A Farm in the Way – Give Red Her Head
by Lynn Miller
photographs by Kristi Gilman-Miller
“We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit.” – J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, 1782. Letters from an American Farmer.
“There is something from every living being in the atmosphere” – Pablo Neruda, 1966
Quail everywhere in the brisk morning sun singing “Hey, look here, hey look here.” It has taken the safe haven assurances of decades but now these proud coveys hold, at their ‘these days’ core, that this farm – this ranch – this shared habitat is just that – a shared habitat. Farming and wildlife habitats are not mutually assured. In our case, it has come to be, gradually and surely, as evolved realities have layered, settled and stirred, over and over again. And what is it we layer? Of course, awareness of nature, but also there is beauty, hard work, moral conviction, triumph, nasty truth and ugly cataclysm.
It’s not there all the time, but upon reflection we know that our family penchant to always work with nature makes our small operation a welcome nest for all of us. Through good and bad, as caring people we cannot help but be affected even branded. I know it is a far cry from the plastic stoicism our society forces on sacrificial industrial farmers. But I also know it is a mistake to see it as weak-willed romanticism. We, too, lose sleep and feel it tear our guts apart when hard luck seasons set us back and threaten to take our farm from us. We, too, feel the need to squint our eyes and mutter insults when bureaucracies and market hounds put us down, way down. Our answer is to go with thrift, go with generosity, go with compassion and hold to thick-skinned individuality. And yes, most important we go with nature.
We share our ranch habitat with our work horses, cattle, poultry, bees. We also share it with a vast assortment of wildlife. As an example, we have spoken before of the trials and thrills posed by the visiting herds of Elk. Usually our thoughts go to the challenges and intrigue of how we balance our commitment to improving the wildlife habitat that is our ranch with a need to control or mitigate the damage the elk do to our farming and fences. A recent tragedy brought into focus the possibility of an inverse.
Noon one mid-September day, my brother noticed, a quarter mile distant at a hayfield cross-fence, two mature bull elk locked in what appeared to be mortal combat. Broad daylight. One elk standing, antlers pointed down towards the second prone bull. With binoculars he could see that they were tangled in the barb wire fence. Then the standing bull pulled away and Tony could see that the prone bull might actually be dead. Calls were made and within 20 minutes, state police, who had been on a poaching stakeout nearby, showed up. In those few minutes it took for the authorities to arrive the second bull died. Close inspection suggested that the bulls, sometime in the dark of night, had set to charging each other from opposite sides of the fence. Their horns tangled in the barbed wire, and then their throats. It had been a slow, violent, some might say unnecessary death.
The police sawed off the antlers and put them in their truck, then they drug the two carcasses out of the hayfield and onto our rangeland where they left them, cautionary tones hanging in the air.
Why did my old farmer brain, in its wandering attempt to understand the wasteful tragedy, move to…? There are those who say such a death would not occur at all if we did not insist on farming and ranching sandwiched as we are in this wildlife stretch. But then those who criticize us thus do not live and work within this appropriately and usefully combined human and wildlife habitat; they cannot know how our communion with farming inside of a wildlife habitat is mutually beneficial. We see how drought and winter conditions kill hundreds of deer and elk and know that what this ranch affords them is water, improved rangeland and irrigated fields to sneak into at night for buffet-style replenishments. We have never used chemicals, poisons, or GMO organisms in our farming. Our farming practices are quiet and clean. Our water is pristine, our air is pure and the crops we grow are ridiculously healthy. All of this is a gift to the animals who pass through, domestic and wild. The fences are, of course, management tools. Bad things sometimes happen because of the fences. It’s a tradeoff. You could say it is one example of how our farm is ‘in the way.’ You might say the elk steal from the farm, and the farm steals from the elk. I prefer to see it as something other than stealing. The elk see our ranch as a safe haven and watering hole, the farm sees the elk as nomadic tenants sharing space with us. Even with what we might know as safe haven, nature requires the beastly balancing events; the coyotes and cougar taking down the young – weak – unfortunate and stupid, the crafty, invested human hunters in search of meat, the starvation and the diseases. And then there are times such as these when the wildlife, driven by hormones and territorial imperative, would kill its own.
When I was growing up, my Puerto Rican mother used a turn of phrase, ‘a woman in the way’ to mean a woman expecting, pregnant. I like to think of the best farming as all about expectations and pregnancy. So when I say our farm is in the way I am applying it as both an assessment and a compliment.
With the view of the death of two bull elk, if you think this farm is in the way I must ask do you mean as in endangering the existence of the elk? I disagree. If instead you mean to say this farm is a big pregnant entity with room for such dramas to play out? I’m with you there.
A quarter century ago or more we found, in a sheltered small box canyon, the bleaching skeletons of two big mule deer buck, horns locked chinese puzzle style. It was clear that they also had died, eye-to-eye. In this case there was no interfering fence, just a patch of bunch grass.
