Autumn in Vermont

Art took these photos on his bike ride the other day– from our place past Gillette Pond,  to the top of Robin’s Mountain, with great views of Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump.


 

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Do animals have souls?

The writer and ecologist Carl Safina has been looking at animals his whole life. I am not talking about sheep – but dolphins and whales, elephants and wolves, crows and razorbills. His beautiful book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, contains a wealth of observations of animal life that lend a whole new depth to the question, Why look at animals?

When your dog rolls over for you to rub her belly, or wags her tail and beams at you – is it fair to say that she is happy, or would you be assuming too much? Is it possible that humans are so different from dogs, or cats or lambs or elephants, that we are the only ones who experience happiness, or that other creatures cannot express it in similar ways? Science has collected evidence abundant to demonstrate that animals are individuals – as humans are – that they use tools, that they are aware of the minds of others, that they can use deception and cleverness to out-smart others; that whales, dolphins, wolves and elephants grieve and mourn their dead, help and care for others in distress; they play, laugh, joke, and cry (elephants even produce tears). We are not anthropomorphizing when we apply these words to animals; these emotions and abilities do not belong exclusively to us. “Certainly projecting feelings onto other animals can lead to us misunderstanding their motivations. But denying that they have any motivations guarantees that we’ll misunderstand … Not assuming they have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science.”

Jane Goodall was famously scorned for her work with chimpanzees when she enrolled as a doctoral student. She shouldn’t have given the chimps names, her esteemed professors told her, and she shouldn’t have talked about their feelings or personalities. But this insistence on human uniqueness and difference contradicts what we know about biology and evolution – not to mention what is evident to just about anyone who has ever had a dog. Biology tells us that each newer thing in nature is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess comes from somewhere – frogs and chickens have femurs, the precursors to our jointed leg. That is to say, that most of what we possess as a species is shared. “Species differ,” Safina writes, “but they are not really very different.”

“We never seem to doubt that an animal acting hungry feels hungry. What reason is there to disbelieve that an elephant who seems happy is happy? We recognize hunger and thirst while animals are eating and drinking, exhaustion when they tire, but deny them joy and happiness as they’re playing with their children and families. The science of animal behavior has long operated with that bias – and that’s unscientific. In science, the simplest interpretation of evidence is often the best. When elephants seem joyous in joyful contexts, joy is the simplest interpretation of the evidence. Their brains are similar to ours, they make the same hormones involved in human emotions –and that’s evidence, too.”

I doubt that there is a reader out there who would question Safina’s reasoning – but in the hallowed halls of animal science, to make these kinds of statements is to commit professional suicide.

 

Ironically, we began to learn about the social and emotional lives of whales from watching them in captivity. It did not take long for their captors to realize that these creatures were not like sheep or cattle. Babies taken from mother killer whales provoked displays of grief that could break anyone’s heart. “One mother,” describes researcher Alexander Morton, “stayed in the corner of the pool, literally shaking and screaming, screeching, crying.” Another watched as her calf was lifted by crane from the pool and “as her baby’s voice left the water and entered the air, the mother threw her enormous body against the tank walls, again and again, causing the entire stadium to shake.” Another mother who lost her baby was inconsolable, and for hours would face the gift shop, staring at the toy baby orcas.

Anyone who thinks that animals have no consciousness, no language, no ability to plan ahead, no self awareness or consciousness of death, or that they do not have “theory of mind,” meaning that they cannot know that “others have thoughts different than their own,” would be astonished by the observations recorded by researchers who have logged countless hours patiently watching them. All animals, it turns out, are individuals –even the squishy octopi are different, one from the other, just like we are – where one octopus will screw open a jar to retrieve its contents, and then rescrew it, another will show no interest whatsoever in the jar. A razorbill knows every other razorbill by name– out of thousands in a colony –and can find his mate among them, without fail. Groupers are clever, who solicit the cooperation of eels at capturing their prey. Jays plan consciously, storing food and eating the perishable food first. Elephants mourn and remember their dead. Killer whales – orcas – live in social units with their distinct dialects and avoid mixing with other units for cultural reasons. There is no parallel for this, that we know of, outside of humans. Above all, the species that is most like us is not a primate – but the wolf, who lives in family packs, in socially complex groups, who is as loyal as she is brutal. Wolves will banish one another, defend their loved ones to the death, and lead suffering, tragic lives. Males care for their spouses and offspring for life, and bring food home to their families – only humans do this, and no other species is at war with itself, wolf against wolf, the way we are. “Wolves and humans understand each other,” Safina writes. “That’s one reason we invited wolves, instead of chimpanzees, into our lives.” Wolves, dogs, us. “We were made for one another.”

