Every Important Thing I Learned on the Farm
Hello Big Team—
Quick book update; thank you thank you thank you (!) to everyone who’s ordered books this week on all the various sites (Bookshop is now live! + Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Amazon, etc.), and to everyone who’s written a review (on any of the above or GoodReads or Google Books), I appreciate you to the moon and back and I’m so excited to hear what you think. You all are my light in the dark.
For the folx waiting on me for books, I’m still waiting for my big shipment of hard copies to sign, they should be arriving any day now. The good news is I have envelopes and labels all ready, so as soon as the books come, they’ll start on their way to you!
Last thing, reviews right now are insanely (*iNsAnElY*) helpful to me. If you have time, I really appreciate you throwing me a few of stars (preferably five, but do you) on your platform of choice. If you are someone who received/bought the ebook and want a hard copy, write a couple of reviews in the next few weeks, and I think my publisher would toss a free hard copy your way. Email me for more info.
Otherwise: I’m not sure if reader discretion is necessary today, but I’ll just say, there’s no butterflies or rainbows or puppies, so if that’s what you’re needing this morning, might I direct your attention to Ted Lasso on Apple TV. It’s a dumb streaming service, but Ted Lasso is the best, most wholesome, and lovely show I’ve maybe ever watched (or maybe tied with Little Mosque on the Prairie). If you need to feel good about the world, Lasso’s your man.
Photos in today’s letter are #FarmArt that Big Teammate Katelyn Rindlisbaker made two years ago when she was my videographer and dear work mate/friend. I learned so much from her in that role, plus, in her downtime, she hand-drew this art on coffee sleeves. Some of them I use to use when I’d get coffee out of the vending machine at USDA, so excuse the liquid marks. Kate is a phenomenal photographer and videographer, and also a semi-professional fighter. She’s one of the coolest people I know.
Everything Dies on a Farm
Ok so I don’t want to be overly morbid here. And upon looking up the definition of morbid, I feel confident that my interest in death and farming is not unhealthy (even if it might be abnormal).
But it’s not an exaggeration to say that every important thing I learned growing up on a farm, every idea that went on to truly shape not only my worldview but my identity, had to do with death.
The thing is, on a farm, everything dies, and everything is meant to die. People love to rush along to the part where dead things become compost or food for the living and therefore everything is reborn into new life. But I’m telling you, it takes time to get from death to new life, and death is not nothing. Death is not a moment to avert your eyes from, it’s not to be ignored or glossed over. It’s not an unfortunate and uncomfortable inconvenience to be wished away.
Death is the whole thing. Look at it. Don’t look away.
The Ghost Parade
I think my first encounter with death on the farm was as a toddler; my mom tells a story of leaving me alone for just a minute or two with a little flock of ducklings. When she returned mere moments later, I had my tiny hand wrapped around a downy yellow neck, and it was lifeless. My mom took it away and put the ducklings back in the stock tank out of my reach. That’s the whole story.
Sometime after that but before I was old enough to really start participating in the farm, there were two horrific death incidents. The first was the night a pack of feral dogs attacked our breeding ewe in her pen. I only have snippets of memories of this night; my dad waking up to death cries, me, standing in the barn yard in a night gown with my mom, the sheriff talking to my parents about where to find the animals who had done it, and then the worst, the horrifying sight of the mother sheep, on her knees, still alive, but with about three-quarters of her neck detached, hanging down from her chin, her wool splotched with blood. The amazing thing was, these fearless momma had saved her two lambs, they were alive. The tragedy was that she wouldn’t survive. My dad shot her in the pasture and buried her next morning. It was the first time I ever heard and understood the words to be “put out of ones misery.”
The second incident was somehow worse. I don’t remember how that one was discovered. What I remember is being with my dad when the sliding barn door was thrown back, and seeing a horror movie scene. You see, my older half-sister raised rabbits, and had a few dozen in the barn at any given time. That night, every cage was mutilated. Empty, twisted wire covered with tufts of fur were everywhere. A beautiful golden retriever ran up to us, it’s tail wagging, blood all around its mouth. Another call to the sheriff, another long night of adults talking. But I remember distinctly overhearing the conversation about a dog that gets an appetite of killing and how it won’t ever stop. I understood when the sheriff took the golden retriever away that it was going to be shot in a pasture somewhere, too. Which was sad to me, because I felt certain the dog was a pet, and that it didn’t know what it had done wrong.
