My 7-year-old niece loves the barn roof at my late grandparents’ place, and so do I. Over the years, it has been a point of inspiration poetically, agriculturally, and even spiritually. Many of my poems got their start from the apex of this barn roof.
When I was 13, I used to climb up there with a copy of Robert Frost’s work, and, as I looked across our orange grove, I felt like I was joining an elite fraternity of farmer-poets. True, Frost was all apples and I am all oranges, but the shared identity — being one who tends the land and the pen simultaneously — was hard to miss, even in confused adolescence.
As pickers mounted their cypress ladders in harvesting season, I would read “After Apple Picking.” As angelic wings of clouds framed citrus-colored sunsets, I would read “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” And as I learned increasingly hard manual tasks from my grandfather, I would read “Out, Out –” and grow thankful that buzz saws were not part of our chores.
Here was both my escape and my entrapment: a getaway from mundane conversations about inches of rainfall or someone’s new calf, but a place so filled with poetry that it immediately addicted me to lines and stanzas, imagery and form. In years ahead, when I would need to consider serious decisions, I would return to the peak of the barn roof. Clarity would soon follow.
And when my grandparents would pass away one by one, the barn roof would lift me in my grief to the view and the calling that they both had left me: An orange grove that demanded words as well as work. I knew I could offer both, thanks to their dedicated teaching and a healthy dose of self-education.
The relationship between agriculture and artistry has always been complex; at times, I’ve felt as though my craft has made far less difference than the sweaty endeavors of sod-busting Florida Crackers before me. Several of my poems over the years have chronicled and wrestled with the issues of “real work” versus the abstract emotional toil of arranging the best words in the best order.
Despite this occasional internal turmoil, when I return to the barn roof with members of the next generation — my sons, nieces, and nephews — the questions of my work’s validity vanish. If another child can find the imaginative space that once inspired me and love it as deeply as I have, none of that other trivia really matters.
Theodore Roethke once said, “Live in a perpetual great astonishment.” Even today, when I ascend the barn roof using my family’s “secret” route, I am awestruck at its summit. No photograph, no video, no second-hand representation of its vista can fully achieve the effect it has on me. But the look on a child’s face (or a well-written poem) comes pretty close.
The barn roof remains a place that holds: It both supports me and keeps me. Its infinite perspective, its promise of serenity, and its ability to diminish the unimportant continue to call me. It represents heritage, reflection, and insight. It is home.