Category Archives: animals

How Living with an Ox Changed My Life

IMG_6089Thursday, 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.

Ten Years of Rural Life

Ten years ago ago this week, Geoff and I were packing our belongings. We had bought a farm, sold our house, and were preparing to move to a place where we had no friends, no family, no connections, no jobs—a place where we had been only once before, two weeks earlier. I was eight months pregnant with our fourth child. It felt as if we were jumping off a cliff. We were so excited.

We wanted a place where we would be able to do our art, raise our kids, and grow our love in closer connection with the natural world. Sure, we were terrified, but that terror was tempered with intense curiosity. What would our new rural life be like?

It has been everything we wanted, more than we imagined, and far different than we anticipated. What we didn’t know would fill many books—some of which I have already written. Here are a few notes from the ten-year mark.

1. A place is not what you make; a place is what makes you.

As Geoff and I prepared to move, we had great visions of how we would make this farm our own. We would carve out a space for ourselves, put our stamp upon it, create it into the place we wanted it to be. Our home. Our center. Ours.

We quickly realized that this land and this farm had ideas of its own—existing structures, patterns of fertility and growth, vistas and views. And nothing we wanted to accomplish would succeed unless we paid attention. The garden would not grow. The water would not flow. The fence would not stand.

This place did not belong to us. We belonged to it.

We submitted. The place was too beautiful not to do so! It has made us into who it wanted and needed us to be—caretakers of its ongoing health and well-being. People who love it all the more for being so.

2. Perfection unfolds in time.

When we moved, there were so many things about the farm that were broken, run down, and just not quite right. At first we did not even think we would stay in the house for long. We would fix it up, and then build another house further up the hill, in the hayfields. We did not want to live so close to the road.

But the farm resisted. Who needs two houses? Why spoil the hayfields? Why abandon the lower part of the property? We contemplated selling this place and trying to find another piece of land in the area, but in the end, could not bear to leave this one. What were we to do?

Meanwhile, the septic system was failing, the front porch was falling off, the big barn was falling in, and suddenly, all of these glaring issues that had been nagging us for years came together in one glorious opportunity. We decided to do what we could to make the road not matter. We got some help, and took off the porch, took down the barn, built some fences, and opened up a soccer field on one side of the house and a barnyard on the other. We no longer wanted to live anywhere else.

3. The farm will provide.

Of course, once the big barn was down, the barnyard was a field of rubble. Trucking in topsoil was far too expensive to contemplate. What would we do? It was one of those moments that happens all the time: the farm provides.

While we did not have money for fine dirt, we did have cattle—to whom we feed large bales of hay cut from our fields all winter. So we put those bales on the rubble. Magic. Hay plus manure equals grass the following spring. Instead of feeling poor, we felt incredibly rich. We had what we needed.

4. We are nature when we work with it.

When we moved, we carried with us a certain romantic notion of the natural world—a back-to-the-land naiveté. I imagined walking through the fields, appreciating their beauty, feeling my connection to the earth, and then going to the grocery store for milk and cheese. I did not imagine that I’d be walking through nature while fixing a cattle fence, that I would be connecting to the earth by shoveling manure, or that I would be washing buckets and processing our own cow’s milk to meet all our dairy needs.

Humans do need to cultivate love for the earth, for themselves as earth, for sure. But humans also need to get their hands dirty, to sweat for the earth. In the daily work of taking care of particular animals and plants, and a particular patch of ground, we come to know how far from the natural world we really are so much of the time as we shop, communte, and surf the net.

Nature is work. Nature is always working, generating, creating. And we know ourselves as one with it when we allow it to work on us. Then we start asking questions that mean something to us. How are we spending our time? How are we spending our money? What are we planting? What are we raising? What are we creating?

5. No room for righteousness.

One of the challenges we set for ourselves after moving here was to provide as much of our own food as possible. It was fun. How far could we go? With milk from a cow, a coop full of hens, a fertile plot of land, a stove, a freezer, and some information, what could we do? We were well-trained to habits of eating branded, processed foods. So we took it slowly, food by food. We chose one and then another: what would it take to make this ourselves? Soft cheese? Hard cheese? Ice cream? Butter? Bread? Snacks? Granola?

The challenge wasn’t about adopting an ideal eating program and imposing it upon ourselves. It wasn’t about adhering to a principle or to the terms of contemporary debates over vegan, vegetarian, meat-eating, or other. It wasn’t just about the food. It was about being where we are—in this plot of a place—and learning how to participate in a workable system of production and consumption that would nourish both us and the earth.