I went to my grandfather’s funeral around then and for some inexplicable reason, I was very convinced he was killed by a bison (it was a heart attack). I lived in fear of a nearby bison ranch for a long time. The very first dog that was ever mine, Buddy, got hit by an eighteen wheeler around the same time. I was in the yard when it happened— I can still hear the sound of the horn blasting and wheels screeching. My dad buried him a few hours after it happened, and I was there. It was always important in my family, to bear witness to the death and burying of the things you love. I don’t remember Buddy’s face or head, but I remember the way he was bleeding out of the pads of his paws. In my little kid brain, I thought that was his guts, smooshing out his feet. Later that night, I went to a Girl Scout meeting, because as my parents said, missing it wasn’t going to bring him back.
My next encounter was as a newly-minted eight year-old. I had just showed my very first lamb in my very first county fair as a 4Her. I had gotten it as a tiny bum at the research station eight months earlier, had bottle fed it at first, then delivered it grain and water morning and night, and worked with it all summer so that I could lead it without a halter into the show ring. All that hard work was rewarded when I got to sell it in the livestock auction, and I was glowing with the idea that I had just earned three hundred whole dollars. And then my dad told me that I had to take my glitter covered lamb to a big communal pen, so it could be loaded into the semi with all the other sold lambs to be taken to the slaughter barn. I didn’t want to, but my dad was clear, this was the way of the world. So I took it to the pen, gave it a few pets on the head through the bars as tears and snot leaked out of me, and walked away while it baaa-ed for me to come back. I cried for a long time, and the look of disbelieving abandonment in its eyes is still clear in my memory. It had a name, that first lamb, but my heart, I think, has decided it’s best forgotten.
Every year for the next decade, I sold lambs or goats this way. I stopped naming them quickly. But when I started raising dairy goats, I started with names again. I loved goats. They were so fun, so much less skittish (and frankly, stupid) than sheep, and their personalities were so well developed. The very first registered breeding goat I ever bought, Nala, was a beautiful French Alpine and a total queen bee. She was my pride and joy, and one of the most expensive things I’d ever bought with my own money. She was the seed of my dream for my very own dairy herd. But her wicked smartness would prove our downfall. She engineered a jail break from the pen, and her and the other adult goats found their way into a fifty pound back of feed. They glutted themselves on grain, she most of all, as the alpha. She quickly developed acidosis— essentially, she poisoned herself. The vet came and gave her a treatment, and gave me hope that she could recover. But after the second visit, the outlook was grim. After two days and a whole night of sitting sleeplessly on the barn floor in my snow pants with Nala, she died trying to bleat with no sound escaping, tremors wracking her bloated body, foam collecting around her mouth, her stomachs rotting while she still breathed. I was left defeated, wracked with grief, with $500 in vet bills I couldn’t cover, and with the corpse of a friend and dream to bury in frozen February ground. We ended up having to keep her body around for a few days before a hole could be dug. Every time I saw her I relived the whole thing. She was just weeks away from giving birth to her first kids. I was in 8th grade.
By this time, anything that was on the farm for less than a year had little power to effect me with its death. I quickly accepted the deaths of chickens we processed or the occasional death from predation, goat kids were still born from time to time, and I watched a lamb on a sheering stand, just days away from the county fair, buck, break its neck, and die in seconds. While I was away for a weekend at a leadership camp, a goat kid rammed another goat in the stomach, and the victim died almost instantly, right before my dad’s eyes. He thinks a broken rib might had punctured its heart. Her mom screamed for a week, searching for her lost kid. Our horse died of old age around then— but honestly, she was always kind of an asshole, and was less deserving of her long life than a lot of other animals I knew. Our oldest dog, who was born before I was, started to go crazy and licked all the varnish off the hardwood floors in her old age. We put her down at home. Two more of my grandparents died across the country. We weren’t taken to their funerals.
