24 March 2015

Making A Revolution: Joshua Rockwood and the Night Of The Bullshit Misdemeanors

The Bullshit Misdeameanors

The Bullshit Misdemeanors

Last night I rode to Glenville, N.Y. to attend a preliminary hearing in the Town Court for Joshua Rockwood, a young farmer who has been accused of 13 misdemeanor violations charging him with the abuse and neglect of the animals on his farm – lack of food and fresh water and  adequate shelter. (He was cited for having an unheated barn also, but that is not against the law yet.)

More than 250 people showed up, most of them farmers from all over the Northeast. Joshua's neighbors were there, his customers, friends, other farmers. If you judge a man by his friends and supporters, Joshua Rockwood ought to have gone free last night. But this is not a just or rational world, or a just or rational trial. The actual hearing is set for 5 p.m. April 21st. You can mark it  in your calendar, I will be there.

Lily is a friend and neighbor of Joshua's.  She asked me who I was, and I told her I was a writer, and she pulled out her Iphone and asked me if the piece she and her friends had been sharing all day was mine. It was. "He is the gentlest, most honest and conscientious human being I know," she said. "He just would not hurt a fly, let alone an animal." Jim, a dairy farmer, has known Joshua for some time. "He loves his animals and takes good care of them. He is a farmer, his animals are not pets, they are hardy animals and like everyone else, they can suffer from the cold. Most of us had water tanks that froze, it happens all the time." Deborah is not a farmer but has two horses. "I just wanted to be here, to support him. This is very, very wrong," she said.

Jane said she has bought meat from Joshua for a year, "he takes such great care of the food his animals eat, his food is healthy and very special. He would not do anything to harm those animals."

I hope when my time comes, I can get a fraction of the people Joshua got to come and speak up for me, if nothing else, he ought to be proud, there was a lot of love and affirmation in that room.

I heard these descriptions of Joshua all evening, one person after another came up to me and thanked me for writing about him on the blog. It felt very good to be a writer. These were real people, farmers and friends and neighbors, they looked me in the eye and told me of the heartbreak they felt over Joshua Rockwood's ordeal. All through the brief hearing – it was just a formality, there was no testimony, I heard the same words about Joshua: honest, hard-working, gentle, transparent.

Joshua has been instructed by his lawyer not to give out public statements or talk to the media, common legal advice, but we did meet and communicated briefly and I am going to see his farm this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow.

Glenville is an hour or so away from Bedlam Farm and Ken Norman, our friend and farrier, wanted to go and support Joshua, so he agreed to drive me in his stinky, rumbling, venerable and giant SUV. Ken is a lifelong horse lover, and has devoted much of his life to animal rescue. There are many rescued horses on his farm in Vermont. He is very sensitive on the subject and does not blink or look away at people who neglect their animals. I was very eager to get his input.

He has been poring over the police videos and the citations for neglect  on his  Iphone. He saw all of it,  he saw the pigs ears and the horses hooves and the lean-to shelters.

(Joshua Rockwood is the most honest and transparent villain in the history of animal confrontations, he even has the citations photocopied on  his very open blog and Facebook page. He does not seem to know how to behave like an animal abuser facing the wrath of the local animal police squad, the bad guys don't usually post photos of their animals on their blogs. They usually run and hide.

Ken and I went over the evidence against him and I asked Ken what he thought. Ken is a man of few words but they are always honest and direct words. He is incapable of dissembling or equivocating.  I call him the Grumpy Care Bear. He frowned and answered quickly:

"Bullshit misdemeanors," he said. "All of them."

I couldn't agree more. Ken and I – and every farmer in the world – knows that pigs and sheep can have frostbitten ears while sleeping under a hay bale in an enclosed barn or walking outside to drink water.  How come, I wonder, don't the Animal Control people in Glenville know it? The pony's hooves, he said, were overgrown by a month or so, and he wouldn't have gone to trim them in -20 degree weather either.

"What are these people thinking of?," he asked, "have they ever seen an animal that is really abused?" Ken sees them quite often, so do I. Neither of us saw any in the photos and videos taken in support of the charges against Joshua. The people prosecuting him do not seem to know that pigs never live in heated shelters, they burrow into hay bales and dirt mounds and draw heat from one another.  Lean-to's are standard shelters for pigs.

