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Archive for the ‘deep thought’ Category

coyotes

Humans and the various canids belonging to gray wolf species complex possess the most complex relationship of any two beings currently living on this earth.  At one point, they are our cherished companions, often closer to us than we ever could be with other people, and on another point, they are the reviled predators that might take a child in the night.

We have clearly defined relationships with other predators. Leopards and cougars, well, we might hunt them for sport or photograph them in the wild. But we never become closely aligned with them, except for those eccentrics who dare to keep such dangerous predators as pets.

People living in the Eurasian Pleistocene brought some wolves into their societies.  Wolves and humans should have been competitors. We should have had the same relationship with each other as spotted hyenas and lions do in Africa now.  But at some point, humans allowed wolves in.

Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg demonstrate that many humans throughout the world have had some kind of relationship with wolves. In some cases, it is or was a hunting symbiosis. In others, they were totemic animals.

In their work, Pierotti and Fogg contend that the relationship between humans and wolves broke down with the rise of Christianity in the West. I don’t think that’s when it broke down. It started to become complex when humans began to herd sheep and goats.

In Kazakhstan, wolves are hunted and revered at the same time. The Kazakh people herd  livestock, so they must always worry about wolf predation. Stephen Bodio documents this complex understanding of wolves in his The Hounds of Heaven.

“They hunt them, kill them, chase them with hounds and even eagles, take puppies and rear them live, identify with them, make war on them, and claim descent from them,” writes Bodio. This description sort of fits modern humanity’s entire relationship with this gray wolf complex. We pretty much have done and continue do almost all of these things.

Wolves, coyotes, and dingoes have killed people. So have domestic dogs. In the French countryside, wolf hunts were considered a necessity to protect human life, largely because has the longest and best documented history of wolves hunting people. The dispossession of rural peasants and the depletion of game in the forests created conditions where wolves would consider humans easy prey.  Lots of European countries have similar stories. And when Europeans came to North America, they knew about the dangerous nature of wolves, even if they had never even seen one themselves.

Humans have declared war on wolves in Eurasia and in North America. The wolf is extirpated from much of its former range in Europe. They live only over a limited range in the lower 48 of the United States.

Man fought the coyote with the same venom and lead he threw at the wolf. The coyote’s flexible biology and social behavior meant that all that effort would come for naught.  The coyotes got slaughtered, but they rebounded. And then some. And the excess coyote pups found new habitat opened up with big ol’ wolves gone, and they have conquered a continent, while we continue our flinging of lead and setting of traps.

In Victorian times, Western man elevated the domestic dog to levels not seen for a domestic animals. They became sentient servants, beloved friends, animals that deserve humanity’s best treatment.

And in the modern era, where fewer and fewer Westerners are having children, the dog has come to replace the child in the household. Billions of dollars are spent on dog accessories and food in the West.  Large sectors of our agriculture are ultimately being used to feed our sacred creatures.

A vast cultural divide has come to the fore as humans realize that wolves and coyotes are the dog’s wild kin. Wolves have become avatars for wilderness and conservation, and coyotes have become the wolves you might see out your front window.

Millions of Americans want to see the wolf and the coyote protected in some way. Dogs of nature, that’s the way they see them.

The rancher and the big game hunter see both as robbers taking away a bit of their livelihood. Humans are lions. The canids are the spotted hyenas. And their only natural state is at enmity.

Mankind’s relationship to these beings is so strangely complex. It greatly mirrors our relationship towards each other. We can be loving and generous with members of our own species. We can also be racist and bigoted and hateful. We can make death camps as easily as we can make functioning welfare states.

And these animals relationships with each other are just as complex. Wolves usually kill dogs and coyotes they find roaming their territories. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, they become friends, even mates.  Hounds can be trained to run down a coyote, but sometimes, the coyote and the dog become lovers in the forest.

Social, opportunistic predators that exist at this level of success are going to be a series of contradictions. Dogs, wolves, and coyotes certainly are. And so are we.

