Our mare’s skeleton lies in the back of our woods. Her ribs are flat curves in the thin grass, the multi-flora rose canes bending over them, her skull like a reliquary. In life, Morwena’s personality was aloof and suspicious. She had been passed from owner to owner—six by the time she came to us—and it was as if she could never bring herself to relax her boundaries. She refused to become attached, always prepared to move on again.
We ignored her reserved personality and loved her. She was in her upper-twenties, a matriarch with four daughters, when she died suddenly in the middle of winter. The ground was frozen—like rock to a backhoe. There was nothing to be done. And we could not stand to see her winched onto the back of a truck. So, my husband carefully pulled her carcass deep into our woods.
The Shinto religion believes in the presence of spirits or life force called kami, who inhabit places in nature. But they can also inhabit living creatures. It is easy for me to think of her as a spirit, running free, vigilant, moving among the trees, snorting at coyotes who wander too close to her bones.
My grandfather, a stocky, powerfully built man, came from a Polish family who owned one of the largest farms in Trempleau County, Wisconsin—three hundred-fifty acres. He was almost deaf, despite a hearing-aid. He told me once, during the summer we lived with them, he had loved working with the horses. He left that behind after he married his wife, but he never lost the deliberate way of moving quietly. He seldom talked about his childhood. At family get-togethers, he would sit, most of the conversation lost on him, and quietly drink himself into a stupor.
I teach an introduction to art history class for non-art majors. One of my favorite artists is Bruegel. His painting, Hunters in the Snow, depicts a winter scene. A small group of hunters and their dogs are in the foreground, in the lower left-hand corner. The men are bent forward with the effort of trudging through the snow. The dogs are walking quietly, their heads down, tired. It is a lackluster group. They are returning empty-handed—only one fox slung over a shoulder.
However, beyond the disappointed hunters, Bruegel unfurls the landscape. The hill falls steeply away to show us the rest of the village with snow-covered roofs, punctuated with bristled trees, and far-away fields, abruptly edged with sharp mountains on the right. But in the middle-distance, we see two squared-off ponds of gray ice, dotted here and there with small figures. Contrasting with the hunters’ weariness, they are skating all around the ice with precise energy. Ice-skating is like flying—gliding on a slipstream of melted water under the pressure of knife-edge, as if gravity didn’t exist. In the farther pond, there is a couple, holding hands, and a line of children running. Closer to us, one woman pulls another on a small sled. Above the skaters, a kite—a small raptor—wheels against the winter sky, an echo of their circles.
It seems to tell one story with charm and detail, but there is another one unfolding in the background. Behind the distant clustered trees, a long slope rises to almost vertical cliffs, the edges ragged as if they’ve been cleaved. Behind them—fainter, but taller yet—looms a pale monster. It is a glacier, moving slowly, moving and growing, swallowing villages as it advances.
Historians and climatologists will later name it the Little Ice Age. Beginning in the mid-thirteenth century, temperatures dropped over the next three centuries. Winters became colder and longer. Farmers tried frantically to adapt to the colder and wetter conditions, but crops failed, livestock died without enough grain or hay, and thousands starved.
The painting is thought by some historians to be Bruegel’s commentary on the courage of the ordinary people who struggled valiantly, trying to live their lives, in spite of the devastating conditions.
In the lower, right corner of the painting, a lone woman, carrying a bundle of sticks on her back, is walking across the short bridge. She is bent forward, walking with purpose.
I have been like her, on a road, with a purpose.
I was raised in the suburbs. Our life was like an uneasy television sitcom: wall-to-wall carpeting, central air-conditioning, homework, and monitoring my father’s volcanic moods. My mother adored the humorist, Erma Bombeck, who wrote a syndicated column in the newspaper, and Carol Burnett. In good mood, she would emulate their off-hand, flippant attitudes, but it was mostly an act—fragile at best. Ordinary life was fraught with worry and threatening failure. They—and we, their children—took refuge in pretending much of the time.
None of this was apparent to me at all, until about half way through college, when the fissures of my flimsy self-esteem threatened to crack apart. I struggled with making a life for myself in my twenties, wandering through different jobs and careers. Predictably, my parents offered the worst of clichéd reassurances, undergirded with subtle accusations of my failings and lack of fortitude. It was like clawing through an invisible net, knowing an abyss yawned below me. My own fear finally pushed me to get help after fantasies of driving my car over embankments became daily occurrences.
In short, it worked. I healed. I had some perceptive counselors and I found an anti-depressant that worked very well. I was able to collage the different parts of myself together, to make a whole.
And then he was there. With kind, blue eyes that warmed me. He had a farm and he was the quiet center of it.
There is no other way to say it: he came to take me home.
It didn’t mean the end of fear, suffering, or loss, but they became ordinary. Every day, we walked to the barn, we took care of the animals, and we took care of each other. Ordinary grace.
