I’ve never seen a barn owl, but that hasn’t stopped me from painting one, or including it in my memoir. After all, what’s absent in a life shapes it as much as negative space defines objects in a painting. And what’s not in my life, in any significant way, are barns. When I think about it, my familiarity with the scent of hay and manure comes not from actual hay and manure but from my lifelong insatiable consumption of stories and novels, many of which (oddly, since readers rarely are farmers) take place on farms, beginning with Peter Rabbit, Charlotte’s Web and countless picture books.
Oh, I’ve strolled through a barn or two. In the early 70s, when I was the public library director in Laramie, Wyoming, I visited a friend’s thoroughbred horse farm to watch a stallion, roped to farm hands on either side, mount a filly in heat. The moment was memorable; barn owls, if present, were not. A few years later, in a crowded corral on a Wyoming ranch, without so much as a by-your-leave, the rancher picked up my two-year-old son, plopped him bareback on a horse and led him about the milling corral before informing me that the animal had never been ridden. “Because Dylan has no fear,” the rancher assured me, “he’s safe.” “I have fear,” I said. “Get him off!”
A few decades later and a thousand miles east I began frequenting a Michigan dairy farm, where—from the farmhouse screened back porch—I’d observe the herd of mottled cows flow purposefully out of a two=silo picture-book barn and into the pasture behind a large vegetable garden, and, later, as purposefully, back. During my twenty or more visits over ten years, I’ve never entered the barn itself, only the nearby calving shed, a smaller, newer structure with an aisle parting two rows of pens full of calves and cats, but lacking rafters and owls.
Perhaps because I gravitate to forests, my owl sightings are limited to gray owls, snowy owls, screech owls and great horned owls. Next time, I’ll check out the barn.
MEMOIR WORKSHOP: Placing a piece in my memoir puzzle that appears not to fit has offered an irresistible challenge. Later I may have to ax it, but for now, I tell myself that my best work comes from fun.