By Way Of The Barn

"Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,

A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding;

And haze, and vista, and the far horizon fading away."

Walt Whitman

Read almost any Mennonite author and sooner or later you will come across a reference to some variation of "the barn" in their work. And we've already had references to barns in some of the presentations at the conference here. The place has a habit of popping up in their poetry and novels, short stories and essays, perhaps only mentioned in passing but just as easily chosen as the setting for a pivotal scene or the subject of an entire poem. Sometimes readers can follow their characters into these literary barns, run their hands over the weathered boards, climb up into the musty hay loft, linger in the not-quite-silent gloom, and feel themselves in the presence of a place with a soul.

Venture deeper inside and the weathered floorboards creak under your footfalls. Pigeons flutter overhead as you make your way along the center aisle, discover a cat curled up on the sunny ledge of a dusty window. A sigh of wind wisps through the rafters high above, where narrow shafts of light break in beams of shimmering yellow. Somewhere out in the barnyard a rooster crows. You reach out to run your hand along a hay manger where morning and evening the cows, now out to pasture, stand to be milked and fed. The wood, shiny and dark, curves gently under your fingers, worn smooth in the most agreeable way from years of being rubbed against by those large and humble creatures.

These days when I step into a barn, especially when I'm alone and the place is largely empty, it instantly becomes not so much a storehouse of hay and livestock as a repository of memory and musing. Crossing the threshold into a barn can sometimes feel to me like entering a church. There's an aspect of reverence about the place, and also something of remembered childhood longing. I gaze up at the rafters, shafts and razors of sunlight streaming down from on high and I might just as well be casting my eyes into the gothic arches of a medieval cathedral. As a child my artless attempts at prayer were often orchestrated not from within the intimidating confines of a church but the muted bowers of a humble barn. And even though the prospect of meaningful contact remained elusive, the stall held as much promise as the pew. In some ways redemption from my transgressions seemed more within reach there. The barn was a private place that possessed me of an easy and genuine humility. Church engendered affectation. I sensed my own pretence in church, and ego, felt it itching to be scratched under the collar of all that piety. In the barn I felt free to cast off all the bothersome trappings of culture and expectation. I still do.

Much as in church, a certain element of gravitas often seems to accompany my solitary entrance into the cloistered confines of a quiet barn. The muddied waters of my own mortality, whose depths I tread awkwardly at the best of times, seem less murky there. The place evokes something of the grave. It's dark. Quiet. I'm surrounded by earth and wood, the musty smell of age and decay. I hear water dripping somewhere. The muffled movements of creatures big and small. Other sounds filter in, muted and disembodied voices, possibly of people I knew and loved.

In many traditional older barns one of the first things you come across after you enter is the threshing floor. This consists of thick wooden planks laid tightly next to each where at one time the grain that had been bundled into sheaves and carried in from the fields would have been be beaten with a flail in order to separate the wheat - or oats or barley or rye - from the chaff. The hay left behind would have ended in the loft above, or it might have been taken outside to be burned or baled, but it was the grains of ripened wheat on the threshing floor that mattered. Sometimes the harvest would be so abundant that a prodigious quantity of grain would accumulate on the floor of the barn and threaten to spill out into the yard, at which point one of the labourers would pause long enough to place a board across the open doorway, which thereafter would have to be stepped over, and which was referred to as a threshold, a term which today is far removed from its original meaning.

In many ways the same can be said for the idea of the barn itself. The essential nature of the traditional barn rests in sanctuary. At its heart it is a place of refuge, a haven of shelter for the creatures that call it home. But the fact of the matter is that these days the essential nature of the traditional barn I've been waxing on about has largely been displaced. Many are less likely to be a working barn than relics, preserved for sentimental purposes and little else. Others have been repurposed in a variety of ways. Ideas about animal husbandry have been replaced by those of conjugal merriment. One of the latest trends is for young urban couples to want to celebrate their vows in a barn. (Perhaps this has something to do the comparison to a church I alluded to earlier.) Prospective brides can leaf through wedding magazines and see ads that tout the joys of having a "rustic chic farm wedding", or "the perfect barn wedding". These repurposed barns have been given names like The Happy Ever After Barn, or The Rustic Wedding Barn. If you haven't already had the pleasure of attending a barn wedding there's likely one in your future. Other barns have become tourist attractions, weekend getaways, or venues for art and antique road shows. We have a good number of them here in Manitoba, including one in the village of Neubergthal, known as the Krahn barn, where many Mennonite authors including myself have taken part in literary readings. In other places they have been converted into bars, funeral homes, you name it. You can even arrange for something - and I am not making this up - known as a "barn mitzvah".

Naturally the barns have been sanitized and every last morsel of manure removed from sight. The entire interior may have been sandblasted, the outside painted, windows upgraded, door handles and hinges polished. In some of them the panes have been replaced with stained glass windows to affect a more ecclesiastical atmosphere. Wedding planners can order their personalized printed invitations from www.moo.com.

