Four little walls, one great escape

It's easy for us to get away from it all on our 80-acre farm: We simply walk along the cowpaths from the house at the road front to the little log cabin set back amid the sugar maples. There are no roads to the cabin, so drop-in visitors are rare. It is phone-free to boot, and even my teenage son occasionally appreciates how this lack adds to the deep tranquility of the place.

We're not unfriendly or reclusive, but sometimes we need to compensate for the very social nature of our life and work up front. Our barn sits even closer to the road than the house, and a broad semi-circular drive provides easy stop-and-go access. It can get busy there, especially when we try to get something done on a pleasant day.

The barn drive is an ideal dry- weather workplace, handy to a small tool room and to the barn's electrical outlets. Charlie can set up sawhorses on its gravel and get down to business - repairing gates, oiling harnesses, servicing tractors, trimming hooves - whatever needs doing out of doors. We groom and hitch the horses here, and I hang freshly laundered workclothes on a line stretched between a couple of scrub trees at the road's edge. Our washing machine is in the barn, and I don't carry wet denim any farther than I have to.

Whatever we're doing, our presence on the drive is, by long-standing tradition, an open invitation to company. As friends and acquaintances crest the small hill above the barn in their cars and pickups, they generally look to see if we're about. If we are, the response might be a raised hand and gentle toot, especially if we're choring on a bleak midwinter morning.

But come late March and April, with a warming afternoon sun, and it's a different story. Vehicles cresting that hill often slow, tires turn crunching onto the gravel drive, doors open, and grinning neighbors emerge to shoot the breeze - often after commenting on its thaw-enhanced pungency.

We generally stop what we're doing for a proper visit and a bit of a break. On a truly fine spring day, as visit follows visit, we might squeeze in a bit of work between long, leisurely breaks.

When I hear Charlie's ringing laugh floating up from the barn drive, I know that the project he's started has been set aside awhile, and I often stop what I'm doing elsewhere to see who's pulled in and what tidings they bring.

With Ned, a landowner and graphic artist up the road, the talk might center on our mutually favorite book illustrators and first-edition finds - or on the proper spacing of fenceposts. Bernie apprises us of upcoming auctions, while Steve talks hay. Amanda brings poetry, sometimes written, more often sprinkled like jewels in her everyday conversation. With Ben we talk sports - focusing our thorough if amateur analysis on the Indianapolis Colts and Indiana University basketball. Trees and lumber are Tom's bailiwick. He still reminisces about the day Charlie and our Belgians hauled storm falls for him out of a valley too steep for tractors.

It's a rare job that takes first fiddle to such matters. A calving in progress may do the trick, if our help is needed, and up until recently, so did needed repairs to the milking equipment - we always had that evening deadline. But we retired from commercial dairying last fall, and now nothing presses so much that a visit on the barn drive need be cut short.

When we're out there, we're fair game, even to strangers, who might pull in for free-range eggs, for permission to photograph the workhorses, or to introduce their children - or themselves - to farm animals.

Some people we don't know at all have come to know us pretty well in their travels up and down the road. Once at an auction (which Bernie, no doubt put us on to), a man I did not recognize cast me a string of quizzical looks.

"Haven't we met?" he finally asked, coming up to me.

"I don't think so," I answered, trying and failing to place him. I offered my name, but it rang no bells for him. Suddenly, he beamed and nodded.

"Ah-ha! You're the woman who hangs her wash up on Bethel Lane!"

Which is why we need that cabin.

Emily Dickinson

I think about the days she sewed her poems

with threads of ink that held the sounds between

the words. She put her heart down in her rhymes

and understood that somewhere in the skin

there is an answer for each line, a chorus

that she traced within herself. Why pause

right there? a student asks as if to stress

the point. The answer is in earthly laws

of conversation, how to frame them so

the texture of the momentary speech

lasts. Think of your memory as a ragged row

of utterances that you would like to reach

for when you wished. Impossible. She chose

to try: with words - then dashes - between those.

By Kim Bridgford

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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