Tuesday, October 29th, 2019
A fellow farmer friend once told me that she often dreads going out in the morning. “Why is that?” you may ask, innocently perplexed. See, all you city folk think it’s so lovely to live on land, to smell the fresh air, to be surrounded by animals and plants and all the stuff of life. Maybe. Ok, yes. There is nothing better. There is fresh air, there are animals, there are plants, and life teems even when you wish it wouldn’t.
But then there is that problem of going out in the morning.
Too often barely fortified by half a cup of coffee and frequently still in pajamas, we warily wander through the fields and into the barns. We are not admiring the view. We are not enjoying the morning air. We are not communing with nature. We are not petting cute, fuzzy animals. No.
We are looking for bodies.
I challenge any farmer to tell me they don’t do this. Admit it. You look for the bodies, now don’t you? A sleeping beast is enough to send our adrenaline into overdrive. We glance left and right, in the hay feeders (stuck chicken, anyone?), into the water buckets (oh God, who fell in overnight?). We count heads and, not finding everyone, get ourselves worked up into a lather. We brace for the quite decent possibility that someone died overnight, or worse, is lying sick or injured in an inaccessible location, in deep trouble; and we know that this discovery will mean that everything has to stop while we rush for medicine, administer first aid, call the vet, call in reinforcements. And regardless of how we may feel about whatever has happened, you can bet it is going to cost a lot of money.
Everyone is encumbered. It’s what ties us to life.
Of course, most days on our bleary-eyed morning outings we find nothing of the sort. Does this make us feel better? Not at all! It’s just one more day’s reprieve. And anyhow, regardless of who may or may not have taken the train out of here overnight, there are still chores to be done, animals to be fed, emails and phone calls to answer, never mind the day job. The good news is that, for today at least, everyone is walking and breathing. An accomplishment.
Because whether you have a few farm pets, or raise animals for their fiber or for their meat, or offer sanctuary to the old and compromised ones, like we do at my farm, the fear and the caring are all the same. The vegan police who look down on anyone who “does” anything with their animals will find this surprising, but in my experience of travelling to farms all along the East Coast, the vast majority of people who have animals living outside in barns and on pasture, whether 2 or 200 or 2000, are solidly tethered to their animals. And every farmer who has had to cope with sudden death or prolonged illness (usually mysterious – illnesses love to be mysterious and un-diagnosable) – each one of us carries a heaviness of resident grief inside. Sort of like a stone in the stomach.
When I moved to this farm, I was free of death’s friendship. I blithely brought in sweet animals to live on this sweet farm, and wow, what a great idea this was. Until I found my beloved Betty the duck ‘s body, sans head. That was the first clue.
And still, I had no idea what I was in for.
I hear stories from my friends that break my heart, stories that are worse than what I’ve dealt with, and I wonder how they keep standing upright. I hear about animals who got themselves in trouble when humans were not around: a little sheep who got its head stuck in a fence and strangled, a goat who climbed a tree, hooked its foot, and hung till it died. I hear about impalements and the ravages of dog packs. I hear about disease and barn fires. And then sometimes a tractor turns over on a farmer. I don’t think life is easy for anyone, no matter where you live or what you do. At some point you are faced with something you are pretty sure you don’t have the strength for. But as far as the daily dose of hyper-vigilance goes, I think farmers might just rank right up there with cops and EMTs and stockbrokers.
Surprising? What about breathing in lovely fresh air and watching sheep gently grazing in the fields whilst you sip lemonade (or, better, a mint julep) on the porch? You jest! Not at our farm. If we want all that, we go to a hotel… or someone else’s farm.
Sometimes, mostly when I visit people who live in condos with really clean wall-to-wall carpeting and central AC, I wonder what it would be like. A life, unencumbered. You know, not wondering if something was goat-proof? Not worrying about the limping sheep or the alpaca losing weight or new cat hiding under the house.
But of course, that is nonsense. Everyone is encumbered. It’s what ties us to life. My own particular flavor just happens to have dirt and earthy smells, chickens wandering into the house, and goats banging on the back door. And death as a regular visitor. The stone in the stomach, the heaviness I hadn’t known before farm life, brings me back to my choice of being a shepherd like a divining rod. Had I never had to usher so many souls into the afterlife, chances are I would be as ungrounded as when I first moved to the country. Vapid and optimistic.
For you see, that stone is also a gift. It gives balance. Maybe it’s my token of membership in the farmers club. “Got granite?” You have to lean into it, swing around with it, feel how it keeps you close to the earth and yet always still standing, like those dolls who bob around but never fall down.
To bring some levity into my life (and to have an excuse to dress in something other than jeans and mudboots) I recently took up swing dancing. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the balancing of weight – to trust in leaning back against the hand of your partner and to let him lean back against yours. Only when you each let gravity do its thing can you really swing. It feels like flying. That stone in the gut – it’s my dance partner on the farm.
I’ve lost a lot of animals this year – animals who lived here many years, with whom I had really close friendships. Some were quite elderly. Knowing it’s coming makes no difference at all when death arrives, though. At each loss I’ve fretted, “OK this is the time I’m going to fall apart.” I’ve waited for the sadness to overwhelm my ability to carry on. But it didn’t. What happened was that grounding stone swung me around, weight as counterbalance, set my two feet flat on the ground and asked with an impish grin, “do you want to dance again?”
“Life is the dancer and you are the dance.”