Our cows are not just milk machines. They are living creatures who link us to the land in mutually life-enabling ways. The cows enable us to take care of the land and the land to take care of us. We move the cattle through twelve different pastures to ensure that the grass keeps growing for them. We give them year round food, shelter from storms, and lots of chin scratches, not to mention mountain views. The cows feed and fertilize. The milk they make that we take is grass we gave them, now nourishing us, so that we can keep caring for them.

In this search for earth-friendly ways, there is no formula. There is no model for all to follow. All humans are caught up in a vast cultural net that wrecks havoc on the natural world, regardless of what we individually do. People live in different places with different resources and requirements. However, we all do have experiences to share and insights to offer, as we strive to steer the trajectory of humankind in ways that will support the ongoing life of the planet.

6. Dance is everywhere.

It is not immediately obvious why someone would move to a farm in order to dance. What does pulling weeds have to do with working a plie?

For me the connection was sensory. The inspiration to dance wells fullest in me when I am moved to move by the movement of the natural world. So I sought it out. And in seeking it out, my desire to dance evolved. Soon dance was no longer about creating concert productions for performance in a black box—as valuable and rewarding as such endeavors can be. It was about tapping into a primal, kinetic creativity that funds every moment of my life—and writing about it.

On the farm, I have come to realize that dance is everywhere, in everyone. In this place, where it is impossible to ignore how everything is constantly moving, changing, evolving, the importance of dancing appears anew.

If movement is all there is, then how humans move matters. And if how humans move matters, then dance appears as something more than physical exercise or an optional art. Dance appears as a way in which humans learn to participate in the ongoing creation of what is. It appears as a way of cultivating a sensory awareness that can guide humans to create relationships with sources of wonder and sustenance in their lives. And it has always been so.

Life on the farm has helped me to appreciate, as I never could before, how fundamental dancing has been to the evolution of the human species, how important it is to the development of individual humans and communities, and how important it may be to our collective future. Dancing is human.

What will the next ten years hold? I have no idea. But at least I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

Kimerer L LaMothe is the author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming

Falling For Dance

I am thinking a lot about time. It happens every fall. I can’t help it. Time presses in upon me so hard, squeezing me so tightly, that I can barely breathe. Everything around me is changing so rapidly, so decisively, so finally. Everywhere I turn, plants are shriveling. Leaves are turning. Brown and brittle; twisted and fixed—once vibrant field flowers stand still in their tracks. Done.

IMG_3284Sure, time thrusts itself upon me with similar abandon in the spring as the earth presses out of itself, like clay through an extruder, manifesting in myriad green growths. Yet spring-time does not hit me in the same way as fall-time. Every emerging sprout, noted and not, is a herald crying out, announcing the advent of more. More fruit! More food! More life! Coming now!

The irrepressibly rapid changes of fall, however, herald death—and more death. Death to our cucumbers, corn, basil, and beans. Death to our tomatoes and broccoli, peppers and pears. Then death to our kale, carrots, potatoes, and beets. And death to the fields that feed our animals. One by one the plant cycles end. All my arcs of work and anticipation and fruition and joy—all that time spent preparing the soil, sinking the seed, watering and weeding—gone. All of its fruits, finished.

In the fall, I cannot help but feel the downward pull of life—down into the earth, where it draws in, curls up and hides.

Moving me, as it does, fall also reminds me why we moved here to the farm over nine years ago, and why we have stayed.

We moved to the farm so that I could dance. There were other reasons too, but I needed to be in a place that called me to move—an outdoor place that would awaken my senses and entice me to explore it. I needed to live in such a place—not just visit—so that this dance would be integral to my life, at the center, source of the rest. I did not want my dancing removed to a remote studio; I wanted it immersed in the hubbub of home. I wanted whatever I created in dance to be fully informed by and accountable to the rhythms of raising humans and realizing dreams.

From the beginning, I danced everywhere—in the house and out of the house; by the barns, in the woods, and around the fields. But it wasn’t easier, as I thought it would be, to find the time to dance. I thought that our separation from the rush and tumble of urban life would leave large dance-shaped holes in my life. Pressing against the rush and tumble of rural life was just as hard.

