photograph by Robert Stephens

When storm clouds gathered, or we tired of tasting the salt licks in the field, we pulled apart the barbed-wire fence and headed for that kingdom of bridles and bales with a hard-packed dirt floor dented with hoofprints. Close yet spacious, shared yet personal. Crouched high above in the loft or perched up in the curved, shiny-with-age metal seat of the tractor, we were kings and queens of all we surveyed. In the barn.

Inside a classic barn, probably not much has changed since our ancestors’ days. Stalls, stools, tools. Bags of seed, wooden crates, a ladder leading irresistibly upward. The aromas of animal and straw, manure and feed, dirt and dust, oil and rust, scents that are simultaneously musty and fresh. Dependable scents that will never vary as long as man and beast work together. Barns are for discovering a hidden litter of sweet, squirming, shut-eyed puppies, a spindly newborn foal, the wary mouser cat.

A barn is more than a building: less than a dwelling, but more than mere shelter. It’s a space for hoedowns and square dances and fiddlers and strummers. It’s a place for barbecue suppers and family reunions and, nowadays, beneath beams and between stables, for weddings and galas. Laughter and teasing and toasts are made sweeter by Pennzoil and Nehi signs nailed to the wall, horseshoes pointing up for good luck, and bent license plates proclaiming “Farm Vehicle” in small print.

Certainly, there’s a place and a need for the mechanical, electrical, and technological agribusiness wonders. But not much can beat the simple structures, the humble barns with metal roofs that amplify the sound of thrumming rain. Where better to read a book, write a letter, stash a treasure, create a collection? Think of the many lessons learned in a barn — straightening a nail, repairing a harrow, saddling a horse. And the coming-of-age milestones: confessing a crush, sharing a kiss, nursing a broken heart.

A silent, motionless barn is actually raucous with activity. Listen: to the muzzles moving in feed, the coos and twitters of birds nesting in the rafters, the unseen critters skittering and scurrying in cobwebby corners. Watch: dust motes drifting in sunlight slanting through the dimness. Feel: the quiet stillness of contentment.

Even when barns grow old, unused, abandoned, forgotten, they’re still somehow stately. Not stately, no — dignified, then. Symbols of lives bustling with activity. Covered in kudzu or a riot of honeysuckle, flanked by orange daylilies, layered in a blanket of snow, even collapsing upon themselves, they still catch our eyes in passing, inspire a trip down a backroad, lure photographers, tempt adventurers.

North Carolina seasons are marked in a barn. A vacant barn speaks to spring and summer, when animals are turned out to pasture. By fall, apples are piled high in Henderson and Haywood counties. In Pitt and Wilson and Sampson, the stacks are tobacco leaves. In all 100 counties, hay. A bursting-to-the-beams barn represents the satisfaction and accomplishments of a job well done. And in December, look for the barn draped in holiday lights, the weather vane bearing a twinkling star, the wreaths of straw and holly adorning the sliding doors. Cheerful, rustic Christmas decor so befits a barn.

Where Fern rescued Wilbur, and Wilbur rescued Charlotte. Where Heidi pressed her cheek to a goat’s flank. Where Meggie and Luke met eyes over sheep-shearing in The Thorn Birds, where Etta jumped down to join Butch on his bicycle in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and where a tiny child, the reason for the season Himself, once lay on a bed of hay … in the barn.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.