Flight Distance

Sunlight soaks my old red sweatshirt, melting me into the sofa. One degree outside, but I close my eyes and could be back on Andros Island, Bahamas. Minus the biting insects. Minus the salty breeze and bathing suit that spent the week damp, never out of the water long enough to dry.

We flew over one-thousand miles South to the Bahamas for Gascho family Christmas. Distancing ourselves from cold for a few days. For the last leg, a six-seater, 1976 Piper lifted us to Andros Island, with Sam in the co-pilot seat.

Fresh Creek—a briny estuary—surrounded the yellow rental house with its blue spiral staircase up to our bedroom. Fish schooled under the house. Shells littered the sandy bottom, visible through crystal water. A rope swing lured the kids to kayak to the nearby mangrove.

Surrounded by heat, I remembered that I have never outgrown flopping around in water. At every chance, I swam. The salt water held me so I could roll onto my back and loosen my muscles and float. I swam from the deck into the creek, from the beach into the ocean. With the kids and alone. In blue holes hundreds of feet deep. Over coral reefs near the surface.

Out on the reefs, a snorkel and mask made the surface disappear. Electric blue fish slipped behind purple fans of coral. Triangular angel fish wove among snub-nosed parrot fish. A big-eyed squirrelfish peeked comically from below brain coral, which looks like it sounds. I swam towards a three-foot long, torpedo-shaped fish. Close enough to see prominent teeth. My mind said, “big” and “silver” and “predator.” I swam just close enough to align our bodies, for size. Not close enough that it cared. Not close enough to chase it away.

Everyone has a flight distance. Move within that invisible boundary, and they will move away, regardless of your intention. The flight response—and the distance that provokes it—is instinctual. And learned.

As I swam up to the boat, our guide joined me and said, “I was watching your face with that barracuda.”

“That big guy?” My mind had not actually said, “Barracuda.”

“Yep. I was waiting for your eyes to get big, but your face stayed relaxed. If your arms had gone all stiff and your eye wide, I knew we had problems. But you were calm.”

I was calm because I was underwater, being held. Maybe I would have been wiser to name and recognize the possible threat. Or maybe I was safer not naming it. My own fear playing through my mind and body would have been more dangerous than the rarely aggressive barracuda. Our flight distance is instinctual and learned.

The last morning on Andros, I woke in the grey light. Put on my suit. Slipped into a cool, choppy Fresh Creek. Swam across to the southwest edge of mangroves and waited for sunrise. The pink-gold clouds welcomed me—illuminated, cumulus. I was ready to leave for our farm and Upstate New York’s below-zero temperatures, where the snow will hold me until spring.

Home now, we plunge into frozen water powder, backstroking angels on the ground. Sunlight on snow refracts into Bahamas-worthy colors. There are ripples and waves. Sleds are our kayaks. At noon, I need sunglasses to hike our hill—a great dune of snow—and the evening blues of sky and snow echo the Caribbean.


Sewn Together

*Five years ago this week: Sandy Hook Elementary School, which should have been enough. This post contains gunshots. And sewing. With love. 

For reasons I do not completely understand, I am sewing a small sleeping bag, by hand.

First I cut a pattern from the large brown paper filler in the shipping box. I hold it up to the doll, who is blinking her eyes closed, lying still in her box. Her shiny two ponytails come to the waist of her cargo capris, which meet her wooly socks. She wears little pink hiking boots but can switch to even pinker crocs, presumably around the campsite in the evening. All eighteen inches of her will fit inside the sleeping bag.

For two dollars, I bought a yard of robin’s-egg blue satin. It was the closest thing I saw to whatever slippy material makes sleeping bags. This mini mummy-style bag will be extra silky—prom dress meets outdoor equipment. My palms smooth the satin onto our card table, and I pin the paper pattern onto it, as if I have done this before, but I haven’t. I also bought a lime green zipper, as if I know how to install it. Without consulting You Tube, my fingertips bend the satin along the zipper. I want to feel my way through this pretty, frivolous project.

