Thursday, February 14 — The door flung open, and my son Jordan (23) rushed into the kitchen. “Where are my spikes?”
“What happened?” I asked. Twenty minutes earlier, Jordan had left the house to yoke up Bright and Blaze, his pair of oxen, and retrieve a load of cut elm logs from the fields that he had felled the day before.
“Bright slipped on some ice and can’t get up!” Jordan was gone.
Bright is big. He weighs 2,000 pounds and stands nearly 6 feet tall at the highest point on his back. He had to get up.
“C’mon Leif! Let’s go.”
I loaded my youngest (age 9) into the car, and we drove a quarter mile to the access road that leads to our back fields. Thirty feet off the paved road, down a steep, snowy bank, Jordan’s one-ton ox was lying on his belly with his hind legs spread, one sticking straight out to either side, his head surrounded by the branches of a prickly hawthorn tree. I left the car with its hazard lights flashing and slid down to where Jordan was standing.
“He can’t get up.” Jordan and I looked at one another, wanting beyond anything to pick up Bright’s massive frame and set him soundly on his feet. Had he broken a knee? Dislocated a hip? Should we call the vet?
“What can the vet do?” Jordan asked. As our thoughts churned, Bright lay there calmly. He did not thrash or bellow. His left leg was trembling. From time to time, he moaned softly.
Having an ox slip happens from time to time on mud or snow or ice. But usually they scramble to their feet and are fine. Bright was now 10, larger and less limber than he had ever been. We cleared the hawthorn branches from around his head and cut down a sumac sapling that seemed to be stopping his left hind leg from moving forward. We had to do something.
Without warning, Bright lurched upward. His front legs and right hind leg powered forward, while his left leg swung out to the side, straight and not bending beneath him. He stumbled a few yards and crashed down again, farther from the access road, deeper into the bushes. This time, however, he fell with his right leg tucked neatly under him, and only the left one stuck out to the side. We could at least see it. I stroked the injured leg. He lay there calmly, looking at me as I circled him, cutting away branches that poked his face.
We called Geoff. We called Jessica (in her second year at vet school). We called the vet. We talked to a neighbor. Geoff and Kai (13) arrived on the scene. We debated our options. The sun was setting. The temperature was falling. Bright was starting to shiver. The distance home felt immense, and we were face to face with a fierce and unforgiving fact: We had no way to help Bright stand up. A tractor, even if large enough, couldn’t get down the snow bank to where he was. Still, we didn’t want to leave him there on the cold snow over night. If he couldn’t stand, we should probably put him down. The thought socked me in the stomach. My heart ached. For Bright. For Jordan. For me.
We left Bright and drove back to the house. I called our neighbors. Would they be willing to lend us a gun? The firearm they owned wasn’t large enough. Jordan and Geoff drove to two other neighbors. No one was home. On the way back to our house, they drove by Bright again. By some miracle of his own making, he was standing. He was standing! If only he could stand…
Jessica, on the phone, explained, “Leaving him alone may have been a good thing. Bright is a herd animal. Lying down in the dark, unable to move, defenseless, all alone, away from home — that is his worst nightmare!”
We went into action. If Bright was going to stand, then we were going to do all we could to help him. We decided to dig him a path to the road, bank him with hay, make sure he’d be comfortable overnight, and see what happened. We stuffed our station wagon full of hay and tossed in a couple of metal shovels for chipping away the ice. I got in to drive back to Bright. The car wouldn’t start. Parking for hours with the hazard lights on had killed the battery. We jump-started the station wagon with our Prius and drove both cars back to the access road. By then, Bright had managed to turn himself around and was facing uphill and the road home.
We started cutting a path through the frozen snow bank. Kai and I ran back to the house for more shovels; we kept digging. Bright stood there, placid and patient, watching our flurry of furious activity. Then suddenly, without even registering a movement, Bright had moved. Sideways. Closer.
It was as if Bright knew exactly what he had to do — wait for the pain to subside and his will to crest into a blast of effort that would launch his 2,000 pounds a few feet forward. Each time, we cheered and kept digging. We made sure we were not in his way. We let him choose when to move, where to move, and how.