My Pennsylvania Dutch/Wisconsin farm boy father grew up during the depression and understood the struggles and pains of balancing the day to day work of a small farm near Hayward. In 1938 he bought a bus ticket and went to a strikingly different place, Hollywood, California. There he was to become a bodyguard for the film producer Darryl Zanuck up until enlisting in the Marines and shipping out for the South Pacific front of World War II. As first sergeant for Carson’s Raiders what he experienced burnt holes inside him. It was his job to lead his men against a violent proverbial barb wire fence, locked as they were in mortal combat with men from the other side. Territorial imperative at its deadly worst. It was cliche that the the military brass appreciated farm boys for assignments such as my father’s, because life had toughened them. But these experiences were not of nature’s truths of balance in habitat. They were entirely an avoidable horrid construct.
Ralph Miller served from 1938 to 1946, from Pearl Harbor to the south Pacific front. The terrible experience shaped him almost entirely. Most fortunately, there were those earlier formative years on that Wisconsin farm, they saved his soul. I’m sure that this was a big reason he was forever thrilled by my farming ventures for within them, even at their very worst, there was always an embraceable rigor and order.
It takes senority to see transparent truths for what they offer. What do I mean by transparent truths? It’s when the reality, the truth, of the thing is right in front of you and you cannot see it. Working can do that to us, seize up our depth of field, make it hard to focus on different levels, or depths. The truths come between the lines – the levels, lines and levels of working. See, over there I had this long string of work, really several threads woven together, where I planned for the tillage of a certain section within a field. There was the objective; to replenish, to set back certain volunteer plants we might see as weeds, to create a best environ for advantageous plants we thought would do well here. I chose tools to employ to stir the ground and make a seedbed. Half a century of doing this and I know to my core that this work may or may not turn out as I wish. So many natural elements that may surprise, may contest, destroy, or even enhance. Transparent truths because what you see are the probabilities wafting along with the possibilities and teasing your expectations.
Give Red Her Head
All these thoughts surprisingly take me back many years to my training of two draft mares I raised from birth, Red and Blue. They were half-sisters born same season out of strawberry roan mares I had acquired from Jim Idlewine, Bonnie and Betsy. They had been accidentally and rudely bred by an escaped neighboring Percheron colt. Having the same father and two sisters for mothers I might be forgiven expecting that they would grow up to be a perfectly matched pair. I imagined a drawn line ahead of me of goals for raising and training these two.
We so often mistake what we imagine for what we actually see. There was, in the beginning, the color difference. Blue was born a lovely cobalt blueblack. And Red was a red/bay roan with blue highlights. She had bay points, or coloring around the muzzle, eyes, knees, and hocks. Black ears, throat, central knees, Light blue lower legs, strawberry roan body with an almost iridescent wash of blue highlights. Blue was the one whose color changed over time and with each season. In the winter, her whiter hairs grew longer and she became a soft blue vision, in the summer those hairs having shed off, she morphed to a dramatic blue black roan.
And after a few months there was the conformation difference. Red became a pronounced chunk, deep wide chest, short back and exquisite collar seat to her shoulder. Blue grew up and became longer, taller more erect. She became more like a modern Belgian, while her sister Red suggested a Brabant in stature. Even so, when moving naturally, their gait was in synch.
And then the personality differences started to solidify: Blue, without aggression, assumed she was your second in command and deserved to stand beside you rather than behind. She’d poke her nose into pockets to sniff any goodies. She’d wait patiently in just the right position to receive your petting. She would step in front of you if she wanted you to stop moving.
Red, on the other hand, was stand-offish. She’d rather follow correctly, off to the side and behind on the slack lead rope. If you were to approach her with pronounced caution, she would back away until she left altogether. If instead you approached her, matter-of-fact, with no hesitation, no cooing, no pleading, and, most important, no direct eye contact, she would stand at the ready for whatever you needed. She didn’t want to be messed with. She bargained for your complete respect and was prepared to reward it.
That eye contact business is most important. We hear so often of eyes being the pathway to the soul. Corny in too many ways, and dangerous to boot. From a half century of working with horses, and cattle, I have learned that to force a prolonged staring contact with an animal’s eyesight will often result in two very different and dramatic reactions. Either the animal will look away and try to find a safe place to be, or it will get angry and resort to self-preservation and aggression. There is also a world of variations in a third category. One I think of as too dumb to care. If I look into an animal’s eyes, unblinking for a sustained time, and there is no reaction, my conclusion is there is nobody home.