 

The stories of whales and dolphins are the most extraordinary. Dolphins escorting lost boats through the fog. Accounts of dolphins lifting drowning bodies to the surface are legion – although humans have not reciprocated their kindness, dolphins and whales have shown an extraordinary gentleness and care towards our species. A group of bottlenose dolphins forms a protective ring around a surfer who’s been bitten by a shark. The attendant dolphins who cared for the boy Elian Gonzalez, adrift at sea, nudging him back onto his tube to keep him afloat. The dolphins who suddenly abandon the sardines they are feasting upon to swim six miles to where a woman lies floating, face up, unconscious but alive. In another account, a group of dolphins suddenly acts strangely, abandoning their sportive diving around a boat’s bow to swim in a column along the portside, keeping a solemn distance. It turned out, someone had died in his bunk on board; only after the body had been removed did the dolphins behave normally again, diving and frolicking around the bow. These researchers had watched dolphins for twenty-five years and never saw them behave this way.

These accounts are too many, too detailed, and too consistent to dismiss as mere anecdotes – many of them recorded by hard-nosed scientists with recorders and notepads in hand. Things like dolphin telepathy – what sounds to a rationalist like woo-woo – has compelled a scientist like Safina to reconsider. Whales and dolphins and elephants caring for lost and injured human beings? What on earth is going on here?

On beaches where killer whales hurl themselves onto the sand to drag away thousand pound sea lions, whereupon they will beat them and tear their bodies to shreds – the same whales will, docile as puppies, form a ring around a park ranger who has slipped into the surf in his kayak. Giant predators who will crush and kill any other mammal in the water, have never killed or hurt a human being, not even accidentally. How is it, Safina asks, that they have never – not once– even tipped over a human being in a kayak? Or accidentally smacked one of us with a tail or fin? Whales will seek out our kind, hanging around boats, putting on a show for whale watchers, seeking us out as playmates and companions; they have escorted lost researchers home, guarded humans from sharks and mourned our dead. Something very mysterious is going on here. Is it possible that whales and dolphins detect a kinship with us, that they do not feel they have with flounder or seals – and that it has something to do with our minds, our consciousness, or dare I use the word, our souls?

Elephants, too, have been known to defend and protect us – showing an empathy and kindness that we surely do not deserve. One elephant carried an injured woman to a safe place, covered her in branches for warmth, and sat with her through the night to defend her from hyenas until help arrived. We have heard the stories of elephants carrying people to higher ground during the Boxing Day tsunami. Elephants will stop dead in their tracks to avoid hurting a human in their path – treatment they would not give to a hyena or a warthog. What is it that elephants see in us that they give us this special treatment? Especially us – who are the only species to massacre their entire families, destroy their forests, and cause them to live their lives in terror and trauma?

 

Not all animals mourn their dead, or experience the profound and inconsolable grief that whales and elephants do. I have seen our sheep step over their dead lambs as if they were nothing to them. And when we take their lambs away, when they are a year old, the ewes that gave birth to them and cared for them so tenderly in their first months do not even notice they are gone. They graze and chew their cud and lounge about as if nothing whatsoever were amiss. I can say this with as much confidence as I can say that they are happy when they show happiness, or that they are bored and pissed when they are pestering Art to move them to new pasture. This may be what Joel Salatin means (of Polyface Farm) when he says that he has no problem with killing and eating animals because “they have no souls.” By this measure, livestock are different than elephants or whales, who are the very embodiment of soul. If our sheep wailed and screamed and shook when their lambs were taken, it would surely not happen on our watch.