After the old dog died, we got two puppies, because I trained and showed dogs through 4H as well. We only meant to get one, but my dad is a sucker for a misfit, and spotted a dog at the puppy shelter that was about to age out, so we brought him home too. Allie and Toby were best friends. Allie was a promising agility dog, she was athletic and spirited, but trainable, I believed. The problem was, she was a runner, and when she was chasing something, nothing else in the world existed. I was training with her in the yard one day, thinking I had everything under control, when something caught her eye. She was off like a shot, and by the time she was found, she was in a ditch, having been hit by a car. The traumatized people who had done it helped us get her into my dads mini-van. She was still alive when we rushed her to the vet. My dad carried her in and put her on the cold stainless steel table. It wasn’t a minute before she died. I’d never seen it happen that way before— as a release, rather than a struggle. The way blood poured out of her mouth in a gush in the moment after left the vet in shock.
Toby lasted a few more years. Our neighborhood had a pest problem at the time— badgers, skunks, foxes, mice, prairie dogs, and a lot of people put out poison, often carelessly. That’s what the vet expected it was that he came into contact with, some kind of poison. He went slow, and then fast. He was lethargic for a couple of days, then all at once, in an evening, he started shaking, stopped walking, stopped responding to his name, and the vet said there was nothing more she could do. We knew it was just hours now, and my dad decided to sleep on the couch to stay with him. I had to go to sleep, to wake up for school the next morning, and Toby usually slept on the foot of my bed. In the middle of the night, somehow, by some miracle of strength and habit, Toby got up off his cushion, climbed the tall stairs, and made his way into my bed. He shook violently for a few hours, and whined and cried in his death throes, but he had come to his safe space, to be with me, to express his loyalty, so I stayed awake with him. Around dawn, I got my dad, and he carried him back downstairs while I got ready for school. He died while I was in first period.
There was one dog of mine that did live a long, happy life. Princess. I got her right after Buddy, and we grew up together. She was 2 when I was 6. She won showmanship, agility, and obedience competitions, and even went to the state fair once. She was a really good dog, and one of my best friends growing up as an intensely shy kid. She was acting a little odd on the morning of my sister’s high school graduation, when I was 17, but nothing too out of the ordinary— I thought she might have an upset stomach. When we returned a few hours later, I found her in the upstairs bathroom, dead on the floor. That was the first time I appreciated the quickness of death, and what a gift is the absence of suffering.
Later that year, our barn burned down. It happened in the middle of the night, and was really the nail in the coffin for our little farm. A momma goat and two of her kids, who had just been born that day, died in the fire, though the rest of the herd had escaped. I was standing in a puddle left behind by a fire truck when a neighbor shoved a goat kid into my arms. One of its ears was half burnt away, and it had patches of singed fur and burns on its back. It was one of the newborns that had somehow escaped the blaze and was crying violently for its mother. It was a miracle that this tiny thing could have wormed its way through two layers of thick wire fencing to escape the flames, suffering burns along the way. The will to live, I thought, was strong with this one, and to me that was a glimmer of hope on an intensely dark night. I took it inside and nestled it in a towel in my lap on the kitchen floor. When my parents finally came in they defrosted some colostrum (new mothers milk) for me and put it in a bottle, but the baby wouldn’t drink. It was still crying for its mother. But after an hour or so, it stopped. By sunrise, it had gone still in my lap. And by the time I had showered and got ready for school, it was dead too. She died nameless.
I took the rest of my dairy herd to the sale barn later that year. I was about to graduate from high school, and my parents weren’t interested in the work of milking and breeding dairy goats. I remember the way my old Nubian Vixey looked at me when I closed the gate on her in the sale yard, while my dad was off collecting my check. She knew this was an abandonment, just the same way that first lamb did all those years ago. Animals are smart that way. But I didn’t have any tears this time. Honestly, when we pulled into our driveway and I stepped out of the pickup into a silent barnyard for the first time in my whole life, I felt relieved. There was nothing left to die in my care. I was free.
