Saturday, December 24, 2011


~ I wish the snow would stop crunching so loudly. Even my carefully placed heel-toed steps echo through the silent night, sung softly in my memories by a baritone. I climb the barnyard gate instead of opening it. The hinges are too squeaky, and the chicken fence strung along the bottom half of the gate to prevent goat-kids from escaping, would be much to loud on the crusty snow. The wind blows, and the gate chain clanks my nearing against its hollow green pipes like chime.


I freeze onto the metal as degrees and icicles fall. And yet, there is still hope. 
11:47 p.m.
Yes, there’s still time...

Now I wait for silence to return -- for her to crawl back under the night's blanket and be wrapped up in her beloved, darkness. I keep still. Listening. Hearing nothing, I know at last...the blanket has found them.
11:56 pm.

Stalking shadows' length and movements, I read how to approach and move to the left. The afternoon's cud being chewed is the only sound, spoken from contented bellies; but my ears strain to hear their voices...
.....any voices.

Yes, I am eavesdropping. I admit it. Usually, an activity spurred by the whats in the eaves being dropped; in this case though, I am only interested in who is dropping them. My mother tells me that animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. Not that they aren't talking presently, she says...but they speak in silence; when our language fails, they speak another. On this night though, on the eve of Christmas -- we can hear...we're given a translator. ~

And so now many years later, I remember those Eves of Christmases Past, spent listening -- layering coveralls over my flannel pajamas and pulling on rubber mukluks over two pairs of thick socks. Finishing with a hat, gloves, and a red synthetic-fill quilted feed company jacket, I would sneak out of the house and down to the barn, year after year, until I was undoubtedly too old to believe in such things as conversations with midnighting animals. 

Yet, I believed. And I still do.

So I'll layer up and pull on my boots, and am going to stay up late this Christmas Eve -- listening -- just like I used to do. And although there are no stalls filled with horses, cattle, or goats -- there is a mountain inhabited by mule deer, elk, mountain lions, black bears, raccoons, fox, ermines, voles and pine squirrels, just to name just a few. 

And there is a dog named Banjo sleeping on the couch.

The smells of that barnyard linger, absorbed long ago into fibers and follicles -- only now, woodsmoke and pine sap mask it. No amount of soap, it seems, will cleanse me of it -- of this need to compost -- telling the story of what's been digested, for better or worse. Writer and farmer Jenna Woginrich has named a diagnosis for this: Barnheart. And it’s a condition that needs “smells and touch and crisp air to heal” alongside “Small measures, strong convictions, good coffee, and kind dogs.”

I think -- no I know -- I have this too. Only mine, a form whose cells have divided, as if bucking the antibiotics of stable and field, morphing into a disease of the wild, not the kept. Perhaps eventually it will be studied and named Cabinheart, or maybe Canyonheart. Yes, I think Canyonheart would be it. I don’t need the diagnosis though, I know what I have.
And I also just so happen to have what this condition needs to heal. Far removed from my youth’s Iowa farm, I realize that it -- that barnyard full of manure and ice and cold shadowy superstitions -- is why I am holed up in a mountain cabin. It's why I've removed myself from city lights cemented into the stasis of change. It's why I see a full moon and remember a children's book being read to me about an owl. It's why I choose my dog walking mountain roads based on where horses are stabled. It's why I think owl pellets are cool, and it's why I always....always...look at scat. I do all of these things because yes, I have the disease.

This year, I bought Banjo a Christmas present (did last year too) and wonder whether I am becoming one of those odd women whose child is their dog. If I am -- and I probably am -- I really couldn't care less. Like Gierach wrote, “If people don't occasionally walk away from you shaking their heads, you're doing something wrong.” And in fact, those bumper stickers about dogs and honor students? I tend to agree. Go ahead, shake your head -- I think my dog is smarter than your honor student.

So yes, I bought Banjo a present and I'd like to hear what he thinks about it. I'm staying up late.