But to say that they do not miss their lambs is not to say that they are machines, or that they do not suffer, nor is it to deny that each of them is a who, not an it. (Every time I type a “who” to refer to an animal, grammar-check advises me to change it to a “that”.) It is our responsibility as their guardians to provide them a good life, and that means, to allow them to live a sheep’s life– to borrow from Salatin again – that is, a life in which they are allowed to express their sheepness. That is their ewetopia.

We are all too familiar with images of nature tooth and claw. But what of nature heart and soul? What about the myriad displays of intelligence, joyfulness, empathy, caring, kindness, loyalty, even soulfulness, that is there for us to see in the animal world if we would only bother to look? How is it that, having lived with animals since time immemorial, we have missed all of this wonder and astonishment? Our science-based understanding of animals is coming around to what the aboriginals always knew, who certainly never doubted that animals had “theory of mind.” To accept that all animals have inner lives that are a mystery to us– sheep and cattle, too –is to admit the sacred into our daily lives. The world, it turns out, is a much more interesting and mysterious place than the one mapped out by Descartes and his descendants– alive with consciousness and empathy, language and music, and webs of communication across the species barrier that we have barely glimpsed. We need not be so lonely as a species. Surely we could not be as cruel – if only we would pay attention to what is hidden in plain sight.

 

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Looking at Lambs

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Lambs in spring.

Of course, that is when they are supposed to arrive. Not in dead of winter.  To postpone the lambing season – which would naturally begin five months after the first cold nights—until the milder weather arrives, requires making sure all the ram lambs are neutered, and either separating the ram from the flock or not keeping a ram at all. Last year we had no lambs, and we had no ram, and in the fall we borrowed a ram (who was not easy to find) for two months, returning him after he had performed his “service.” He was a gentle giant with a roman nose and a bell hanging from his neck, which meant we always knew when he was near. His name was Obama. I was not sure how I felt about that name—though soon enough the name belonged to him. Obama did have a fringe of grey frost to his dark wool, and he had that certain presidential coolness about him. After the tragic events of November 8, I felt a pain something akin to grief whenever we spoke his name.

When he first arrived, the girls (as we call them) were afraid of him and took off running. Obama ran after them, his bell ringing, but since he had a sore ankle he had difficulty keeping up. This went on for a few days. In time, it was the ewes who were seducing him, rubbing up against him and batting their eyelashes, and he became well integrated into the family. He turned out to be the nicest ram we ever had here; he never bullied the ewes and never so much as suggested any aggression toward us. When we had to get him into the truck to take him home, I stood back and watched – having been spooked by the aggression I have seen from other rams – as two girls from next door helped Art to lift up his front legs, then the rear, to get him in the Uhaul. They were dressed in clogs and colorful scarves. Obama only shrugged as he took one last look at us, before Art closed the door and he was gone. Ci vediamo.

The lambs came five months later, in two sets of twos, at two-week intervals, starting in mid-March. The first lambs were born– both ewes, one black and one white– to Eweriah, a granddaughter of Ewelysses. They were both strong and healthy. The following day we had the biggest snowfall of the season: twenty-nine inches in Burlington­ – a record. The next day more pairs of twins were born. And then more. All the ewes, in the end, had twins, except for Eweripedes who produced one big black ram lamb with a white X mark across his face. Lambs in snow still sounds like winter, but the temperatures were in the twenties at the lowest, t-shirt weather for the sheep, who had no trouble with it at all. No frozen ears snapping off like tortilla chips, no cold blue tongues. We never had to bring any lambs inside to warm them by the fire. And no bottle lambs.

We dug out a trail to the barn through the knee-deep snow. I looked back at the barn from the house through a lacey curtain of snowfall to see the newborns, white and black, nudging at their mother’s underbellies, their heads disappearing and the little rumps sticking out, the tail shaking to say to the world that that all is well beneath its milky firmament. The white blanket of snow covered the bare paddock, the sheep tucked in as if in a freshly made bed. They will not try to make their way through the deep snow, and so they are confined to the barn, but this is a good time for them to stay home, absorbed as they are in their tender domesticity.