They don't seem to know that many, if not all, farms lose their heated water when the temperature plunges in high winds. Or that the food bowls of farm dogs freeze overnight and in cold temperatures and are replaced once or twice a day. They don't seem to know it isn't always easy to get a farrier to trim  hooves, sometimes you have to wait a few weeks or a month, and the hoof of a horse or donkey can be overgrown, that does not harm them unless the hoof curls back onto the leg. Some farmers wait a month or two if they are short of money, that is a circumstance, not a crime.

The charge of inadequate food seems bizarre, if all of the animals were of good and healthy weight (they were) and were hydrated and active, then how is it possible they were not given adequate food?

His supporters jammed the courtroom, he had an SRO crowd. And they appeared very committed and determined. They will be back for each hearing. So will I.

A writer for the Albany Times-Union was there and we both agreed we had seen smaller media crowds at murder trials. There is something special about this confrontation,  it is touching a deep chord. Joshua Rockwood is at the center of it, but it is bigger than that. I had the sense that the beleaguered farmers and animal lovers of our world had had enough and were making a small revolution. Or perhaps a big one.

I think the farmers and animal lovers of the world are sick of ignorant and nasty people  harassing them, invading their homes and work, and telling them how to treat the animals they love and care for. They are tired of the secret informers of the animal police – Joshua apparently had one informing on him. They are tired of people who know nothing about animals making judgements about their care and feeding and shelter. That's what it felt like in Glenville Tuesday night, I kept thinking of the Beatles song, "you say you want to make a revolution?"

I think the farmers in the Glenville Court do want to make a revolution and I think they kicked it off last night. The court officers were startled at the quiet but large and very well-behaved crowd. I had the sense that the other side – the police and the people from the horse rescue farm who took Joshua's horses and claim it costs $28 a day to feed each one (Ken says it costs from $5 to $8 to feed a horse each day – were a bit defensive, they sounded a little desperate. A police spokesman said two of Joshua's horses needed veterinary care, but it was not clear for what and absolutely nobody at the hearing believed it for a second that the animals had been seriously mistreated.

"A vet can always find something to treat," a farmer told me,"they always do. If it was serious, they would have been shouting it from the rooftops for the media to hear."

I met at least a dozen people at the hearing who had seen the rescue dog the police took away from and his horses, and all of them said they had seen the animals looking active and healthy. So did two veterinarians who checked his animals before the police came. I am eager to attend the formal hearing and find out whether any of the animal police talked to any of these people.

I haven't even seen the horses and I didn't believe these charges either, and I like to check my facts firsthand, the way I was taught. But the whole thing did have this bullshit feeling about it, none of it was persuasive or made sense or seemed grounded. I was a reporter for a long time, and a good one, and I have learned to trust my instincts. If it feels wrong, a great reporter once told me, trust that feeling. It probably is wrong.

This felt wrong. Very wrong. I kept wondering, how did it come to this. What are we doing there? How did this get so far?

Joshua Rockwood is a good guy trying to be a good farmer. They have no right to take this all away from him on the basis of what feels like a lot of, well…bullshit.  A great waste of time and energy and tax money, an awful thing to do to a hard-working human being.

And that was the other dominant feeling of the night, the Night Of Bullshit Misdemeanors. It would have been a farce  – heated barns for pigs? – if it wasn't such and ugly and frightening thing and if it didn't threaten to destroy the life and dreams of an honest and hard-working young farmer. Isn't this what we need, for young men and women to choose a life of meaning that keeps animals in our world, helps heal the earth, and provides good and healthy food?

But it is not a farce. The truth is Joshua is facing a long and grinding – and expensive – legal fight, one that could cost him his  farm and his dreams. He has started a gofundme campaign to raise $50,000 for legal fees and bond to get his animals back. He has raised more than $29,000 dollars in just a few days. I believe he will get there.

I think what is happening is this: the farmers and the animals have had enough of idiots telling them that they are criminals and abusers. They are finally beginning to fight back. If that was the message of Tuesday night's hearing, it may all be well worth it.