It is what we both do. And always will.

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three boys on the run

A decade of experience in the “dog blogosphere” has taught me much. If you’re going to get a dog blog started, I thought the best thing to do was to be controversial. All the other successful dog blogs did this sort of thing.

If they weren’t trashing breeds they’d never own, they were going on and on with dog abuse porn.  I chose the  former route. I made a name for myself.

But I grew up. I had things happen to me that changed my perspective on certain issues, and I struggled with these issues over and over.

I’ve finally come to the point in my life where I can say that I am happy with where I am in dogs. It’s not the same place I started.

And in this, I have to accept that I am now a heretic. I don’t have to wallow in anger or post videos of poorly-bred and poorly-exhibited show dogs to stoke the fires of misery.

Too much misery already exists in the world. Dogs should not be an add-on to misery.  That is certainly not their purpose in the modern world.

I do like dog shows. Are they the most important thing in the world of dogs? Not by a long shot. But having lived with several show-bred dogs, I can tell you they have indeed undergone a selection for dead-solid, stable temperaments. Are all show dogs like this? No, but a lot of them are.

Are there problems with closed registries? Yes. Are there some welfare issues with conformation in some breed? Yes, but, most of these dogs are well-cared for, and their breeders are prepared for the issues that might arise.

I suppose at some point I lost my ability to be sanctimonious and full of shit. And that only happens when you are forced to be humble or when you get your ass kicked.

The dogs have humbled me more than any person ever could. And when you’re humbled, you have to check your ego and take stock. Otherwise, you’re never going to be happy. Or I’d be in my 50s and still writing pretentious twaddle about “real working dogs.”

And yes, I am now a sinner. But my sin is choosing to be happy.  I let the rest wallow in misery. And if you want to read that stuff, you know where to go.

And I’ll go on sinning, thank you.

 

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The Grounding

streamer on the run

I readily admit that I am an odd human being. A lot of times, my mind is lost in thought and contemplation, and more than a few times, I become transfixed by animals.  I am a hard person to know, because my mind is drawn deeper into those forces than is typical for a member of my species.

I suppose these are the traits of someone who wishes to write about animals, but they are also the traits of an oddball. And I’ve always been an oddball.

I grew up in rural West Virginia, where things were meant to be a certain way, and I never fit the mold very well. I tried to be Christian through my youth and early adulthood, but slowly, I began to realize that I couldn’t be a Christian and be honest with myself.

I came to worship nature, the rocks, the trees, and the animals, and I realized I didn’t need a faith imported Palestine by way of the Roman Empire and the Anglo-Germanic Reformation to understand the world.

Add that problem with the simple fact that my worldview has drifted to the left as I’ve matured, and I now know that I am fully estranged from the land in which I was born. Fundamentalist religion, xenophobia, and fossil fuel worship have generally pushed the people of this forgotten Eastern Outback towards the right.

In so many ways,  I am unmoored, adrift.

But dogs are always going to ground me, though. Their magic is that they exist somewhere between the untouchable animal world and our very contrived civilization.  They are the conduit through which I can be connected to that which is organically evolved and that which is domesticated.

I live with more than a few of them now, a motley crew of German shepherds and sighthounds.

Not one of them is a golden retriever, as odd as that now seems. I have come to the conclusion that my love for that breed comes from my relationship with one individual that was totally atypical for the breed, and she was certainly atypical for what people want to produce in the breed.  People want them to be easier to keep, lower drive creatures with lots of bone.

That golden flame has burned out in my desires. It will still haunt my psyche, but I have finally let it go.

My writings on other wildlife stem from my dog connection. I go to their to closest wild kin, the gray wolf complex and then out to the whole dog family. Then the whole order Carnivora reaches my conscience, and it is but short step before I begin to consider the rest of the Animal Kingdom.