Right now though, he is keeping his thoughts to himself. Silent conversations center around our walks in the dark mornings, the musky smells of markings, and the coyotes that set off all the canyon dogs howling in subsequence like dominoes echoing off its side. It seems like a taunt, what those coyotes're domesticated, they jeer...behind chain-link, tightly leashed, sleeping on 100-thread count Egyptian cotton instead of your old college flannel. You might be warm there, inside; but damn it dog, that's why you were given a coat. We laugh at you.

I hear him sigh, grumbling about something. The leash, perhaps? He runs in his sleep, breaking into an excited whine, picking up speed and then rolling into a laugh. Maybe he's laughing at me? Or maybe he's dreaming about being a coyote.

This gift might be just a pile of sinews and guts, but even so, good times can be had with a pile of least, I bet that's what a coyote would think.


  1. Midnights in a barn are fun and whisperful as we edge about with care. These days I'm more inclined to speak with owls and coyotes (sure, check those droppings for tiny skulls!)than I am with sheep and chickens, but I hear you clearly. Have another great Eve!

  2. I love the magic of childhood and am glad that you carry so much of it with you in your adult world. Sometimes it is all that keeps us sane.

    We do suffer from "Barnheart" and I truly miss the sights, sounds, and smells of those years. I think the little shed on your property (very barnlike)was one of the draws that pulled at you to buy that tract of land.

    Merry Christmas my Erin.

  3. A delightful holiday tale; I'd never heard about this midnight magic.

    All be best this Christmas season.

  4. limpcobra - :-)

    Walt - A wonderful eve of owls and coyotes to you too! Thanks for stopping by!

    sgb - I commented to Jay yesterday that I think a love of snow keeps one's inner child alive. Kids love snow and adults get grumpy about it. I shall always love it. And I was indeed thinking yesterday as I was hauling wood, that I remember pulling up into the driveway the first time and falling first in love with the shed. ;) Merry Christmas, Mama...

    Steve - A wonderful Christmas to you and Ann! And I'd recommend a midnight stroll...

  5. I don't know what to comment on first.
    We had Brittany Spaniels for years. Han every Christmas when the kids were small they both had conversations with the Brits.
    It's good that Banjo has some brown patches around his eyes.
    Merry Christmas Erin

  6. Erin, don't ever let go of that wondrous child that scampers around your will keep you young and in love forever.

  7. A lovely read. I have spent some time in Iowa barns myself, and take the same comfort now from woodsmoke and pine scent, and even the jeers of coyotes. Yours is indeed a canyonheart. I know you hear them talking; hope you hear the actual words tonight...or someday.

  8. I talk with Buddy all the time and yes, we've bought him presents again this year :-)

    Erin, if you do hear them talking, do we get to know what they say or will you keep it a secret?

  9. Erin, "Canyonheart" fits you well. Pull on those layers for warmth and bring in Christmas day like only you can do. I'm sure Banjo will return your gift in his special way.
    Great message and Merry Christmas!

  10. Articulate and elegant Erin. Merry Christmas.

  11. A wonderful Christmas story. Don't feel too odd about buying Banjo a wife and I have presents under the tree for Chestnut (horse) , Lucky (Parrot) , Tiger and Stormy (cats) and of course Joe. One thing we've shouldn't put wrapped treats under the tree without constant supervision. One year Joe opened half a dozen packages before he found his bag of rawhides!!

  12. I loved the snow and you make it were still part of my life. But it's enough for me knowing you have it to relish so. A very engaging episode!

    Merry Christmas! Gregg

  13. Erin,

    "...make it wish it was still part of my life." Sometimes I think too fast.

    And, thanks, Gregg

  14. Brk Trt – I love Banjo’s eye patches! I’m glad he has them too. A very Merry Christmas to you and yours!

    Howard – Sometimes she annoys me, that small child….but I think she’s here to stay.

    Jim – We must have kindred hearts… and I too hope to hear them someday.

    Dave – Excellent! I’m glad I’m not the only one talking to animals and buying them presents! :) And if I do hear… “telling” is entirely subject to the topic. A wonderful holiday to you and yours…and Buddy too!