And when the sheep are out on pasture, we get to watch the lambs racing across the brilliant green velvet of new grass. They have long tracts of grass for their races, and we watch them tearing across the pastures in a zebra-striped blur. They will play their king-of-the-mountain game on the backs of ewes, who remain placid, chewing their cud, as the lambs jump on their backs and run across the ridgeline of their spines, then jump off and jump again. Art made them a jungle gym out of some pallets, an artificial mountain for their games, which we can watch from our kitchen window. How they kick their feet together in mid air when they jump, twisting their bodies like a high diver in her descent. They will run circles around their mountain, then take off in a race across the length of the paddock and back, more lambs joining into the throng until they are a full herd galloping across the prairies.

 

In his classic essay, “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger reflects on the disappearance of animals from our lives, who have been with us as partners in survival throughout our history. In Vermont, there are almost no cows or goats or sheep grazing on open pastures anymore, though that iconic image still persists in our minds as if it were still true. There are two large dairies in our town, though no cows anywhere in sight. On one farm, the cows sleep on waterbeds and are milked by robots. On the other, it is possible to catch a glimpse of their big-boned bodies through the barn door, and to see the calf hutches lined up behind it, though not the poor animals that must live their short lives in them. The animals are still here but we do not see them, and they can not return our gaze to look at us.

We are not the only ones looking at our animals, which can be seen from the road by passersby who often stop to admire the lambs. Berger says that the presence of animals gives us a sense of endurance.  The ewe that has died “had already lambed her permanence.” So it was that the animals who had been with us were still with us and will always be with us: with every season there will be new lambs, who will fill the air with their cries and will delight us with their pink-eared faces and their leaping. That is why we are grateful to see lambs out grazing, or resting together with the ewes beneath the shade trees, chewing their cud, in their blessed contentment. That is why we are so glad to see the VYCC’s cows on the hillside pasture behind us. This year they are Jerseys, those caramel colored cows with the long curly eyelashes and the dreamy eyes of young girls in love. The animals have not disappeared altogether, their presence says to us, the soils have not all been carried away by the winds and the rains in their absence. There are still animals to anchor us on this earth, its axis fastened in its reliable turning, four-leggeds speaking in their strange tongues of this day and forever.

 

 

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Why Look at Animals? John Berger. Penguin, 2009.

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Going Gently

Ewelysses (right) with her lamb Eweclid.

We buried our favorite ewe yesterday.

Ten years old, Ewelysses died the way the old ewes always do: she just lay down one day and never got up again. It was in the middle of lambing season, and during her last days, the new lambs were coming into the world, playing and crying and sometimes jumping onto her back. Such is the nature of farming: so much life, so much death.

Ewelysses was a favorite because she had personality. She had these crescent moons under her eyes and she had a sense of humor. She was also my first bottle lamb, born on the eve of the Valentine’s Day blizzard of 2007. I had to hold her in my arms to feed her during that first night, because she would not stand up to drink, but by the morning she was upright and bleating away, and by the second night she was already bounding out of her box.

On the day of the blizzard, another pair of twins arrived. We had to dig a trench through the snow to get to the barn, which quickly filled up with snow again. We asked our tenant to come out to help us with the stubborn ewe, and waited almost an hour for him to make it from the house to the barn through the chest-deep snow. Our woodpile, the car, the fence posts, were all completely buried, and later, when the snow hardened, the sheep could walk right over the top of the paddock fence, trailing their lambs behind them.

One of the new twins could not stand up; the ewe stood over him, pawing at the ground, as if to say, get up, get up. What else was she going to do? We decided to bring him inside to warm him up and soon he was up on his feet and ready to go. We brought him back out to the barn to his mother and hoped for the best.

That night I opened the back door and heard a lamb screaming as if to split the world in two. It was the loudest, most heart-rending cry I had ever heard. I went out and found the little black lamb curled up in the snow in front of the creep, screaming and facing the house, as if to say, “Come and get me!”

So we had two bottle lambs that winter and spring, Ewelysses and Rudy Valentino.

I remember it all so well because this was the winter I was traveling back and forth to Washington DC to help care for my brother in hospice. These were the two lambs who appear in my poem “Coming Home”:

 

Coming Home

When I got home from the airport

….