But what about the working barns being built today? Most of them bear little resemblance to their precursors and tend to look more like a production plant or a factory. Built to house chickens for slaughter and egg production, cows for milk and beef, hogs for pork, these huge edifices hold thousands upon thousands of animals. They may be commonplace now but it wasn't always so. In Haskett, the small southern Manitoba Mennonite farming community of my childhood, there were still plenty of traditional barns to be found, but my father was one of the first to decide that he would do things on a much larger scale.

I wandered into to the barn one morning and found it barren, emptied entirely of its former contents. It was going to be converted into a granary, with long steel rods running a few feet up from the concrete, fixed to the walls to prevent them from bowing out under the weight of all the grain that would be stored there. Even the light was different. Where there always been a pleasant muted dimness to the place, now harsh sunlight poured in and bounced up off the polished cement. The building had been robbed of its "barnness", and felt to me like a place without a soul.

That summer I became part of a crew that erected a barn to hold not just a few animals, but enough to fill Noah's Ark and more, with one important difference: instead of housing thousands of creatures in endless variety (albeit only two of each kind) this barn would hold vast numbers of only one particular species: the domesticated turkey. By the time we were finished it would rival that Biblical edifice both in the manner of its construction as well as in its dimensions. Almost three hundred feet long, half as wide as a football field, it would dominate the landscape and dwarf everything around it.

On the subject of Noah's Ark, it seems to me that structure might well be characterized as a big floating barn – and a house-barn at that – where people and animals lived in close proximity to one another. Some of us don't have to go all that far back in our Mennonite heritage to find our forebears bedding down under a common roof with the livestock. In my part of the world you can venture an hour south of Winnipeg and come upon villages where only a few generations ago families did exactly that. Travel through the villages there and you will come across dwellings lining the street on either side where the family home and the barn are snuggled right up against each other and essentially under the same roof.

But the Ark-sized barn we built that summer would possess no wooden mangers or hay cribs, no cozy stalls or milk shed, its features entirely unremarkable but for one thing: size. When it was finished and I allowed myself a solitary walk inside its vast interior, I discovered exactly nothing of comfort or warmth there, only a dark and cavernous world unto itself, one that boasted all the charm of an abandoned aircraft carrier. But it would hold thirty thousand turkeys, with proportions and dimensions large enough to measure up against my father's ambitions. What he hadn't counted on, though, was that its immensity would turn out to be a problem. Talk among the neighbouring farmers, still practicing animal husbandry on the same humble scale, was that barn exceeded tolerable limits, that it involved orders of magnitude both unfamiliar and unwelcome, and as such posed something of a threat to community standards.

Looking back on that time now I have to ask myself how much of this acrimony was a product of my imagination, conjured it up out of the detritus that was my father's increasingly troubling iconoclasm. Was it the neighbours that became distant and vaguely hostile or was it the other way around? I'm pretty sure I heard things, at school or maybe it was the general store where I liked to take myself on a Saturday evening for a Pepsi and a Revel. Whispers and utterances, some of them repeated to me by my friends, things they thought they'd heard people say about my father.

Whatever the case, I came down the stairs to breakfast one morning and discovered that we were moving. Before I knew it I was up on the roof of the giant barn, crouching to remove the nails that held the countless sheets of green pressure treated plywood in place. On my father's instructions we were going to dismantle the barn we'd only recently assembled, take it apart board by board and nail by nail, load everything up on a convoy of trucks and haul it off to a property he'd purchased far to the north and east along the outer edges of the Canadian Shield. The surrounding countryside there would turn out to be mostly bush and poor farmland, the fields riddled with stones, the house shabby and small. My mother would soon discover that she couldn't even grow a decent garden.

When all the boards had been removed we started on the rafters and after that the wall studs, of which there were many hundreds, and lastly the larger framing and oak timbers that held it all up. Everything was numbered and labelled before we loaded onto a fleet of trucks and trailers and hauled away to our new home. Upon our arrival at the new frontier we unloaded the trucks and proceeded to methodically put the barn back together again. The next spring my father resumed his turkey operation on the scale he had always intended.

Years later I would come across the novel The Mosquito Coast and as I read it, realize that with only minor changes in plot and setting that book could have written about our family. When the movie came out I sat through it, watched Harrison Ford stubbornly carry out his wild schemes at the expense of his family, uttering his outrageous philosophies, all the while putting his wife and children through great trials that would leave them exasperated and yet, finally, somehow full of grudging admiration. One of the big questions I still wrestle with today is to what extent my father, and the rest of us by proxy, lived out the dubious moral of Paul Theroux's tale: that no matter where you take yourself - or find yourself displaced to - the cussed forces of human pettiness will catch up with you sooner or later.