Posted in General

Here Comes Chloe: Horse Power At Bedlam Farm

Here Comes Chloe

Here Comes Chloe

I'm very happy to introduce Chloe, looks like horses are returning to Bedlam Farm, a fitting thing for us, this is our Year Of The Horse. Horses have entered our lives and consciousness in a major way in recent months, we have not had a horse since Rocky, the blind and very old Appaloosa we cared for after we took over our current farm. Maria has been thinking about getting a horse for more than a year, she took riding lessons and began introducing horses into her art.

Today we went out to Thornwood Farm, the home of our farrier Ken Norman and his wife Eli Anita-Norman and we met Chloe for the second time. She was rescued from a mudhole on a farm. Maria is resuming her riding lessons with Eli and spent the afternoon learning how to groom Chloe and walk with her on a halter.

I liked Chloe a lot, she has a lot of personality, definitely has a mind of her own but is calm and affectionate and responds well to direction. Eli told Maria she needed to be a leader, and Maria had no trouble doing that. Maria is friends with Eli and is close to Pamela Richenbach, co-director of Blue-Star Equiculture, the horse rescue and organic farming center in Palmer, Mass.

We've visited Blue-Star many times – we are both enchanted by the place – and Maria is going to spent a few days there next week. When she gets back, she will start grooming Chloe regularly and then will take riding lessons from Eli. We have 17 acres behind the farm and Maria plans to ride Chloe there and on the trails beyond. We're both excited, this will be a great addition to the farm.

As many of you know, we lost Simon, Lenore and Frieda this winter. It's time for us to put our lips to the world and just live. We need light, life and love on the farm, I told Maria today and she agreed. We are planning on getting a puppy this summer, and I am open to finding a small house dog to go along with the puppy and Red. Possibly a shelter or adopted dog.

I think Chloe will be at the farm by May. We need to make sure Maria and the pony are comfortable with one another – Chloe is used to being ridden and is very steady – and that she and the donkeys can get along. Lulu and Fanny are both female, we don't expect the same kind of problem we had with Simon and Rocky. But you never know until you try it. Chloe will come and be separated from the donkeys for a few days, then they will be together. We expect some biting and kicking, then hopefully things will settle down.

She is a powerful new symbol for the farm in Spring, and after this challenging winter. The horse thing is very powerful with Maria right now, and it is also affecting her art in very beautiful ways. So a time for rebirth and renewal. Here, we do not mourn our losses for too long, we celebrate the opportunity to live our lives as fully and meaningfully as possible. I'll keep you posted.

Posted in General

Back To The Fray

Back To The Fray

Back To The Fray

I thought Red and Liam would avoid each other after some of the snow melted, but I underestimated both of them. Red was away for a few days in Connecticut and the first thing Liam did when he saw him was challenge him. Red  went right into his crouch and gave him a grade A border collie laser stare. Liam stopped, backed up and turned around. Good move. I think these two are enjoying themselves.

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The Tragedy Of Joshua Rockwood: The Death Of Community And Empathy

The West Wind Tragedy

The West Wind Tragedy

It is a little-known secret that the world's first and most enduring animal lovers were and always have been farmers. This remains so.  No one lives more closely with animals, understands them better, needs them more or depends on them in a greater way.

There are so many people in our time who proclaim the title of animal lover for themselves without having any idea what it really means.  The people who know the most – farmers – are under continuous siege from government bureaucrats,  animal rights activists, the corporate agri-business and an unknowing and uncaring world. The family farmer is succumbing rapidly to a society that has discarded them. They are vanishing rapidly. It is a small miracle when someone undertakes to build a family farm, a sad thing when a family farm fails.

In the modern era, farmers are not well equipped to play the media and political game. They have no money to give politicians, they spend little or no time on Facebook, they do not have blogs or do well at speaking for themselves. They tend to mind their own business and rarely tell other people what to do – rare traits in modern times.  Mostly, they are working too hard.

So in Glenville, N.Y., a small tragedy unfolds, small in the scheme of things, large in the life of one farmer and perhaps for our world. A young construction worker named Joshua Rockwood leaves the secular world behind and answers an old call: He wants to move his family – a wife and two children – to a farm, raise healthy food for people to eat, live a life with animals and on his own land. Is there any older or more universal aspiration for young human beings, male or female?

