Proud Flesh

followed only by the plume of her tail

followed only by the plume of her tail

“In dark times, the eye begins to see.”

                                  Theodore Roethke

Shortly after I returned from the U.S., I set out with my dogs , Lilly and Moechi, on our favorite walk . The walk begins on a gravel thruway, turns into a farm road and ends in a mountain trail passable only on foot, or hoof. When I turned onto the trial I noticed Lilly wasn’t with us, I called her, and when she arrived she was shaking and foaming at the mouth. Somewhere in that remote and lovely landscape she’d found poison. She was dying.

I was memorizing Jane Hirshfield’s, For What Binds Us, as we walked.  I’ve had a very difficult time continuing with this poem, or even going for a walk since her death. But it is so appropriate, I wanted to share it. I admit I used a cheat sheet to make the video.

I’ve questioned my choice to allow my dogs to be free, since I’ve lost four in two years  to poison and disease.  I don’t know that the answer is sufficient or responsible, but, it’s because they are campo dogs. Freedom is their life.  I know, though not as safe, they are happier than the poor dogs I walked in the U.S. that spent hours in their crates every day.

Long ago, I decided my responsibility was to aid in the fulfillment of their daily lives, not the near impossible safeguarding of their future. After Elvis was implicated in the death of a calf and became a public enemy , I tried keeping him on a leash, watching him constantly if he wasn’t; I made him stay indoors at night (no one got a good night sleep). But it only took a rabbit sighting to send him deep into the woods if I wasn’t hyper-vigilant. Finally, I realized I could not watch my dogs all the time, and that even if I had a fenced in yard someone could and likely would throw poison over the fence again someday ; I could not protect them. So I let them live their lives, until it kills them.

I can imagine the look Lilly would have given me if I had tried to keep her on a lease for our walks. I’m sure she would have sat down in the dirt and refused to accompany me in such a degrading position, she was very good at getting her point across.

Good bye Little Bear…I will always save the heart for you…

 

I will return when I can feel that anything is very simple, very easy, or very good again.

 

 

 

Fallen Empire

Empire

Sunrise with Empire.

Felipe and I left the US with 50,000 dollars, four suitcases and the dream of a self-sustainable life. In two years, though we had a house, 17 acres of land and no debt, we were flat broke, with only a small,(less than fifty dollars a week) finite stipend.

Though it had never been my plan to sell animals to market, our situation was dire, and Felipe determined he would raise pigs to make a living. He acquired a sow; I suggested he name her Empire, since she was to carry the weight of his endeavors. Once she birthed some daughters he bought a boar, Don Juan.  That was three years ago, during these years Empire birthed and mothered five healthy litters of piglets, and DJ fathered hundreds.

Like all animals, pigs have a fertility prime. Past their prime, they have lower birth rate, more health issues, and low milk production. Sadly, signs of age are showing in our founding couple.

Putting a pig out to pasture is not possible. Their life expectancy is 15 years or more. They become wild very quickly. They require strong expensive fences and they’re destructive and dangerous.

And so it is time for us to let Empire and DJ go.

It hurts.

Of all the difficult painful things we have done here this is the hardest that we’ve had a choice in. I love these animals, and I am indebted to them. I won’t be here when they are slaughtered, in a way I’m glad, and in part I’m not, I wish I could be here for Felipe, though he is not as sentimental as I am, I know Empire’s death will be hard for him.

I have said my good-byes and cried more times than is fitting a farmer. Thank you Empire, thank you DJ, I will pray for your swift and fear-free deaths.

Good bye, my faithful ones.

Empire's bath vsvevg.com

Empire’s bath.

Since my departure, Empire was sold to a family for a wedding feast, she left our home and died the same day. Felipe said he was relieved; she’d been suffering with a foot injury he couldn’t heal. Empire was free to roam her last 6 weeks with us, until she had to be housed to treat her foot. She spent most of her time bathing in the creek and foraging.

A benediction for Empire.

Mud and Mayhem

Felipe ponders being a farmer.

Felipe ponders being a farmer.

It takes a thick skin, a tender heart and good facilities to be a good farmer…

The spring rains came with their characteristic force and we lost a litter of newborn piglets to a combination of poor choices and poor facilities. Piglets are remarkably temperature sensitive, if they get wet, stressed, muddy and cold, they die. During fourteen hours of hard rain, unless you have a fully enclosed room, that’s pretty hard to avoid.

After doctoring, bottle feeding (due to stress, the sow didn’t let down her milk), keeping them in the house in a box next to our bed, and still losing them I was feeling pretty low. As I struggled with our failures, some farm stories I’ve heard came to mind.

Once when visiting the Midwest, I spoke with a woman who told me with pride of her brother-in-law’s pig facility: a total containment system.* She beamed as she explained, it was so clean the farmers had to wear protective clothing, like surgeons. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her it was to protect the pigs from human germs, because their immune systems were so compromised by their antibiotic laden diet. Though these animals are not exposed to the elements, I’m certain sometimes fatal disease sweeps through such facilities. I wondered if those farmers felt as anguished as we, when we’re awakened in the night by a piglet gasping its last breathe.

I also recalled a story my grandmother told me about my great, great uncle, a dairy farmer. She said every time he sold his cows to market he went behind the barn and cried like a baby.

I thought of all domesticated livestock: their original purposes and the purposes to which we have evolved together, whether it’s possible to return to them to their natural place in the ecosystem, and if so, would it be humane? What is humane? These are the sorts of things one contemplates at three in the morning with a sick piglet in your lap.

The next day, I broke down as I returned to the house with a piglet it had become apparent, though we had done all we could, was not going to make it. I asked myself in earnest, am I really cut out to be a farmer? I’ve wondered this same thing many times: as I sweat with anxiety watching the wind bring our corn to its knees, or clean and stitch wounds without anesthetic.

I sometimes fantasize about having a passive food forest wherein we need only forage, and our main protein source is free range insects. Fantasy is the operative word in this scenario. There’s not much to forage in the dry season and though I do eat bugs …they’re not my favorite food and are very difficult to pair with wine.

Honestly , I can’t imagine a farm without animals, for the pure joy of their presence, and their essential role in a self-sustainable cycle . If you have livestock, especially pigs, there in no way around raising them for sale, barter and slaughter. Yes, you could have a few birds for eggs only, but it’s not a self-sustainable system, and, if there is milk, there is meat. No animal births only females.

During these few long, painful days I contemplated all routes a happy healthy farm, and whether I have the fortitude to bring such a place to fruition. Finally , I clung to the image of my great uncle, who I didn’t know; I don’t even remember his name, but I can picture him because I have known others like him, a prematurely wrinkled farmer whose skin is perpetually red from wind and sun. He is bent over, his hands on his knees, leaning back on his barn, crying. He is thinking of the individuals he’s sold, of their personalities, the illness’s he nursed them through, and the times they made him laugh. He is sobbing and saying thank you and wondering about his choice to be a farmer—examining his own life and theirs, as he does every time he lets them go. I held this image in my mind, and my heart, and I got up and went out to forage weeds for my pigs.

*For the record, I oppose livestock containment facilities.