And in short while, I am considering my own station as an insignificant being, a fluttering avatar of carbon in a banal part of the universe. This insignificant being, one with just enough gray matter to question existence, is brought into the deepest humility.

I suppose I do have a religion now.  It is mystical materialism, and my ethics are some form of progressive secular humanism.

And the dogs brought me here. This oddball person who never could fit in a land where conformity is the greatest desideratum now questions in his unmoored existence. But in my unmooring, I am strangely grounded in my own insignificance, as is revealed in the nature of dogs and the rest of nonhumanity.

 

 

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Doubting

I’ve been scribbling away at this space for over a decade. Ten years ago, I was cocksure and dumb, and those two things are never a good match. I am amazed that anyone read that stuff I wrote back then. I was so full of crap, and my style was all edgelord and lilting.

I am not the same person now. I’ve had my successes and my failures. I’ve moved on, and I’ve taken leaps of faith that led me to different avenues, different perspective, different ideas.

I wish to God that I’d had the foresight to give this blog a better URL. It is so derivative that I almost shock myself at my naivete and utter lack of imagination. I named in the vein of hero worship, but I don’t have the same heroes now that I did back then.

I have come to hate much of my prose, even now when I’ve mostly found my voice and style. I’m profoundly insecure about what I write, and I must confess that I always was. Even when I wrote with the faux authority of an angry young man, I never felt that I was writing anything good.

I always felt a bit of fraud. I could write things so clearly that I made this weird illusion that I knew things I simply did not know. But as you get older, you learn what a damned fool you were.

I hate the way I write now more than ever. I write here mainly so I might cast off these ugly bugs that devour my syntax. It is a vain ritual, for I know sI will always write the way I do– and I don’t really like it.

So I will plunk away on this keyboard. Maybe you’ll like it, but I will always doubt.

I’m a doubter by nature. I no longer can write the pithy things that made this sort of blog get attention ten years ago. I no longer feel that that is my current purpose.

I don’t know what it is now, except to analyze out what I think the current science of dogs and their kin is and then maybe paint some pictures with words.

“Paint some pictures with words”? I can’t believe I wrote such a cliche!

Damn these bugs.

I’m so isolated from others writing blogging about these topics now that I sometimes feel that I’m just shooting out a load of nonsense that no one can follow or care about.

I suppose those of us who perform with written words feel these insecurities and sometimes become swamped with doubt.

It’s a hard business, especially when you feel so over-matched no matter what you do. But I stand where the rivers of fate have flushed me.

I stand as a writer. Nothing more. Nothing less. Without significance or favor, but without entirely losing faith in it all.

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The Caudillo of the Coalfields

The sun rises over his mansion. He stands outside and picks up the morning paper and squints his puffy fat eyes into the glowing eastern sky. He glowers back at the horror of sunshine, then slowly slips back into his castle for another day of conspiracy theorizing on Facebook. He believes himself a nobleman, benighted one, one left in exile from the hilly country of realm, where the black seam is dug and sun glints in only when the winter clouds dissipate.

In truth, he is no more a nobleman than he is a mobster. A big boss man of a coal giant, he made himself rich and powerful at the expense of his skilled workers who toiled in his mines. He killed water supplies and whole ecosystems in the wake of his avarice. He added a sort of toxic accelerant to the corrupt politics of West Virginia, making what was already vice even more disgustingly sleezy. Democratic politician knelt to kiss his ring, but he grew tired of pretending he cared for anything to do with their party. So he built the modern right that took over West Virginia, and anyone who wanted to be anybody came to seek approval before the throne.

His name is Don Blankenship. He was born to a single mother in a rundown house in the rundown town of Delorne. They had no running water, the outhouse was their refuge for the refuse of life, and had he been born in in 1900, he might have been a raging radical of the left. For Delorne lies in that land of Mingo, where the radical miners marched and took up arms against the coal company police state that held them in debt peonage and held away all that idea of the unions from the workers. But one time, the miners marched, native-born miners who tanged the Queen’s English as they always had in this and of hollows joined their arms with those who spoke with Irish brogues, African American dialects, and accents of Italian, Czech, and Yiddish.

