The Barn

We moved here from Chicago for a change of lifestyle. I think it’s fair to say that Blooming Prairie has delivered on that count.

I got used to the tilting of heads everyone gave us when we told them of our transplanting from the big city. There was always the friendly nodding coupled with an “Oh!” that escaped people’s lips before they could conceal their surprise. Then there was the pregnant pause necessary to process that which is out of the ordinary, followed by the familiar line, “ So, what made you do that?” This was typically delivered in a quizzical tone or with a self-deprecating chuckle and a gentle tap on my elbow, suggesting the listener’s incredulity.

I’ve always been a bit taken aback by this regular reaction, for we didn’t come here because we had to; we came here because we chose to. And although I didn’t need it, when my family came from Chicago to visit for the Fourth of July, it provided salient reminders for why we’re here. They came partly because they love us, but partly because this place offers what folks can’t get in the big city.

Certainly, there are some aspects of the City of Big Shoulders that I miss dearly – most notably its pizza, its theater, and its music (I was going to put its traffic on this list, but I knew no one would believe it). There are significant ways, however, in which that town can’t compete with Blooming Prairie specifically, or with the vast tracts of prairie that are emblematic of the Great Plains. Among them are space and solitude, of course. But more subtly, Chicago, a city known for its architecture – from Frank Lloyd Wright to the Sears and Tribune towers – is missing one of the most beautiful man-made structures ever created: the barn.

That’s right. Those wondrous wooden forms that creep out from behind the hills of green and gold and cinnamon brown. That deep, dark recognizable red that reminds us there’s work to be done, that food will be on the table, or that we’ll soon be home. Those knot holes, rusted nails, and broken boards that time has torn. They’re beautiful. Not just in aesthetic terms, but beautiful because of what they represent: self-sufficiency, hard work, dependability, the farm’s fortress for man’s incessant struggle against nature, at once community and solitude. I’m so struck by these barns, and these thoughts, that I often find myself staring as I encounter one set off the road a bit, or as I gaze out of our west windows and find one fewer than fifty paces from me.

But the beauty of these barns is fading along with the small family farms and the people who painted our landscape with them. They simply can’t keep up with the mass production that is now a prerequisite on the prairie. Barns aren’t about mass production; they’re about daily routine, callused hands hefting hay, one thing at a time done well. These barns are buckling and becoming earth again. The creaks of their decaying timber provide the dirge that we will hear all too soon. They are losing their place as monuments in the Midwest and New England. Soon they will no longer be that most memorable, most striking image of the farm – those earthen-red mainstays from postage stamps and the pages of children’s books.

But what happens when we lose such a link to the past? Do we not decay a bit too? Old barns are like old trees. They were created. They grew from the ground up, like the planting that is so much a part of these places. When we lose them, there is no harvest. There is emptiness. A hole in the ground.

As I stand in the great barn near our home, the footsteps of our children’s great-grandfather echo through the timbers. The foundation beneath was laid to link us to the past and to the land. I realize today that people produce a place like this so that others may reap later rewards. Replacing these old barns with aluminum sheds is indeed practical and utilitarian, but a certain amount of soul resides between the slats and the slivers. While I’ve never met my wife’s grandfather or heard his voice, I know him when I enter that barn. I feel him in the hallowed hills of hay, the wind that whistles by as it is thwarted by the still sturdy structure, and the sunlight that stretches across the beams like a built-in sundial. That man made this place. He left something that lasted. But time and age are rapidly taking places like these. If we can save them, we can possibly save some of our collective soul, some of what connects us to the earth and that which is natural.

In her book, Dakota A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris reflects on a saying of the desert monks: “If a man settles in a certain place and does not bring forth the fruit of that place, the place itself casts him out.” I find this truth unsettling for me as I live on, but do not farm, a large acreage. Because I do not wish to be cast out by this place, I feel I must in some way preserve it.

So, here in our small part of the world, we are trying to put this into practice. As the barn at our place slowly crumbles, we resurrect it. Last July we used some of its wood to frame a wagon for hauling stuff or for kiddy rides. This July some old barn planks became a kitchen table that should last forever.

These are the fruits this barn can now bear. And its beauty battles on.