I have talked to nearly a dozen people this week who know Joshua, who have worked with him, bought his meat, seen his farm, given him rescue animals, examined his dogs and pigs and cows. They all use the same words to describe him: honest, hard-working, sincere, open, dis-organized, inexperienced, eager to learn. His meat is sold in a number of places, and is carefully prepared and well liked. He is nearly obsessed with his farm being sustainable,  his animals eat on carefully rotated pasture and sileage. He has many idealistic ideas about giving his animals the best food and thus giving people the best and safest food to eat.

He has worked his farm alone, he can not yet afford to hire labor.

Like many farmers, new and old, he has had trouble with fences, water, some sheltering. Like most farmers, especially young and new ones, he has very little money. He is building his farm slowly, building trust and respect among his growing customers. Joshua Rockwood would be the last person to describe himself as a perfect person or a perfect farmer, his blog is startlingly honest and open, something I relate to in a very personal way. You can tell a lot about a person from an honest blog. Words don't lie over time, you can read his for yourself.

And he has learned again and again that the life of a farmer is unpredictable. Things are going well until a brutal and unexpected winter descends, the days are short, the temperature is below zero for weeks, the water tanks to the animals freeze. A few days later, the police are knocking on the door, they are taking your animals away, you are fighting for your very existence, not just the farm. Joshua is fighting back, he does not act like a guilty man. He has launched a gofundme project to help pay for his legal fees and to try and get his animals back.

Several weeks ago, when the new animal police showed up, he was charged with 12 counts of neglect and other violations and some of his animals were seized, including a dog he loved. He was on the news, portrayed as a one-dimensional monster in the lazy and brainless way of so many television journalists in the digital age. Many were outraged that his animals were kept in an unheated barn.  He has earned trust and respect, but been given none.

In our polarized world, people instantly split up, some taking one side, some the other. The hues of the world vanish, there is only black and white.  Did Joshua have warning? Could he have prevented the raid? Is he a monster? Is neglect the same as abuse? Could he have provided more fresh water soon in his frozen tanks? Did he have enough available food? Should he have trimmed his horses hooves sooner? I heard from a farrier who has worked on Joshua's horses, he said they were healthy and well cared for. Sometimes he waited a few months to trim them.

Two veterinarian reports are posted on his blog, they say his animals are healthy, hydrated and well cared for. Their examination didn't matter, the police were not interested. And then we have the righteous spectacle of Americans sitting in their urban and suburban living rooms in their robes and sneakers, passing judgment on Facebook, plunging into the new national pastime,  judging others they know nothing about from a great and righteous distance. How easy it is to do that, how destructive. We are becoming a nation of pompous  judges and juries, a collection of digital mobs and intrusive busybodies. My farmer friend down the road is afraid to let his cows out when it rains or snows. Someone is apt to call the police, and they are apt to come.

A farmer's life has always been hard, but perhaps it was saner. For many thousands of years, the way a farmer ran his farm was his business, not the work or the business of strangers far away. Unless you caused grievous injury of death to your animals – Rockwood has done neither – the farm was yours to run in peace and freedom, if not ease. That is no longer true. People who know nothing about farming or animals can look over your shoulder or drive by your farm every day and search inside. There is no peace or privacy.

You will not find a single real farmer who  joined in the condemnation of Joshua Rockwood. Many say it is only a matter of time before the mob gets around to them. And we are getting familiar now with these new digital Inquisitions, these new witch trials. If you are accused, you are guilty.

I try not to join these eternal and bottomless arguments. They are mostly besides the point and are rarely rational or sincere. I am drawn to something else, something bigger: the tragedy of Joshua Rockwood is that it so poignantly reflects the death of community and the loss of empathy in our world.

It was Dwight Eisenhower who said at the close of World War II that we must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. One could weep reading that quote and studying the Joshua Rockwood tragedy.

The rage and hatred and conflict and confrontation that now permeates the animal world has engulfed Joshua Rockwood and may destroy him and his farm, a tragic outcome in itself. This feels like watching a ladybug fall into a cup of water, it is easy to fall in, almost impossible to climb out. Our world desperately needs young man and women to return to the land and grow healthy food for us, that is Rockwood's ambition, now cut short. He was almost there until the secret informers of the animal police turned him into the other police, and our blind and Orwellian system of animal justice sprang into action.

