Monday, January 12, 2009

Holiday on the farm: Part 2, Llama herding

It's been more than a week since my holiday break, and I'm slowly finding my way back to a routine. Truth be told, the old routine has been interrupted for awhile now. Regular trips to the farm have led to greater changes even than just finding a new routine. My friends, I will be buying a pick-up truck later this week. If I've left doubts in anyone's mind that I'm truly gay, this should clinch it for them. I'm beside myself with excitement. Can't you just see me driving down the road in my cute little white Toyota Tacoma truck?

But back to the regular trips to the farm.... I've spent a good bit of time there lately. And in the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell you, I'm going out there often because I'm in love. It's true. Madly in love....

....with Pascal the llama, long-necked guardian of the sheep and goats. His soft brown eyes search for understanding and draw me in with a curiosity and empathy I don't quite understand. A bit standoffish at first, he's slowly warming up to me. No doubt, the handful of feed grain I give him occasionally helps. His love for the grain knows no bounds, and by extension, the love he feels for anyone who offers it to him follows.

Pascal stays close by when I go out to the back barn to feed the animals. He watches closely, hoping that I'll open the can with the feed grain. When I fill the red bucket to pour grain into the feed trough, he follows me, hoping he'll get some to enjoy. He used to get some on a regular basis, but he's gained too much weight, so he's been put on a diet, one free of feed grain, except for the occasional handful he gets from anyone who pities him.

A couple of weeks ago, I stood at the fence along the front of the barn, about six feet away from Pascal, my chin resting on my arms in a studious pose, staring into his eyes. Neither of us moved for the longest time. His lips were slightly parted as though he were about to speak. I wondered what he would say if he could talk.

Days earlier Pascal and I had an adventure. During morning chores, I wheeled a bale of alfalfa out to the back barn. Pascal and the herd were standing at the gate when I got there. The goats and the sheep greeted me loudly, letting me know they were hungry. Their insistent pleading betrayed the fact that I had fed them grain and prairie hay the evening before. I opened the gate carefully and backed up to push the wheel barrow through, but the gate opened wider and Pascal took advantage. He darted out the gate and headed for the street.

My heart jumped into my throat. Of all the scenarios I'd considered I might encounter on the farm, an escaped llama was not one of them. There had been no drill ahead of time, no lessons on llama herding in all of the instruction I'd been given to prepare me to take care of the farm.

My mind raced. Getting the gate closed was the first priority to prevent the goats and sheep from following Pascal. I dropped the wheel barrow with the alfalfa and ran for the gate. Sadie, a beautiful black dog who was created to run like an Oklahoma wind sweeping across the prairie
, met me at the gate and passed through chasing after Pascal before I got it closed. She came flying from the back of the pasture, and her presence increased my anxiety. She's beautiful and fast and adores me, and I love her for all of those things, but she's a bully. She plays hard with the animals and causes chaos. I feared she would create more of a problem with the loose llama.

I closed the gate and turned to see where Pascal had gone. He took a right out of the gate and headed for the garden area. The fence on the front of the garden was open, a passageway for the truck to get to the back pasture. Instinctively Pascal headed for the opening, but Sadie caught up to him. I had no idea what to expect to happen next. I stood frozen, fearful, but I couldn't think of a single thing to do. Sadie raced past Pascal and headed for the opening. She stood in front of it waiting for him to come to her. As he drew closer she charged him, forcing him into the fenced part of the garden. And every time he inched back toward the opening, she ran for his feet, herding him back. Defeated, Pascal looked toward the garden and searched out the patches of green grass sprouting up around the edges of the furrowed ground.

I was amazed. With Sadie safely herding Pascal away from the street into a contained area, I closed two areas of the fence that were open and ran to the chicken coop to get some scratch, hoping to lure Pascal back to the pasture. I knew it wasn't the stuff he loves, but I was afraid to take the time to walk to the back barn and get the feed grain. With a can of scratch in hand, I walked closer to Pascal. He jumped back and darted away from me. Each time I approached him, he ran. I couldn't get him interested in the scratch for anything.

I stood in the middle of the garden watching him graze, wondering what to do. I kept glancing over at the barn, knowing that the grain was surely the key. I looked around the garden and saw Sadie a safe distance from Pascal, but close enough that she could spring into action if he headed toward the one remaining opening in the fence.

I ran to the barn, grabbed the red bucket and dropped a can full of feed grain in the bottom, then ran back to the garden. Slowly, I walked toward Pascal, and as I got closer he got more curious. Then, in a flash a knowing gaze took over his face and he started moving purposefully toward the red bucket. I let him stick his head in and get a mouthful, then pulled it away and started backing up toward the gate. He followed me, eyes fixed on the bucket, neck and head bobbing for it as he walked. In no time, I had him inside the gate, safe and sound.

