Every morning, and sometimes in the afternoon, I work with Red. His training is amazing, his work remarkable. But there are things to work on. We are working to shorten his outrun. To slow him down a bit. I use the “there” command to turn him towards the sheep and the “steady” command to slow his pace. When he gets too close or zooms in too fast, I put him in a “lie down,” and he drops to the ground.
It is important to keep my own voice steady, soft and calm, something I sometimes forget to do. In the morning, we move the sheep into the larger pasture to be with Rocky, and we move the donkeys into the sheep pasture to be apart from Rocky. I am teaching Red a new command – “Get the sheep,” and I start him with a “come bye” or “away” and then add “Get the sheep!”, so he is getting this command. He sails out through the gates, circles the big pasture and goes around the sheep and drives them to wherever I am standing. The sheep are getting this and a few seconds after I give this command, I open up the gates and the sheep either come in or go out, depending on the time of day.
Red is always by my side, when I walk, write, herd the sheep, feed the donkeys, go into town to shop or sign books. He is a joy and an unimaginable gift. Thanks again, Karen Thompson.
My goal is to work with him at least once a day except in absolutely unforgiving weather. We work well together, a beautiful and spiritual thing.
Maria and I went shopping at a new Target in upstate New York for curtains for the downstairs windows. We didn’t find any we liked, but I was startled by the feel of this store, and could not see the end of it. I felt as if I were in a scene from Star Wars, and I thought me might just hurtle out into space. This kind of space is mind-boggling to me, not even close to being on a human scale. And they have a pharmacy and grocery store as well. I could hardly imagine the scale of shopping it takes to support such a place, and was sorry that we didn’t contribute. We fled back to our farm.
People love Target and Wal-Mart, too, and it is a dazzling space. Maybe it gets less overwhelming. It speaks to me about disconnection, and disconnection is a big deal in the animal world. It gets a lot of dogs and cats into people’s homes and lives. On the book tour, I was in airports that were cozier.
“The Way of Heaven, for example, is Ruthless; when autumn comes ‘no leaf is spared because of its beauty, no flower because of its fragrance. The Way Of Man means, among other things, procreation..”
– The way and its power: a study of the Dao De Jing,” by Arthur Waley.
The question of Simon and Rocky has drawn me once again into the fascinating realm of animals, into their Dao. Into my own search for my truth. I came to my farm more than a decade ago to learn about animals and write about them. My farm is a window into their world, a laboratory and yes, a story machine and inspiration.
I see in Simon’s relentless and unyielding determination to drive Rocky away lessons from the Dao of animals. Daoism underlies a natural order underlying the substance and true nature of the universe. It means a road, a path, the way in which living things function. The romanticizing and emotionalizing of animals – epidemic in or culture – does not recognize a Dao. It projects our human fables onto animals, diminishing and trivializing their true nature. One person told me this week that Simon was trying to save me, as I had saved him, and thus was driving Rocky away.
Another that Simon was a bully and was jealous of the attention Rocky is receiving, yet another that Rocky needed his own pasture and barn, no matter the cost or difficulty, for as long as he lived. I heard many stories in this vein, attributing many complex motives to this creature I see as fundamental and simple and am only beginning to understand. Hubris is, to me, the belief that I know, rather than that I am struggling to know.
Many people have urged me to talk with animal communicators, rather than to talk to Simon, and to Rocky, in the best way that I can. As if only distant intermediaries can find the truth, not the humans with the closest bond – Maria and I. Holed up in the barn on Friday, retreating from the donkeys, Maria turned to me and said, “I feel like I just heard Rocky say, ‘I’m too old for this,” and it made her cry. We are listening to them.
Yesterday, an equine veterinary specialist – a friend – came by the farm to say hello to me and to take a look at the intense dynamic going on at my farm. Simon was in the sheep pasture, Rocky in his own. Each clearly aware of the other, even from a distance. She watched for a half an hour. What do you think, I asked her?
“It’s not going to work,” she said, “I don’t care how long you give it or how many times you try it. Dominant equine males drive away or kill older and weaker males in the herd. It’s how they protect the herd. it’s their nature. A pony like Rocky would make the herd vulnerable – he can’t function on his own, and in the wild, a healthier male would kill him or drive him away, and predators would stalk and kill him as well. Simon is doing his work. He is protecting his own.”
Simon would not only not accept Rocky because he was weak and blind, it would drive him to attack him more furiously and relentlessly, she said. He would not be generous or empathetic. No matter where Rocky was kept, he would be aware of this danger, sense it and smell and hear it. He could not be at peace here. Keep Rocky if you want, she said, but don’t tell yourself that you are being humane. It is not humane for an animal to feel stalked. This is a human idea of what’s good for an animal, not an animal idea. One of them has to go, she said.