Each and every one of these deaths is imprinted on me. Every last breath or glance, every hole dug, every tear shed by my stoic father at a graveside. Every life I saw cut short lives on in me, and every body I buried, I buried a piece of myself with it. These words seem maudlin and sentimental to write, but I don’t mean them that way. This is not some semantic trick to evade death and its responsibilities. It is one part acceptance that I live while they didn’t and for no good reason, one part eulogy for us both, and one part expression of the way that death defies being captured by a medium as inadequate as language.
Of course, I was wrong about being free. Animals don’t have to live in the barn and wait on you for food to be animals that depend on you, that love you and that you love in return. People, I mean. And people die too. I’ve known too many people who have died— friends, best friends, acquaintances, all my grandparents. And I’ve lost people who haven’t died too; through estrangement, bad luck, mistakes, anger, apathy, arrogance, foolishness, and pride.
When everything you know about death is learned on the farm, death and loss always comes with extra dimension; responsibility. The reality of death on the farm is, it’s always your fault. Accidents, even freak accidents, happen, surely. But the thing is, almost everything is somehow, in however small a way, preventable. Heat lamps can be checked. Gates can be better latched and feed lids better secured. Lethargy can be noticed earlier and the vet involved sooner. Animals can be better trained and given more space. You, as their owner, can be wiser, more vigilant, more cautious, more attentive, have faster reflexes and a sharper eye. As the human, the caretaker, the future-thinker and the danger-seer, the safety of others is always your responsibility.
My parents, bless them, always offered their apologies when an animal that was my responsibility died on our farm, but it was clear that condolences are not a reprieve. Death that did not feed people is not just a sadness, but a shame. A wrong perpetrated. A failure. One that must be accepted without excuse, borne up, and carried forever. Because however heavy the lesson of a first mistake is, the same mistake repeated is unforgivable.
Even when death did feed people, it was still a sadness. I use to hate lamb when I was kid— I use to say it tastes like it’s alive, whatever that meant.
Winning the Rock Bottom Pageant
I don’t mean to bum you out too much on a Friday morning here. I announced this week that I’m no longer working with Sylvanaqua Farms. And that’s been hard, for a lot of reasons.
And it’s just got me thinking a lot about endings and death. We’re really weird about death, and thinking about things through the death lens, in white American culture. I never understood that. Death was never taboo in my world, never a hushed secret that mom or dad didn’t want to explain, just a quite literal cold, hard fact. I grew up with death, to the point that its power to startle or stun was greatly diminished. It had a place on our farm, a regular seat at the table, but it never sat down as death, always grief.
Since I left the farm life, I’ve gotten a little bit older. I went to college to chase a dream and found out I wasn’t shit. I felt like an idiot without the right rain boots, the right GPA, or the knowledge of what a coxswain was. I was alone and a million miles from home, and then went back to Wyoming and felt like a stranger there too. I moved across the country without knowing a soul to chase another dream, got my ass beat by fate and naïveté, spilled all my secrets in front of strangers at comedy open mics, applied for unemployment, had a bunch of bad housing situations, got my dream job and then watched the dream die, and moved back to where I started. I’ve sold my time and soul to work I didn’t love more than once, in very different ways. I’ve been absolutely sure I had it all figured out on multiple occasions when I, in fact, had nothing figured out. I’ve trusted people who have hurt me and others. I’ve gone on several, truly horrific first dates (and exactly one third date). I’ve been to a few weddings, and similar amount of funerals. I’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot things. I’ve believed in people who have let me down, and I doubted people who deserved my faith. I’ve earned my fair share of disappointments, betrayals, and heartbreaks. I’ve eaten some crow, and I’ve built a seasonal camp at square one. But I still, clearly, have a lot more to learn.
Even about endings and death.
The Weight of the End of a World
When I was younger and way more Catholic, I used to pray sometimes. And when I did, like a bad Catholic, I prayed to the dead. I’d call out in my head the names of all the people and animals, and later, communities and dreams and ideas, who I hoped were listening to my dumb wants and earnest pleas, and always, just before the sign off, to my apologies. I don’t pray much anymore, but I still think through that list of names from time to time, and some of the names, the ones nearest the top, I still think of every single day. At this point, decades on from when I started saying some of those names, when I say them in my head, they don’t refer to others anymore. They are names I call myself. They are a part of me now, the part of them that lives in me.