Something happened to me that day. I've yet to put words to it. There's something very moving about working with a dog who instinctively helped herd an escaped llama. I was pulled by the universe to trust something I'm used to controlling, to step back and let her do what she knew to do without ever being taught. I felt connected to the world in a new way, aware of the profound interconnectedness of beings. I participated in something ancient and mysterious, something that pulled me beyond myself to a force greater than my own. I was left feeling humbled and grateful.

But when I look in Pascal's eyes now, I wonder what they are revealing to me in the depths of his soul. Maybe all I see is the deep longing of my own soul, the desire to be free, the struggle to trust those closest to me, and yet, the profound gratitude that what I love nourishes me and keeps me safe.
The photos were taken by my good friend Jill when we took care of the farm a year and a half ago.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Holiday on the farm: Part 1, Dead possum kicking

I should be running this morning, but I'm not, so I decided to try to kick start the blog again. I've got to get past the voice in my head that says, "Don't post unless it's stellar writing," and get back in the habit of writing regularly without the editor's voice shutting me down.

I have some great stories to tell. I spent the better part of ten days taking care of the farm for my good friend Lisa who went to Seattle to be with her family for the holidays. In spite of the fact that the goats are dried up, conserving their energy to give birth in a few months, I managed to have some adventures with the animals.

For example, there was the evening when I returned to the farm at sunset to find a possum lying on the ground outside the chicken coop, curled up looking rather dead. I'm no farmer, but I quickly sized up the scenario. One possum, however dead he might appear, just feet away from the open gate to the chicken coop would likely not lead to a good outcome if I left it alone. So, I texted Lisa and asked her what to do with the possum. She called me back right away and the conversation went something like this....

Linda: I know possums play dead, and that's it not a good thing that he's so close to the coop, but I have no idea how to get him to leave. Should I poke him with a stick or something to see if he's actually dead?
Lisa: Well, um, poking him with a stick won't help. To tell if a possum's dead, you have to kick it. And by kicking, I don't mean pushing it around a little with your foot. I mean, you'll have to kick it like a football. Go back about 25 feet, run up and kick it up into the air. If it lands on its feet and runs away, it's not dead.
[Silence while I look for the Candid Camera]
Linda: Okay. So, I'm going to kick it like a football. If it runs away it's not dead. It will run away, right? It won't charge me and put those gnarly teeth in my leg, will it?
Lisa: No. But it will probably hiss at you when it lands.
Linda: OhhKAY!
Lisa: Good. Call me after you take care of it. I want to know how it turns out.
Linda: Yeah. I'll do that.

So, I hung up the phone and put it in my pocket, then stared at the curled up critter, its gnarly teeth showing as it laid in a ball on the cold ground in front of me. I debated the merits of the kick. I wondered if there was another way. Then quickly decided I just needed to get it done. I can handle this, I thought. I was the top female finisher in the Punt, Pass, and Kick competition in my hometown when I was 11 years old. Clearly, God was preparing me for this moment years before.

I stepped back and ran forward and kicked with all of my tentative might and managed to scoot the animal about six inches forward. No launching it into the air. No movement from the animal whatsoever. So I stepped back again and ran forward with greater confidence. I shifted my weight to my left leg and reached back to give that critter the best football kick I could muster. With my eyes closed, I kicked forward. Toe pointed, leg straight, I reached down first, to make sure I got under the possum to launch it into the air, and kicked forward with all of my strength. And in a split second I screamed in agony. When I looked down I saw that I'd missed the animal by a good six inches and had, in fact, kicked the cold, hard ground with my full force. My foot was throbbing. I danced around in pain, crying out for whomever could offer me sympathy. Sadie, the beautiful black dog who races around the farm at break neck speed, treeing squirrels and causing chaos, came over to check on things. Instead of offering proper sympathy, she ran over to the possum, took one sniff and dashed off to find something more interesting to investigate.

After the throbbing stopped, I stepped back again and ran forward to kick the possum, this time launching it about four feet into the air. It landed with a thud on its side. I assumed at first that it was dead, but I wondered, "Maybe this is a hearty possum, able to keep up the charade of death in spite of my best punt. Perhaps it's best to try this one more time, just to be sure." So, once more, I launched it four feet into the air. Thud, again.

Concluding that it was dead, I stood over it for a long while, gathering my courage to pick it up. Those gnarly teeth looked rather formidable. But, I reached down and grasped the tip of its tail between my thumb and forefinger, then quickly dropped it into and empty feed bag, folded the top of the bag over several times and ran to drop it in the trash.

The next morning I checked the trash to make sure it was still in there, still dead. Fortunately, it was. I have no idea what I would have done if it hadn't been.

Next up, Part 2, Llama herding.