For all that the life cycle is natural, it is still sad -especially for someone who lived so long in the neat, pre-packaged world of suburbia. Before embarking on this new life adventure, I barely knew where our food sources come from, other than the academic understanding that food grows on plants or in the ground, and bacon comes from pigs hamburger from cows. Dealing with animal death in suburbia usually involves putting a beloved dog down because he’s grown old, or maybe wincing when you see a cat’s been clipped by a car. In cases such as this, city folk allow themselves to revel in personal grief. In the country, people are sorry when an animal passes, but it isn’t nearly so dramatic an occasion. It is just a part of life.
And it isn’t just animals. Living close to the earth, you can’t help but notice everything has a season and a purpose when you are intimately involved with the process. I witness the lifecycle of a bean from when the first seed is planted to when the robust plant withers and dies and is turned under to nourish the earth over the winter for next year’s planting. It brings a certain reverence and appreciation to your meal when you lift a fork full of beans to your mouth. I actually feel melancholy when I look out at the huge, empty patch of dirt that was a garden full of life only a few weeks ago. But I like to imagine my garden is only sleeping, gaining strength for another big party come spring.
Because I feel connected in this way, I won’t consider raising livestock to eat. I know I should, because the animals we eat from the grocery store live horrible, pitiful existences. The methods we have developed to feed ourselves cheaply, not to mention the unnatural methods used to make the animals grow faster than is natural, or how we force them to develop to our palate preferences, only to be slaughtered before they ever witness the light of day, is truly inhumane. (That is another argument, and not one I want to get into on a blog). But even though I know this and feel passionate about it, I can’t bring myself to consider eating one of my chickens or buying a turkey for Christmas consumption. I have too much empathy for any creature I look right in the eye to be the instrument of its death.
I have found a compromise however, because we bought ½ cow and a whole pig from a friend who raised the animals naturally on grass. These creatures lived full term (two years rather than six months) with dignity before coming to their useful end. I have a freezer full of packaged meat now, hormone free. When I prepare this, I don’t feel guilty. But once again, I never had to look into the eyes of the creature knowing their end was approaching. We had a rule. Mark agreed to buy the animals as long as I was never allowed to see them. I guess he was afraid I’d change my mind and lead them home on a rope or something. Actually, one day I did go to Ronnie’s house because we were going to the flea market to buy guineas. I accidentally wandered down to his pasture and began admiring his cows. Ronnie shrugged guiltily and said, “Glad you like them. That black and white one is yours, you know… well, at least half of him.”
For an instant I felt my stomach drop. Then, I began to feel differently. It didn’t bother me as much as I thought, because later, when we received the bounty of this cow, I prepared the meat with respect, remembering the gentle creature standing in the warm sun on a lush pasture. I felt OK about how it lived and died. It may be easier to eat food from the supermarket when you remove yourself from the reality of what you are eating and how it arrived packaged up on those neat, foam trays – but ignorance and being unaware doesn’t make it right. And I can’t turn away from what I now know.
Anyway, I’ve been a bit sad this week over animal deaths – not of animals born and raised for food, because I accept their place in the grander scheme, but over those animals that are with us for other reasons.
First, Neva’s most beloved rooster, Yang, (our oldest, fuzzy silkie) went missing. This chicken was my daughter’s number one buddy. He was a funny little fellow that came when called. He always did this silly chicken dance at Neva’s feet because he was so excited to see her. You almost never saw Neva around the barn without this little black rooster in her arms. Anyway, he was around in the morning, but never showed up in the evening. This is always a bad sign where chickens are concerned. Neva searched for days, crying and calling for her favored pet, but there wasn’t a sign of him (not even feathers) anywhere. We can pretty much assume a hawk swooped him up. Neva fell into deep despair. She even said she would rather we had lost a horse than the rooster, but I think she was out of her mind with grief to suggest such a thing. Just as we got over this drama, something else occurred.
It has been raining and my barn area is a mud pit. I started worrying about my peacocks being wet and cool, so I rigged a cover over their cage. The next day, we had an overnight cold snap. In the morning, two of my young peacocks were dead. I quickly brought the other one inside the barn and set up heat lamps on him, but moments later he died as well. I was very upset. I have a barn and the facility to keep animals sheltered and warm all winter if necessary. I believed the peacocks, at almost 5 months old, didn’t need heat lamps anymore. I haven’t read anything about 40 degree weather being a threat for peacocks under 6 months of age in my books and the breeders didn’t mention it. Nevertheless, I felt responsible. For two days, I couldn’t stop thinking about my sweet peafowl, cold and wet, their systems slowing as they succumbed to the cold. Heck, it wasn’t even that cold. I wish I had handled them differently – kept them inside. I just didn’t know.
