by Tom Sheehan
These were more than echoes, the soft sounds I was hearing from the rear of the barn sitting back from Route 182 in Franklin, Maine, half a dozen fat pigs to one side, corn as deep as Iowa on the other side, and the terrain across the road flush with blueberry bushes until a slow rise tipped the landscape in its favor…and in mine. In my son Tim’s favor, too. He lives by this barn. Perhaps I had lived waiting for its sassy voices.
There, in his barn, I was a listener as well as a watcher. Maine mornings, even on summer days, are placid and huge as glaciers, and crawl into the mind through more than one sense. But there you have it: Maine mornings are also like Maine barns, always having something to say to you, shaking you awake as if the scruff of your neck is in their hands, leaving a bit of dust for memory’s sake. These wooden memorials to sweat and old time crept into my notes years ago, promising poetry. Now they creep out again, reasserting their observations, touching memory as I look at old journals of trips through Maine.
I’ve seen northern barns announced by Bull Durham signs, or knotted, vertical boards twisting their long signatures, saying how long they’ve been at the job. At another glance, usually from some rise in the road, a ridgepole shows its tendency to sag, to bend under duress. A ridgepole draws down into itself in the manner of implosion. Maine barns have their own signatures. They leap at me from Kittery to Fort Kent, from Eastport to Westford, from Calais to Kezar Falls.
My son Tim’s barn was once a schoolhouse. In fact, it was once the schoolhouse in Franklin; and was called the Ryefield School. Is that name so simply conceived? Can I really see the waving grain? I would grant that it is, and after one final graduation of sorts, and gentled by the slow, steady, plodding rough draft of 100 oxen, it was dragged from its first setting to the land he now farms there, just below the Little League Field. Now it houses a home-made 50-gallon-drum stove, a tractor for all purposes, a Harley motorcycle past its prime, tools an inveterate collector would love because the labor expended with them is almost visible to a keen eye. And leather goods have hung so long on one wall their legends are inscribed like vertical signboards. On one wide-planked bench taking up one wall, sits a Jonsered chainsaw I used for twenty years in the Topsfield State Forest fighting the cost of oil; my gift to Maine winters and a warm hearth. Tim says it still operates with a vengeance. I’ve passed my former strengths on to him.
One would also be keen to know how many McGuffey Readers had passed through this old barn on the way to intelligence, awareness, imagination, above and beyond ‘ritin, and ‘rithmetic. That revelation would take the highest art of contemplation.
Yet it is not the only barn he has. Here, they come in twins. Just across the yard, closer to the road, over a slab board fence we erected one day a few years ago to keep the corn in and the horses out, past the 40-50 foot long, 4-foot high walls of logs set for the next winter, sits another barn. Which one predates the other, I have no idea, but this second barn has housed Tony the pony, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, and mice to be sure, and perhaps a small army of termites, dust beetles, unusual mandible-carrying critters intent on destruction. It is sure that such creatures come the same way and at the same speed that erosion hits Mother Earth herself, a slow onslaught and assault you may not be able to see, but you sure have to fix, “once the weather gits good enough for toolin’,” as Tim might now say in adoptive speech.
From its stalls, its storage bins, its freezer against one wall standing like a foreign icon, has often come the entire meal at his table. Squash stuffed with sausage, sweet and regular Maine spuds, green beans so thick they could choke you, tomatoes red as Old Glory, ham in slices so sweet and so thick they seem without end, and salty enough to have been dragged through the surf a few miles away. I think now of rhubarb pie, apple pie, blueberry pie or blueberry muffins with a thickly spun heavy cream taking your breath away. If there was one thing that exists now and one thing existing back when the Ryefield School was first built, the meals are the same; “They stick,” as my mother used to say about oatmeal, “to the very backbone that carries your day.”
Some barns know how to kneel in their slow absorption; Tim’s barns do, looking over their shoulders, sighing and whispering in these Maine-gray mornings. They tolerate what is happening to them, host squadrons gnawing at time, creatures busy as downtown Saturday nights, ceding fathoms to dark hungers. The twist of checked timbers sit silent as skulls and implant another night of survival upon the landscape. It is why I love old Maine barns.
Even in the summer lofts, there are dreams to rediscover, re-awake. Barns have a right to keep their odors, their signatures, and silence in the mows.
A poet friend says his barn accepts the graces of early October evening. He swears that miniature shadows stroll cautious as kittens out of hay-golden eaves. The mow is night itself, a spectral darkness inflated against hazardous roofing where a dozen knot holes pinpoint a constellation and long against morning light reveal the truth of north. Wall nails and spikes are crucial with their evidence. Old leather traces, bridles, other gear that bays or roans sweat into, hang limp as bookmarks marking a thousand journeys one man has taken into town and back.
Friend says his father’s great gray horse, Humboldt by name, froze standing up in ’38. That magnificent creature, leg broken, heart-heaving, brought the gentleman safely to his final bed. Only the barn remains, October light fissuring through checked walls. Even the photographs are gone. Fire, pasture and old age have captured everything, except the barn that revolved axially above his father’s eyes, stabs of light drifting through this dark planetarium. Oh, how I envy his memories, the tales he might have spilled if they were his calling.
For all the standing still, there’s action, warming, aging, the bowing of an old Maine barn, the ultimate genuflection we might miss if we don’t pause on the road, take a breath, smell the old barn itself beside beds of roses.
You can bet those barns talk to me, their voices thick, hoarse, Scot and Irish in the making, wind-blown off mountains, lonely for the listening.