Even so, immersing my dancing self in rural life did help me to understand better than I had why dancing—as vital and beautiful and fun as it is to do—is so challenging a practice to sustain. Not only (as I have written elsewhere), does the act of dancing press every button in the matrix of western values, dance exercises a significantly different sensory orientation than the virtual worlds in which so many people—urban or rural—live. Dancing calls us to attend to the rhythms of our bodily selves—the rhythms of the earth, in us and around us. Often it is easier not to do so.

Virtual worlds are addictive, and not only because they offer speedy pleasures. They are addictive because they still our senses and protect us from feeling pain. Our screens screen us from the tumultuous changes at hand in every moment. Plugged in, transfixed by images that appear to move, we need not feel the rhythms of the natural world. We need not feel the incoming rush of fall or suffer the losses it foretells. The seeming dynamism of our virtual words is an illusion that grants us a sense of stability in the face of the greater changes around us and within us.

To be open to dance—to allow oneself be moved within and without—is to confront loss. It is to know, from the outset, that all the work you do, all the efforts you spend, all the beautiful shapes you inhabit and realize, are blossoms in the wind—present for a moment, before being blown away by the next. To dance is to know that fall is always right around the corner.

So what should I do? Just give up? Stop dancing? Wouldn’t it be more rational and expedient to create some mark that lasts? Something more stable and enduring? Something I can hold or count on or at least read?

I ask these questions all the time. It is not just dancing that raises them. Here on the farm I spend so much time creating things that do not and will not last—things that are intended to be consumed, used, or will otherwise grow up and be given away, or move out on their own.

It is true of food. While I do not consider myself a “cook” (I dislike recipes), I am daily transforming the natural resources produced by our farm—milk and eggs, vegetables and fruit—into tasty, nourishing basics. The loaf of bread just lifted from the oven; the mozzarella stretching through space; the ice cream dripping off the paddle; the butter clotting in the jar; the kale sautéed with onions, carrots, and tomatoes fresh from the garden—are each intensely beautiful. I gawk in amazement as they appear before me through the action of my own hands. I feel blessed to participate in their appearance. They give great pleasure. But soon, they disappear–bitten, chewed, and swallowed, or else grow crusty, moldy, and stale.

Is all that effort worth it? Why not just get it all at the grocery store?

So too, I have spent the past seven weeks raising six kittens, orphaned at one week old by a speeding car. For three weeks I bottle-fed them every four to six hours with pricey milk replacer, wiped their bottoms and changed their bed. I made them a bigger box, then a bigger box, and added a litter box; I cleaned them and weaned them. I cuddled them and delighted in them. And then, with a hanging heart, gave four away.

Was all that effort worth it? Only to let them go–for free?

I wonder if nature asks such questions too. Why so much attention to vibrant displays that burst into view and fade away? Why such extravagant expenditure on ephemeral ends? Their blasts of beauty–the pleasure they bring–do not seem enough of a reason.

Then, as I ponder these questions, the fall, even as it takes everything away, brings me back an answer. Seeds. In our ghost of a garden, our fading fields, there is abundant life if you know where to look. There are an abundance of seeds. Small and large. Tufted and smooth. Air-born and soil-bound. There are seeds, shedding, popping, proliferating forth, pure pods of potential. There are seeds that promise to multiply, beyond all measure, the pleasures that have come before.

The same is true of movements I make–dancing, feeding, caring–whose fruits seem so ephemeral, so short-lived. In every dance that I do, every cheese that I stir, every infant animal I tend, I am also making seeds. These seeds gather in me. They take shape in the form of movement patterns–patterns of attention and coordination, of sensation and response, of care and compassion, that dwell in me, as me, yet to unfold.

It is especially true of dance. In every dance that dies, there is abundant life. When I dance, I not only make moves, I practice making moves. I practice opening and inviting new moves that will release me into new ranges of experience–moves that will express the care and attention I am spending. Dancing, I become the movements I make, and these patterns pulse within—as seeds of awareness, pods of perception, capable of giving rise to new sprouts of inspiration, when blown by something that sings of spring.

We moved to the farm so we could root ourselves in a place where we could not help being moved by the rhythms of the natural world to create the seeds of a life we wanted to live. A life we could imagine. A life in which love for each other and the earth is the most important thing.

That is why I dance—and why I am here—tending kale and kittens and kids, so deeply moved by the falling away of fall. And celebrating the seeds–and spring–to come.

