The Things With Feathers

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

                        ~ Emily Dickinson

Dawn drifted across the lower field with tufts of mist. Cool air made the ninety-degree forecast seem impossible, even though it was true. Our Cornish cross chickens had fasted overnight, as in preparation for a sacred ritual. We ate our five a.m. breakfast, but did not eat again until all was finished, late in the afternoon.

I hoisted the picnic table to an ideal spot, where the cedar limbs draped over it, and propped it level with scrap boards. Our largest enamel canner full of water heated on the stove. Andrew carted the new-to-us chicken plucker—a stainless steel drum lined with black rubber fingers—into position not far from the table. This contraption would pluck three chickens in less than ten seconds, vast improvement from plucking one chicken in over ten minutes.

We scooted the chicken tractor, a moveable shelter with an open bottom, onto fresh grass for the birds’ last morning. All day I found crisp green blades poking from an esophagus or a gizzard, evidence of how these chickens spent their final minutes.

Two metal cones, pointing downward, hung from our black locust clothesline post, with buckets below them. Each chicken squawked once or twice as Andrew snagged them from the grassy pen, making their typical “hey, you grabbed me” sound, not a panicked chicken yell. They traveled down the yard quietly, tucked under his arm. He slid them, headfirst, into the cone, swiftly, without fuss. They rested there, swaddled upside-down, strangely calm in this position.

Throughout the day I took a few photos, I told our friend that evening, who seemed surprised. “Will you be making a horror show?” he asked, half joking. I paused. It was true that the work had been messy, with blood and guts. There was killing. There were dead bodies. There was no horror.

At one point, mid-morning, Stella sat near me on our tree swing, swaying gently. She watched Andrew approaching the killing cones with a chicken and started crying, “Get me down, Mom!” I rushed over to release her, to allow her to run away. As soon as her kicking feet hit the ground, she made a beeline for Andrew.

I watched her stand firm beside him, the chicken’s head at her eye level. She had been sad earlier, wanting to keep the chickens “the way they are.” Now she faced the moment head-on, teaching me again about courage and wonder. Then she 2015-07-27 17.50.39turned, dance-running back towards me, chanting, “It’s gonna be yum yum yum yum yummy!”

Does it feel strange, our friend wondered, that your job is to help animals? Absolutely. As a veterinarian, I pour my energies into piecing animals back together, keeping them alive. But this work, too—raising birds from chicks to meat without small cages or long highway rides—fulfills my veterinary oath: the protection of animal health, the relief of animal suffering. In this work, too, I find hope.

All day, a breeze blew through the cedar canopy where I stood, taking apart chickens. Their now-bald skin, soft and cool under my fingers, yielded to my knife. I reached into their still-warm interiors to tease out the tubes and pieces of life, understanding each tender tissue and its job. I saved their hearts, like grapes, and their noble livers, smooth and dense, the color of passion. Sometimes in our work we get the chance to indulge in reverence.

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Supervising this process is exhausting.


And a Dog

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Someday there will be words for how we loved our dog Mesa across the first thirteen years of our marriage, five different states, and two children. Someday I will write how we parted ways in Georgia, our hands running over and over her familiar spots, releasing her. Meantime, I’ve had a dog-shaped hole in me.

It took me a year to be ready to fill that hole. Then, this summer, I found myself combing the rescue groups, impressed that mutt adoptions in New York require screening so rigorous that even after dedicating my career to dogs, I barely seemed to qualify. In other places we’ve lived—especially Arizona and Alabama—the puppy surplus allowed you to adopt a dog just by showing up. Several local rescue groups here actually import puppies from the Deep South to loving, carefully screened, homes in the Northeast.

2015-07-19 23.55.57We (okay, I) eventually found a litter of mixed breed puppies, born to a lovely mutt—rescued while heavily pregnant—who seemed Australian Shepherd-ish and some kind of spaniel-ish. Faced with her litter of twelve puppy internet photos, I picked one.

“Sam, we’ll need to think about what we want to name the puppy,” I said, the day before we got her.

He gazed into the distance, then announced, “Skip.”

I congratulated his idea as one for the list of ideas, then we consulted Stella, who echoed that Skip was a great name. They quickly became a united front on this issue. “You got to name our other pets,” they argued, which was true, since our other pets were a decade older than our kids.

So Skip, our now 8 week-old little girl puppy, has joined the family. She seems not only smart, but wise for her age. Skip has good intuitions about playing right with kids, ducks, and other dogs. She’s house training quickly, shadows us everywhere around the farm, and sleeps upside-down with her soft belly exposed.

