Monday, December 22, 2014

Elegy for a Barn

First Place winner, "photographer-writer"!!

I drove past the barn for the first twelve years without seeing it. I have two reliable ways of driving to and from my office nestled in a quaint Art Deco courthouse on Lake Michigan’s shore. One takes me fifty miles, but follows straight and angular lines, more or less, delivering me to a thirty-mile stretch of interstate that goes by in a blur, nearly on auto-pilot, before disgorging me to the exit ramp.
The other route is the one I call “the back roads,” and travels a two-lane winding path up hill and down dale, shaving miles off the total but adding in time where the speed limits drop going through a series of small towns. All things being equal, the two paths take the same amount of time to get from my house to my destination.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when the weather turns bad, you will always find me crawling my way home on the back roads, where the traffic is much sparser and the large trucks nearly non-existent. An accident at night on the interstate in a blizzard nearly two decades ago, triggered by a passing semi-trailer, haunts me still.
Sometimes I take the back roads because the interstate is clogged for the summer months with orange barrels and paving equipment and other inconvenient phenomena of road construction. And yet other times I’ll take the rural route just…because it is quite lovely. Yes, the fact that it has sharp turns and S-curves and hills and valleys requires that I pay more attention as I drive. It wends its way closely past houses and barns and forests, and I am vigilant for any signs of movement of errant deer or possums or dogs or children. But the vistas and horizons are splendid, and the change of seasons unfurls like a tapestry.
There are barns and sheds and cows in abundance on this drive. Most of the barns still in use are painted the traditional red with white trim, and most of the cows are black and white Holsteins renowned for their milk production, and so I might be forgiven for assuming a certain sameness to the rural landscape.
A few years ago I began to accompany my friend once a month or so to weekend garage sales, and so my awareness of “rummage sale” and “garage sale” signs started to rise. And one day, on the way home from work, I crested a tall hill and noticed a sign in a yard on the other side of the road advertising a final moving sale. Had the yard been on the side of the road that I traveled I might have stopped, but it wasn’t, and the dog was waiting patiently for me to come home and let him out, and so I kept on driving.
Some time after that, I noticed that the house appeared completely deserted. No vehicles were parked in the driveway, no lights or other signs of life shone from the two-story frame house. I wondered what treasures I might have picked up at the yard sale had I only stopped. And I kept driving past, without any more curiosity, as the days wore on and a realtor’s sign went up by the driveway.
And then, one day I crested the hill again and happened to look to the east, and noticed the sagging barn and sturdy silo beside it, illuminated by the afternoon sun. Part of the wood-shingled roof had caved in toward the middle, and light streamed through the hole across old hay bales and wood plank walls, creating interesting shadows. And I thought “Hmmm…..”
I had recently joined the ranks of persons who own smart phones that also take decent photographs, and so my “carpe diem” spirit of photography was starting to rise. I had begun to scan the roadsides and the horizons as I drove, more alert than before to the lighting and the backgrounds and the possibilities of barns and cemeteries and groves of trees and banks of wildflowers.
And yet I still drove past the barn again and again, nervous about pulling in to park and take a photograph lest someone—a local cop, perhaps—might think of me as a mischievous trespasser, an interloper to be unceremoniously ejected upon discovery. And the barn’s position at the top of a hill made suddenly slamming on the brakes to turn in to the driveway on a whim an unsafe proposition.
But I plotted and I planned and I hypothesized, and finally one day I stuck my courage to the mast. I decided to throw caution to the wind and finally pull in to the driveway to take a photo or two. With traffic close behind me, I reluctantly drove past, and then turned the car around at the next intersection and returned to park in the shade of a tall tree. I stepped out and snapped a few photos from the base of the ramp that led to the hay mow, cropped one and filtered it through Instagram, and posted it on Facebook. And then I beat a hasty retreat, counting my blessings that the weather and the traffic had cooperated with me.
Not long afterward, my younger daughter came home for a few months after spending time out of the country doing contemporary circus work. She is an artist by nature and by training, and a photographer as well, and so my suggestion that we take a day to just wander the countryside looking for old barns and graveyards to photograph was accepted immediately. I told her about the barn I’d been passing on the way to and from work, and that seemed as good a place as any to start. Plus, I really wanted to go back and explore some more, and a pair of photographers complete with artistic business cards would surely seem less like trespassers than just one person.
The trouble was, I really couldn’t remember exactly where the barn was. Like I said, between the cows and the barns and the trees, much of the landscape often looked…ahem…the same. And so we slowly drove the rural route, keeping our eyes on the east side of the road. The day was a bit grey, and the drive a bit foggy, and I half-wondered if I’d imagined the whole adventure, or whether we’d driven past the barn without noticing it in the mist. I cracked jokes about the barn being “my Brigadoon,” an imaginary place that came to life just the once and then vanished. And then the barn came in to view and we both lit up with smiles.

