The Barn Politic



In a stiff wind, the north wall flaps. I worry, mid-January, that it will take flight, leaving the rest of the barn to fend for itself. Feeling fatalistic, I shrug and leave it up to nature and gravity to decide if we’ll still have a barn by spring. Andrew opts for strategy and action. He angles some beams from floor to wall, tethering the pieces, for now.

This barn is older than our 1890-built house. Dutch settlers built barns like this one all over upstate New York, many now crumbling. The Dutch Barn style features decorative ventilation holes near the peaks and, often, IMG_0766horizontally lapped siding. These barns typically have an H-shaped support structure, and an open threshing floor on the upper level. Thick, hand-hewn beams pegged together make these barns surprisingly difficult to dismantle, even in extreme disrepair. That’s what we’re hoping, anyway.

We bought this barn sight unseen, since the innards were filled—wall-to-wall, and on the lower level, floor-to-ceiling—with the previous owner’s junk. The main barn was strong enough, anyway, to hold six vehicles surrounded impassably by stuff. With the junk gone, we have taken stock.

barninthemorningHere is a barn with potential for great usefulness and charm, carrying almost two centuries of history. Here is a barn that could house cows and horses and enough hay to feed them all winter. Here is a barn with some major deterioration. A sad and tilty barn. A nearly naked, aged barn, still holding onto its dignity.

We scrutinize our priorities. What is our responsibility to the past and the present? What kind of structure do we need, going into the future? How important are beauty and history? How much can we commit—time, money, other projects pushed aside—to this central, even guiding, element of this enterprise? What makes sense, and what do our guts tell us?

Sometimes you have to tear apart the old structures and build a new, working system. Raze the existing edifices, corrupted by time and rot and small problems ignored into larger ones. Or, perhaps what stands can remain, with rigorous—and costly—renovations. The foundation might need to be reset, and the crooked framework hauled into line.

All of this work demands honest courage and discerning vision. Deny this work, and the whole, rat-eaten construction can crash, despite its strong potential. Approach this work brazenly, with a lack of heart, bringing only a destructive energy, and the results will be ugly. I am pondering big decisions that define a place. I am thinking about presidency and candidates.

We decide to save the barn and to tear it down. Almost half of the building consists of three added-on pieces, which are not worth saving. The main part of the barn will suit our needs, for holding livestock and hay and the soul of this farm. This summer, and probably next summer, too, we will do our best to transform it backwards and forwards into a noble, effective structure. We hope it will offer good lives to those who depend on us and make this farm a welcoming, secure place. May it also be so for our nation.



7 thoughts on “The Barn Politic”

  1. Lovely and thought-provoking, Abbie. More and more, your writing reminds me of Wendell Berry: graceful, deep, unafraid to consider the hard questions.

    Here’s hoping we can rebuild our broken nation with the care and love you put into your farm, your family, your writing, and your life.


    1. Wow, Steve! Thank you. I would be thrilled to emulate Wendell Berry in any small way! And I’m hoping, too, for care and love to go a long way towards repairs.

  2. Abbie,

    Having walked and crawled through this barn before it was empty and as it is now, I know that you have captured the spirit of the structure in such beautiful words. So many thanks for your blogs!

    James Landis

  3. Dear Abbie,

    Sadly, Neil and I have watched the barns deteriorate over the years. We had hoped that someone with a heart for the past would buy the farm. We are so grateful for you and Andrew and your vision. Let us know when and our family will be there to help.

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful words

    1. Sue, I want to run down the road and give you a big hug! We are so grateful to have you for our neighbors. Thank you!

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