It is always interesting to see how animals use their instincts to adapt and survive – dogs, cats, cows, chickens and donkeys.
I use the donkeys as sundials. It got cold this morning, and when it gets cold, the donkeys array themselves like solar panels directly in the light of the sun, and their wide bodies soak up and absorb the heat. During this warm-up, they are still, like statues, immovable, ancient, almost mystical. I can always tell where the sun is in the winter by looking at where the donkeys are standing.
I am continuously struck by animal behaviors, especially in light of many entrenched human ideas about their grieving and emotions. Red is a dog that enters into the spirit of just about everything we do on the farm. He became visibly attached to Rocky and seemed to act in many ways as a guide dog for him. We were touched by this relationship as were other people and many have expressed some curiousity about how the other animals, especially Red, have reacted to Rocky’s death.
I have to say that I have never witnessed any kind of animal grieving in my life, which does not mean it does not occur. Many people feel strongly that it does, from elephants to birds to dogs and cats, and testify to it, and I accept their stories. I am not writing to argue this point, simply to pass on what I’ve seen here.
Red and Rocky spend some time together each day. Red would walk ahead of Rocky and Rocky would look for him, sniff him out, sit still. Rocky would touch him with his nose, and then move forward and Red would move up again. They would often sit together. Whether this became a kind of work for Red or another kind of attachment, I don’t know. Rocky was always aware of Red, always looked for him, and seemed to draw comfort and safety from him.
Red was present when Rocky was euthanized and watched the process closely. He also watched Maria and I and seemed to be recording our intense emotions. He came over to sniff Rocky’s body. I always let Rose see any animal who had died or was leaving the farm, as I wanted her to be aware of everything that happened, and I will do the same for Red.
Beyond that, he has shown no visible signs of noticing Rocky. The morning after, he walked right through Rocky’s stall and headed out to look for the sheep. Red does not seem to look for him, or to to the places where the them were together. He simply looks for the sheep and waits to work with them or watches me to see where I am going.
Simon has changed dramatically since Rocky died. He seems calmer, easier, more affectionate. I’ve seen no reactions from Lulu and Fanny, who stayed away from Rocky, or from the sheep who do not seem to worry about things other than food and shelter.
Red is a very businesslike dog, and to me, he typifies the astonishing and remarkable ability of animals to adapt – the millions of dogs rescued each year, the Katrina dogs, Simon, Frieda, the dogs who have lived with me. If Red is feeling anything beyond what he is showing me, it is internal or invisible to me. I am always inspired by animals like the old sheep, like Rocky, like Simon and Red, to be adaptable. To accept life as it occurs. Many people have urged me to talk to animal communicators about Mother, to find out where she is. I am not drawn to do that. If Mother has any messages, she will find a way to bring them to me, or I will not receive them. I can reach out to her myself, in many ways. But I am not drawn to that either. I am reconciled to the idea that life happens, and there are not always easy or comforting answers for me.
There are not always answers, even though life is quite predictable. We will all be born, live and die. My story, in one way or another, will be the same as Mother’s. Do I need to know more?
This is something animals have helped teach me and it has helped me greatly to be comfortable with my own place in life.
I called an Emergency Meeting of the Bedlam Farm Men’s Club this morning. In attendance were myself, Strut, Simon, Red and George Forss, the photographer. I told them we needed to talk about the big news coming out of Washington. Forget wars and conflicts, never mind deficits and fiscal cliffs, poverty or storm recovery. The big story, I told them is an old story. Powerful human men doing stupid things.
Simon: You mean the Generals online all night sending dirty e-mails to women? All the equines are talking about it. The horse down the road is beside herself gossiping about it.
Me: Well, yes, I guess that is one way of describing it..
Simon: Talk about asses. You humans are crazy. I’ll take the life of a donkey anytime. Is this the most important thing in your world going on? Guys sending racy e-mails to their women? I try and hump Lulu or Fanny every day, and I usually get kicked in the head for my troubles..
Strut: I’m with you, bro, is this stuff really important to humans? The most important story?
Me: By far, I said. Just watch the news.
Red: I don’t watch the news. I herd sheep. What the hell is doing on, Chief?
Me: Well, it’s something to talk about. There is a kind of mind disease that hits powerful men, it seems, and although we are not powerful, it happens so often and it is so strange – I’ll tell you another time about a former President and a young intern, or the congressmen named Weiner – that perhaps it is a bad seed that lies dormant in all men. I want you all to be aware of it.