The place still looked deserted, and so we parked in the driveway and brought out our cameras. We picked our way through weeds and branches, and explored the ruined structure from all sides. My daughter was braver than I, and entered the lower section of the barn where cattle had once been kept. I snapped photos on the floor above, of the open roof and the rafters, and then circled around the base, peering through broken windows and admiring sagging doors and rusted hinges. She found the entrance to the silo and took some spectacular photos looking up from the center. The wind and the weather had stripped nearly all the original paint from the worn boards, but under the shelter of the eaves some vestiges of the original red paint remained.
There seemed something still grand and noble about the failing structure, echoes of work and usefulness, and industry, and productivity. We finally drove off to find other barns and other places to photograph that day, but exploring “my Brigadoon” had been the high point of the day.
I took to planning my drives home to take me past the barn when the light was good, or the change of seasons spawned new configurations of light and shadows. I began to think through my stops based on how much traffic was behind me, and just when I should pull over at an intersection or parking lot to let the following cars pass allowing a little more breathing room and a few more seconds to snap photos from the road shoulder. I shot moody, atmospheric pictures from a distance, looking north in the mornings as the sun rose in the east, but I also knew that the afternoon allowed the best shadows reaching across the barn walls as I stood with my back to the sun.
And then the real estate sign came down and there was evidence that a family had moved in. I saw a dark Suburban parked by the house. Colorful flowers in pots materialized on the front porch. I gave up any thought of pulling into the driveway any more to take pictures, and contented myself with pulling over to the side of the road at the crest of the hill, the car’s hazard lights flashing while I stepped out.
And then the unthinkable happened. As I drove past one day, I noticed that there was more daylight filling the barn. It was engaged in the slow, deliberate process of deconstruction and removal. I felt overtaken by a sense of mourning, a palpable sorrow that this grand ruin that had given me so much joy and so much inspiration would finally cease to exist.
I found myself taking the back roads more and more often, just to catch one more glimpse, or take one more picture, before it disappeared. Day after day I held my breath until I recognized its outline on the horizon at the top of the hill. More than once tremendous winds buffeted our part of Wisconsin, and I dreaded the thought that the next time I drove past, I might see only a wrecked pile of boards and shingles brought down to the ground by nature and gravity.
But the barn remained standing, even as its sides vanished a little more each week. It began to resemble a roof kept aloft on single posts, and I could see clear through the building from all sides as I drove past. My daughter came home again to visit, and once again we made the pilgrimage to “my Brigadoon” with our cameras.

 This time I drove well in to the yard, and knocked at the door of the frame house to ask permission to walk around the barn and take pictures. The young woman who answered explained that she and her family were renting, and that the barn actually belonged to someone else. So basically, we could walk around as much as we wanted with her blessing. She had fallen under the barn’s spell herself already, and had avidly photographed it herself, even replicating the “inside the silo” shot my daughter had taken months before.
It was sunny and cold in the late fall afternoon as we picked our way around the barn inside and out. There were piles of rubble behind the building that had not been there the first time we went exploring, as well as giant branches full of prickers that stuck to our pants if we brushed by them. I took myself out to the surrounding farm fields to get a long shot or two, and then walked up the ramp to what used to be the hay mow but now was just so much empty space. I could see the countryside fall away for miles from where the back wall had once stood. My fingers froze quickly in the breeze when I took my gloves off to work the camera shutter. Eventually the cold drove us back to the car and we returned home.
I know that the end is near, and that one of these days as I drive up the hill the familiar peak of the barn roof will no longer mark the horizon like a cathedral spire. But I am still grateful for the sense of adventure and beauty and wonder that it stirred in me when I finally opened my eyes to register what I had passed, unseeing, for so long.

Farewell, “my Brigadoon.”

CODA...June 8, 2015


Cynthia said...

Really lovely, Mary. So evocative. I, too, love barns -- old and new -- and I loved seeing the details of "your" barn -- even though with a tinge of sadness at its demise. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

LOVED the pics - LOVED the story - SAD to see all this becoming a thing of the past and the younger generation not able to experience what we all have in the years before them. Before cell phones and video games......growing up, i took many a country ride to see my maternal grandmother and have picnics on her property and fun with my cousins and aunts and uncles and siblings...and complaining somewhat that id miss something happening in the big no one seems to want to even get together...and now as i get older i feel the need to be in the country...i feel like your old barn.....wasting away...creeky....falling apart....but then i think if i let myself do that.....i cannot experience the backroads and corners that make life all worth living for. thanks Mary for sharing this...i shall pass it on....LOVED ALL OF IT!! MaryR :)