If you travel through rural landscapes—other than “filling space” on the interstate between destinations—you may notice monuments to forgotten family farms. These monuments aren’t made of granite but are marked with the dull luster of metal roofs, faded paint from sun and rain, weakened posture from age and wind, and spirits of past days—the essence of the animals that once found comfort here. Barns, a dying piece of the American landscape. They crumble away quietly, gradually, invisible to many. Their demise is often anonymous and lonely, other buildings on the farmstead, even the farmhouse, no longer keeping them company. But old barns, with bones of timber cut from ancient trees in virgin forests, keep standing long after their peers are gone.
In their prime, barns were more than a home for livestock. Painted red, white, green, brown, or yellow, they were the identity stamp of the farm and an emblem of pride and prosperity. Dormers, gables, windows, and trim paint not only declared the unique character of a farm but the customs and heritage of the local community. Barn size varied with the herd size of the animals within and the shape—square, hip-roof, round, or octagonal—traced the whims of technology that came and went. Barns were rustic art, fused with architectural function.
My second novel, Prometheus Scorned, reflects on the catastrophic destruction and loss suffered by farm families resulting from barn fires. In my opinion, that such an event would occur at the hands of an arsonist is one of the most heinous of actions. The tragic loss of animals, not just the livestock, but the ‘ecosystem’ of barn cats, swallows, sparrows, mice, and even spiders that ensnare the ever-present flies, forces a harsh reality on anyone who ever had to witness the aftermath, as I have. More than the economic hardship, barn fires crush the farm family under a wave of sorrow and snatch away prestige and self-worth. When the fire results from human cruelty, it amplifies the sense of psychological trauma and challenges one’s core faith in humanity.
As with the Casting Demons Into Swine, Prometheus Scorned is a story about how a small community deals with a crisis and the interaction between characters while coping with the crisis. Both novels are based on actual events, although some aspects were fictionalized. Beyond my own personal experience with a house fire, Prometheus Scorned was enhanced from interviews with volunteer firemen, dairy farmers who suffered through barn fires, and insurance adjustors who investigated rural fires. As a side-reflection, I submit that barn fires are also severely iconoclastic, reducing a key element of farm identity and aspirations to ashes and charred wood.
I invite you during your next road trip to veer off the interstate, at least for a few miles, and look for that vanishing part of rural life, the wood-slatted barn—and if empty and neglected, the vibrancy of life that once occurred there.