I just looked at her, not perhaps what I expected to hear. Not so directly. She told me that she understood right away why it is not a practical idea for me to build a separate enclosure for Rocky, it would alter the nature of the place.
And I was grateful that she was not patronizing. Several people actually e-mailed me instructions on how fences can be built, as if I would have no experience in that or way of knowing about it.
I appreciated my friend’s insight and her directness. It was helpful, it calmed me. I could sense much truth in what she said. Cutting away the personifying and emotionalizing, she was describing the Dao of animals, their true and sometimes ruthless nature. Simon protecting the flock, present and future. Simon is gelded but does not, of course, know it. He is not going to permit this ancient blind pony anywhere near Lulu and Fanny. He is being true to himself, his Dao. He is being heroic in his own context. He could just look the other way.
And what is my Dao? I’m after the truth. Some people have accused me of ruthlessness in my life with animals and I seem to often be at odds with people who see themselves as loving animals – even mine – more than I do. I am too quick to let go, to euthanize, to move on. I don’t mourn enough or grieve enough or understand what these animals are really thinking. I can not ever be what other people would be, or wish me to be. Only who I am. My Dao is to not claim that I know, but to search, think and observe. To learn and share. To tell myself every day, I do not know, I do not know, I do not know. That is, for me, the beginning of learning.
My friend’s visit was important, even as it shocked me in its blunt diagnosis, even as a lot of resonated with my own instincts, even if it was not what I wished to hear. It is sometimes lonely seeing animals as they are, not as we need them to be. It is also meaningful, perhaps where awakening begins, with a willingness to be apart. The world seems to be rushing the other way and in my eyes, we are losing a sense of what they really are, what is so miraculous and wonderful about them. I believe Simon has no motives. He is not saving me or resenting Rocky. He is true to his nature. He is following his Dao.
I told my friend I wanted to keep on going with Simon and Rocky, at least for now. To separate them, try and acclimate them a bit here and there. Maybe the Dao of animals is flexible. If Governor Christy and President Obama could hug at the airport this week in their spanking new emergency warm-up jackets – I told Maria I want one, maybe with the lettering: “Jon Katz – Bedlam Farm,” – then perhaps there is in animals some spark of empathy and compassion, perhaps Simon can transcend his Dao and be more like most humans wish him to be, which is to say more like humans are. To me, that is just another kind of exploitation, another form of abuse.
We are different from them. They are not like us. We can see Rocky as an old and blind pony, and wish to give him rest and peace in his final days. That is, in part, what drew us to our new home. Simon does not see him in that way. His instincts speak to him, and tell him that Rocky is unsafe, with draw dangers and must be driven away. And when Simon went after Rocky, it was clear he was trying to drive him through the fence. They are not like us. We are the only living things with a conscience, and it complicates our life, our Dao.
When we only see our reflections in the lives of animals, then we do not see or hear them, we only see our own imperfect selves. Unlike them, we are capable of good and evil, we do have motives, we do have consciences. We are accountable.
In my life with animals, I have come to love and respect their Dao. It is the essence of the animal nature, the heart and soul of them. I suppose this is one of the reasons I love Simon. I am trying to follow my own Dao too, and I believe that life is sometimes ruthless.
I found this old clock in an antique store a few years ago and could not resist buying it. It was in a closet for a long time and when we moved to the new farm I liberated my “Friskies” clock and hung it on the dining room wall. It also serves as a nightlite, and a reminder of how the marketing of animals has evolved.
Dog food was not even invented until the early 1960’s – for most of American history, people would have thought it ludicrous to go to a store and buy food for dog when there were perfectly good and healthy table scraps to share. That would be considered abuse today. Before television and the Internet – marketing was called advertising then – they best way to reach consumers was through gifts with brands on them – clocks, key chains, calendars, notepads, cups, matchbook covers. Corporations were always giving things away and what more creative way to get people to remember brand names and focus on the new idea of specially formulated “dog food” (then and now, often less healthy than table scraps – just think of bottled water). The “Frisky” clock was a big hit. And its still ticking.
Since my “Friskies” clock was made, the marketing of dog foods and other products has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Special foods, beds, medicines, balls, harnesses, leashes and snacks. My clock reminds me to think about the difference between what dogs need and what we need them to need. Compared to today’s electronic corporate bombardments, my “Friskies” seems innocent and refreshment. And I do want to keep my dogs frisky.