Friends, she’s leaning. Her spine’s giving way like an old sway-backed Guernsey cow. Time has gotten the best of her.
She’s survived so many nights by counting the stars. One set of eyes at the top of her looked to the north, with another to the south – a sentinel guarding her keepers. The hands that built her are but a memory to few. I’m lucky to be one.
The hands were creased deep with wear from a life of labor; it was the third barn my grandfather built on that spot. The first fell victim to a tornado. That was back when the milk cans were cooled by fresh spring water circulating through the milk house.
“It took my barn and scattered it across the fields,” the old man told me. “It wasn’t until several days later that I noticed one of my milk cans balanced high up in a nearby maple.”
The second barn went up in flames during a lightning storm in 1956. My sister, who was 2 at the time, sat on my great-grandpa’s lap in the farmhouse kitchen watching.
The third barn rose in a hurry after the fire. It was a communal effort between brothers, cousins and friends; a family’s livelihood was at stake.
One of my writer friends, James Botsford, and I have an ongoing project involving epigrams. Webster defines an epigram as follows – “a concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event, and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought.”
My friend and I have been sharing original epigrams with each other for several years. Recently we’ve taken our show on the road; we’ve done some readings where we go back and forth exchanging epigrams. Many of mine are directly related to that old barn and a number refer to old timers who farmed in my neck of the woods. I’d like to share a few of them.
“Fall corn harvested,
The view of George’s old barn
Is new once more.”
“Discounted, neglected, falling apart
The weathered barn turns the other cheek
And you luck out again.”
“My grandpa’s old barn
Survived so many nights
By counting the stars.”
“If old trees and barns could talk
We’d feel pretty stupid.”
“It has been said that one is not truly dead until no one remembers them.
It’s not easy being responsible for the lives of so many old farmers.”
“We keep the gone farmers alive
While their once-vital farms
Crumble into the dirt.”
Those old barns crumbling into the dirt as my friend describes are symbolic of a different era. In reality it was an era when farming was becoming more and more affected by governmental policies such as the Agriculture Adjustment Act. The idea was to subsidize producers of basic commodities for cutting their output. There have been many variations on that theme since 1933; I haven’t the desire to cover that here.
This writing is simply an ode of sorts to the barns of yesteryear – to the hand-hewed beams and mortise and tenon joints that could hold out for so long before giving way to the earth around them. To the summer haymows stacked to the rafters with timothy-clover hay bales bound with sisal twine. To the tilted name plates above the old stanchion stalls. To the Guernsey ghosts of Tillie, Betsy and Flossie, who rattle the stanchions waiting for hay …