Hailed a far distance,heart-sore,across broken peaksand thirsty creek beds,to surrender the achein the cooling airat the edge of the stars;home.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Hailed a far distance,heart-sore,across broken peaksand thirsty creek beds,to surrender the achein the cooling airat the edge of the stars;home.
All of us here…
we used to be someone else.
We each had a plan;
it was meant to go another way
but there was always a stumble.
We lost balance and compromised,
recycled into this different plan
that fits like skin and teeth.
Farm kids, like me, learn early that a healthy anxiety about the weather is the subtext of every task–from lambing season, to planting corn, to rushing to get the bales out of the hay-field, as thunder booms close by. It’s consulting the dog-eared copy of the Farmer’s Almanac. It’s the habit of listening to the weather report more closely than the news, while pulling on boots first thing in the morning.
Townies chat about the weather as the tiniest of small talk; weather can be an inconvenience. Farmers stake their crops, and the family’s security, gambling on the weather, year after year.
Not much has changed. Now I’m older than my folks were when they gave up their farm. I still depend on working outside but we have smartphones with a few weather apps. I usually check a couple of different sources and then average the results; weather is still a guess.
Last week in Illinois there were rain storms, ice, and fifty degree days. It’s the kind of weather that’s average for November but not now; not in the middle of January.
Here on my small Colorado farm, we’ve had the same temperature swings; the pond ice is unsteady and the pasture is bone dry. There have been some sub-zero wind-chill nights followed by fifty degree days. It’s the transitional weather we watch for in spring and fall. Horse people don’t want to say it out-loud, but it’s colic weather.
Sure, every farm could destroy more pasture and hay fields to build a huge indoor arenas and pretend to ignore the weather. Is this how we want to use our precious land? Besides, this whining about weather is all anecdotal, and scientists don’t pay farmers much mind. Except now.
“A NASA press release pointed out “Earth’s 2016 surface temperatures were the warmest since modern record keeping began in 1880, according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).” Sixteen of the warmest 17 warmest years on record have been observed since 2001.”
Through December, the mares in my barn were cycling still. They used to take the winter off from snake fights and screaming at geldings but it’s dragged on long enough that we had the vet check for ovarian cysts. My final questioning act for them was to ask my Facebook friends across the country about their mares. The response was overwhelming and the consensus surprised me: Mares were still cycling everywhere, and raw with the long-term hormonal emotions. Anecdotal for sure, and a cynic might call it coincidental. When will we trust what we see? When will we speak up?
This week I read more on climate change. Arctic melting is changing coastlines around the world. Weather scientists are behaving more like mares in estrus. The undeniable change is still being denied… not by farmers but by politicians.
Do these guys ever come out of their offices long enough to look up? I’d invite the idiots along with me for a week of outdoor work if any of them were strong enough to keep up.
We’ve all seen heart-wrenching video of polar bears starving on ice floats, but let’s get personal. Is there a horse owner who isn’t wildly aware of how fragile horses are? Does anyone think that horses won’t be one of the first domestic animals to suffer, and die, for our selfish, arrogant ways? I mean even more than happens now… Will we be this greedy and self-serving until we kill everything dear to us?
And then, when I think post-apocalyptic, I think how few pets exist in science fiction. Okay, Star Trek had tribbles. And there was Mel Gibson sharing a can of Dinky-Do dog food with that genius cattle dog in the movie, Road Warrior. Remember? It was a quiet moment between rapes and car wrecks in the end-of-the-world fight for gasoline. It would be like humans to eat dog food and wear kinky outfits instead of grow crops or raise animals. It’s a fact that there is no romance in farming.
Like I said, I researched climate change and horses. I wanted to share just one article; a brief scientific paper from Australia, a bit removed from our soil. Please take a moment to read The Impact of Climate Change on Horses, and Horse Industries. The bibliography makes the piece look longer than it is. There are certainly some details that I hadn’t thought out before, even though they make perfect sense. Mostly I’m struck by the very fine line between science and science fiction. Like usual, the fiction part is more true than we want to think. There are words all too familiar to horse owners in the article. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the path ahead–like a trashy B-movie.
This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper. –T S Eliot
I’m not sure how politicians decided that climate change could even be voted on in the first place. And it’s too late to blame others. This global issue is so much bigger than our horses; other losses will be larger and more pivotal to the planet’s destruction. There is no more time to debate and whine. It’s time to make our voices heard. Time for each of us who make our lives, and our living, out in the environment, to speak up. There are more farmers than politicians and business people. And between rants, we can do every small thing we can do to turn this planet around. It’s up to us; we’re the ones who know first-hand what we stand to lose.