That was more than half a century ago, and in all that time the creosote preservative has done its job. The barn stands there to this day. You can find it on Google Earth at these coordinates: 50° 07' 49.64" N, 96° 35' 45.75" W. Or you can go and see it for yourself by driving north and east of Winnipeg along Highway #44. Look for the signs to Windrift Christmas Tree Farm. I took my grandchildren there last year to pick one out from the many spruce and pine that grow there so well, thanks to all the composted bird droppings accumulated in the sandy soil. A cordoned off portion of the barn houses a warming lounge, a tree storage area, a cutting floor, Santa's workshop and other displays for the kids, as well as deeper and more cavernous complexes of rooms and enclosures. I ventured into the more remote parts of the barn with the owner to take a closer look at the condition of the beams and rafters, and I can report that they looked as sturdy as they day we built it. What am I supposed to make of the fact that it all started out with a whole lot of turkeys and ended up with a whole lot of Christmas trees. Turkey? Christmas? Coincidence?

One thing I do know. The forced relocation, which might never have come about but for the trouble with that beast of a barn, served to uproot and replant me in a way that profoundly affected me. I was, after all, ripped from the bosom of a staunchly Mennonite community and unceremoniously tossed into a world of raucous Ukrainian socials and weddings, street fights after school with tough guys from the nearby military base, and an American hippy high school teacher who'd come up to dodge the draft and who took me under his wing. Almost everything about my life became at once entirely unfamiliar. But out of that disorienting struggle with a place where I didn't think I belonged came another realization: that I hadn't belonged in the other place either. That unwelcome upheaval, unsettling as it was, served as a catalyst in the creation of something unexpected - a new chemistry to fuel the engine of my creativity. Ann Hostetler, in an earlier presentation at this conference, spoke of "displacement as necessary for art …" and I have no doubt that what happened to me was a variation on this theme.

But let finish by turning back for a moment to that other, earlier barn, that idyllic symbol of the pastoral with its white trim and inviting hay loft. We can all conjure up such a barn almost effortlessly, whether real imagined. Ask children to draw a barn and they come up with something instantly recognizable. Ask them to color the drawing and they will invariably reach for the red crayon. No surprise there. That seems to be the default color of barns - excepting a few places such as Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where the barns are just as likely to be white - but I can argue that the exception proves the rule.

One popular and seemingly plausible explanation holds that red came to be the choice because farmers found it was the most effective at making their barns stand out from the surrounding landscape, so that when it came time for the cows to find their way home from the pasture they would have an easier time of it. The problem with this idea is that cows, being members of the bovine family, happen to be entirely red-green color blind, and unable to distinguish that particular hue as anything more than another shade of grey. Another theory proposes that early farmers, in an attempt to pass themselves off as prosperous, painted their barns red to give them the appearance from a distance of being constructed out of brick, a building material generally reserved for their wealthier neighbours. It has even been suggested that the practice dates back to a time when the secret sympathies of burgeoning twentieth century agrarians leaned toward communism. In fact, the reasons turn out be more geological than political, and take us on a journey that goes all the way back to the origins of the Earth itself.

It all starts with the fact that early farmers were a practical bunch and didn't have money to spend on extras like store-bought paint. Instead, they concocted their own from a mixture of ingredients that happened to be on hand. They took skimmed milk, stirred in a little lime, some linseed oil, then added enough red ochre to give it that familiar red hue. Ochre, or iron oxide, is the same stuff that our prehistoric ancestors used for color in those early cave paintings. Abundant and easily obtainable, there has always been plenty of it around. But why? To answer this question we have to examine the manner in which our planet was formed. Like every other solar system in the galaxy ours came about as the result of a supernova, the explosion of a star the results in a vast cloud of space debris, an immense nebula of coalesced material. The incredible forces of the massive explosion cause the formation of new and heavier elements, among them copious amounts of iron. It's pretty much the same process for any planetary star system. As time passed and the earth evolved, the iron combined with oxygen to form the mineral iron oxide (red ochre) in vast quantities, so when cave dwellers – and later early farmers - were looking for something to throw into their paint, there it was.

Now just for fun what say we make the case for a Creator who more or less saw to it that the heavens and the earth should unfold in the manner I've described? What then? Is it plausible to make the claim that the Creator, in a sense, personally decreed that barns would be red? Does this make it an act of God? For my part I envision a time when we're displaced from our earthly home, forced to abandon this ailing planet because of some modernized version of human wickedness – perhaps global warming or nuclear Armageddon. We make the journey to some far distant world aboard a space age version of Noah's Ark, relocate ourselves to another part of the galaxy.

Eventually we land on an alien planet only to find it already inhabited by a civilization only slightly behind ours. We discover that they, too, have managed to domesticate some of their animals, to construct buildings to house them just as we did. What are the chances, given the nature of the cosmic forces I've outlined, that those extraterrestrial "barns" indeed turn out to be … red!

Thank You.

About the Author

David Elias

David Elias makes his home in Winnipeg, Canada and in addition to writing he works as a frequent mentor to emerging authors, as well as a creative writing instructor and editor. His books include Sunday Afternoon, nominated for several awards, and more recently Henry’s Game, a novella. He has an historical novel forthcoming from ECW Press in 2019 based on the life of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I. He’s presently at work on a non-fiction manuscript of essays, some of which have been presented at previous conferences.