The first thing I’d do

would be to go out to the barn

to feed the two lambs, where I’d let

my body sink down to the ground,

my back against the wall,

as the lambs ––one black, one white –

climbed all over me, until they found

their bottles, which they’d suck

with a great ferocity, until

they were satiated, and calm,

the one resting across my lap,

sleeping, murmuring.

There I would sit for a while

in the dark, listening to the slow

heavy breath of the ewes,

the ground soaked, through the years,

with the blood of afterbirth, and where,

when the old ewes die, they just

lie down in the straw and never

get up again, wanting to remain

with the animals, as the old poet said.

We gave Ewelysses a forest burial. Art carried her through the rain in a garden cart across the muddy field to the edge of the woods, where he lay her down on the forest floor. The coyotes know the spot – it is our unwritten covenant with them. In a few days, there will be not a trace of her left. She will become a part of the forest, in the song of the coyote on the hill, in the black streak of a raven’s wing in its flight. Other than the snow and the hail and the rain, and her birth – a creature coming into existence from the watery, dark warmth of the womb, like a nimbus star– this will be the most wildness that she will ever know.

And now that I come to mark the tenth anniversary of by brother’s death, I measure it in the length of a ewe’s life, and it feels too long, too much, to have passed so quickly. This small grief is cast like a shadow from a much larger one. An animal’s death occurs inside a circle of living and dying; I do not rage against it. But for a brother’s death before his time, there is no circle, no poetry, only these small consolations – a lamb falling asleep in a lap – that tether us to this world us as we stumble through our grief.

 

 

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Niles Lathem , June 21, 1955 – April 12, 2007.

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The Monitor Elm

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We have some great old trees on our property, but the tall one-hundred-year-old elm tree is the grandest of them all.

It rises straight up from the roadside like a geyser, and then opens up like a fountain in the sky.

I have many fond memories of gathering with friends around a picnic table in the shade of its great canopy. Our sheep like to take their siesta in its ample shade, and in summer its crown is filled with songbirds. We have even seen the pendant nest of the Baltimore oriole suspended from its uppermost branches.

It is odd that friends who have been to our place many times are surprised to learn that there is an elm tree here. That may be because its telltale tall straight trunk is disguised by the maple that grows with it like a conjoined twin.

A few years ago a botanist from the University of Vermont stopped by to study the tree; he told us it might be the healthiest American elm tree in the state. More recently, someone with the Nature Conservancy knocked on our door – he was passing by when he happened to notice our elm. The Nature Conservancy is searching the region for the largest and healthiest surviving elm trees for its floodplain forest restoration project, with the goal of planting seven thousand disease-resistant saplings over three years in Connecticut River Watershed. *

Only last year another large old elm tree in Richmond succumbed to the disease that has taken 77 million elms since the 1970s. The tree was removed by Vermont Tree Goods, which makes unique handcrafted furniture out of very old trees. The Tilden Street elm was made into a conference table that now dignifies our town offices, and can be admired and used by the people of Richmond for generations to come.

Before I learned about the Tilden Elm, I had been rather complacent about our own, believing that if it has survived this long then it is not in danger.

Then I learned about the death of another elm, this one the largest elm tree in Vermont – called the Vermont Elm – last November in Charlotte. Vermont Tree Goods took down the tree, milled and kiln dried the wood and turned it into furniture. The bottom 20-foot long section alone weighed 25,000 pounds.

The elm tree once dominated the floodplain forests in New England and was planted along city streets to form living arches, in city parks and town centers. They are fast-growing, robust trees that can tolerate urban environments and all kinds of storms. And they are beautiful.

We did love the elm tree to death, however. Planting rows of elms along city streets was, in effect, to create monocultures that made them susceptible to epidemic disease. When dutch elm disease arrived, it swept through these plantations, spreading from treetop to treetop, and then, infected elms in their natural habitats as well. Trees that remained isolated from affected trees, and those with genetic resistance, survived. Our elm is one of those.

American elms are still abundant in floodplain forests but they do not survive to maturity. No other tree has come to take the ecological place of the largest, longest- living tree in the floodplain forest. Elms with their deep strong roots kept soils from washing away and maintained water quality of rivers and streams, while providing habitat for osprey, eagle, barred owl, songbirds, bats, and flying squirrels.