I can sew. Last Sunday, I spent two hours sewing together the muscle bellies, then the skin on the underside of a dog’s chest. As I cleaned hair and dirt from deep inside the wound, I thought about the path of the bullet—perpendicular to the dog, grazing the sternum. My curved scissors trimmed away singed-grey tissue to reveal pink. We flushed and flushed the wound crater, trying to wash away what contaminates a body. Gunshot wounds are ugly. I imagined emergency doctors facing a person with such wounds—or, as has become frequent, many gunshot people in one event.

Gunshots in life—more abrupt than this wound alongside a holiday sewing project. Now it is bright blue satin and a camping doll for Christmas. Now it is flesh inverted, blown open. Our hearts bleed. We race towards the wounded. Then, when we could change the rules to help, we look away.

I understand that a gun can be a tool—a device held in your hand to perform a task. It can send a single bullet through a single deer in a field behind our house. In this animal, I leave the ugly wound, and we trim away the flesh for our freezer. We do this together, quietly, with mixed feelings. Even here, the gun is a tool for ending life, nothing else.

When do we need tools for killing? What do we gain from the freedom to have tools that destroy many lives, in moments? We gain people dying en masse, while learning, dancing, praying, gathering for music. Why do we cling to the right to inflict ugliness, when there are so many tools to create beauty?

For reasons I do not completely understand, I am bent on sewing this doll sleeping bag, so needlessly warm and sturdy. I pour hours into it, as if one person can mend everything by making something lovely.

Snow falls outside, and I watch the needle dipping in and out of prom-worthy fabric, not so different from satiny pink muscle. A needle is a tool for pulling things together, trailing a strand that will stay behind, holding. The edges draw closer. With time, the muscle will heal, and the fabric will thin—our brief lives, in some small way, sewn together.

Grass on my Pajamas

Something about using our giant weed eater makes me feel competent. It is easy to use, really. I do not even need to wield it with my arms, since it rides on a harness-belt thing. I am sporting a safety-first helmet with attached face shield and ear covers. My right index finger holds the safety trigger while my thumb revs the motor. Grass flies, flecking my thin flannel pants. I am in my pajamas.

I am moving our sheep to fresh pasture. Rhubarb and Parsnip, our two ewes, announced their disdain for the current pasture by escaping and nearly joining the kids in the car on their way to school. Unable to secure the sheep long enough to change into jeans, I am wearing my softest clothes. The weed eater zips a line though tall grass for the electronet fence. I move the white netting, then drag their little shelter, freshen the water, rattle some grain to entice them inside. All this before coffee.

Later, folding laundry after coffee, I notice that my socks say Darn Tough, which seems reassuring. I am glad to have these on hand. There is no promise of each next day being the same as this one, with problems I can solve.

In the evening, I scoop chicken feed into a bucket, but on my way to feed the hens, I am arrested by the ducks. Their gabbling and waddling captivates me—holds me captive—for fifteen minutes, which I do not regret, against the orange-for-now trees and dry cornstalks.

The ducks never let me touch them, but the hens relish a good scratch. They croon and sidle up to me, then hunker down, lifting their shoulders and tapping their feet. It is their receiving-a-rooster posture, so I know it is not a display of specific affection for me. But I pretend it is.

After chores, after supper, Stella and I return outside in time for waves of wild geese to pass over our heads. Hundreds of geese fill us with their brassy calls, coming across our field, our house, towards our neighbor’s large pond and sloped field, where they will cover the ground tonight. Among the raucous noise, Stella is yelling, “Over there! On that side! So much geese. So so much!” Then only four geese fly quiet and close overhead. We echo their silence and hear the rhythmic squeak of their wings.

This one day does not make much of a story. There is no real plot, just characters and—when all goes well—mostly repetition of other days. Tomorrow morning, the kids will resist crawling out of bed. The animals will need to be fed. Some days, though, carry too many stories, and I need those Darn Tough socks.

Today I have the grass on my pajamas, the hen feathers under my fingers, my six-year-old’s arms spread to the sky in rapture—so much.

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.