She Does Her Work

The doors are swung open, so the cat and dog and air can move through them at will, but the dog sleeps on upholstery and cat lounges nearby. Windows let in a crow yelling, chickens fussing, duck gossip. The fog that grayed the golden moments of sunrise has lifted into a flat brightness of daytime. I am sitting quietly with words.

On Saturday the cat slouched into this living room with a large rat. To our surprise, it was alive and quite well, zipping around under the sofa until we caught it. This cat specializes in powerful relaxation, tree climbing, loud purring in children’s arms, and being exceedingly fluffy—not killing. She does her work.

I did not work yesterday, exempting me from life and death at the emergency clinic this week. At home, I specialize in flopping on the floor, having children in my arms, photographing the sky, and being a bit fluffy around the waist. I am doing my work.

Outside, the air is warming and will reach August heat, although it’s almost October. The yard needs mowing. Tomatoes are still ripening, although we have canned 14 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 34 quarts of diced tomatoes, and 25 quarts of salsa from an untried recipe. Beyond the garden, our male sheep are nearing the end of their one-summer lives, much to my dismay.

There is no escaping life and death, even without my veterinary work. The prospect of sending our sheep to the butcher upsets me. They were bottle babies, raised gently, who weaned into a rotation of grazing our deepest grass with a couple of ewes. These sheep experience no fear and get evening chin scratches. In short, they should be my ideal happy meat.

It’s just that they come when I call.

Of course you don’t need to eat them, my mom tries to reassure me. Sell the meat. But I eat other animals, I wail. And here’s the rub. I gave up vegetarianism years ago, and try to eat meat in moderation and with an eye towards how (kindly) and where (locally) it was raised. We are omnivores. My body and palate favor eating other bodies.

In pursuit of integrity as an omnivore, I am not squeamish about blood on my hands. We butcher our own chickens and trade them with friends for pasture-raised pigs and with our neighbors for burger from content cows who spend half their summer on our field. We butcher deer from our property. And now, as beginner grass farmers, allowing grazers to turn our pastures into nutrition for us is sensible and ecologically sound.

It’s just that I find myself choking on both scratching the chins and planning the slaughter of these particular animals.

I suffer no delusions about the innocence of eating, even only vegetables. I have seen what any tractor-pulled implement can do to a fawn nestled in the crops. Much of agriculture gives me pause as it gobbles fossil fuels, spreads chemicals, and trashes stream by leaking natural and unnatural fertilizers. In contrast, these two wooly creatures’ lives—never having had any purpose more noble than eating all summer and becoming food for someone else—seem small casualties.

Also, to wrestle with loving my food is luxury. Without such bounty surrounding me, I might still connect with the lambs, but my children’s hunger would motivate me to secure food with less sentimentality. I might simply feel gratitude for these sacrificed grass-grown lives.

There is something whole(some) about this harvest, despite—or because of—the way the sheep meet my eyes. I repeat this phrase to convince myself: These are whole lives.

Today, I am sitting quietly with words. The dog has moved upstairs to a bed, and the cat curls with her tail floof around her face near the window. In this fall sun, another plum might be ripening into sweet yellow flesh on our young trees. The potatoes are ready to dig. We are doing our best to eat well. This evening, as the golden light touches the grass around the sheep, I will walk out with a bit of grain, saying, hey babies.







As the Water Rises

A cedar waxwing almost brushes my forehead, drawn by mosquitoes who are drawn by my warmth and my breath exhaled into the evening. I am standing at the edge of the water on our land. The sweet bright air seems absurd against the backdrop of floodwater rising in Houston and Miami, in the St. Martin and Barbuda, in India, Bangladesh, Nepal. So many people waist-deep in the streets. Islands destroyed. I feel acutely aware of my dry feet, dry home.

Across the wetland in front of me, common gallinules shout to each other. They are new here, with their purple-black bodies and red-orange bills voicing raucous sounds—clucks, whinnies, cackles, squawks, and yelps. I am glad they are here, drawn by our cattails and wetland expanded this spring by beavers. I welcome the beavers, too, but they are aggravating the neighbors and the township that clears their dam from the culvert to keep water below the road.

Like us, beavers engineer water movement and levels to suit themselves. Effects on others simply happen. Some species, like the cattails and gallinules, share the beavers’ priority for more open water. Some, like our human neighbors, require dry land for roads, hay fields, and one guy’s private landing strip.

I consider the widening wetland-now-pond in front of me. Drawn by gravity, water moves downhill until something blocks it. Both beavers and humans spend considerable time helping water defy gravity. We stopper flowing water, backing it up into reservoirs that spread over previously dry land. Or we guide it away from low wet places, draining them into livable, workable landscapes. When our engineering is destroyed, we rebuild it the same.

Humans not only rearrange water, however, we also rearrange carbon, dragging from deep in the earth and burning it, releasing it. Beavers’ activities change the landscape; our behaviors have changed the entire planet.

In this changed world, water misbehaves. A year’s worth of water falls from the sky in a few days. Water surges from the ocean. Having been so tightly reined into unnatural riverbanks and reservoirs and gutters and sewers and channels, all of this extra water no longer absorbs into wetlands or flood plains or deltas or shorelines. Water rises, now seeming to defy gravity on its own.

One more stride from where I stand, and I will be calf-deep. Do I deserve to sink into the wetland, being unprepared for this moment, having walked towards the water wearing only my worn leather boots, not quite paying attention? None of us has the right shoes on at all times. I do not deserve misfortune, even for my mistakes. I do need, however, to pay attention. My actions have consequences, and not just for myself.

My actions and my lifestyle have contributed to what seems like a tiny shift—just one degree of warmth in an ocean. It’s not tiny though. Even a small change on a large scale can have big consequences—melting permafrost, epic storms.

Standing at the edge, I am lucky. I have the option to step back onto dry ground, to return to a dry home. We work hard for our home, but we would not have it without both help and luck, neither of which I earned any more than I earned the nose on my face. Help and good fortune mean that I am more buffered than some people from the consequences of our actions on this planet. Many people live in vulnerable places. Many people do not have options.

The evening here is so calm it is hard to believe there are catastrophes. It is hard to believe that those catastrophes have anything to do with me. But I am not separate or alone. I am here with the beavers, gallinules, and cedar waxwings. And with my neighbors—that is to say, our neighbors—Houston and Miami, the St. Martin and Barbuda; India, Bangladesh, Nepal. Now is not the time to struggle with believing what is abundantly evident—we are creating disasters. Now is the time to stop changing the climate. We are all here together.