I am percolating a project. I want to hear the stories of local barns. Barns as icons. Barns as embodying the changing culture and legacy of farms and farming.
As an urban pastor in rural ministry, part of my draw to barns is that I know nearly nothing about them, really. Yet, somehow, I love them.
But, true confessions: everything I know about barns I learned in kindergarten.
Old McDonald had a farm – and it was a barn, the farm was.
In the barn were cows and calves, pigs and piglets, horses and colts, hens and roosters and chicks, sheep and lambs, etc., I suppose each in their adjacent stalls. And why? I don’t know, just because animals are nice and warm and fun and make great noises? (The connection between animals in a barn and raising food was never made.)
And Jesus was born in a barn.
And in that dark barn far away there also was a cow, a sheep, a dove, an ox, and a lamb, all co-existing and making soothing noises for a baby to sleep by.
Growing up I never knew a farmer or went in a barn. There was an old structure behind our “old house” (when I was a small child), that I called a barn. And I imagined having my own horse in it. But I have no memory of ever going in this structure. It stood old and empty and longing.
My cousins old, old house in Germantown (Philadelphia) had been the barn where, they said, George Washington's horse slept. But I never, never, pictured it in any way as a barn. That was just a quaint thing to say, I guess.
In college I had a chance to connect with a barn. The first farmer I knew was a Mennonite farmer’s son I met when I was twenty. After his father’s death their Lancaster, PA farm was being auctioned off after seven generations of family farming. He grieved in a way I could not feel. I never saw the barn.
And now? I now have friends who have all kinds of barns.
A centennial barn that stands empty but for storing the yacht of a friend.
Huge pole barns that house huge equipment for seed corn farming.
A small pole barn on an organic market farm that houses a few sheep and cattle.
Two barns that have been re-constructed as homes, and another as a retreat center.
One small white barn that was sold recently to a young Amish family.
One old, dark barn that hosted a dance once, but I had too much fun dancing and never really looked around.
I have not explored barns. I don’t know what they are used for – really. I don’t know the kinds. Or how they are built. I don’t know what it takes to keep an old barn alive.
I don’t know why I love barns. Why my heart goes out to barns. Why they comfort me, even the old falling down ones, as they stand on the corn field across my long driving view. Why they draw my eye.
I ponder such American icons -- wondering if barns are sanctuaries of the land, like country churches are sanctuaries for the people.I wonder if we know, deep down in our collective earthling consciousness that such shelter is necessary, such honoring essential, for our survival on the land and with the animals. I wonder if barns stand in the gap between the wild, wild world and our domesticated allusion of everlasting abundance, the cultivation of crops, of our daily bread.
Barns seem to me shelters of the presence of God on field horizons, keeping us safe in storms and fed in the cold, holding a warm place between heaven and earth.
And it appears that barns are dying.