Trees have a trenchant psychological power over us that may be difficult to explain. But it makes sense, given the importance of trees to our survival, and given our origins as tree dwelling primates. In his beautiful essay, “The Brown Wasps,” Loren Eiseley writes that he passed his life the shade of a non-existent tree – a tree that took root and flourished in his memory as it failed to do in the patch of soil where he planted it, with his father, as a young boy. The house and the street where he lived had both rotted away, but not the memory of the tree, which, he learned many years later, had perished in its first season, just after his family moved away. “It was part of my orientation in the universe,” he wrote, “and I could not survive without it.”

I know what it is like to lose a big old tree. Before I moved to Richmond, I lived beside the New Haven River in an old house surrounded by large trees that were badly damaged in a late summer thunderstorm. One tall black locust tree lay sprawling across the road, others lost their tops. A neighbor broke a leg when a tree fell on him during that storm, which whipped around and twisted like a cyclone. For a long time I mourned the loss of those trees, and I felt that sense of disorientation– the kind that comes with grief, when we stumble about on our sea legs, stunned and unanchored in a world we dimly recognize.

It was a bit like that for us when the twin towers fell – we lost our physical orientation in the city, and in some ways, our orientation in the world as well.

Our farm is exposed to the most violent winds that are funnelled through the river valley, picking up strength as they barrel across open farmland. In the aftermath we find tree limbs and branches wrenched from their bodies, or whole trees felled and uprooted. In her poem, “Tornado at Talladega,” Gwendolyn Brooks describes the wreckage after a storm:

 

Certain trees

Stick across the road.

They are unimportant now.

They cannot sass anymore.

Not a one of these, the bewildered,

Can announce anymore “How fine I am!”

Here, roots, ire, origins exposed,

Across this twig-strewn, leaf-strewn road they lie,

Mute, ashamed, and through.

 

Though there is some danger, or sentimentality, in personifying trees, it is hard not to, as a tree’s life cycle so uncanningly parallels our own. Gachelon Bachelard writes, “the suffering tree is the epitome of pain.” But storm-ravaged trees recover, limbs grow back, a hole in a forest canopy lets in light for the growth of young saplings, and the rotted wood from downed trees is host to whole galaxies of life. This may be where the mimesis between the human and arboreal life cycle begins and ends.

Another favorite poem, “B.C.” by William Stafford, imagines the millennial history to which a single sequoia has borne witness. (“Great sunflowers were lording the air that day; this was before Jesus, before Rome…”) I like to think about the history our elm has observed from its transcendent position in the sky—the disappearance, and recovery, of the forests; the meadows dotted with sheep, then cows, and now, a pox of subdivisions and their cul de sacs. This old farm. The raising of the seven-story-tall monitor barn, its slow decay, and its resurgence, lazarus-like, from its ruins.

Our elm tree does not have a name, but perhaps it deserves one. I would suggest: the Monitor Elm.

Our box alders have been split and wrenched and mutilated so many times they are by now shapeless malformed trees, with all their amputations and perversions. The birches do what they are supposed to do – they bend over backwards and never get up again. But the elm – the elm lords over all of this mortality and remains unscathed, with its canopy high in the stratosphere.

As the climate becomes more and more deranged, there will be more storms and more lost limbs. The elm – if it remains untouched by dutch elm disease – with its immense trunk and tenacious roots, may be poised to weather the storms to come. We will need these giants in our floodplains to hold back the waters of the deluge, and the forests to hold the world together through its pain.

 

 

[In memory of Larry Hamilton (1925-2016), whom I first knew as “the tree guy” in Charlotte, lifelong conservationist and peace activist.]

Notes:

* The cultivation of hybrids should not be confused with genetic engineering. To learn about the dangers of genetically engineered trees go to the Global Justice Ecology Project website (globaljusticeecology.org).

Nature Conservancy Connecticut River American Elm Restoration Project (nature.org/ctriver)

 

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Dried Flowers for Thanksgiving

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New colors and worsted weight yarns

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