Driving by, what you see is probably different from what I see. The barn may be old and dilapidated. The roof started leaking years ago and eventually the weather soaked into the supporting timbers so the old girl now sags where she once stood firm and tall. If you look closely enough, you might see flecks of red paint under the growing lichens and moss on the sideboards. If you are lucky, you might find the upper floor still intact, once the home to bales or mounds of hay, guaranteeing the livestock would not starve during winter’s ravaging days. And if you are really lucky, you might find the old block and tackle with rope still attached, now rotting and frayed, but once attached to a hay fork or hook designed to transport that hay and probably a young boy or two up to the hayloft on a hot summer day.
Work and pleasure—that’s what comes to mind when I see that old barn, along with a million more memories. Because I once was one of those delighted boys who loved it when the work was done and my dad would use the old block and tackle to provide me a joyous ride on a rope up to the hayloft. It wasn’t quite the same as riding the Zipper at the state fair. But for a home-made thrill, it was as about as good as it gets, at least in those days. Much better than coasting my bike at breakneck speed down Sunnycrest Hill, especially since there was no crash at the end with bloody chin, hands, elbows, and knees, not to mention the smattering of gravel ground in for good measure. No, you could ride to the top relatively unscathed without so much as a concussion, unless a friend other than your dad happened to be hoisting you up and let the rope slip when you were almost at the top! So I stop and take a picture to preserve what will soon be rot, dust, and ashes, knowing that somebody somewhere probably cherishes similar memories from this very place.
What adventures were staged in that hayloft, real or imagined? Pirates and terror on the high seas played out in a child’s mind, though miles from the nearest body of navigable water? Cowboys riding their horses at a gallop with Winchester Model 94’s pulled from the scabbard while in hot pursuit of a mountain lion threatening their cattle? World War II Soldiers fighting the Battle of the Bulge to protect the world from Nazi tyranny? Or how about a first crush daydream interlude, as a fourth grade boy imagines waking in the middle of the night hearing the screams of Laura Lane, his classmate up the road. “Somebody please save me,” Laura screams. Our young hero bravely answers the call to duty and rescues Laura from the fiery inferno, although becoming mortally wounded in the process. Stumbling through the flaming wreckage with suffocating smoke, he grabs Laura in his arms. He relishes his final breath as Laura declares her eternal gratitude for her young rescuer and kisses his bruised cheek and smiles as he places her safely on the front lawn, his final act of sacrificial devotion. In a hayloft, heroes lived and died, and imagination was better than a video game.
Barns can also be a place of worship and prayer, of meeting with God. In the Old Testament, Gideon was threshing grain when the angel of the Lord appeared to him. Jesus was born amid livestock and laid in a manger. Farmers know well the biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing.” Whether praying about the weather, a crop, or a prodigal child, a farmer’s work often allowed ample time to pray while milking the cows, slopping the hogs, feeding the chickens, or driving the tractor. The pace of life and nature of the work provide a symbiotic relationship and environment for prayer and reflection to flourish. I remember a young boy praying while performing such chores, or while lying flat on his back in the hayloft. “Lord, what do you want me to do with my life?”
What about the economic benefit to the family and community? The livestock produced, the cows milked, all providing more employment for the hired hands, the delivery people, the feed store, and the grocery store workers? A single family farm could have far-reaching influence for labor and industry. Not to mention the lessons learned in thrift, character, and the satisfaction of working with your hands and cooperating with God in the care of his creation and growing things beneficial to God’s children.
And what about the family ties, stronger than the rope in the hayloft, that intertwined and made family the heart of the family farm? While not fair to compare it to contemporary living in a city apartment, the truth is, there is no comparison. Memories of farm life are all about family, love, endurance, strength, doing things, and getting things done—together. Unlike most twenty-first century families, farm families lived, worked, ate, and played—together. We knew our land like the back of our hands, every fence, valley, creek, tree, and blade of grass. And we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Despite the latter, we worked together to make each other successful. Every meal lovingly prepared was the tasty culmination of a team effort.
So, that’s why I take photographs of old barns. I see a different picture, an image carefully concealed and hiding beyond the pile of junk you might glimpse driving past at sixty miles per hour. I see the intersection of time, space, weather, God’s creativity and faithfulness combined with human existence to produce a work of art. Capturing it in a snapshot of time seems the least I can do.