Here on the prairie, I’m pulled to look to the west at dusk. The outrageous beauty stills my rat-on-a-wheel mind. Awe is the only word; the preciousness of each sunset burns my heart. Maybe I’m selfishly aware of the number of sunsets left in my puny little life. Or maybe it’s knowing that my silence contributes to the death of the infinite number of lives that we will surely take down with us.
If this outlandish prairie, sun-burned and wind-scraped, can show up every morning with a torrid definition of what an "earth-tone" looks like, then claim this life deliberately with garish celebration; be no less than sunrise.
It’s that weird week between the holidays. I never know what day it is so I mess up scheduling around Christmas, only to follow through and mess up the same exact way one week later for New Years. Squinting at the calendar doesn’t help tether me and everyone seems immersed on a remembrance vacation. There are the best of lists of movies and books and anything else we give awards for. Those achievements are followed with a memorial for the famous people we’ve lost. It’s a long list this year and it’s all that anyone talks about. It’s like an end of the year emotional profit-loss statement.
I do the same thing here on the farm, with less fanfare and more wonder. This year the Best Geriatric Come Back goes to Lilith, the carbon-dated foster donkey. She gained weight, shed out years of steel wool, and went on Previcox for major lameness. Her physical quality of life is a complicated question, but she’s loud, cantankerous, and she can land a decent kick now. Her life had been fighting coyotes before her rescue; sometimes I wonder if she just can’t find a way to rest. Either that or this warm mush diet rocks.
Most Improved Dog goes to Moose, the corgi, also a foster. He came off his puppy Prozac, his collar still frightens him, even though we stopped the electroshock therapy, and he’s detoxing from his strong meds and over-correcting people. The darkness is slowly getting lighter. I no longer have to lock myself in the bathroom to put my socks on. Rehab continues; he was doing well but then relapsed when we had workers in the house for a couple of weeks. He tore the linoleum off the bathroom floor. That was fair. They made me crazy enough to have a relapse myself.
It was a hard year for losses to our home herd. We said goodbye to Hank, the elderly toothless cat who fought vermin and intimidated dogs well past his prime. And Walter, the Corgi rescue with an operatic bark and a lure coursing title, whose short life was surrendered to chronic liver ailments. To the Grandfather Horse after thirty years of excellence, carrying me over rough ground until I had my footing. It’s easy to see how fortunate we are here, isn’t it?
It’s common sense that with so many animals, we’d have more frequent passings, as well. You’d think that it would get easier to say goodbye. I can remember a time, a perfect summer, when every animal on the farm was young and strong, and I had a season of almost invincible confidence. Even then I was aware of the fragility of life and grateful for every sunset.
In truth, I think the process of dying is a constant and not a special occasion in any way. I’d do better to make friends with it. After all, there’s a twenty-two-year-old llama in the south pasture that’s bound to slow down one of these years and a fifteen-year-old dog sleeping under my desk as I write.
Most of us are linear thinkers trained to see time as a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a straight flat precision. I prefer Vonnegut’s concept of being unstuck in time. I want to think all the moments happen simultaneously, so as the Grandfather Horse drew his last breath, we were galloping the old airstrip when he was five. It doesn’t take a fleck of the pain away, but I do it for selfish reasons. This way the last moment has less power.
Yes, mourning is a good thing. Our beloveds deserve that affirmation that they’re loved and missed and worthy of our tears. And after the cards and condolences, after our friends forget, the beloved memory lingers. There’s a hang-time for loss. It can circle around and ambush us when we least expect it and then the smart thing to do is just give in and have a good screaming cry. Nap during the day. Feel sorry for yourself. But beware: it’s just in this moment that we must be the most careful.
Because if we let that moment of loss have too much power, then death gets as loud as an overbearing house-guest and we can become afraid of having an open heart. Afraid of rescue puppies and cranky old donkeys and our own mortality.
“What good are they if they are just going to die on us?”
What a stupid question. What good are your parents, then, or great philosophers or authors or artists? Religions can debate terminology but the spiritual truth is undeniable: Life is a continuum and even when the landscape appears barren there is life everywhere.
Most animals do have shorter lives than humans, but what if that isn’t wrong? Not just that the design of this Circle of Life isn’t wrong, but also that death isn’t the villain. It’s like railing against gravity.
Then, by adjusting your perspective and making a conscious choice, experiencing loss can be a path to insight and even inspiration. Wouldn’t that give purpose to the lost life as well as our own?
So now I reserve the warmest run in my barn for a lost elder who needs a soft place to land. I do it in memory of my Grandfather Horse but I’m the one who benefits by staring down death and loss. When you screw together your courage and look it straight in the eye, it just doesn’t deserve the same respect that a skanky old donkey does.
