This wonderful painting of me and my first Donkey, Carol, hangs on our newly painted living room wall under our paper star light. It is perhaps the one image I own that causes me to tear me up if I look too closely. It was painted by a wonderful Vermont artist named Christopher Smith.
Like most special art, it captures a time and place as well as an image or color.
Smith captured the time when I first came to the original Bedlam Farm, before most of you reading this knew me, before I met Maria, cracked up, fell in love with the country, and realized I had to give rebirth to myself in order to survive.
It seems like a hundred years ago that I met Carol on an eastern Pennsylvania sheep farm where I had gone to learn how to herd sheep with border collies in the hope of saving my dog Orson. On the farm was a lonely old donkey named Carol, who lived on a think patch of grass and meadow by herself, she had never seen another donkey.
I fed her apples and carrots and when I came to herd sheep, she broke through the fence a few times, chased the dogs and sheep away, and hung out with me. When I brought the sheep to upstate New York on my farm, the farmer put Carol in the trailer. You love her, you feed her.
Carol was not like Lulu or Fanny. She was as smart as she was grumpy. She would often kick and bite me for good measure, especially when I tried to give her one of the many injections of pain-killers and antibiotics she was supposed to get for her foundering legs. I would stick her in the butt and run.
I still have frostbitten fingers and toes form chasing her around the pasture with her medicines. The only time I could really calm her was when I brought a boombox with Willie Nelson CD's into the barn along with a bucket of oats. Carol adored Willie Nelson, her ears would go up when she heard his voice and she would purr like a kitten and put up with anything I wanted to do.
We spent many cold evenings in the old barn together, me munching on my granola bars, she on her bucket of oats, the two of us swaying to old Willie Nelson sounds. She found much peace in that barn, I think, and comfort. I put a lot of straw down for her, she had slept for years on the cold and wet ground.
She was eerily smart.
She studied my gate-latching habits, and when I was away, she would lean over the gate, unlatch the chain and wander around. Once I came home to find her in the kitchen, the door had either blown open, which happened, or she had nosed it open, which she knew how to do.
Once in the kitchen, she opened the cabinets and was helping herself to my cereal boxes, which were strewn all over the floor.
Carol loved making a fool out of me, she did it often.
She ignored my demands to leave and I had to spray her with a fire extinguisher to get her out of the kitchen and back to the barnyard. My local and ferociously determined border collie Rose would take on coyotes or enraged rams, but she would not go near Carol, who would have been happy to kick her over the barn.
There was no way Carol would submit to a lowly dog pushing her around, and Rose, for once, knew she had met her match.
Carol rolled over one evening and got her legs stuck under the pasture fence, and I rushed up to her and pulled her legs out from under, one by one. She got up and kicked me halfway across the pasture. Your welcome, I said, and limped back into the house.
Carol and i did love one another, and she would let me take her head in my hands – this is the image Smith captured – and talk to her, sing to her, and rub her chin. She favored chocolate chip cookies and granola bars, and was happy to bite me when she wanted to show who was boss. I still have my Carol scars and my many Carol memories.
One day, a woman who identified herself as a Jewish Donkey Spiritualist – this was true, she actually was – called me up to tell me that she had driven by and that Carol was existentially lonely and needed to be with another donkey.
Thus came Fanny. A few months later, Carol, who was, in fact, happier and calmer with Fanny nearby, keeled over from a stroke in the pasture. The vet put her down instantly, there was nothing she could do. My wonderful donkey Simon died some years later in much the same way.
Thus came Lulu, we couldn't have another existential lonely donkey.
The next morning, they came to haul Carol away, and I bawled like a baby when she left for the last time. I think I loved Carol's independence and fierce integrity. She never sold out, gave up, or surrendered, and it was a miracle she lived as long as she did. I know she loved me in her own way, because I was the only one who could come near her.
That painting speaks to me of the great excitement and wonder of my coming up to my farm, sending my life was about to change forever. You don't forget the animals who accompany me on journeys like that. It was a miracle I survived as well.
I was so alone in that time, so challenged and overwhelmed, and Carol was such a symbol and a marker for me. Two lost souls, heading out on a great adventure together, as men and donkeys have done for centuries. I'll keep that painting up on the wall my whole life.