Friday, October 10, 2014

Learning to farm

I live with a comfortable attentiveness on the farm. The routine of morning and evening chores dissolves the endless deliberation over how to structure the day into a kinetic reflex. Feet hit the floor with purpose before the head is fully engaged. My body knows what to do. There is no question. But it’s not a mindless motion, at least not after the first cup of coffee. The animals see to that. I’ve been caught off guard too many times not to fully show up for chores.

I haven’t always been a farmer. My teachers are not office-dwelling writers of books. Instead I’ve learned from those who by their nature live instinctively in the world around them. That is the art of farming: the awareness of environment, of one’s impact on it, how elements in the surrounding world influence each other. It requires an intense commitment to being present, an awareness of the vast amount of information one’s senses convey in a split second.

One of my earliest teachers was a stray black dog who showed up at the farm a few years before, her body pocked with buckshot and patches of skin burned from the grass fire out of which she emerged, like a phoenix rising. Lisa patiently removed the shot and tended the burns and wounds and Sadie settled into our home.

Sadie moved like an Oklahoma wind rushing through the prairie, a streak of shiny black racing through fields of daisies and tall slender Johnson grass. Her chiseled muscular body was in constant motion. Undisciplined and adolescent, her presence raised anxiety and increased chaos wherever she went. I loved her. I loved the sheer esquiteness of her running, the delightfully shy smile she would offer when I greeted her each day. Her companionship during chores was not a constant guarding presence. She popped in and out as I went through each chore, assuring me that she was always near, even when I didn’t see her.

The day she became my teacher, I was feeding the animals as I always did. Pascal the llama, long-necked guardian of the sheep and goats, stood silently in the middle of the chorus of bleats and baaa’s, goats and sheep scolding me for my tardiness. I opened the gate and pushed a wheel barrow full of alfalfa through. The herd followed, stumbling over each other to reach for mouthfuls of the sweet grass. The gate swung open wider than I needed, opening a gap between it and the wheel barrow. Pascal, uninterested in alfalfa, took advantage and bolted through the opening. He headed for the street.

My throat tightened as my pounding heart expanded into it. I was alone on the farm that day. Of all the scenarios I thought I might encounter, an escaped llama was not one of them. There had been no drill ahead of time, no lessons on llama herding, not even a hint that the llama would do anything but dutifully guard the sheep and goats.

Thoughts of what to do struggled to reveal themselves in the dense fog of anxiety. An icy wind slapped me in the face. Getting the gate closed was the first priority to prevent the goats and sheep from following Pascal. I pushed the wheel barrow with the alfalfa up closer to the barn and dropped it in the swirl of greedy goats and sheep, then ran for the gate. Sadie came flying from the back of the pasture and met me there, passing through just as I swung the gate closed. She raced after Pascal. Her presence increased my anxiety. What would she do? How would Pascal respond to her?

I closed the gate and searched to see where Pascal had gone. He turned 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. Pascal headed for the opening, but Sadie caught up to him. I stood frozen, fearful, feet heavy and mind blank. She 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. 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. How did Sadie know what to do? Her quick instinctive response gave me time to think. I closed two areas of the fence that were open, shutting Pascal into the garden. He was enclosed except for the area where the fence was down, near the front of the garden, close to the street. Sadie who had been guarding the opening, ran off to dig a hole in search of a gopher.

I stood in the middle of the garden watching Pascal graze, wondering what to do. I kept glancing over at the barn, knowing that sweet grain was surely the key to getting him where I needed him to go. He loved the sweet crunchy corn and oats, so much so that we had recently taken it out of his diet to help him slim down his bulging middle. I looked around and saw Sadie some distance from the opening. I had no choice but to trust she would spring into action if Pascal tried to escape.

I ran to the barn, grabbed the bucket and dropped a scoop full of sweet grain in the bottom, then ran back to the garden. Slowing down, I walked toward Pascal, his soft, brown, searching eyes looked up from the ground and caught mine. He was curious. He looked at me, then looked at the bucket. As I edged closer, he stood taller. A knowing gaze took over his face and he started moving purposefully toward the 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. With one hand on the bucket in front of me, I reached for the gate behind me, opened it, and backed through, leading Pascal back in to the barnyard.

I tightened the latch on the gate and backed away, watching Pascal devour his grain. Sadie raced up and sat beside me, her tail sweeping a fan-shaped pattern in the powdery brown dirt. I knelt down, put my arm across her neck and pulled her in close as we both looked out on the herd, safely corralled in the barnyard, quietly eating their breakfast.