But he was born a generation that was beginning to see the end of it all. The mines were being played out, and the unions were an obstacle to company profit.

He worked his way through the poor public schools of the county and learned his craft in trapping muskrats. From their hides, he paid his tuition to Marshall University, where the studied accounting. Accounting is study of numbers and yields, and although never a star student, he made his passing grades. He worked in the mines some, but he never once learned solidarity with those who toiled. He wanted more than that. He wanted to be the boss man.

Muskrate trapping is funny business. It is something akin to the beaver trapping that made men brave this territory to make their fortunes back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You come up with ways to make the muskrats drown, or lacking such abilities, you use traps that grip the body and suffocate them to death.

And so trapper Don worked the creeks and the streams, still wild with muskrats, even after all those years of pollution from sewage and mining. The muskrats gave their lives to fill his pockets and pay his fees and rise him up into a better station.

A man of numbers and figures, Don became the McNamara of the mines. He rose higher as he filled the company coffers, and he broke those pesky unions. And one day, he became CEO of Massey Energy.

And then set about becoming the caudillo of the coalfields. He threw his money at the politicians, and the politicians danced. He was the king maker, and everyone feared him.

How many people died because of his avarice is difficult to account. Cancer from the bad water poisoned from the mines is took quite a toll. Bad lungs were epidemic among all miners, but where the dust spread all day, the lungs of the citizenry grew black too.

And for his murine benefactors not much good came from it all. Muskrats don’t do well swimming in cancer creeks anymore than people do drinking for them.

How many people died in his mines in disasters and workplace safety errors, well, is also up to conjecture. Let’s just say it wasn’t zero, and in the end, it would his avarice overriding the need for safety that would do him in.

But he ran riot as the kingmaker. He helped Karl Rove deliver West Virginia to George W. Bush in 2000, when the state had such a long tradition of never voting for nonincumbent Republicans for president that went way back to when Herbert Hoover lost to Roosevelt in 1932.

And realizing the political winds were changing, he set about using his money to build a Republican Party in West Virginia, but it would not be one based upon the traditional conservative ideals of respect for institutions and skepticism of populism. No, it would be built on the reactionary populism that Don Blankenship saw as own sort of “American competitionist” ideology.

He called himself a radical, and in one election cycle, he got his own hand-picked Republican supreme court justice elected—“For the sake of the kids,” was his campaign slogan, accusing the incumbent Democrat of being too easy on a child molester and of being a Marxist to boot.

“For the sake of the kids” became the rallying cry for this Blankenship-based Republican Party to take the state legislature in 2006. Republican candidates ran with his blessing. He pumped their campaigns full of cash. But that cash really began to stink by then, and his slate of radicals all lost.

And thus began the twilight of the caudillo of the coalfields. He continued as the CEO, but environmental protestors were onto him. He had already poisoned the Tug River when his company’s Martin County, Kentucky, slurry impoundment escaped its banks. Water was tainted, and so became Mr. Blankenship.

In the end, Blankenship’s desire to keep the mines “running coal” at the expense of all safety brought him in. An explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine took the lives of 29 good, hard-working miners. Obama was president. Joe Manchin was senator. Obama’s MSHA did its job. It fingered Blankenship’s disregard for safety as the main reason for the explosion. He allowed the ventilation system to malfunction, and miners were forced to work where the coal dust, methane, and carbon monoxide levels were allowed to build. He wanted the coal run. He needed more money. More money was more important than their lives.

He was prosecuted for his crimes, but he was found guilty of only a misdemeanor, conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations. The judge still put him in federal prison, a club fed sort of place in California.