A Summer with Legs

Providence (second from the right) and friends

This summer we have faced a good chunk of challenges having to do with legs. First there was our hen—a Rhode Island Red whom we named Providence. Her troubles began in the chicken coop that night when Geoff and I were yanked out of bed by a ferocious squawking. We ran down stairs, pulled on muck boots, and ran to the coop in our nightclothes to find Providence on the coop floor. Her right thigh was torn open. The leg beneath was bent at a right angle right at the ring where the feathers end.We saw nothing else amiss, until we rotated the flashlight up to the rafters and found two glowing orbs. A raccoon—a large raccoon—was peering down at us, wondering what would happen next.

We found the place where the racoon had pried the chicken wire loose from the window frame and slipped through. We moved Providence to a bed of hay in the corner, fixed the window, and finally managed—after failed attempts to coax, cajole, startle and scare the raccoon out of his perch—to hit the back of the coop with sticks in a rhythm catchy enough to move that raccoon out of the coop and into a nearby tree.

The next morning, in broad daylight, I took a good look at Providence’s leg. The thigh wound was already healing. We had seen worse. It looked like it could heal. But that lower leg was a bent twig. Providence could not stand up, extend the leg, or put any weight on it. When she tried, her wings would flap and flap in a desperate attempt to balance. The other hens were bothered by this obviously aggressive action and rushed to peck her into place. At this point I knew that Providence would not make it if we left her with the others. The healthy hens, unable to tolerate weakness or difference, would peck her to death.

I made a splint for Providence’s peg. I located our large cat carrier, layered it with hay, added food and water, and placed Providence carefully inside. She sat quietly. Was there hope? Could she heal? Every couple of days we would take her out, change the hay, and examine the leg. The splint failed. The leg turned black. She was not eating much, but she would eat green things—leaves and shoots—when Kai and Leif held them out to her.

Meanwhile, Daisy, our seven-year old Jersey, our first cow and matriarch of our herd, went into heat. We knew because Bright and Blaze, our 1800-pound oxen were suddenly standing sentinel, chins poised above her back, guarding the gate to her future generations. We called our “AI” guy who came with his pickup truck, carrying frozen bull sperm, and put it in place. Later that afternoon, Daisy’s right rear leg was hanging, disconnected from the ground. She was holding her hoof high. Had she been hurt by overly enthusiastic oxen? Or a hidden hole? We had no idea.

We examined the leg. Her foot was warm and sensitive. We assumed a strain or sprain or break. But what can you do? You cannot cast a cow. Bright once hurt his leg and it swelled horribly. We waited nine long weeks. Then, he put it down and began walking. Now he pulls his own weight—and sleds full of firewood—as part of a yoked team.

We put Daisy in a pasture by herself, close to the barn, so she could stay still and eat without having to compete. Cows cannot easily move on three legs like a dog or cat can. They need four on the floor. Nevertheless, within a few days, Daisy had learned to lurch herself around the pasture to preferred spots, seemingly calm and content on her three legs. She would stretch out her neck, lean her body forward, and then hop her left leg to catch up.

To milk her, one of us would carry a bucket up the hill to wherever she was, and squat down to milk her in the field, by hand, without a stanchion to hold her still, hoping she would not hop. To avoid being splashed by jostled milk, we learned to notice her thrusting chin—sign of an imminent move. We practiced pulling the bucket out from underneath her right at that moment in her heave forward when she would have kicked it.

Meanwhile, when not helping to give Providence and Daisy a leg up, Jordan decided to try out our new scythe in a far meadow. He woke at 4:30 AM, took the scythe into the field, and moved back and forth with an even rhythmic swing for four hours. In bare feet. It was a beautiful sight.

The next evening, the tops of Jordan’s feet were sore. The following morning—48 hours after he had scythed the meadow—his feet-tops were bright red and covered with clear pus-filled blisters as long as an inch and as tall as three-quarters of an inch. The culprit: poison parsnip juice lit by the sun. As Jordan had sliced through these encroaching plants, setting their stalks aside, his feet had brushed by the cut stems. Unknown to him, juice from these stems had triggered a chemical reaction in his skin, rendering him hypersensitive to the sun’s searing rays. His feet were not a pretty sight.

For the week following, Jordan could not stand, walk, or even think of wearing shoes. He spent most of the time on the couch, with his feet up. Fortunately, he had company—two young brothers, newly released from school–who couldn’t get enough time playing board games. Undeterred by his painful plant encounter, Jordan picked up Aldo Leopold’s classic call to love the wildness of the wilderness–Sand County Almanac–and read it cover to cover.