Sometimes it’s exhausting to carry so many names. But I’m convinced it’s good work, because I think it’s the only real way to remember. To remember to check the heat lamps and double check the gate. To be mindful of the way humans and animals act when they’re well, and when they’re not, and to involve professionals earlier rather than later. To be firm and far seeing when helping build habits and creating space. To strive for wisdom, to be vigilant, to be cautious, to be attentive, to have fast reflexes and a sharp eye. To be a caretaker, a danger-seer, and a future-thinker for the beings that I love.
The thing about life, though, is that it’s unpredictable. It’s just when you think you’ve got all the names situated that a teacher of a lesson you haven’t learned yet, or haven’t learned well enough, comes to call. And the teacher isn’t just there to teach you the one lesson. It’s more like that old camp song, about the hole at the bottom of the sea. There will be a test on all the material— how this missteps is connected to other pain that’s a part of past failures that’s remembered as grief at the very bottom of your heart. You’ll have to dredge it all up again, reorganize everything and piece it all back together, and then you’ll have to decide whether it even matters, in the grand scheme. And the right answer is that is does, but the easy answer is that it doesn’t.
It matters because all the pieces matter. In the stories we tell, about and to ourselves, the context, the nuance, and the conclusions all matter. Because the stories we tell are who we are. In our stories; people, animals, communities, and ideas live again. We become, all of us, compost, part of new life. And yes, that is the feel-good, hopeful, rainbows and butterflies part, the part that we all crave and want to focus on. But death, decline, retreat, endings, and transitions, those are pieces that matter too. We don’t get to the good part without them. By glossing over them, by averting our eyes, by hoping they pass without being too much of a bother, we obscure so much of ourselves, of what it means to be human, and we fail to meet our responsibilities as caretakers in the world.
To meet those responsibilities I think, we have to carry death with us. We have to honor it, to sit down at the table with grief, and feel it. We have to call out to our ghosts, shake hands with them again, and ask them to please, if they would, take into their community someone or something new. We have to make our list of names a little longer, and take the time to say them all. We have to apologize, hurt, and suffer some sleeplessness nights. We have to accept condolences and questions with grace. We have to process and decompose, not at our pace, nor at the pace of polite society or positivity culture or any human preference, but at death’s pace. And when we come out the other side of all of that, onto the road of new beginnings, we are not meant to be the same person— because a bit of us dies, and a bit of the dead becomes us.
To me, the craziest and most extraordinary part of all of this is not the fact of eventually coming out the other side. It’s that we don’t die of the grief and pain before we get there. Because that’s the thing. It’s so much. It’s unbearable. But the amazing thing about humans is that we can bear it. We can. We can bear death. We can bear our memories. We can bear our pain. We can carry our love and losses around forever, all of them, heavy as they can be sometimes. We are strong enough.
How? I’m not exactly sure. But I think it has something to do with our short memories for pain and our long memories for love. And with the fact that time passes. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that when we really look carefully into the abyss of death, we can see beloved parts of ourselves there already, and when death looks back, it sees itself in us too. I also think it might just be our super power— the thing that makes us human.
My sister sent me a quote a few years ago. It hangs beside my bed and I look at it every day to remind me of this super power. Lately, it’s been helping me carry on.
“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Than you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
— Ellen Bass
Last F(ew) Things
I’m still accepting requests, if you have a virtual book club, meeting, class, family reunion, rap battle, podcast, casual mutton-bustin’ competition, etc. that you would like to invite me to, to say hi and talk about agriculture and maybe hawk some books, my “Invites” tray is open. Shoot me an email (and if you have shot me an email, I’m desperately wading my way towards you in my inbox and I’m coming!).
If you’re new to Big Team Farms and want some explanation for what the F you just read, check out The Intro Newsletter and more recent additions by visiting Big Team Farms online.
Do you have announcements that would be relevant to the 1,300 or so members of the Big Team? Feel free to shoot me messages about projects, resources, job posting, etc. And to everyone who’s done that already, or who has asked questions that I haven’t yet responded to, look out for those in the next couple of newsletters.
Again, just watch Ted Lasso. You won’t regret it.
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