    Fly Fishing Crazy – I will bundle well…and a Merry Christmas to you!

    Mr. P – Thanks as always, and a Merry Christmas to you and yours as well!

    HighPlains – Ah yes, I have Banjo’s presents safely in a high cupboard until tonight. He has a curious nose. Have a lovely holiday!

    Gregg - Surely it is a good thing to have a mind that works quicker than one’s fingers! ;) Many thanks, and a Merry Christmas to you!

  15. I have been in many barn yards late at night, not just Christmas eve. From night to early morning they tell tales that you will not hear at any other time.

  16. Dr R, I bet you know their language intimately with all the time you spend in their barns. To our family you will always for the Iowa version of James Harriet, a gentle giant :-)


  17. Quill - :)

    Dr. R - I believe it...I've heard their whisperings.

    sgb - I did.

  18. Erin, Merry Christmas. I look forward to all your writings that appear in my email box. I grew up a city girl, and still live in one, but I know my cats talk to me in their own way.


  19. Seriously Erin, awesome piece, read it yesterday and came back again to read it today (Christmas is usually a slow work day). Really good, the banter between Banjo and the coyotes is one of the coolest descriptions I've read. Paints an awesome picture. Merry Christmas!

  20. Judy - Merry Christmas to you as well! And cats have their own language for need not have a barn to hear them.

    Travis - Many thanks...for reading and reading again, and the kind words! A Merry Christmas to you and I hope your work day goes quickly!

  21. That is the first I have heard of the Christmas Eve magic. I enjoy hearing your stories of the snow, I miss it at Christmas living here in the desert. Have a merry Christmas and happy new year.

  22. There definitely are particular smells (and sounds) that stick with farm kids even after they leave the farm. I remember craving these smells after I moved away for college. On trips back, I would roll down the window as we neared home and drink in the aromas of freshly spread manure and cut alfalfa. I think my friends thought I was crazy! As for treating pets like children, my cat is like a child to me. I've known for a while that I enjoy his company much more than I do most people's. Our souls are aligned :)

  23. Tonto Rambler - I missed the snow horribly when I was living in San Francisco; now, I have more than enough! A very merry holiday and wonderful new year to you as well!

    Angela - Oh my...I know! When hiking I always kick piles of horse manure, just to "freshen" the air. I love the smell of it and only other farm kids ever get it. ;) And you're so very right about enjoying the company of that one special animal, more than most people. That's my Banjo.

  24. Happy new year Erin! Your writing continues to inspire we all here- may this new year bring you many more alpine adventures for all of us to enjoy~ mike

  25. Sounds like the best kind of magic...understanding another language one time a year at midnight. There are times I would like that ability walking around a mall or even the verizon store. I think canyonheart will suit you perfectly. banjo seems to think so.

    I hope you had fun midnighting!


  26. Mike (Royal Wulff) - A wonderful New Year and many backcountry adventures to you too! Thank you so much for stopping by.

    Sanders - I hadn't thought of mall scenarios. But yeah, that language is far more foreign than Banjo's! Fun was had indeed. Thanks as always!

  27. I've been a fan of Cold Antler for a few years. You and Jenna both have a way with words that get to you right where you live inside. As for Barnheart, I have relatives buried in Dakota City, NB from the 1860's. Farmers from the East Coast and Canada.

  28. Finsandfeathers - I really enjoy Jenna at Cold Antler, and many thanks for the compliment! Most of my relatives are buried on the pains of Nebraska...something in me will always be there too.

  29. I LOVE this. Other animals (we mustn't forget that we belong to that kingdom too) could teach us so much if only we could hear their thoughts.We probably USED to think that way.

  30. Hart - Thinking as an animal, observing as one, teaches us so's good to go back to the "old" way of doing things.

  31. My daughter and ex know that I talk to animals. When I mention it to others, they tend to get this glazed look in their eyes, mutter something like "that's nice", and walk away from me...

    1. Kentucky Jim -- Yes, yes I know just the 'look' and 'walk' you mean. ;) Cheers to a wonderful new year!