We finished clearing a path down to the grass, and spread it with hay. We stood in a semicircle, watching Bright watching us, all of us wanting the same thing. It was dark. The moon was beaming and nearly full. I sent everyone home to eat dinner while I waited for Bright’s next eruption.
The stars were sparkling. The night was brilliantly clear. Though the air was cold, I was not. I wrapped myself in deep silence. From time to time, I talked to Bright and encouraged him. I stroked his injured leg. I sat nearby. I got up and danced. He watched. I could hear Jordan down the road, shoveling out a path to the stall in our barn where Bright would hopefully soon be. After another half hour, Bright had scuttled another 6 feet. He was 3 feet from the road. I was ecstatic. If he could make it to the road, all that awaited was gently sloped pavement leading back home. I knew he wanted it.
He made it to the road. Thirty feet in three-and-a-half hours.
At this point, it made sense to call the vet. Fifteen minutes later, she came. Bright’s left hind leg was not obviously broken or dislocated. Jordan took his halter rope, and we nudged and pushed Bright down the road to the stall. With each step, he lurched, swinging his left hind leg in a circle, putting as little weight on it as possible. The vet gave Bright a steroid painkiller and told us he had to stand up at least three times a day, otherwise his right hind leg would go numb and start to atrophy. If it did, Bright would be unable to stand, and would go downhill quickly. “Give him three days; you’ll know.”
That night, we were hopeful. Bright had been with us for over 10 years — a long life relative to most male bovine — but we still were not ready for this arc of our lives to end.
Ten years. Jordan was 13 when he told us he wanted a pair of bull calves to train as oxen. I bought him a book. We already had three Jersey cows, a quarter horse named Marvin, a flock of hens, and a clowder of cats. Oxen? But Jordan wanted a source of farm power — something we could use to haul firewood, and maybe mow hay or plow. He was so sure. When a friend of his from 4H called to say she had a pair of Milking Shorthorn bulls born a week apart, there was no good reason to say no. Jordan named them Bright and Blaze. Geoff and Jordan drove them home in the back of the same station wagon we had filled with hay. The bulls were 4 and 5 weeks old, still drinking milk. The kids fed them with half-gallon baby bottles.
Soon after the bull calves arrived, Jordan began their training. To train a pair of oxen, you need a yoke. To get a yoke, you need to make one. To make a yoke, you need to bend hickory into U-shaped bows. To get hickory, you need to fell a hickory tree, cut long rounded pieces from the trunk, and then set up a steaming device — which we did — with a pasta pot and PVC tubing on top of our wood stove. Every day after school, Jordan would place his yoke on the necks of his baby bulls, tie a small sled to the yoke — sometimes with 4-year-old Kai aboard — and drive his team around the yard, teaching them their commands: Giddap! Gee! Haw! Whoa! Back! Step in! Step out! Head up! Stand.
As the bulls grew, they needed a new yoke, and the new yoke needed metal hardware. Jordan asked for a blacksmith shop so he could make the hardware himself. At 6 months, our vet steered the bulls, and Jordan began using his team to haul logs from the woods to burn for fuel.
With the simple act of pulling dead trees from our forests, Bright and Blaze changed our lives: how we lived and what we wanted; how we related to each another and to our land; what we could imagine possible all evolved.
Rather than burning fuel oil to heat our house, we started burning wood. We exchanged our decorative wood stove for an efficient re-gasifer (with a window!), and sliced our oil bill by two-thirds. We redesigned our living area so that we as a family could all gather round the wood stove — the heating heart of our home. And we do. All winter long.
By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us outside to find it and fell it — to walk the property, keen on discovering which trees were dead or dying or overcrowded. We learned to see the trees — to identify the types, knowing which would burn well and which would not. We learned to fell them safely, process them efficiently, and load them onto the oxen’s sled. The oxen gave us reasons to spend time together outside as a family on our land, engaged in meaningful work, and ever admiring of the strength, the beauty, and sometimes stubborn will of such formidable creatures.
