A few years ago I remember reading with interest “A Perspective On Old Barns,” a soliloquy on how human aging resembles the beauty of worn, old barn wood. I like the analogy and the sentiment, but I have a rather different perspective on barns and humans and companion Scotties and why things have value.
It seems to me that barn philosopher, in his ‘perspective,’ while making a useful point about our need to value Life’s attempts to put a fine patina on our character by lines and wrinkles and scars that show we’ve weathered storms of life, misses a subtle but important point at the heart of his story about barns–and about everything else in our lives–and why they ultimately matter.
In my view, when we appraise things based on appearance we miss what is most important about places and things and ‘valuables’ –whether we’re talking barns or spouses or Scotties. In the Old Barn narrative as I remember it, the farmer as well as the “city type” see the barn only in terms of its appearance and consequences of weathering. I’m suspicious we don’t have a farmer’s perspective and a city slicker’s viewpoint in that story; we have urban cachet perspectives, one slightly less superficial than the other.
I say that because it isn’t weather that makes a barn special nor is it years. What makes an old barn special are the living memories of animals known and named, of birthings and dyings, of countless chores, tasks, and duties which add up to simple, satisfying labor of purpose and quiet closure. To those who know them, to those whose hands built and maintained them, who worked and laughed and cried in them and whose fondest memories hover in and around them, old barns are storytellers. Each beam and board in an old barn whispers of generations learning skills from seniors, of neighbors sharing stories and harvest tasks and wisdom of crops and soil; they whisper of hard times and laughter and shared sacrifice in cycles of birth and life and death. Old barns, like old lives, are witnesses, not to the stranger at the roadside, but to those whose sweat equity is bound up in the beams and boards of the barn’s good life.
That’s what is ‘beautiful’ in old barns … but not a mention of any of it appears in the Old Barn narrative about the city dude seeing the farmer’s weathered barn siding as an urban decorator’s gold mine. That’s why I think a different perspective is called for. The beauty of old barns, like the beauty of good dogs and a spouse’s aging face, has everything to do with habits of the heart and little to do with style or appearance.
I remember standing in an old barn not so long ago asking the owner to tell me the story of its grand array of horse stalls. Forty years past its prime, empty then except for hay bales, “The Hayman” began slowly his story of the barn’s glory days of horse breeding, racing, and showmanship. In his 80s, pointing with his cane, he identified his famous horses’ stalls and their stories, and the accomplishments of his youth. With eyes sparkling and a new vigor in his voice and gesture, he relived for a moment his loves and his life in that old barn.
Patina on the paint? Signs of weather and age? Sure. But that’s not the mystique of “The Hayman’s” barn. And you can’t get that old man’s moist eyes or the authenticity in his voice by buying barn wood off his old barn and paneling your upscale ‘country’ home with it.
No. You have to be owned by a barn to share its mystique, just as you must be owned by a Scottie to share their mystique and you must belong to another for better or for worse across time to share an aging spouse’s beauty and true worth.
Old barns, like much-loved dogs, are witnesses, not to ‘style’ but to lives of simple substance.
Joseph Harvill, publisher of Great Scots Magazine