I will never truly understand why we keep opening our hearts to these creatures who will inevitably shatter us with their death. I do know that some part of me requires occupation by a dog. I know that nothing can replace those ears flying backwards as a furry body bounds towards me, those eyes meeting mine and understanding something about me, that warm puppy sleeping trustingly across my arms.

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Having a Field Day


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It was one of those moments when you wonder, “Is this really a good idea?” But you proceed anyway, having already overthought it and needing to get the job done.

My dad sat on the tractor, grinning his nervous confident grin. Sam and Stella perched by the barn with my mom, well beyond danger. I stood far off with the camera, using the zoom to document the action. Andrew hoisted his chainsaw and stepped up to the base of the tree.

Front:SideOfHouseWithout a doubt, the Eastern white cedar needed to go. It was eating the house. Someone had planted it too close to the front door about 75 years ago—a date we confirmed when Andrew counted its rings. Across those decades, no one invited it to leave, allowing it to thicken and loiter by the front stoop. Now its trunk was wider than I could embrace.

I always feel a sentimental hesitation about cutting down trees. The tree falls so fast and irreversibly, while growing a replacement seems so slow. Any tree we plant will not attain 75 rings in my lifetime. And big trees are so lovely, I sigh, and provide shade and windbreak. Never mind the branches on the roof and the roots threatening the cellar.

By the big day, I had resolved my tree-romantic doubts, and my qualms were more logistical. We’d roughly estimated the tree height, then borrowed our neighbor’s longer-than-the-tree-height rope, thick as my wrist. With the rope tied about thirty feet up the tree, then connected to our tractor Eloise, to provide a steady tug away from our roof, we were ready.

A farm provides constant opportunities to tackle physical challenges like this one. It’s like a never-ending, wacky field day. In addition to lumberjack-type events, we get to try our hands at rock heaving, burdock yanking, brush hogging, fence material grappling, and deer thwarting. With much practice, we’ve improved our times for the nail pry, turning old boards from porcupines into useful lumber. My dad and Andrew performed well in the 72-hour combination event—mortar slinging and stone stacking—that repaired our foundation.

While extending my stamina for the long bendover, I pulled weeds and perfected my slug toss. (Pro tip: Balling the slug with a bit of mud yields the best trajectories from the garden into the duck pen.). Since it’s been rainy, many events involve mud, including the naked garden run, which has, so far, been an event for the five and under crowd. Mud runs seem to be gaining national popularity, however, so we’re glad to be at the cutting edge.

Most of our efforts take place without an audience, but while Andrew set chainsaw to cedar for our tree felling event, the five of us watching didn’t blink. He sliced a clean wedge, strategically angled away from the house. He reached into the wedge, brushing it clear, then revved the chainsaw into the trunk again. As I watched the tree top wiggle, I cheered like any finish line spectator: “Timberrrrr!”

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The Edges of Things

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Fog suited me two weekends ago, lying on Saturday morning as clouds in the hollows, then hugging the car on Sunday morning. I welcomed it especially on Sunday. Maybe I craved that embrace, halfway through a long weekend at the emergency clinic.

Fog isn’t ideal for driving, but that morning it felt strangely protective. I didn’t need to worry about what lay beyond my immediate path. Scenic Route 20 rose and fell ahead of me like a breathing chest. I could trust its next breaths without seeing them very far in advance.

Fog relieved me of scenery, muting the view rushing past. It focused me inward. I had already spent early waking hours mulling over yesterday’s patients, stuck on the ones I didn’t fully understand. Why his symptoms? Why her death? Now, while on low volume, BBC radio speculated in understatements about why we like to eat capsaicin—food that burns—I lingered on death.

Fog sharpened my eyes for the edges of things—the edges of deer poised at the edge of the road. So much could change in one leap. Before that singular event, there would be quiet, like prayer. I imagined the edge of a small group in Charleston, their prayers. Then: one man with a gun, one church full of pain. One nation’s attention called, again, to its non-healing wounds.

Fog usually lingers over the farm ponds and rivers, low places, like it did on Saturday. But on Sunday, it shrouded the entire road, from high up near home to the bridge over Schoharie Creek. Then, it cleared as I emerged through the little town—Esperance: Hope.

Fog, during the same commute the next weekend, seemed distant. Lifting, spreading sunlight illuminated the whole road, making each field vibrant. The radio news beamed with what felt like big gestures towards respect for each other. Confederate flags reeled inward, folding into private places. Rainbow banners waved across social media.

I carried the news and voices with me all the way to work. It was the same work as last weekend, with crises of broken bodies and sick hearts and upset guts. It was the same work, with the potential to heal—or at least to attend—to stand beside the hurting. This weekend, I traveled to that work without the fog, feeling ready for the day’s possibilities.

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