By pulling our firewood, Bright and Blaze pulled us to a place of wanting to do more — more of what is possible to do every day of our lives to protect the well-being of the natural world. We wanted to use their manure to grow more of our own food; we wanted to take care of our pastures, so they would have good grass and hay to eat. We wanted to clean out and shore up our barns, so they would have places to find shelter. We wanted to create a world in which they could be safe and healthy. Bright and Blaze encouraged us to engage directly with the workings of the natural world — not as sightseers, but as participants locked in a life-enabling reciprocity. They depended on us. We depended on them.
Friday, February 15 — Jordan went out to check on Bright the next morning, found him lying down, and got him to stand up. Around lunch time, Jordan checked again. Bright was down again, and this time would not stand. “We need to get him up,” Jordan said. He tried. I joined him in the barn. We tried. Bright stuck out his neck and refused to move. I suggested we give him his dose of steroid and try an hour later. It worked. Jordan got him to stand. Bright was up. Again, I felt euphoric. If we could just keep him up.
Saturday/Sunday, February 16/7 — After standing all day Friday, Bright stood all day Saturday and all day Sunday. My daughters, Jessica and Kyra, came home. We could tell from the patterns of hay on the floor that Bright was dragging his leg around his stall. When he stood, he would rock from side to side, shifting his weight onto the injured leg and then back. It’s what a body knows. He otherwise seemed fine, eating and drinking and pooping. All good. On Sunday morning, feeling optimistic, Jordan and Jessica tried to take him for a short walk. Bright was still not bending his left hind leg.
Monday, February 18 — Bright was lying down again. Jordan tried to get him up. Jordan and I tried to get him up. We called in Geoffrey, Jessica, Kai, and Leif to help get him up. With all of us together pushing, we could not even roll Bright from one side of his body to the other. I suggested calling the vet.
“Steroids and painkillers are not a long-term solution,” said Jordan. It was his decision. The very tissues in Bright’s leg that needed to heal were the ones Bright needed to use to keep the rest of himself alive.
We called a man who would come to the farm, shoot Bright, end his life instantly and painlessly, and then process the meat for us. The butcher rearranged his schedule to accommodate us. He’d come at noon the next day.
Tuesday, February 19 — I went into Bright’s stall to sit with him for a while. Large patches of fur were missing from each knee, scraped off by the concrete floor. He had obviously been trying to crawl his way to standing and couldn’t. His back left leg was stuck out and so stiff I could not bend it. He looked at me, rolled onto his right side, and lifted his straight left hind leg up into the air, as if to say, “See this? It hurts! It won’t work. Can you do something please?”
I couldn’t. I wished that I could. I scratched him under his huge chin, the way he likes. He stretched his neck long, so I could reach its full length. I massaged the muscles in his hurt leg. His whole body was trembling, as if in pain. I talked to him. I thanked him. I cried.
The rest of the family gathered in Bright’s stall. The butcher came. Pop. It was over.
Death, even for a creature as massive and seemingly unstoppable as an ox, is so close, separated from life by the thinnest of membranes. The light on the side of the living is just bright enough that we usually cannot see through.
Jordan asked the butcher for Bright’s heart. It was as large as a soccer ball, and looked like burgundy fudge. That night, Geoffrey cooked part of Bright’s heart on the grill, and the omnivores in our family ate it. In a couple of weeks, we will have hundreds of pounds of meat. We will not let Bright go to waste. He taught us that.
Now, I can’t help but remember Bright . . . watching me intently, as I open a new pasture, and being the first in. Tossing a 300-pound hay bale with his horns and galloping after it as it unrolled down a hill. Wrestling my newly planted fruit trees and hemlocks to the ground, and winning. Breaking through the fence at 3 a.m., and prowling in the yard under Geoff and my bedroom window. Running our herd of cows down the middle of the road — the middle of the road! — in search of greener pastures. Reaching his large head into the calf stall to check out newborn arrivals. Standing, when I wanted him to move. Listening, as Jordan guided him where to pull. Gentle with the smallest children. Working hard. Grazing peacefully outside my window, as I went about my work inside. Always present. Fully embodied. There.
I miss him — knowing too that he lives on in all he has enabled.
Thank you, Bright.