There, he had time to stew over the conviction. He wrote a book defaming Obama’s MSHA as the real culprit behind the explosion. He drew harder on right wing conspiracy theories about how the world really works

And when freed from prison, he instantly set about making a documentary that relied heavily on this narrative, which had played on local television stations in West Virginia. By that time, West Virginia had decided that Obama was the cause of all its woes, and a certain portion of the public became receptive to his insane bellyaching.

West Virginia loved Donald Trump, voting for him by the second highest margin of any state in the union. Coal-mining Wyoming held the distinction of being Trump’s number one state. But Blankenship saw how Trump had played that victim card very well to win the presidency, and he knew that he could pay that card even better when he threw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination of US Senate. He would be taking on what he thought of as the New Jersey-based Republican establishment that had gained control over West Virginia’s GOP. In truth, all that had happened is some New Jersey right wingers had been unable to get elected in their home state went to West Virginia to launch more successful political careers. Among them was Patrick Morrissey, the state’s attorney general, who had decided he also wanted Joe Manchin’s senate seat.

The Republican establishment in Washington wanted Evan Jenkins, a turncoat Democrat who had once been in the state senate but had managed to win a seat in congress as a Republican. His former Democratic bona fides haunted him all through the campaign.

It was a campaign based upon Blankenship’s id gone made. He stole Trump’s thunder in giving his opponents nicknames. Evan Jenkins became “Little Joe,” as if he were Joe Manchin’s doppelganger. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell became “Cocaine Mitch,” a reference to the discovery of cocaine on one of McConnell’s wife’s family’s ships. He also called him a Swamp Captain and pledged his undying loyalty to Donald Trump. He played ads asking that they lock Hillary Clinton up for colluding with Russia, and he played the race card hard. He said that Mitch McConnell’s father-in-law was a “wealthy Chinaperson” and implied that McConnell only cared about making China great again.

Despite being the uber Trump in that race, he still lost to Morrisey. He still won a few really rural counties, where conspiracy theories are the main currency of the local GOP apparatchiks. He lost this race because Trump himself tweeted out that Blankenship couldn’t win, and instead of turning on Trump. Blankenship turned on the Republican Party.

He hired his production crew to make more crazy ads. He came up with a conspiracy theory that Patrick Morrissey’s New Jersey political operatives worked together with a Fox News host from New Jersey to ruin his campaign. He was so angry with it all that he changed his registration to the Constitution Party, which then offered him their nomination for the US Senate seat. He filed signatures with the West Virginian secretary of state, telling his followers that if he got rejected from the ballot it was only because the establishment of both parties was trying to stop him. Of course, what was actually against him was the state’s sore loser law, which prevents people who lose a primary to run as another party or an independent as a balloted candidate for the general election. The state supreme court threw out Blankenship’s complaint when he was denied ballot access by the secretary of state, and he raced to Facebook too whine to his followers about how the world was truly against him all that was right in the world.

Morrissey lost the general election. Blankenship is still filing with federal courts to get his conviction overturned. He has millions of dollars and greedy lawyers who will gladly take some his fees.

And he has his mansion in Nevada and his Chinese girlfriend, but he doesn’t have the power over the land of coal anymore. It sears his very soul to know this fact, for like Donald Trump he is a man who feels deeply insecure. He knows deep down that his money came from being an amoral, avaricious prick, and he knows he has done wrong. But he cannot look himself in the mirror and accept this fact and fully accept his exile.

I suspect he’ll try running for governor of West Virginia, or maybe if Donald Trump gets impeached, Don will throw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for president. It aches himself from the inside out that he cannot be the caudillo anymore, and if he can’t be the caudillo, maybe he can be the illustrious potentate of the whole nation. If only those mean ol’ liberals and Swamp Captains would just lay off him.

And so the benighted and exiled wannabe nobleman is left to his Nevada mansion to writhe the convulsions of his conspiracy theories. Perhaps he portends of the future for Mr. Trump, who also knows his own money largely comes from even more dubious means than sweatshop coal-mining and whose fortune is likely protected from the government’s levy by even more dubious tax schemes. Mr. Mueller or Maxine Waters are on the hot trails of all these potential liabilities, which are even more likely than his Russian collusion connections. And he must agonize all the live-long day that these liabilities could be exposed at any moment.

