24 March

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

by Jon Katz
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.

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