People can change. The weather in New England – if you don’t like it, wait 15 minutes and that’ll change.
I’ve oft heard both lines expressed dramatically in stories and dialogue. They’re easy to say, easy to dispute, easy to believe. Neither is so thought-provoking, they’re throw-aways. You can dispense both in a variety of circumstances. Not especially intriguing.
But today I recognized that in grappling with the most recent grief of losing our sweet yearling wether, “Trevor”, the kid goat, I’m really angry and, I’m changed.
It’s natural to feel anger as you step through stages of grief. I recognize that. It can be helpful in processing as long as you don’t sit with it too long.
I’m having so much practice at stages of grief as a farmer that I sometimes process one stage simultaneously with another. I constantly have so many different and unique losses that happen within a frame of time that overlaps that I seem not to finish grieving one loss before another occurs. I’ve not figured out how to manage grieving multiple losses more efficiently, maybe I never will.
For example, I might be at a final stage with Schilling’s passing, our very old Maine Coon Cat that fell off the piano with a heart attack about a month ago. Tonight I noted that the Oak tree sapling that I’d planted above his grave is re-emerging after the goats had eaten it within the 24 hours that I’d marked his final resting place. It has a whole new set of leaves where the Muppets had left just a stick. With such reassurance, I can accept that we had the best years with the Big Schill.
I’m at Stage 5 with Nessa now, my sweet ewe that passed in early April. Her demise and her body’s passage to the wild will haunt me, always, but I accept it.
Ash, the gorgeous Wensleydale ram that I got from Flying Fibers’ Farm in Lancaster, PA died suddenly after he’d only been here 3 weeks and it is wrecking me with guilt. So that’s a Stage 4. It’s not enough that we welcomed him here with so much build-up and fanfare, but I’d even held a wedding in his honor.
And then a few days later, Martha’s little triplet ram lamb died at less than 24 hours old, sometime in the night of his first evening here. I’d prepped a space for she and her babies and thought I’d done all the important work of welcoming them into the world. But something makes me think that I didn’t do enough. There was more I should’ve done. I have many ideas of why he didn’t thrive and I’ll always wonder how I could’ve helped. I also have many ideas of why he didn’t thrive. But the way it is with farming, with bringing animals into the world and seeing them out, you often don’t have answers. Big, hanging question marks in the air. Between Stage 4 & 5 there, now.
A couple of chicks died that arrived at the farm a little over a week ago. Eight turkey poults died within 24 hours of arriving. Those losses are almost always attributed to shipping stress, and the company that I order them from always makes good on it if you report to them in a timely fashion. But still, little, lifeless bodies pulled from a brooder are heartbreaking. Small ones that incubated and worked so hard to make it out of their shells, and then you teach them to drink and eat and you smile at their exquisiteness…I am never at ease when they pass. It happens so much more frequently in the world of chicks, ducklings, turkey poults, goslings – they’re fragile.
Life is fragile.
I’ve been shepherding the flocks this summer with a bit of unease. There are a few older gals in the fields and the paddocks. There are goats with sore feet because of the wet conditions we can’t seem to shake this summer. It’s been a brutal struggle to stay on top of wellness during a season that should be more forgiving.
I remember when I was in my 20s. I would react to the cold temps with more irritation. I am sure I complained aloud, often, when winter went on too long. I longed for spring, summer, fall, anything but wintertime.
Fast-forward 30+ years and I admit that I’m ready to swap my seasonal song. No, I’m not done with the gorgeous greens, the flowers and birdsong, the honeybees pollinating the blooms. I’m not nearly tired of stepping out the door in my shirtsleeves and clogs and not trudging through snow.
But a cool wind or a drop in the temp at night has me sighing with relief. I’m suddenly a little lighter.
It’s the animals.
I know how uncomfortable they’ve been this summer with humidity and heat. There has been so much rain that the pastures and the paddocks are muddy and steamy. Their hooves can’t dry out unless I constantly clean stalls and paddocks to prepare a clean arena for the flocks.
They’re eating more hay and less pasture because the pastures are too wet, or the parasite count is higher than typical because the conditions of moisture support thriving haemonchus contortus populations (commonly referred to as ‘Barber Pole Worm.)