But I cannot help but reflect a bit upon myself. Like Blankenship, I am fully estranged from West Virginia politics. At one point of my life, I wanted to work in politics down there. I wanted to be fighter for the little guy, the ones whose lives were ruined by people like Don Blankenship. I got a degree in political science, and I went to law school to be a people’s tribune. I became instantly alienated from ever having any hope in that profession the second I stepped into law school, for I felt lost in all the esoteric nonsense about property inheritance in wills and what was a tort and what wasn’t. I suppose that deep down, I wanted to do politics because I loved the story and the drama, but I would never make it as an attorney.

And I cannot even feign a breath of Trumpish conservatism, nor can I pretend to be religious. By the time I was 23, I had intellectually rejected all theses of Christianity, but I was too afraid to admit to myself or others. And I certainly couldn’t play games as mainstream evangelical Christianity prostrates its before the altar of Donald Trump. I couldn’t hold my tongue and avoid saying that Trump is a horse’s ass, a violation that would probably cost me a Democratic nomination for virtually any office In virtually every part of the state.

I never had any hope of being a kingmaker or a people’s tribune. I accept that my native land and I will be forever politically estranged. And in this, I suppose I have more awareness than Mr. Blankenship, and it certainly cannot sear my soul the way it clearly does to him.

And so the tragic burlesque that is West Virginia politics goes on. Can a difference ever be made? Maybe, but for someone as melancholic as me, it is best that I let go and move on to safer station, where I can watch the whole scene in psychological safety.

That is where I am right now. The evening sun in December pierces the clouds. The gray skeleton trees glow glumly in their grayness. Not much snow this far in this greenhouse winter. Only the disgusting, nasty mud, and the chill rain fall from the sky. The arctic is warmer this winter. Don Blankenship made some of that all possible. He won’t admit it. He denies it like all his guilty sins.

And America goes on in ruins, but maybe there is hope. There has to be. I cannot allow myself to think otherwise.

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They ran Charolais on this rugged green ridgeland.  For forty  years, the big white cattle bellowed across the hollows, and the cows marched with their snowball calves in the greening days of April. The big bulls sat in the last remaining copses of oak trees on the land, chewing their cuds and resting all docile and dowdy through those sweltering days of summer.

But the world moved on. The farm family that ran the cattle was losing its grip on the land. Each generation left fewer and fewer people who were willing to commit to cattle husbandry. Now, there was one son, and he was taking a job on an oil rig in the far Gulf of Mexico. He just couldn’t run the cattle anymore.

The price of the Charolais beef had dropped over the years.They bred them almost entirely as a specialty, as a tradition, and now it was all over. The herd was sold to the feedlots, one in South Dakota and another in Tennessee.  The remaining herd bulls would go to Kansas to be bred as purebred Charolais at a specialist breeding program.

The final days of the cattle were on those green, sweet days of June, when the sun bakes the land and the grass grows perfectly green succulent. This would be the time after the first hay-cutting and before the second, when the rowen started to grow up among the stalks of the fallen first cutting. The rabbits would soon be kindling among the growing stalks, and maybe a litter or two wold be born and raised before the mowing machines came again.

But this year, the rabbits bred unmolested and the hayfield grew thick and green and then went to seed in the sun. No machine would come and cut down the grass, and rabbits would have their green refuge for the season.

And so the cows took their calves into the greenery, and the bulls rested their haunches in the oak lots.

It was sweet and settling, and in any other year, it would be the time when the cattle could be watched and the farm hand could breathe in the air and take a bit of time of ease.

But this year, it was all logistics of cattle trailers and health certificates. Recalcitrant haulers and busy veterinarians were on the phone all through the morning and evening.