Those of us left standing were waiting on Jordan, tending to Providence, hauling water up to Daisy, and bringing her milk back down—most of it in the bucket, and the rest on our clothes.

Meanwhile, Providence was getting stronger. One afternoon I opened the door of the cat crate and she tried to stand up. I took her out of the crate and she plopped back down again. “Come on, Providence! You can do it!” She tried again. I had the boys feed her more lettuce and spinach and grass by hand. She hopped and flapped her wings vigorously, beating for balance, while we kept the other hens away.

We started taking Providence out of the crate during the day and leaving her outside of the coop, while the others were in. Or we would leave her in the coop while the others were in the back pen. Mostly she sat. But then she began hopping around a bit more, spending more time standing on her one leg. Her hurt thigh had new skin. Her broken, black leg remained folded beneath her. I tried introducing her to the hens again. Those lower in the pecking order stood alongside her, happily enough. Only the top hens turned upon her. I separated them again.

Daisy and Maggie

Meanwhile, Daisy was not improving. Her knee started to swell. We called the Vet. He prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine and time spent even more immobile than she had been, in a stall. We could not drink her drugged milk. But Maple’s calf Magnolia could. So we put Maggie in the stall with Daisy so that Daisy could nurse her great-granddaughter. As many years as I have nursed, Daisy has me beat.

Fortunately, Jordan’s feet were finally permitting themselves to be used. So twice a day, while Jessica and Kyra were milking Maple, Jordan started going out with his scythe—wearing shoes—to gather a tarp full of grass for Daisy and Maggie. He could give have given them dried, crunchy hay, but the fresh grass is so much more delicious and nutritious.

Then one day Providence’s broken leg fell off. Claw and all. Yet rather than suffer this loss, she began standing taller still, hopping more, and asserting her place in the flock. Now, just over two months after her attack, Providence is back. She hops gracefully with no need for wild wing action. She lowers beak to grain without toppling over; tips her head up to swallow water and does not fall. Even more, none of the other hens seem to mind. Once again, she is one of them. Our one-legged hen. Providence indeed.

Providence

Last night, Jessica came in from chores: “Mom! I just saw Providence stealing food from another hen!” Ordinarily, I am don’t support stealing, but in this case, I’ll take it as a sign of unexpected, irrepressible life returning. Hooray.

So now we are all waiting on Daisy. We have one more dose of anti-inflammatory to dispense. The swelling in her knee is down; her leg still dangles. But we have hope. As long as she is healthy and not in pain, as long as her quality of life is good, we will wait to see what solutions nature has in store, and align our actions as best we can with whatever healing is happening.

Here’s to a summer with legs.

Our Sacred Earth: What does it mean to call the earth divine?

Everywhere I turn these days, I stumble across contemporary authors and religious writers seeking to mount a spiritual response to the current raft of environmental crises. For such writers, practical responses, as important as they are, will not go far enough in addressing the roots of our predicament. We need to go beyond a materialist picture of the universe and develop a concept of the earth itself as worthy of our highest regard—as sacred, as holy—as Gaia Herself. Only then, such teachers insist, will we care enough to resist and recraft the patterns of consumption that are depleting and destroying the earth’s natural resources. In the words of Vaughan-Lee, for example, editor of the star-studded collection Spiritual Ecology (2013):

“The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong… [T]he deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature… [W]e are all part of one, living spiritual being” (i-ii)

While I want to cry “yes!,” I am stopped by a question that arises in response. What does it mean to remember the earth as sacred—or then again as a spiritual, living being?

*

Nine years ago, I moved with my family to a retired dairy farm in rural New York. I wanted to live in closer relationship to the natural world. I knew I needed it—my work needed it. I needed to live in a place where I could no longer ignore the rhythms of the natural world in order to think thoughts about dance, religion, and the earth that mattered to me.

Of the many constant surprises that this adventure has provided, one concerns this question about what is means to honor the earth as sacred. I have come to believe that the task goes beyond what is normally stated. Yes, it is good to acknowledge our utter dependence on the ongoing rhythms of creation for every breath we inhale, every sip we take, and every morsel we chew. Yes, it is good to appreciate human existence as one relational node in a complex living web whose mysteries extend far beyond our comprehending reach. Yes, it is good to admire and even love the irrepressible beauty of the natural world and all of its inhabitants. Yes, it is also important to bear witness to the violence and destructive capacity of natural processes themselves.