The barn, the animals, and us, moving as one, walking with purpose and direction.
Long ago, I was then five months pregnant with our son. Bill had spent two hours that night with one of our ewes, in labor with, what he thought was twins. The lambs’ legs were tangled and one was breech. When they were finally delivered, both were dead. Bill suspected there might be a third—she had been that hugely pregnant. He came back to the house to sleep for a while, intending to check her later.
When the alarm went off at 2:00 a.m., he never moved. Lying next to him, I could hear the wind banging against the windows, snow scouring against the glass. I felt a tug of wanting to be out in it.
Downstairs, I pulled on my coveralls and zipped them, more slowly over my bulging belly. I thought of the baby, quiet and warm in the dark there.
The sheep house, across the road, was east of the main barn and off by itself. It would be a bit of walk, but no gates to climb.
The wind almost jerked the door out of my hand. Streaks of snow shot past me like tiny comets illuminated by the porch light. Then, moving beyond its beam, I went into the night. The wind pulled at me. My boots creaked on the snow underfoot, as my breath steamed behind me through the double thickness of scarf. I felt like a shadow. My hand brushed my stomach—a shadow with a shadow. The wind swirled. The electric lines swung stiffly. Ice-crusted branches clattered against each other.
I turned at the end of our driveway onto the empty road. Covered in snow, everything was dimly illuminated. Not like day, but a dream of a day. I felt like I’d fallen out of time. This could be a road in any century. The woods, far ahead, rose dark against to sky.
This would make a better story if I could tell you when I got to the ewe, when I bent over the panel of the lambing pen and saw the half-born form, that it was alive, barely breathing, but alive. And that I helped her deliver the rest of it, that the lamb stood and nursed on buckling legs.
But I can’t. It was dead and already stiffening; the ewe was having a hard time of it.
I climbed into the pen, making soft crooning sounds. She was panting with effort. Grasping the lamb’s cold ankles, I pulled it the rest of the way out. The yellow yolk of the amniotic fluid had dried, leaving its wool in small circles. The ewe dropped her head down on the straw with relief; she was done.
I checked her water; pulled off a press of hay and set it next to her. I laid the lamb with the other two.
Bill had hung a heat lamp over the pen, and its golden glow softly illuminated the shed. The wind whistled through the cracks in the siding. I leaned against the panel, watching the ewe nose the hay. My baby moved, tumbling within me.
I surrounded the tumbling baby. The shed surrounded us and the tired ewe. The farm and the fields surrounded the shed. And the wind and the snow encircled all of us. The barn, the animals, and we, moving as one.
My grandfather visited our farm only one time. He wanted to see some of the buildings, so he and my husband walked to the barn, into the pasture, and then, further to the farrowing house—a small, low building tucked under the trees at the wood’s edge. As they walked, Grandpa began to reminisce about his father’s farm—the six teams of workhorses, the crops, the livestock, walking the farm every Sunday afternoon. In his later life, he worked as a custodian, a job in downtown Milwaukee worlds away from the hills of Trempleau County. I want to think it pleased him after all that time, standing in the grass under the sun, to talk with someone who knew what he had once known, a witness as he reclaimed those memories.
In Japan, they honor the kami—the spirits of a place, pray to them, and make timber-framed temples for them. The wood is cut and notched, fitted together without nails, marrying the wood pieces together so tightly they become as one—a singular container for the holy.
Our barn is notched and fitted together in the same way—mortise and tenon joints, cut and fitted over a hundred years ago. On windy days, as the gusts slide across the metal-sheathed roof, catch under the overhang, and push against the broad, weathered sides. The barn creaks and shifts, as if the beams, long since hewn and dried, are awakened. They move, as if half-remembering how their long lengths, once divided endlessly and covered with leaves, caught the wind and swung, bending to the earth’s breathing.
And whose spirits does it contain? The ghost of a mare and my grandfather. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve gone back in time, to be redeemed. The rasping of hay pulled apart, whispers of dried corn leaves rubbing. Splintered, chopped ice, hoof falls in wooden floors, bleating sheep. These are the beings of my world, the life force. I’m not the only thing awake here. Sometimes, I can feel my Polish ancestors looking through my eyes.
Last summer, we had a day of high winds—up to seventy miles per hour. They came in waves from across the woods, west of the barn. The roaring got louder as it swept through the trees, and then hit the barn, the rafters and metal roof heaved with resounding bangs and pops.
I climbed the ladder to the hayloft and put my hand against one of the uprights. It pushed against my palm. I stepped closer, wrapped my arms around the beam and shut my eyes. Like a living tree, it swayed. My body moved with it, shifting with the moaning barn, and felt the holy awakening of the towering wood.
Feature image is a section from “Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.