Maybe the problem is that we’ve lost our sense of proportion. None of us humans are getting out alive either. There is nothing remarkable about death. It’s sad and ordinary and as common as dirt.
Yes, it’s been a rough year. Winter encourages us to contemplate the dark and the landscape chimes in with agreement. But even now the days are getting longer and the sun is coming back to us. Death will always be a part of life, but we can put it on stall-rest and get about living life in a way that honors those who have gone ahead.
As long as we breathe, there’s promise in a New Year and that’s worth celebrating.
There was that time years ago, that I had a date over for dinner. We hadn’t known each other long and I always want to get off on the right foot. We were sipping wine in the living room when I went to check on dinner in the kitchen. I had rice on the stove. Lifting the lid, there was no water visible. I could see the beginning of a light golden color around the edges. So naturally, I turned up the heat and returned to the living room.
For some people, cooking is a creative passion. I mean no disrespect; I hope they invite me for dinner. Somehow cooking wound up being political for me.
I was raised in traditional home, meaning it was plain to see that men and boys had all the power and unhappy women cleaned up after them. My mother, who also hated cooking, tried to teach me right. She knew that ordinary girls, ones who couldn’t get by just on their good looks, would need serious domestic skills if they were ever to find a husband. Especially an ordinary girl with a mouth like mine.
So yes, I sew beautifully but I used the concept of piecing fabric into clothing as a way of understanding how to hand-build gemstone settings, using tools like my oxy-acetylene torch, when I was a goldsmith. And it’s only recently that I’ve admitted knowing how to type. It’s been decades since a man has asked me to type their term paper. And now, three books later, I seem to have found good use for those “secretarial skills” they talked about in high school. Finally, truth be told, I’m a great cook… but it gives me no joy.
To each his own; it wasn’t the life I wanted. Once I left home, I shunned any traditional “women’s work.” Maybe I was afraid if I faltered once, I’d be type cast forever. Instead, I bit my tongue and pretended ignorance.
It was horses who made kitchens safe again. My pie recipe will make more sense now.
First, it must be understood that the pie is always made from fresh apples. At first, I used to make my grandmother’s crust recipe. It has a secret ingredient and is outlandishly good. Now, I buy the pre-rolled Pillsbury crusts. They’re passable and my grandmother was always disappointed with me anyway.
Next, the apples. Buy a huge bag of them and do the worst job of peeling them possible. Sure, I was born with the gene that allows a paper-thin one piece curl of apple skin, but that’s just showing off and doesn’t serve the big picture. I like to hack thick slabs of the peel off, so that when I’m done, the apple has a wonky octagon shape and is only two-thirds the size it was before I started. Then core the apple and slice what’s left into the pie shell. Continue until the pie shell is heaping full. Quarter the rest of the apples and put them in with the peels.
Then I drag out my Betty Crocker cook book with the red gingham cover. Mom gave it to me while I was still in high school and I certainly haven’t bought another since. I turn to the Perfect Apple Pie recipe to remember how much flour, sugar, and cinnamon to sprinkle in. Then dab butter on top, but use more than they say. See? I’ve gone off recipe already. Put the lid on the pie, crinkle the edges together, and put it in the oven.
Now hurry. You only have an hour. Scoop the chunky apple peels into a bag and scurry out to the barn. Put a handful of peels in every feeder, while relaxing into first equine thought that comes into your head. For me, it’s always my Grandfather Horse but I miss him. This will be the first year in thirty that he and I haven’t avoided this holiday together.
So I made the pie early this year; I needed the apple-peel ritual that’s part political, part spiritual, and part therapeutic. It’s been a mean year and I’m behind on my breathing.
As the horses chew, my jaw softens. Sinking down on a bale; the barn feels like home and all the memories of good horses come galloping back. It’s good to be reminded. If you’re like me, you’ve been stronger than you ever thought possible. Some days you failed your horse, but you didn’t quit. Other days, you’ve been lifted high and carried like treasure.
(If you don’t have a barn, it doesn’t matter. Quietly remember the first horse you loved. Call him to you; let him star in his own movie. You know the plot by heart.)
Through the manure and the mud, the horses saw something in us that had nothing to do with sex or career. It was beyond hair color or dress size or age. Horses treated us in a way that our own species struggles with. They treated us as equals.
An hour later, back in the house, the air is sweet with warm cinnamon and now you have a second apple treat to share with friends or family. They welcome you in with a hug that lasts longer than usual and they hold eye contact. The pie is an after thought.
There is something about women who know horses. It’s part apples and part muck boots, along with some stray white hairs on her sweatshirt. She’s comfortable in her body because she knows acceptance; the glow that lingers from the barn.