Then, to add a third blow to my bird tragedies, I looked outside yesterday morning to see four happy ducks swimming in the lake and one white lump on the bank. Uh oh. I asked Mark if he could see what that was far across the lake. He got out his gun to look through the site. (Remind me to put binoculars on my Christmas list – like we need to pull out a GUN to see things?) Sure enough, he described the feathers on the bank as a “deflated duck”. Something had eaten Costello (one of my black and white Abbot and Costello team). Dang it.
This gets worse.
My friend Amanda called to say her horse was sick. She called the vet, but before he arrived, wouldn’t ya know the horse had delivered a colt. She didn’t even know this mare was pregnant! Now, she had a newborn colt to care for at the worst time of year because it is wet and cold out (which is why most horses are bred to foal in spring) and she didn’t know what to do. She doesn’t have a barn to give her animals warmth or shelter. Of course, I invited her to use my barn. So a few hours later, a sweet grey mare and her baby came to be our guests for what we guessed would be a few weeks. But the baby had complications and wasn’t nursing. Because they didn’t know the horse was pregnant, they didn’t give her a pre-delivery tetanus shot or supplements or even proper nutrition. She ate fescue grass, which they say is not good for pregnant mares (but my pregnant mare did fine on it). A few hours later, the baby’s umbilical cord burst. Amanda called the vet, and he notified her that the colt was unlikely to live. Amanda stayed most of the night to keep her mare company.
I went to the barn at 2:30 with cocoa and a sleeping bag, but Amanda had left. Standing there alone, I watched that poor little colt lying on the soft shavings of the barn, his breath shallow. I pet the nose of the mother, feeling helpless to do anything. The colt was making a raspy noise like a person dying. I’ve never heard a horse make a noise like that.
Sure enough, he passed away an hour later.
Mark took his tractor out and dug a hole so Shane could bury his baby horse. Then, he and his wife took the mare home again. I fed my two horses in the barn an hour later, and it was hard to wipe the image of that poor baby from my mind.
I am left with a melancholy feeling. I know these things happen, but I am unaccustomed to witnessing them. I keep thinking about how excited we were when our baby colt was born, and how difficult it would be to lose a much expected baby horse. Of course, this colt was not expected, but still, despite his being weak, he was darn cute with his dusty brown coat, two white socks, and white star on his forehead.
Oddly enough, Neva pet that baby horse and said her good-byes last night as if it was sad, yet death is something she understands just happens at times. She is more accepting than I of these kinds of things, but I guess that can be attributed to her age. She is growing up a farmer’s child, a far cry from the dancer’s kid she once was. I am not as adaptable to a new view of life I guess.
When I bought Joy, my new pinto, I was told she had been bred to another high end saddle bred stallion and so, she was likely pregnant. Then, Shane told me he saw her in heat so I could pretty much assume that the pregnancy didn’t take. I was glad, actually. I want my horse lean and rideable in spring. But today, I am looking at her differently. She may very well BE pregnant, and if so, you can bet I want to give her all the care and attention she needs to assure a successful birth. Shane and Amanda had a vet check their horse, and he told them she wasn’t pregnant, which was why they were so shocked yesterday to have an unexpected baby horse to deal with. I guess there are no guarantees. But even if mistakes are made, I’ve decided to get a vet check, just in case. And I’m going to watch Joy like a hawk and give her supplements no matter what the vet says. No reason to believe other people’s hunches when something precarious is at stake.
The point is, death is a part of nature’s grand scheme, and I accept that. But in cases where I can make a difference and head it off at the pass, you can bet I want to do all I can. I will never lose another peacock to cold now that I’ve experienced this loss, but the country learning curve is painful to someone like me who considers every creature in her care a precious thing. My friends around here shrug and say, “Ah well, you can get you some new peacocks in spring and they’ll do fine.” But it doesn’t make me feel better. I can’t bare others suffering my stupidity.
I am on my way downstairs to do my hour on the treadmill (it is rainy and cold outside, so my workout is going to stay indoors today.) And I’m going to watch my “Breeding, Birthing, and Newborn Care for Llamas” DVD. I don’t plan to ever see another big animal’s baby’s soft eyes closed prematurely again. Not on my watch.
Honest to God, sometimes I can’t help but laugh and say, “Is this me?” The rest of the world is watching “Dancing with the Stars” and discussing costume choices and dishing stars because they look fat or are going bald (compared to when they were young). I’m watching ranching videos as if this kind of documentary has the answer to life’s true, most pertinent questions.
I just wish I had the confidence here in the quiet, wide open spaces that I once had in my world of dance, malls and starbucks.