Nevertheless, I am beginning to believe that the task of remembering the “sacred nature” of the earth involves something more. It entails coming face to face, heart to heart, with a horrifying and awe-full fact that appears to contradict our very urge to cherish and worship Her: we humans, in order to live, must, on a daily basis, kill what appears to us as beautiful.

*

Here on the farm we are drenched in beauty. Let’s begin with babies. Baby cows and baby chicks; baby cucumber and baby basil; baby spruces and baby oaks—not to mention baby humans—are all undeniably relentlessly adorable. Their round shapes and fuzzy textures pull on human heartstrings, calling for care. And care we do. Whether waking up every 6 hours in the morning to bottlefeed orphaned kittens, taking a midnight walk into the barn to check on a pregnant cow ready to pop, or running to the chicken coop at 4 AM to investigate an ear-splitting shriek, we care. Whether hauling water to new tomato sprouts or rescuing delicate carrot fronds from encroaching weeds, we care.

This caring, moreover, is contagious. When we care for the young and vulnerable, our own acts of feeding and stroking, watching and watering grow in tandem with those we tend into feelings of attachment and even love. We may grow to appreciate our adult animals for the eggs they provide, the milk they produce, the rides they give, or the sheer power they extend; we may feel gratitude for the fruits and roots and shoots that our garden plants send forth, but we love them for the pleasure that taking care of them yields. We love them for the pleasure they seem to experience as they thrive.

It is this kind of love that inspires us to keep caring—even when our cow Daisy breaks her foot and requires us to carry extra buckets of water. It is the kind of love that impels us to plunge outside in freezing temperatures and pelting rain to deliver hay or relieve a swollen udder. It is this love that persists as the enabling matrix within which the work of caring and tending gets done.

Moreover, it is the kind of love that many environmentalists and others believe will impel people who feel it to reject: the practices of resource extraction that destroy the landscape; the practices of fuel consumption that pollute the atmosphere, and the practices of factory farming that deplete our soils of the plant-enabling nutrients and deny animals a connection to the earth.

Indeed. But is this care for the earth all that is involved in remembering the earth as “sacred”? Is it enough?

*

To every idyllic image of humans, animals, and plants living in mutually enabling community with one another, there is a dark side—not a “bad” side, but a contrasting dimension that is as essential to the rhythms of life as images of peaceful coexistence.

Suffice to say, humans too must eat to live. Humans must nourish the ability to care for the animals and plants who give to us. To do so, we must kill. We must kill things that are not obviously bad or ugly or worthless. We must kill organisms whose sheer beauty enlivens us and inspires us to care for them. And we must do so regularly. No human is exempt from this need to kill and consume—not vegetarians, vegans or paleo practitioners.

More than any other time of year, I am reminded of this fact in the spring. In these brilliant, long-lit days, as the world around me erupts with joyous newness, my job is to plant and nurture and celebrate and… kill.

For example, I plant seeds. Those seeds send forth shoots—pure expressions of kinetic excitement. In response, it is my job to thin those green hopes to distances that will enable the remaining plants to grow healthy and strong. I choose. I pluck. I deny life to what otherwise appears to me as beautiful and true. I try to transplant as many seedlings as I can, but many cannot survive the move. I also pull out “weeds” by the reaching roots, beautiful too as vibrant expressions of living life. What right have I to pick one plant over another?

The sadness I feel tempers my joy, even as that joy grows deeper still. The garden will grow. The plants I leave will thrive. I am taking care of them, of myself, of my family, enriching the ability of the earth to keep giving to me. The sadness chastens me.

The farm produces and reproduces, and its ability to do so depends upon my conscious participation in a constant rhythm of selecting what to nourish, and consuming, killing, or giving away the rest. These acts of “selection” do not occur miles away, by someone else’s hand. I make them myself, in plain view, consciously and not. Living on our homestead, as we do, it is impossible to gloss over this dynamic and others like it. (I have described this situation with our dairy animals as well.)

What do I do with this knowledge? How do I digest it? How do I respond?

The response that makes the most sense to me is to fall on my knees (if I am not already there in the garden) in humilty and wonder and awe at the gifts of life–being given to me through my own participation in the work of creation. The response that makes sense is a downward thud of appreciation for the cost, the generosity, the beauty of the movements that sustain me. The response that makes sense is to honor earth–in its multiple folds and forms–as worthy of the highest praise. As divine.

