No shelter here. No defense against the wind that soughs across the weed-wracked field to do time’s evil work: pry the rotting boards off. Peel the rusted tin away. Strip the flesh from this old tobacco barn, pick it clean to the bone.
Like a come-hither finger, it beckoned. Parking my car by the side of the road, I obeyed the summons. Now I stand, shivering, as slatted sunlight casts shadows to replace once-solid planks, and derelict hinges dream of swinging doors, and a medley of criss-crossed beams yearn to bear the fecund weight of tobacco leaves curing in the dark, rich air. Except now the brambles creep in, and the moss, and whatever wild and profuse promptings cultivation holds at bay.
I remember how they were when I was a child, these springtime fields. The white cloth spread like giant wings to protect the fragile seedlings huddled underneath. The plowed and patient earth, her furrows flung out like arms waiting to embrace June’s adolescent transplants.
We weren’t farmers, but in those days, tobacco was the staple crop of Southern Maryland, and month by month the growing of it strung taut warp threads of recurring sights on a year’s loom. Almost shoulder height by late summer. September’s workers in the rows, cutting the stalks, spearing them onto stakes, carting the skewered harvest into the barns to be hung on tiered poles to dry. December’s secrets I learned from kids who missed school to stand for long hours inside those mysterious, gambrel-roofed hives, where they stripped and bulked and barreled the brown stuff. Then the beat-up trucks and horse-drawn Amish carts, headed for Hughesville and the auction house.
We weren’t farmers, but our everyday shuttlings – to store, school, church, doctor’s office – flashed like many-hued weft threads through a fabric larger than any mere comings or goings. Harvests and earth and weather. A pristine, primal tapestry to remind us we are all just seeds in our season.
C. Coolidge Jr picking tobacco 1923: Digital Commonwealth
I wasn’t here for the 2001 Buyout, when the state offered tobacco growers money to switch to other crops. Now I’m back, and like everyone else I see the barns won’t survive the transition. Inside, they’re filled with heavy rafters crosshatching a maze of small compartments. All that can be stored there is the hanging brown weed they were built to hold. Who can afford to maintain buildings that no longer serve a purpose? They rot where they stand.
This day, rusted bolts pepper the ground. Twisted shags of tin tumble from a fraying roof. White bones of vapor trails litter a sapphire sky. Cars roar by where silence once reigned, and some kid hunkers down in the abandoned field. His remote-controlled model airplane buzzes round and round in a noisy, futile circle. Buzzes round and round, treading the same worn out path.
curing tobacco: Hadley Barn SurveyThis day, the great religious feasts of spring are upon us. Passover. Blood on wooden doorposts, the houses empty, their occupants fled in terrified hope to seek a future they name the promised land. Easter. Blood on a wooden cross, the empty tomb, its occupant come forth to tell us: we are all seeds in our season. This day is the promised land.
Last night I dreamt I was hoeing tobacco. I could hear them laughing, the men who built this barn. Who pounded in the shiny nails and thought their shiny thoughts for a new harvest. The auction house is closed now, but that’s no never-mind, Spring is here again, her come-hither finger raised, and yes, it’s sad they’re crumbling, but this I know from religion and the season: it isn’t loss that defines us. Death is a question mark, not an exclamation. And while I can’t say what you might hear it ask, “Who stands at this day’s door, knocking?” is the invitation I’ll hear whispered every time I’m passing by some old tobacco barn.
Elizabeth Ayres is the author of Know the Way (poetry, Infinity, 2005) and Writing the Wave (how-to, Perigee, 2000), and is completing Land of Our Belonging: Encounters with the Wonder of Earth, Sea and Sky, a collection which includes this reflection. She runs Creative Writing Center retreats in Chesapeake Bay country. She performs her essays on Internet radio Monday evenings at 8:30 p.m. eastern time; you can catch more of her reflections in her blog Encounters with Wonder; or reading her work in a Youtube video.