At any age, we should know better than to confuse a silly pie with a woman’s real worth. Never underestimate her. A heart filled with horses can accomplish anything.
Chatting lightly about weather is considered the tiniest of small talk, unless you live outside the urban bubble. We take it more seriously out here on the prairie.
There was ice in the water troughs this week. It’s dark early now, and the sun is cooling. The flies are slow and stupid, but still with us. The horses and donkeys have grown their winter coats and just like usual, I haven’t added a single hair.
Are there flies in heaven? I mean just tell me now. (I notice I’m a bit testy.)
For a start, I cleaned the tack room, updated the first aid kit, and pulled out the winter blankets, just in case. Then I mucked out my own mind for a while. It was sorely needed.
There’s a term used in the caregiving world: Compassion Fatigue. The physical expression of that term has to be a long deep sigh.
It isn’t an accidental condition, like getting a cold. It’s a term we first heard of in medical caregiving professions, but it soon spread to animal welfare workers and many other helping professions. The shoe fits a lot of us.
I like this definition. It’s broad and it includes real life: “Compassion fatigue is the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life.” –The American Bar Association. (Who would have thought?)
It’s when a few layers of normal things like work and financial responsibilities and world events meet up with fear and loss and exhaustion, along with the awareness that you aren’t getting younger. It feels a bit like doubt, only sticky and dark. Your horse might be the first one to mention your change.
There’s always a fence to mend before the weather changes, and in that quiet work, I indulge my voices. Yes, I hear voices. It’s my parents, both gone for decades now, who come back to nag me for my foolishness.
My father did not suffer idiots. Well into my adulthood, he wanted me to “grow up,” which always meant act like him. After all, the world is cruel and no place for ridiculous idealists. Idealist is my word for it; like most bullies, his terminology was more coarse.
My mother’s approach was practical; she pleaded with me to be more “normal”; to keep my head down. Always reminding me that life was a veil of tears. My mother knew the safe comfort of giving in and suffering silently.
Here’s what I like about replaying the old tapes–I remember who I am. I remember my particular rebellion–it hasn’t changed. I choose to care. In their eyes, I cared about things that were like gravity; things that weren’t worth fighting because they were never going to change. You can’t save them all, so don’t even try.
My steadfast response: For the ones I help, like this relic of a donkey, all is saved.
Now I’m preparing for my hay delivery by pulling out pallets to clean out the musty hay underneath. Change is inevitable. That’s a given, but the passing of a season is like an arm around your shoulder, urging you to scurry along. Okay, okay.
I admit it. It’s been a rough summer. I don’t think of myself as a worrier, but I do keep my mind busy. It’s a choice to be aware; choosing to care is a kind of prayer to the world. What some people see as a weakness, I am most certain can be our greatest strength: To stay vulnerable in the face of darkness. To hold a vision, against the odds. It’s our superpower.
Perhaps compassion fatigue isn’t the worst thing. It means you have compassion as a pre-requisite, and that requires a special kind of strength in the first place. It’s knowing inside that you have enough to spare and then taking a step forward when a door to possibility opens. It’s the best in us. Against skeptics, fly that flag high and proud.
I drag the tank heaters to the barn with a smile. Hail damage got us a new roof and I upgraded. I know the animals will be a bit more snug this winter. Everyone’s weight is good, the llamas are in full fleece, and I’m considering growing some hair between my toes. It seems to work well for the dogs.
Experts say that the remedy for compassion fatigue is self-care. It’s the art of showing yourself the same compassion you have for rescue horses, stray dogs, and your dear ones. It means letting yourself be the stray dog that you welcome into your own heart. To come in out of the cold, welcomed by the person you were meant to be.
My spiritual beliefs rest with nature. It’s my test of true; I’m comforted that gravity works on all of us. I trust the natural laws. I trust that the monotone prairie is just resting and that the sun’s warmth will return. Nothing dies; it transforms. And as butterfly-vulnerable as we can be, the more compassion and growth are possible.
Sometimes there is a sunset like tonight. Just one beret-shaped cloud perched on Pikes Peak, Jupiter is alone in the southern sky, and a peachy pink and orange gloaming soaks down to the tall grasses; the world is filled with unbearably precious beauty. This dusk coats good things and bad things as equals, as we choose. Being vulnerable means that I can have this infinite moment of perfection.
Meanwhile, back in the house, there’s a new Corgi foster dog here. He’s just a year old and the survivor of both shock collar “training” and canine Prozac. He’s a trainwreck, and maybe part of me is, too. But we’re going to bark and chew our way through this, under the prairie moon.