This “divinity” is not a transcendent omnipotence that resides in some far off place. Nor is it an immanence that dwells within material forms. It is not a matter of matter itself, in its being and relating. Rather, this divinity is more a matter of the movement which the earth is—the movement by which the earth makes more of itself, for itself, coming to life in a human form who can affirm and mourn the loss of any moment of earth’s ever-unfolding beauty.

Central to the deep and nourishing joy of receiving earth-bound bounty is a sadness at the loss of what is giving its life for me—a sadness that both acts as a natural check on patterns of behavior that would kill and consume more of the earth’s fertile beauty than I must, and propels me to do as much for its ongoing life as I can. It is my responsibility.

It is here, I suggest, that a sense of the sacred strong enough to propel us in creating new actions and attitudes can and must be rooted. Gratitude and love are essential, but they are not enough. Nor are feelings of debt or dependence. We also need to cultivate a clear and compelling awe for this paradox—this knot of living and dying—of which our every movement consists. What are we creating?

The Meaning of Milk

IMG_3329As Geoff and I make dinner, Kyra (age 12) carries a stainless steel bucket in from the cow barn, bracing her small frame sideways against its weight. White froth laps at the rim, floating atop two gallons of milk, just pulled from Daisy’s udder by Kyra’s strong hands. I help Kyra lift the bucket onto the counter. She smiles. I smile. Well done! Milk! She goes back out into the evening’s dark, headlight on, to feed the chickens.

I pull a stainless steel pot from the refrigerator that is filled with milk from this morning’s chores. The surface of the milk is firm with cream. I grab a quart jar and our bell-bottomed skimming spoon, and begin to run the edge of the spoon across the yellowy surface. A thick layer folds in front of the spoon, buckling on top of itself, before yielding in a mass to the curve. I lift my arm, spoon the cream into the waiting jar, then return and repeat.

Suddenly, as my arm completes another arc of skimming and spooning, I feel a rush of tears. I haven’t skimmed cream in over two months. We had dried Daisy off before her due date, and had no other cows to milk. Then, on October 19, Daisy gave birth, and so here we are again—back in the milk. Here I am again—skimming—and crying?

Why? How ridiculous! I am just doing my ordinary chore! Yet, I feel relief. I feel gratitude; I feel joy. But most of all I feel love. A large love. A seemingly religious love. While skimming cream? What is going on?

I ponder this strange sensation as I continue to fill my quart jar.

Am I happy to be drinking raw milk again? Yes, I am. I believe in raw milk. I believe that pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria as well as enzymes that aid in digestion. I believe that homogenizing ensures that those dead particulates don’t settle into silt at the bottom of a carton. This milk is alive. It glows. But that isn’t it.

Am I glad to be eating locally? Yes, I am. This milk did not require any diesel-burning trucking or train-ing to get from cow to kitchen, and I appreciate that. But that isn’t it either.

Is it just that this milk is so delicious? True, it tastes so good. Everything we make from it tastes so good—the ice cream, of course, but also the hard cheeses (cheddar, jack, parmesan), the soft cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, queso fresco), the butter, yogurt, half and half (for Geoff’s coffee), and the skimmed milked itself. Everyone in our family agrees (though some are less enthusiastic about the sharper cheeses). Now we can make more of these goods again. But that isn’t what is making these tears well.

No, as pearly white milk shines from beneath the cleared cream, I realize that these tears mean something else. As I skim and spoon and stir and pour, making these simple bodily movements, this milk is for me a direct, living connection to the earth.

I helped my son buy this cow seven years ago. We have raised her, cared for her, fed and watered her; built fences for her and hauled bales for her. We have done the work together. Our kids have done the work together. Daisy, in turn, has spent countless hours munching grass from our hillsides and fertilizing the soil with her manure. Year after year she has taken that grass and given it back to us as milk, pulled and carried from barn to house by Jordan, Jessica, and now Kyra.

This milk is more than just milk. It is a one moment of an energy circuit streaming from sun to soil to grass to cow to bucket to child to cheese and back again—back through the movements those milk-fed children make in caring for the cow who fertilizes the earth that supports the sun-catching grass.

Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know. I am part of it. I am a mere loop in the chain, a small but enabling arc of this life-enabling circuit. Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know myself as someone who is participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming, making it real, making myself real as an expression of it. And it feels like love.