If you are new to such discussions I owe it to you to offer this concession: there are many, many skilled horsemen and women who disagree with me on these points. Neither of us is wrong. What I know, at this late age, is that respecting thousands of experiences and outcomes I return to my caution. It ain’t soul I reach for when I look deep into that horse’s eyes, it’s intelligence. I can work with an intelligent animal. That’s not to say it is easy or always wonderful. I believe it is possible for horses or people to be incredibly intelligent and utterly soul-less.
These observed personality differences with the mares evolved my thinking and assessments. Blue thought she was in control but in truth she was not as bright as Red and ‘jellied up’ in a calamity demanding someone else take control. (By jellied, I mean, she’d quiver and worry and think about escape.) Red however, was completely secure in who she was, yet willing to concede when she needed support. She was a quiet, thoughtful, smart mare and as such imminently dependable. If you gave her her head nothing frightened her. If you gave Blue her head she just might bolt.
Blue wanted to walk along with the load, didn’t much care if it was heavy or not. Red felt compelled to bow her neck, lower her head and take the whole load. This had nothing to do with their natural walking, or working gaits. It was just about how they responded to the challenge of a restraining weight against the shoulder, weight that needed to be displaced, or in Red’s case weight that needed to be put in its place,
And again a balance is required because to make it all work in the western way there are mechanics, or accepted truths, to account for along with the psychologies. For example, those long harness driving lines, moving forward from your hands to the sensitive mouths of two horses, ideally provided assurance to the mares that right here, this point – matched as it is to a perfect tension, gives the information of how they are to walk, where they are to go and of course that they ideally do together.
How did I get here in my thoughts and this discussion? When I saw those two magnificent bull Elk laying dead and entangled, my sorry old teamster brain saw the wasted remnants of a pair, of a team? They weren’t a team, never would be. But they were most certainly a pair, and a pair at deadly odds. A pair right here on this old ranch. So my brain wandered over in to thoughts of other pairs, right here on this ranch, who were at odds but somehow came together. That took me to Red and Blue and my part in holding them harmoniously together for gainful work and life. This ranch this farm being ‘in the way’ made it so. All of the dance with Blue and Red, sustained over years of shared work was shaped and encouraged and required by this farm. I and the farm were dependent on those working horses to get the jobs done. Red and Blue were vital ingredients in the fertility and pregnancy of this farm. They are both gone now but, for us, the sweet juice of their contributions will never evaporate.
Not Just a Place – a Fleeting Form of Grace
How our brains wander, how it is we come to see the thinnest of connections and enjoy the explanations that they may offer. We go five hours west and south, each fall for a few days, to the lovely beach town of Bandon, Oregon. I paint and the ladies comb the wave-washed shoreline for sights, sounds, smells, and starfish. Kristi was driving to get there and we passed Wilbur Long’s hillside farm. I knew it intimately forty years ago. Wilbur was a friend and mentor. He built Myrtle wood clocks, operated a small sawmill and kept bees. And Wilbur raised lots of flowers for his bees.
Now, as I look at it, I see the familiar green fields tipping up towards the forest edge and the handsome old farm house, but it is all different. The sawmill down at the bottom of the hill is gone, no trace. The winding rows of flower beds stretching for a thousand feet both sides of the road are gone now replaced by neatly mown lawn. The small fruit orchard that had rested inside a deer fence to the right of the sawmill is gone. The stately oaks and maples which shaded the fine old house have been severely pruned changing the look and feel of the farmstead completely. It was clean, proper, pruned and rid of character and hum.
Now, I couldn’t help but see, with my memory, a summer’s day forty years past, smiling humming Wilbur tending the bees, in short sleeves and without protective clothing, just outside the edge of that wide undulating circle of multicolored shade which spilled its form into the parallel course of six abreast rows of flowers, zinnias, marigolds, iris, ranucula, daffodil, forsythia, sweet peas, gladiolas, and many more. A riot of color and habitat. Above it Wilbur’s guard donkey with the small flock of sheep. And down below, the galvanized tin roof of the mill shed covering oily old magical tools. The perimeter of the shed yellowed by sawdust, and racks with neatly stacked and stickered lumber. It was a beautiful little farm, magnificent in its clear evidence of courage and determination. It was a farm clearly ‘in the way.’
It’s gone today. Not the farm, that’s still there. But Wilbur’s Farm, that’s what is gone. For me it will always be a clear explanation of how wonderfully vital and critically transparent a human imprint might be on a place – strong in immeasureable ways yet as fragile as the life of a covey of quail or an enraged bull elk. As fragile as the life of those who plant the flowers and tickle the bees, as fragile as the trust it would take to give Red her head.
The place seems to respond. Sky, sea, beach, and village lie as still before us as if they were sitting for the picture. It is dead low-water. A ripple plays among the ripening corn upon the cliff as if it were faintly trying from recollection to imitate the sea, and the world of butterflies hovering over the crop of radish seed are as restless in their little way as the gulls are in their larger manner when the wind blows. – Charles Dickens