Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cat Tales

Last night, for the first time in 25 years, I did not have a cat to curl up with me when I went to bed. I have always been a cat person. Despite my affection for the dogs I have owned, I am much more drawn to cats. Since I was ten years old, when I begged and begged my mother for a cat, I have always had at least one "inside cat". Yesterday, I had to make the decision that it was time to put down my dear Ernesto, due to profound illness. While I had known this time was coming for several weeks, it was still a sad choice. And it made me reflect on the five cats that were my companions over a quarter century.

Louie was a tiny yellow kitten when my mother finally agreed that I could have a cat. He rapidly grew from a little ball of fluff to an imposing 20(!) pound beast! Louie never found a morsel of food he did not enjoy, and his idea of exercise was walking to the food bowl. Unfortunately, for an inside cat in the 1980s, Frontline was not yet an option. Every summer, fleas would plague Louie. After one season of battling them as best we could (combing, shampoos, etc), my mother decreed that Louie was receiving a new hairstyle . . . and out came the clippers! I think my mother got a secret joy out of what became Louie's annual spring shearing -- and quite honestly, the fat cat seemed to like the removal of his winter coat! Over the years, this endeavor began to show Mum's creativity: Louie kept a handsome lion's mane, had little fur booties over his feet, and maintained a sleek tail with a tuft on the end. For the fat cat, it was pure bliss that he no longer had to waste energy grooming himself in the summer!

The calm demeanor that Louie always exhibited -- even in the face of clippers -- did not prepare me whatsoever for the cat that became his partner-in-crime: Laura. I found a little, sick kitten in the barn, when Louie was about two years old. She was pure black, and her tiny eyes were infected. My mother's patience was undoubtedly tested, but she hauled her daughter and this kitten to the vet for care. I became a cat-nurse, adding drops to the kitten's eyes. With proper nutrition, Laura began to flourish, and one of her eyes healed. The other eye, however, remained matted and nasty . . . until the day I found something lying on the kitchen floor, and realized Laura's eye had fallen out! Even with one eye, Laura was a terror! She could jump anywhere and get into anything. She particularly enjoyed terrorizing our annual Christmas trees. Her energy was twice that of a normal cat -- and far beyond Louie's! Louie, Laura, and I were companions all through my school years.

While I was in college, Laura began to age markedly. She passed away in her sleep at the age of about ten. Louie continued to chug along. After university, I accepted a position at the State of Ohio's Federal Office in Washington. My apartment search yielded one in Silver Spring, Maryland, that accepted cats. I decreed that Louie would join me, and he made the journey to my new home. Louie appeared to enjoy the vantage point of our 4th floor apartment, and spent a great deal of time observing the world. After a few months in Washington, Louie became ill. I spent more than I should have on vet treatments (lesson learned), and still lost Louie within a few days of illness. He was old, he was fat, he hated exercise. But he was still my beloved cat, and I wanted him buried on the farm. Unfortunately, I was not planning a return to Ohio for several weeks. When I called my mother to tell her of Louie's passing, she asked what I had done with him. I don't think she expected to hear, "Oh, he's in the freezer!" And a few weeks later he went in a cooler, and we undertook his funeral procession back to the farm!

By the time I buried Louie, I knew I wanted another cat. And actually, I wanted CATS. Louie and Laura had been playmates. With my "real job" that took me away from the apartment all day, I thought it best that a cat would have a companion. Thus, I made a visit to the local animal shelter in Silver Spring. I told the volunteer that I was looking for two cats, and preferably adult animals. I did not need a cute kitten; I could provide a home to an older animal that needed one. It turned out that two brothers had been dropped off at the shelter the previous day. They were seven years old, and black as coal. This is how Robey & BoBo came into my life. Jean Phillipe Robilliard carried on Louie's fat-cat tradition, while Behemoth Azazello Koroviev was just as hyper as Laura had been. When I moved back to the farm, Robey & BoBo came with me.