It takes a lot of planning to end what had been a way of life. Indeed, the idea of it all being a way of life had already become the cliche of the demise of the family farm. But just because it was a cliche, didn’t mean it wasn’t true, and it was just as painful.

The long days of June were Halcyon days, just as they always were. But the first haulers showed up, and the first batch cows and calves left. 

It was raining when the trailer for the bulls showed up, and they splashed so much mud over their porcelain white hides that one could be forgiven for thinking they belonged to an entirely different breed.

And the haulers kept coming and taking away the cattle. And one day, there just a little scrub band of cows with calves.

And the thunder rolled in that last night before their hauler arrived. The sky lit up brightly withe sheet lightning, and the muggy air seemed to sweat and sweat until the deluge of rain came falling. The lightning cast the silhouettes of cows and calves in a truly ethereal scene. They were like ghosts standing upon the green grass as the sky dropped the buckets of rain. 

And then sky drew silent, and red June sun began its rising. The robins and thrushes and cardinals lifted their voices in song, and the day came roaring in on the land.

The final hauler arrived and the last of the cattle were loaded in the mud, and the cattle trailer headed down the dirt road, casting off to the southwest to Tennessee.

The meadowlarks sang in the pasture grass.  Crows flitted about the scene, and a pair of wild turkey hens came marching through pastures with 21 poults among them. They inspected the cowpies for bits of grain and grubs, and then moseyed on through the pasture in a singing, clucking phalanx of feathers and down.

They could not know that these were the last cowpies to be deposited upon the land. They merely came through pasture land on their wild foraging excursions, and they could not know that what was will never be again.

The sun of July and August would soon beat down upon the old pasture land. The manure would bake in the sun, and the scarabs would carry off what remained.

And the only thing that would remain of the cattle-land would be the deep furrows in the steep hill pastures that marked long years of bovine inertia moving hard upon the rocks and soil with cloven hooves.

And so another cattle farm went away, and just like the bison that once ranged these same ridges, they slipped away into the long draw of history.

And thus ended the final days of the cattle, and the grass grew thick and lush.  The wild multiflora rose run riot through the pasture in the coming years, and the Virginia and white pines would come to take the land. Then would come the aspen colonies and the drumming grouse.

Back to the forest the land would return, no longer a Jeffersonian farmstead of legend, but a bit of land left feral for the bears and the bobcats and the squacking squirrels. 

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The Old Horse

belgian horse

November’s chill winds scored the valley. The last of the October glowing leaves were knocked to the ground, and the finally stalks of summer corn were cut and set up as silage for the long starving season.

Men were thinking of meat now. The coming gun season for deer loomed as heavily as the November frosts, and those who still kept swine were preparing their scalding tubs and sharpening their hide scrapers.  The Angus steers that hadn’t been sold were similarly being prepared for the freezer.

The nights now drew in early and heavy winter dark, and Old Farmer Wilson seemed to know the score. Yes, he had a barrow or two in the back to take care of before the coming great deer hunt, when his meat gambrels would be hanging with musky venison to be skinned.

But his concerns were now in the nearer pasture, whose only inmate was Dan, the stolid old Belgian horse that he had inherited from a long-deceased great uncle. The great uncle was one of last of the horse-drawn men, the kind who cursed the roaring of the internal combustion engines on his fields and cropland and still held onto the old heavy horses. He held onto them as stubbornly as a barnacle, and when he passed, he left 200 acres to Farmer Wilson and a good horse to work it.

Wilson never much used the horse to work the land. He kept the great beast as a sort of novelty, a relic from an ancient time, and he fed him the finest horse grain and pellets and let him pull a wagon at small town parades.  He loved to groom out Dan’s flaxen mane and fetlocks and smooth out his golden hide with a currycomb, and he would pull that little Conestoga facsimile through the little towns of the valley and look so elegant while doing so.

But the years took their toll on the man and the horse. Dan’s condition had worsened over the long summer. He would eat all day on good green forage, but he would still get a little more gaunt each day.

