The old barn is no ersatz cathedral, no skyscraper struggling to free itself from all ties to the earth. Built near the low point of this farm at the head of the hollow, it replaced an older structure that had been destroyed by arson. Its design came from drawings made by the wife of the then-owner; a master builder on work-release from a near-by prison oversaw its assembly. Many of its timbers are clearly recycled, bearing the mark of an adze and sporting square holes at odd places where a mortised joint had fit in a previous life. Others were clearly milled afresh. Some even retain their bark, a pattern unfamiliar to me: American chestnut, perhaps? The barn is full of ghosts.
It’s a classic Pennsylvania barn with a projecting forebay on the side away from the weather and an earthen bank entrance to the second floor. Like all barns, it was built to keep rain out but let the air flow through. A legend of the former owners said that unless both haymows were kept filled to the rafters, the wind would lift the roof right off. So several generations of tenant formers mowed and raked and hauled grass in from the orchard, sweaty work. The owners showed up for a couple months of the year to play farmer as only nouveaux riches can do. One year they brought a circus elephant back from Chicago by train, led it up the hollow and kept it penned on the threshing floor all summer. The gardens must have flourished for years on elephant dung.
All we ever kept were hogs – a pair a year for three years running – and Muscovy ducks. A few feral cats still drift in and out – barn cats from the valley – but without livestock now there are no rats and probably too few mice. The winter before last a cat died in one of the old stalls; I found its mummified corpse sometime in May. A gray squirrel makes his nest in an old pipe, runs along the beams and up and down the walls as if the barn were still a forest. Phoebes sometimes nest in the basement and barn swallows in mud nests plastered against the roof beams. We have never had a barn owl.
My parents would like to have the barn painted, but I love it as it is, every year a little more weathered. In some places the original red paint still hangs on; elsewhere, the later white gives way to golden brown knots and amber waves of grain. And while we’ll never know how much if any of it was milled from trees felled here on the mountain, there’s no question that the foundation stones are autochthonous, hauled down from the ridges.
The barn faces southeast rather than due south because that’s the orientation of the whole farmstead: parallel to the ridges. On early autumn mornings we look to the barn roof for the first signs of frost, as if it were some high Alpine peak. Replacing this roof was one of the first things my dad did after my parents bought the place in the early 1970s. Our then-neighbor Margaret later told us that one of her hunter friends had watched from the woods as Dad wrestled rolls of tarpaper up the extension ladder and nailed the roofing down from a jerry-rigged scaffold. That’s when she realized we were here to stay.
Unlike so many other refugees, we didn’t bring the city with us. But like nearly everyone, our stock of possessions expands to fill every available space. This barn built for hay and livestock now harbors machinery and junk, piles of scrap wood, a graveyard of lawnmowers, bottles of DDT. Forty-year-old sacks of lime have dissolved into a gray mountain looming at the back of the basement. I’m reminded of a train station somewhere where the trains have stopped running, leaving the last travelers stranded at the end of the line. A place to sit and watch thin fingers of sunlight playing with the dust, wait for empty mangers to once again cradle some infinitesimal portion of the sky.