I’m checking eyelids and feeling spines, watching behaviors to see who is down, who is up, who is active, who is lethargic. Whose feet are sore? Which fleeces and coats are healthy and which ones are raggedy?
I’m running around with a wheelbarrow and a muck fork to clean up to prevent flies, to try to prevent more parasite populations from taking hold. The animals don’t stay in their fences because their fences aren’t good enough to keep them contained, they yearn for tastier foraging in the hedgerows, the grassy alleys growing on the outskirts of their pastures.
The hay crop succession is slow-growing because the first cut took so long to bring in, extra-stemmy after growing unchecked. The wet fields had kept the farmers out with their heavy haying-equipment. I, myself, lodged our tractor good and deep in the muck on Father’s Day, trying to trim the perimeters of the fenceline.
So, admittedly, I’m changing my tune. I’m thinking of cooler weather, I’m thinking of some relief for my animals. I don’t think I’ve ever been as empathetic as I am feeling this summer for my woolie critters. And Vermont is a northern, temperate climate. Not anything extreme like it could be.
Recognizing this soft-streak of mine, in light of my animals’ wellness, I’m doubting my spine. Doubting that I’m thick-skinned enough to farm at all. My peacock, Mario, died this past spring, suddenly, after a fox attacked him on the ground. I had so much grief and, I think?, wounded pride at losing him, losing our white peacock, that I questioned my abilities to shepherd and be a steward for the creatures in my care. Not looking for attention or reassurance, just trying to grapple with it all. I’ve still not figured out what stage I’m at with his passing.
I think about so many variables when I lose an animal.
Today, in particular, horrible circumstances surrounding the discovery of Trevor’s demise had me feeling even more terrible than typical. Maggie & Finn discovered him in the stall in the barn when they, just back from a family vacation, were scampering around to reunite with the farm friends they’d left behind and meet the newest members. And that was what they had to come upon.
I’ll always feel responsible for their horror and grief. I can’t believe I couldn’t have spared them that. And that I was hosting a farm visit during the discovery couldn’t have made it more awful. Guilt is a stage to move through, too.
Maybe Maggie & Finn will be able to find a cure for sudden onsets of anemia or more preventative farm management practices that will help curb losses. Maybe their generation will have solutions where we faltered. I’m trying to find bright sides. Healing and hoping are part of a stage.
Because we were all so devastated, that I was caught so unaware, there was no time for private processing. What was done, was done, and there was work to do. We had to bury him. We had to care for the animals that were waiting on us. I had to make a decision as to whether I would keep Trevor’s pelt or not and if so, how to go about that. I had to figure out a way to get a hole dug to bury him. The people that were here visiting needed to be told something.
I’d read about the wonderful legume, Birdsfoot Trefoil, an inoculant that when foraged by animals in the pasture can create a healthier condition for them, naturally, to avoid the debilitating effects of lungworm in particular. I’d planted it in my pastures this past spring, but it hasn’t taken hold yet. Hasn’t germinated that I can tell. Maybe next year.
I’m reading all of my listserve notifications to find out what other farmers in the region are doing about parasite control and damage to their flocks this summer. It’s bad in the northeast this year. The wet summer has us all scrambling to stay on top of the situation. One minute your animals are fine, the next they’re down. I’ve read it over and over again.
We live in a flat part of the state and some days it feels like all of the town’s rain drains down our road and across our fields and into my barnyard. Stagnant puddles won’t dry up. I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t have so many hooves out there that prefer dryer paths.
Drama is creeping in. I think it means it’s time to pause. I feel a bit bleak now, ut I know it will pass. I know I’ve got more stages ahead of me. Always.
Imagine the trouble I’d get myself into if I didn’t have all this to manage? Until some other occupation in which I can juggle highs and lows and break my back at the same time crops up, perhaps it’s best I stay in farming. I’m not necessarily bad at it. And, based on the farmers I know and love, I’m in good company.
The nature of the job is that working with living beings means losing them, too. Lessons learned, mysteries to ponder. At least I know that.