By: Stephen Jackson
Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven. My wife is the actual farmer. This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned. Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.
“Do you think he’s stuck, Daddy?” I stared again at the business end of a nanny goat giving birth to her second kid in a row. I was beginning to wonder if my daughter might be on to something. An obstetrician, I guess I was the de facto expert on all things birth. The fact is my older daughter had seen a dozen more goats giving birth than I had. This one was my first. The parturient was lying on her flank, her sky-side, back leg held up like she was getting ready to hike a football or in the latter stages of a pull-my-finger joke. What appeared to be the fore-hooves and tip of the nose coming out of the birth canal was all I could make out. The nanny seemed to stare at me, bleating plaintively. I couldn’t tell whether she wanted help or was just showing off. At this point, she probably didn’t even know I was there. My wife and kids and I were all seated in our fold-up chairs in a meadow in a peaceful corner of the goats’ pasture. The nanny had picked a lovely, shady spot to kid, well away from the other goats. Situated in an arc about 20 feet from the laboring goat, I felt like we were a little intrusive. In response to my daughter, I fell back on my favorite obstetrical maxim, “let’s just let nature take its course. Her body knows what it’s doing.” In large part this was true. I had watched well over a thousand women labor and have a baby, sometimes more than one at a time. It was rare that this far along in the process any intervention, other than encouragement, was needed. The kid was born in short order. The nanny licked her baby dry and stimulated him to move with the same process. The newly born kid was up on his feet and nursing within minutes. I was duly impressed with the new family’s biological imperative to get moving.
After putting away our chairs, my older daughter and I decided to go for a walk around the farm. After leaving the pasture and crossing our back yard we entered the large, wooded area of the farm. Trees of many varieties provided a multi-layered canopy from the sun looming hot overhead. Dappled sunlight highlighted the forest floor where fallen leaves and other detritus littered the narrow, worn path. The slight decline in the contour of the ground was leading us to the stream running across our land.
In the woods I try to tune in to all my senses to get the full experience. Each time I try this I stumble upon something new. The unseen combination of the smell of rotting, wet leaves and newly bloomed flowers filled the air. Life and death circulating in harmony through my olfactory senses, the slight crunching underfoot filling the auditory. I looked over to my daughter to see what she was getting from the easy, downslope part of our hike. She seemed lost in thought. I asked her if she could hear the approaching creek and how far she thought it might be. Ever-teaching, I was hoping to engage her senses as I was attempting to engage my own. She said she couldn’t really hear the creek. Perhaps, it would be better for me to let her hike through the woods be her own experience and not mine.
While trying to extract my foot, boot still attached, from the muddy creek bottom I had less-than-gracefully slipped into, I watched my daughter effortlessly descend the creek bank, hop across the rocks, and nimbly climb the bank on the other side. I guess she had taken the helpful parts of my lesson on how to cross the creek and avoided the what not-to-do parts I had unintentionally demonstrated. Thankfully, she didn’t laugh at my risible predicament and we continued uphill with some of my dignity apparently still intact.
Our hike uneventfully continued, and we approached the electrical wiring of the moveable hog fence. Peppa charged at us from across the woods at a pace I wouldn’t have guessed a hog could muster. She weighed 650 pounds, if she weighed an ounce, and in that moment, I understood what it might be like to be charged by an unhappy rhinoceros. The heavy thump of her feet striking the ground so forcefully, I was sure the ground would’ve been shaking. To my great relief, she stopped short of the wire-fence, inspected us for a few moments, and when she was satisfied that we weren’t bringing her food she did an about-face and promptly plopped her considerable girth in a shallow mud pool. Pigs are wonderful rejuvenators of the forest floor, if they’re kept moving regularly. They love mud and scratching themselves on trees, which leaves the trees stained with what looks like a high-water mark after a flood. My eyes traced back through the woods along the previous areas of their makeshift enclosure and I could follow the growth of the pigs by the height of the mud stain on the trees. I noticed at this point that the current water mark was at roughly the level of my hips.
We hiked on and approached our one troublemaker on the farm. Indiana, a virile and cantankerous sheep was being kept separate from his newborn lamb, Percy, and Percy’s mom, Ophelia, after he was caught bucking Percy in an un-paternalistic way. I’d had a run-in with Indiana myself.
Several months back, I had ventured into his wooded enclosure to bring him food and, after pouring food in his bowl, I stood and admired his living space. The area was approximately three acres of wooded tranquility that had its own permanent fence I had repaired from fallen trees more than once. While pondering this, I received a thudding jolt to my right glute that sent me stumbling. I managed to keep my balance but not my cool. I wheeled around to face Indiana who had reared back on his hind legs, lining up to buck me again. I side-stepped just enough to force him to canter a bit to put me back in his crosshairs. A little in disbelief and a whole lot in mad, I had to figure out how to stop him from bucking me whenever I, or especially my wife and kids, entered his domain. I recognized this as a contest of alpha versus beta and I was determined to improve my place in the Greek alphabet after he had already scored a convincing blow. I considering head-butting him for just a second. I decided I did not want to have to explain to my wife why she had found me lying unconscious in his enclosure when I didn’t turn up for dinner. I looked around and decided on a smooth, flat rock that I figured weighed about eight pounds. I hefted the rock and judged it to be just about right. I held up the rock in defense of his next attack, holding it toward him between my hands. He apparently deemed the rock a worthy part of my body upon which he could establish his prowess. He set his sites on the rock I now held in my hands. He reared back, leaned, and bucked. He hit the rock squarely and my arms faltered backward just a bit. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I didn’t want to give ground. I presented him the rock-target again and he again obliged. This time I leaned in a little more and pushed my arms slowly toward his advancing cranial charge. When he struck again, he shuddered backward, and I took a confident step toward him to symbolically and tactically press my advantage. Thankfully, two times was enough for him. He slowly walked away and desisted his challenge. I held my head high, though I wasn’t sure I should be proud of my victory.
I relayed this story to my daughter while we were petting Indiana from the safe side of his fence. We continued our hike on the driveway, now nearing the house. My daughter was just in front of me relaying a story in the excited way children share events in their lives. At this turn in the drive, I could see the pigs, the lambs, the sheep, the goats, the chickens, and the house that we’ve inhabited for the past four years.
Reflecting on our walk, it occurred to me that while land and nature are beautiful inherently, it is the memories; the sensory and historical, that are the roots that support and nourish us in our love for our land. Not just with food and shelter, the land binds to us with interaction that makes us another part of the natural order of things. My family, the animals, the trees, the rocks, the creek, the weather; we are all this farm. While admiring the beauty of some of these things around me now, I am flooded with the history we all share. I watch my daughter skipping past the field where Percy, Ophelia, and the newly constructed “Hennabego,” a new, moveable chicken coop, are situated. I set my senses to work to take all this in. Finishing off our hike, my daughter skips up the sidewalk, through the side door, out of view, and in to this particularly special memory.