This milk is just milk. Yet it is more than just milk. It nourishes our bodily selves. It nourishes more than our bodily selves. Working for it, with it, by virtue of its enabling calories, I am flooded with feelings of gratitude for the abundance—for the family, the farm, and the great green earth—that it represents. This milk nourishes spirit.

I pour the skimmed milk into half gallon glass bottles, wash the stainless steel pot, fill it with warm milk from Kyra’s bucket, and place the pot back into the refrigerator, where it will wait for 12 hours—until the next skimming time.

*

I can’t stop thinking about this skimming moment from over a week ago. It was so unexpected! And the fact that it was so unexpected is itself revealing. My surprise was indicative of our cultural perceptions of pleasure, especially around food. I offer three thoughts.

First. Our processes of food production and distribution—from far away farms to supermarket shelves—have so narrowed our sensory experience of food that we associate the pleasure of food primarily with eating, and then again, with taste and amount. It is what we know. It is what we can buy.

Pacing the supermarket aisles, we are met by row after row of distilled substances pressed ‘free’ from the bran, the chaff, the skin, the seeds, the crust, the meat, the fiber, the bulk, and then processed with copious quantities of sugar and salt. Seeking more taste and larger amounts, we opt for foods that have been stripped and sliced, whitened and washed, juiced and refined, even already cooked and served.

Once these distilled substances blast through our sensory selves, we who consume feel full and empty all at once. Our pleasure is partial; we assume we need more of the same. And so, shopping and consuming, we become addicted to foods that train our sensory selves to ignore the spectrum of possible pleasures that making food can provide.

While grabbing a plastic gallon from the refrigerator compartment enroute to the checkout, we forget the pleasures of calf kisses, chin scratches, and fuzzy winter cow coats. We forget the sounds of milk pinging the pail, or of baby bleats and mama moos. We forget the smell of grass growing and cut, wet and dry; or the vivid splashes of sunset and sunrise.

When pulling a block of cheese from one shelf and a carton of frozen dessert from another, we forget the resilient stretch of a newly made mozzarella, or the melting sweetness of freshly cranked ice cream.

Sure, there is muck and mess to remember as well. Cows poop. Calves slobber. Buckets topple. Milk sours. Cheeses mold. Ice cream clots. But somehow, having a personal experience of everything that can go wrong serves to amplify and expand that feeling of pleasure when it all goes right.

This line of thinking pulled into view a second. The sensory training to taste and amount that we receive not only teaches us to forget the pleasures of the food-making process, it teaches us to forget that pleasure itself requires a process, else it does not fully engage and satisfy our capacity for it.

Pleasure is an arc, a rhythm—not a one-stop shop. It unfolds in time, over time, through the movements we make, and especially in relation to food. The waiting. The watching. The growing. The picking. The making. The baking. The bonding. The stopping. The beginning again.

Finally, as our experiences of buying and eating food narrow the range of known pleasure, it become possible to imagine that pleasure, even as a process, exists for its own sake, for personal use. It does not. This idea is an ecological hazard.

What is lost when pleasure narrows to the question of personal satisfaction is not simply sensation. We may actually experience quite exalted states from our refined food substances. Rather, what is lost is an internal array of sensory experiences that can guide us in making earth-friendly decisions about what to eat, when, where, and how.

We forget that food is our primary connection to earth. We forget that food is earth making more of itself. We forget that we too—in how and what and when and where we eat—are part of that process through which the earth becomes what it is.

Alternately, the channels of pleasure we can open through our participation in the food making process provide us with the surest guide we have for giving back to the sources of what pleases us. Pleasure points us and propels us to do what we can and must to enable its sources to grow and thrive. In so far as we know that the pleasure of food comes from participating in the earth’s bodily becoming, then, we will do all that we can to give back to the earth what it needs to continue giving to us.

We come to want the health of the soil and water and air; of the animals and plants, of our children and of ourselves. And we are willing and able to persevere in pursuit of it because we know what that health feels like.

Am I saying that everyone should own a cow? No, of course not. But everyone can find some point in relationship to food to cultivate sensory awareness of how he or she is participating in the ongoing life of the earth.

Does having a cow protect our family from making choices that addict us to unsustainable resources? No. We are not immune. But it is my hope that, because of our milking connection—and the pleasure we feel in nurturing it—we will be more apt to notice what we are doing, more likely to be troubled by our own actions, and eventually, more willing and able to make a change that brings those aspects of ongoing life in line with what we are learning matters most.

Also posted on: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201310/the-meaning-milk