In 2001, my mother found a sick kitten in her barn. Being a complete sucker for needy kittens, I agreed to take it in. Thus, Ernest Austen McMurty came to join me, Robey, and BoBo. Ernesto was the most beautiful cat I ever owned. He had white fur with gray tips and eyes as blue as Bill Haley (I have never known a person with bluer eyes than my father!) Ernesto was a sweetheart. For several years, we were a happy feline clan. As the years passed, all the boys matured. In May 2010, Robey passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 17. I found him laying in a sunbeam. Last summer, I observed behavior in Behemoth that made me speculate he had suffered a stroke. He hung on steadily for several weeks, and then went downhill over a three day period in August.

At first, Ernesto flourished as an "only cat". He seemed to revel in the attention I gave him. After my return from Germany, I observed that he had lost weight. Despite adjusting his diet, Ernesto continued to fail. He was quite low over the holidays, bounced back a bit in January, but then began to decline rapidly. My amateur diagnosis was an internal cancer, possibly intestinal. I told myself I would provide him reasonable care for as long as I could. On Friday night, I was up with him four times during the night: he could not keep food down, nor control his bodily functions. I knew it was time, but it was still hard to look at those beautiful blue eyes and realize our time together was ending. I had Ernesto put down on Saturday afternoon. I brought him home, and as soon as the ground thaws, he will join his feline brothers buried under the shade tree.

After so many years, it is odd to open my door and not have a cat greet me. I continue to anticipate the leap of a cat onto my bed to curl up next to me. Times change, however, and there are enough barn cats at Harrison Farm to satisfy my need for affection. The barn cats have my respect for their work as hunters, ridding our barn of vermin. I will not replace Ernesto with another house cat, but I will always treasure my memories of the cat companions who have been in my life!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Visits to The Ohio State University

One of the things I enjoy the most is talking to people about farming. I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the farm community and I love sharing stories about my adventures as a farmer. From time to time, I am invited to guest lecture at The Ohio State University, and I always look forward to these opportunities. I truly enjoyed the years that I spent teaching high school, and these lectures allow me to revisit memories of educating young people. Within the last two weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit two of my favorite classes at OSU: Animal Science 597 and Animal Science 600. The students were great in both classes, and were kind enough to laugh at all of my terrible goat jokes!

On January 24th, I visited 597 with Dr. Hill and Dr. Moeller. This class focuses on human and animal interactions. I was most honored when Dr. Hill was teaching it a couple years ago and I was invited to lecture to the students on a farmer's perspective of human usage of animals. I always look forward to the dynamics of this class. Typically, about half the students are from the school of agriculture and half are from the general student population. This makes for varied approaches to animal care and diverse experiences with animals! During the quarter, students also hear from commodity organizations, animal "rights" groups, representatives from hunting and natural resources, etc. I approach this as an opportunity to simply share stories about my experiences as a farmer. While other lecturers may come in armed with facts and figures, I want to convey an understanding about my life with animals (and why I cannot imagine a life without them).

The 597 students usually hear stories ranging from caring for goats to working with the ethnic community. I address my understanding of the regard for animals by the world's religions (my religion degree finally pays off!) and the manner in which I approach the term "rights" (exactly what I taught my students in high school government class). This time in class, I also read the story of The Captain from my blog. That was a difficult decision. I had never read that piece aloud. As much as I cried while writing it, I was very unsure if I could make it through reading it to 100 students. I did make it through, although my voice nearly broke several times. I had to stop looking at the students, and just focus on the words: some of the ladies had tears in their eyes and I knew if I looked directly at them, I would never be able to finish reading it. As hard as it was to do so, I wanted the students to understand why I farm, and why I hold my beliefs. In her short, beautiful life and painful, tragic death, The Captain encapsulated everything about my life as a farmer. I suspect that she made a much more lasting impression on each of the students than I ever could have with statistics on food production or the science behind animal management.