Rockwood's struggle reminds us that we have lost any real understanding of farmers or the animals in their care. We have lost any real empathy for them, the people who have always fed us and our children, and who we need more than ever to provide good food and help manage the earth in a responsible way. More than 80 per cent of Americans live in cities and suburbs along our coasts, their only understanding of animals are as pets who live intensely sheltered and increasingly emotionalized lives.

Being a farmer is a spiritual experience in so many ways, it means knowing when to let go, even of the animals you love. Farm animals are not pets, they are the farmer's partners in work and in the joys and travails of the world. No one knows them better.

There is not a farmer in the world who couldn't put himself in Joshua Rockwood's shoes as he struggled to pay for good fencing, buy expensive feed, build adequate shelters and keep his water tanks from freezing in temperatures well below zero day after day. I am not tough enough to be a real farmer, I am a writer who lives on a farm, I have many close friends who are farmers. I see almost every day how hard they work, how much they love their animals, how defamed and ignorantly misunderstood they are by a culture so distracted and utterly disconnected from the natural world.

We seem to have lost an understanding of the meaning of community. We have demonized, even criminalized the most normal interactions between people and animals in our almost hysterical rush to give them human rights. The animal rights universe has polarized the animal world in much the same way extremist politicians have polarized our national politics. When did we stop helping good people like Joshua Rockwood and arrest them instead? When did we begin accepting the word of anonymous informers and traumatizing people and their animals by taking them away without any hearing or due process? When did we embrace the Orwellian notion of dehumanizing the strange and the different, turning them into "unpersons," subhumans for whom we have no empathy, understanding or compassion?

This is the plight of so many people who love and live with animals. The New York Carriage Drivers have also been dehumanized, as are the people who give pony rides to children, the people who run circuses, the people who breed sled dogs, the people who breed dogs and who herd sheep with border collies, the poor and the elderly and working-class, denied animals who need homes because their fences are not high enough, or they are too old, or because the work too hard.

Consider the heartbreaking story of the Stannard sisters, two elderly women who loved cats and found themselves arrested, their cats taken away from them, two good and loving women who could have been helped, not shattered and humiliated by a system that has forgotten how to be humane to people.

Any farmer or veterinarian will tell you there is nothing crueler for a farm animal than to be suddenly pulled off the farm, stuffed into trailers and taken to a strange place. Farm animals are powerfully attached to the people who feed them, are sensitive to emotion and need and love routine. There is nothing humane about what happened to Rockwood's animals.

I hope Joshua Rockwood gets the chance to learn, as I did, what fences he needs and how to get the money for them. I hope he gets to build frost-free water pipes, as I did, that withstand most cold weather (mine succumbed to this winter.) I hope he sells enough meat to build some more pole barns for his pigs and hide them from the secret animal police patrolling the fences of his farm.

Farmers, especially  young ones, have no magic wands to build perfect lives and environments for the animals they need to survive. It is unbelievably hard to build a farm and make it work, it takes time, strength, help, there is much to learn, a farmer's chores are never done. It is incredibly expensive to maintain the new and wildly unrealistic, even fantasized standards of the new animal world and the angry and cruel movement that claims to speak for animals.  Farm animals are not like cats and dogs, they do not live in a perfect world, and are not entitled to a better one than the farmers who are responsible for them. If animals have rights, then so do people, and one of them is the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

The tragedy of the West Wind Acres story – he goes to Glenville, N.Y., Town Court at 5 p.m. – is the way in which it lays bare the sickness in us,and in our world:  the death of community, and the death of empathy. We seem to have plenty for cows and pigs, but none left over for human beings.

Posted in General

Flo: A Barn Cat’s Sunrise

Barn Cat's Sunrise

Barn Cat's Sunrise

Like many animals, Flo has experienced a lot of life. Like many animals, we can learn from it. An abandoned cat, then a barn cat, now a cat with two worlds: the pasture and gardens and barn, and, on cold nights, the house. She chooses the kind of life she wants, she is free to live her life and take her chances. She likes to be warm and dry, she loves to hunt and prowl.

In the  mornings, I come downstairs to the sunrise flooding the living room window, and i often find Flo looking out at her other world, watching, waiting, meditating, staying within herself. I learn every day that cats are profoundly spiritual beings. I appreciate her.

Posted in General