Strut: And then, this seed just rises up and takes over? Dude, that’s scary. How does it work?
Me: Well, you work hard and do good and then you rise up and get into a position of great power. That’s when the seed kicks up, sort of takes you over. The sap rises, you feel invincible, all powerful and you go a little dotty. Sex has something to do with it, I think. And power. Sex and power.
Simon: Well, what would that have to do with us? How is a donkey ever going to get a lot of power in this automated world…
Red: Or a border collie chasing sheep. I mean, I know I’m focused and all, but still…
Me: I know, I know. It’s just something to be careful about. If you start feeling like you are on top of the world, even if you are a Four Star General and strutting your stuff and nothing is more powerful than you…well, just stay off the Internet. Don’t send any e-mails. Turn off your Facebook page. You are all well known animals and people are watching. It will come out. That’s all.
Strut: Did you ever do anything like this, chief?
Me: Well, no. I once sent an e-mail to a woman I was attracted to, asking her if she loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Strut: And did she ever answer?
And I left the barn, and I thought I heard I heard this exchange.
Simon: Red, you hang around with him all day. Did any of that make any sense to you?
Red: No, I think the boss has been under a lot of stress lately. You can’t judge humans. They don’t have animal-like motives. They are rarely rational. They don’t know right from wrong and are not good or bad. Mostly, as you can see from these stories, they just are in the grip of their instincts and follow them, even when it makes no sense to us. Don’t emotionalize them. Don’t personify them. It isn’t good for them. You can’t blame them. All you can do is be grateful you are an animal and would never do anything so dumb.
Ben was over today. He built a new door for Maria’s studio, designing it so it could be insulated and he spent a few hours building it, putting in a lock, measuring trim so it would be airtight. Ben built some storm windows for Maria and this door and the studio is snug and warm and ready to be the place of creation it was destined to be for my amazing wife, a gifted artist.
Maria jokes that I am getting depressed because Ben’s work her is winding down, and I suppose it is true. I love Ben. I love his honesty and generousity and I respect his great craftsmanship and hard work. I know very few people who do as many things as well as Ben. He has been a friend and a magical helper for us. I can’t even recount all the things he did to make our home liveable and make it possible for the animals to come. He is painstakingly honest and we could not have afforded all of this work right now if Ben hadn’t been around to do it. and done it so quickly and well. And yes, we are good friends. We talk easily and openly with one another and gossip like high school kids.
Maria and I talk often about how we can reward Ben, and the truth is, Ben is not comfortable with praise or rewards. He loves what he does and that is his thanks. I am still plotting to get a Kindle Fire into his hands – his wife says he will never use it, but I’m not so sure. I am always telling him he needs to pay a bit more attention to the 21st century, although his life is simple and good the way it is. I am lucky to have such a good friend, and have made few friends I am as close to as Ben. Oddly, we just seem to understand each other, and like Maria, Ben knows a great secret to dealing with me – he ignores me and does what he wants.
Ben has come to help us so many times – when roofs fall apart, washers and dryers shut down or flood, birds fly through windows, things have to be moved. I will not soon forget the sign of Ben streaming down the state highway with all of our belongings in his big open trailer. He got us moved for about $500. His work is all over this farm, it is as much his in a way as mine and Maria’s.
I am grateful to Ben, and I while miss him, for sure. But it is time for me to get on with my life and work, I have been moving and scrambling and settling in long enough. And as he told me this morning, “hey, I’m just a phone call away.” I am sure we will have many occasions to call him. We are firming up plans to play chess this winter on Sunday afternoons.
The country is where I belong. Yesterday, Scott of UPS messaged me on Facebook that he had delivered a package to me at the old farm but he had read my blog and knew I had moved. Did he want me to deliver it or re-route it? A passing Fedex driver came to the door to tell me the mailbox door was open. Connie called from the bookstore and said she had an author event and wanted to make sure the writer – it was her first book – had a good crowd, so me and Jenna Woginrich and other local people showed up. At the hardware store, Steve said he had driven by and loved the color Maria had chosen for her studio barn.
Here in upstate New York these simple values – community, connection, taking an extra step – are still very much alive. And I remember when the sheep got out and every single neighbor came running to help. The Recycling Station is a much loved if very funky focal point for community – two guys came up to me and joked about their wives pushing them around. I joined in. We were all standing there yakking while our wives were hauling garbage around and putting it in the right bin. The country is where I belong.