again some spring
In the grey disguise of years,
Seeking ache of memory here.
~Robert Frost from “On the Sale of My Farm”

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From the road, each of the small farms where I grew up look nothing like they did in my childhood.  When I drive past now, the outbuildings are changed and unfamiliar, fences pulled down, the trees exponentially taller, the fields no longer well-tended. Instead the familiarity is in the road to get there, the lean into the curves, the acceleration in and out of dips, the landscape which triggers a comfort and disquiet deep in my cells.

I have never stopped to knock; instead I drive slowly past to sense if I feel what I used to feel in these places.

One clinic day, I glanced at the home address of a young man I was about to see and realized he now lived in my childhood home.  When I greeted him I told him we had something in common: we had grown up under the same roof, inside the same walls, though children of different generations.  He was curious but skeptical — how could this gray-haired middle aged woman know anything about his home?  He told me a bit about the house, the barn, the fields, the garden and how he experienced it felt altogether strange to me.  He and I had shared nothing but a patch of real estate.

I worry for the fearsome ache if someday, due to age or finances, we must sell our current farm ~ this beloved place our children were raised, animals bred and cared for, plants tended and soil turned over. It will remain on the map surely as the other two farms of my past, visible as we pass by slowly on the road, but primarily alive in the words I have harvested here, that sweet ache of seeking it out on the map of my memory.

 

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