Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Praise of Old Barns

Crossing the till plains of the American Midwest, once a spectacular tallgrass prairie and now the productive Cornbelt, is not the most interesting journey on our planet. Fortunately, parcels of forest, scenic stream valleys, a large concentration of raptors and seasonal flocks of waterfowl make the drive more enjoyable. And then there are the old barns.

With all due respect to the architects of our magnificent, ornate cathedrals, old wooden barns are, in my opinion, the most inspiring of man-made structures. While the religious believe that spired churches connect man with his God, old barns surely tie us to the Earth. Farmers have long depended on these wooden buildings to protect their livestock, their harvest and their equipment; at the same time, these scenic structures have provided both food and shelter for a wide range of native creatures, from field mice to red fox to barn owls.

Cathedrals, maintained by devoted parishioners and historical societies, retain their glory through the centuries. Old barns, on the other hand, often reflect their age, a response to the death, infirmity or financial problems of their owner; nevertheless, well constructed barns remain intact for many decades before slowly crumbling under the relentless assault of natural forces. Even then they retain their dignity, providing shelter for wildlife and rustic beauty for human travelers and photographers. Though some of their lumber is recycled for interior decoration, most of these iconic structures gradually fade into the natural landscape, their components recycled by nature's saprophytes.