Jordan wants oxen—a team of oxen. Which means two. We have known of this desire for the past several months, beginning in June or so.
At first his pleas were intermittent, somewhat serious, somewhat exploratory. We nodded in assent, agreeing with how useful they would be—at some far and distant time. But then his pleas grew more frequent and impassioned. His head would dip with the intensity of the emotion.
Where his desire came from, we have no idea. It wasn’t that he saw a team of oxen at work and wanted to do the same. None of his friends or our friends work with oxen. There was no particular book or video that he sparked his attention. Nonetheless, the idea grabbed him, and refused to let go. All Jordan knows is that he must own them, raise them, train them and use them to do farm work. He wants a form of farm power that does not pollute the environment like a tractor does. He wants to perfect an older method, one with a greater connection to the land. But there is something else too—more primal. It is as if his life, and the life he wants to lead, depends upon it.
In August, Jordan decided to make a yoke for the oxen he hoped to have. He hiked up into our land, scouting for the right kind of wood. He chose a piece of red pine—the best option he could find—and began hewing it with a hatchet—the best tool we had. Discovering that the wood was rotten in one place, he went in search of another prime piece. After achieving the rough shape of the yoke, he wanted a drawknife to finish it off. We ordered one over the web, paid for with money he had saved.
As his October birthday approached, his request was singular and unequivocal. Oxen for my birthday. That is all he wanted. I gave him a book—one about training oxen—thinking that some more information might grant the project a more realistic hue. The gift had the opposite effect. He read the book cover to cover, honing his desire with every turn of the page. He wanted two bull calves, of the same breed, born less than a month apart. Maybe Devons (the traditional American breed), or Milking Shorthorns. Jerseys would be OK too, though Devons and Jerseys are a bit harder to train than the Shorthorns: they have a higher “tractability” score. He needed to make another yoke.
It was becoming clear. This was no whim. Feeling the inevitability, I finally responded to yet another ox-chat by saying: “Call your 4H leader. Ask.” He did. A month went by.
A week ago, we received a call from another 4H member, Katie. Katie raises Milking Shorthorns. “May I speak with Jordan?” she asked. I handed over the phone and watched Jordan’s face open into a radiant beam of light. He put down the phone.
“She has two bull calves, born a week apart. She will give them to me when the weather warms a bit, and she’ll tell me more at the next 4H meeting.” He was stunned. Deeply quiet.
Watching him, hearing the news, an unexpected joy released in me. (Where did that come from?) I was delighted! Happy too. Jordan would have his oxen! Kyra and Jessica were leaping and cavorting, happy for their brother, happy for themselves. They set about making yokes for some toy bulls we have in our plastic animal collection.
Two more big bovines?! I rationalize my excitement. First of all, Jordan would be taking care of them. Not me. Besides, they’re easier to keep than cows—they don’t need to be milked. They can live in the barn with our other cattle. All we need to do is enlarge our fenced pasture, as we have wanted to do since we moved here. Our hill is in need of grazers. And if Jordan really can get his team working, think of what he could do! Logs from the forest. Furrows in the ground. This might just work.
Besides, he will be in good company. People all around the world still use oxen to farm, especially in areas where the terrain is too hilly for tractors, or the fuel and service sources too rare. Oxen are hearty, disease resistant, and carry their own coats. Throughout time, they have served as symbols of virility and fertility.
On the other hand, it seems crazy. With Precious, our Jersey heifer, due to give birth in March, we stand to double our herd in a few months—from three to six. At least. Where does this end? Should I worry?
I decide not to. For one thing has always been true: our kids enable us. Geoff and I moved here in pursuit of our dreams, but the kids pushed us every step of the way in pursuit of their dreams. We wanted a rural place to think and create; they wanted animals. And now, pursuing their dreams, they are helping us in ours. I know it.
Geoff and I were the ones talking about living a closer connection to the natural world. Jordan is doing it.