On February 8th, I was back at OSU to lecture in the animal science capstone course, 600. Being with this group of students always makes me excited for the future of agriculture! These young people are preparing for careers working with animals, and I adore seeing their vibrancy and youthful enthusiasm! Also, I have the opportunity to "preach to the choir" . . . young people who understand animals and enjoy (or pretend to enjoy!) all my random goat facts! A good third of the students in 600 this quarter had listened to me lecture in a previous class -- that really forces me to try to remember what stories I have bored them with before! This was a very fun group that asked some excellent questions, and I enjoyed speaking with several students after class. I try to leave this class with two thoughts: pursue your passion and embrace education. When I was their age, I never could have imagined that a religion degree, graduate work in economics, and a love of farming would lead to the opportunity to run a business selling sheep & goats to a diverse religious community! A huge thanks to Dr. Boyles and Dr. Ottubre for welcoming me back to this course!

As fun as it is to stand in front of a group and tell goat stories, the best part is meeting the students. I love engaging in dialogue with them in class and hearing from some of them later. I always encourage the students to write down my email address . . . for those burning goat questions in the future! I had the pleasure of welcoming one of the students from 597 to visit my farm on February 10th -- she wanted to learn more about goats & I was delighted to have assistance with tagging babies and trimming their mama's hooves! Mary Beth can now assert the truth behind my ridiculous stories: she has met Red the Chicken (who really is 8 years old with a clipped beak!) and she has seen the spot near the water hydrant that offered such a clear view for the little elementary kids on the schoolbus to see me waving a knife and a goat leg! After Mary Beth heard the sad story of The Captain, I was glad she was able to meet the new puppy Sheba. It is always wonderful to have visitors to the farm!

Friday, February 3, 2012

I Want To Be A Farmer . . .

I want to be a farmer for the rest of my life. I want to start my mornings in the barn. I want be greeted by wet, new babies searching for the comfort of milk as their mothers gently lick them. I want to gather eggs from my hens and cook them for my breakfast. I want to feel the warmth of the sun and the crispness of the breeze on my face. I want to clean stalls and lift hay bales and move livestock -- and never have to go to the gym. I want to complain about the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter . . . happily knowing it means that I work outside. And not in a cubicle. And not for anyone else. I want to drive a vehicle that is always a mess, because it can haul feed and hay and goats and dogs and even a cow. I want to dress up and go to cocktail parties and answer the question of "What do you do?" by telling people I am a goatherd & a butcher. And then I want to laugh when they slowly realize that I am absolutely telling the truth. I want to cheer for 4-H kids at the county fair, because others once cheered for me. I want to laugh about the ruts in my yard from my friends' trucks and the goat skulls that my dogs leave lying on the driveway -- because it's a farm, not a country club. I want to get together with my farmer friends and complain about the weather & the government & non-farmers . . . beacuse as much as we might bemoan these things with each other, there is no other job we would rather do. I want to have working dogs that protect my livestock and cats that guard my barn from vermin; I can only respect animals that work just as I do. I want to volunteer to speak to college classes -- not because there is any financial benefit for me -- but because I love to share with young people why farming is so beautiful, and so painful, and so glorious. And if I do a good job, and they understand agriculture, eventually there will be a profound benefit to me. I want to cry over every loss, and rejoice over each success on the farm. I want to worry about the weather, and the planting, and the harvest, because this means that I get to live my life in the outdoors. I want my best friends to be farmers too, because they understand my world without explanation. I want to work and live in a community where even though there are other farmers that confound me, these same people would support my rights as a farmer no matter what. I want to cry everytime I watch the movie Babe, because the farmer is exactly like my grandfather. I want to sing country songs as I work in the barn, knowing my dogs will never tell what a bad singer I am. I want to serve meals to my guests that include meat from animals I raised, butchered, processed, and cooked. I want to endure the mud, and the droughts, and the ice storms, because they toughen me. I want to take naps on bales of hay in the mow on lazy summer days. I want to breathe in the aroma of saddle leather, after a good ride on a horse, when I put my tack away. I want to get excited about my bountiful garden -- because it is fertilized by my own livestock. I want to watch a sunset on a spring night, as baby goats play in the sinking rays of light. I want to spend the rest of my days on this land that my mother, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather did. As my grandfather always said, "I want to be carried out of here horizontal." I want to work this land long past the age of retirement for an office job. I want to wear out my body from the physical labor it takes to care for the earth and God's creatures. I want to know there is no pursuit more ancient or more noble than the one I have chosen. I want to be a farmer for the rest of my life.