The old horse’s teeth were wearing out, and Wilson knew that the kind thing to do would be relieve the old gelding of his suffering.

But he couldn’t be made to do it all through that summer and even in the waning days of September. The gentle old horse still touched a man who could off a pig with a single shot to the head.  The horse wanted to be good. He wanted to feel a man’s hand upon his neck and shoulders.  There was dignity in this old beast, and no man who ever knew such an animal could deny it.

And the horse reminded Wilson of the old men on the land that he knew so well. Their farms were now mostly left to go fallow then turn to brushy filth before growing up in the gray twig forest that now covered much of the countryside. Horses and men worked the land, as did many women and children.  But their farms were now forest, and their horses and mules were lost to the ages.

But Wilson knew the time was near. In another era, they just would have shot the old horse with a deer rifle, but Wilson believed that such a beast deserved a proper death.

He made an appointment for the vet to come the Friday before Thanksgiving. The big horse would fall out of his mortal coil, and the weekend would be for the pig killing.

The vet came that eerily sunny Friday morning. The sun cast that yellow pall of waning light that comes in November and December, and the trees stood naked as gray skeleton against the azure, cloudless sky.

Wilson whistled for Dan to come for his morning feeding, which had had brought in double helpings– and added half dozen golden delicious apples.

The great horse nibbled and nuzzled at his repast, and Wilson stroked his mane and neck, offering up the tender loving words  of “Good boy” and “What a fine horse you are.”

And the vet came with his big syringes, all filled with the elixirs of gentle death, and then approached the man and horse.

The vet asked, “Are you ready?”

“I guess so,” was the solemn reply, which came only through the deepest of man sobs.

And so the vet came and injected the big horse with the thick needles, and the great animal dropped down to the muddy ground.

And a Farmer Wilson wept and sobbed as he never done before. Here was a man who offed pigs and chickens without thinking twice, but something was very different here.

For in that felling of the great horse, the last tangible piece of those old rheumy memories was extinguished upon the muddy ground.

And a truly noble and sagacious beast was no longer among the living, and anyone with half a soul would weep at such a thing passing.

The crows called in soft wind. A blue jay screeched from the hickory trees beyond hte pasture. A pileated woodpecker chattered madly in the sky.

And the last of the turkey vultures coursed the sky, casting their bills into the breeze to catch the scent of the dead.

The dead horse’s flesh probably grazed their olfactory systems a bit, but they carried on the sky, looking for morsels of meat that weren’t guarded by two men.

That night, Wilson ate a dinner of store-bought sausage.  He didn’t cook it as thoroughly as he normally did, and the blood gushed a bit from the center, oozing out into the plate in a scarlet trickle.

Normally, he would think of nothing of his mistake, but this time, he sat and stared hard at the blood.  Blood would be coming in the morning, when began his annual pig killing, and the blood would run harder and darker than it ever would on his plate.

He considered his odd position as a man who cared for his animals and then killed them, He gave them good food and lots of good care, but the end was the same. The animals died. Their flesh fed him and his friends and family who would take the meat.

It was that problem that he always buried, but this time he had to consider it more.  It was not enough to make him a vegan, but it was enough to take him aback. He had to consider his monstrous self once again, and that consideration is never comfortable.

Some tears eased their way down his cheeks, and he pushed the plate aside for. He sipped his evening coffee and stepped out into the dark sky. The stars were twinkling against the black sheet of night, and he stared up into their infinity.  He breathed in the cold air.

A great horned owl’s hooting rose from the forest in the far end of the property, but then it fell silent.

And the land was all silent all around in the darkness of a November night.  The frosts had killed off all the crickets and katydids of the year, and their stridulations no longer rose in the blackness.

It was just the blackness and the silence and the infinity, and the simple fact that all beings are alone, after all, when the end finally comes.

Be they men or old work horses or katydids or barrow swine, their existence comes to an end, and yet life goes on.

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