The Strength of Damaged Things

Sometimes it feels good to save something, even when it might not make sense. One Sunday at the emergency clinic, a chipmunk-sized stray kitten arrived in a cardboard box. He shivered under a coat of maggots, with a large botfly larva burrowed in his neck. I discarded logic instead of the kitten, and spent an hour with my coworker cleaning up the little guy, who rewarded us by eating ravenously. Two years ago, our barn was similarly beyond repair—not worth the time and not even very useful by current economic standards.

Sometimes it feels selfish to save something. At the end of my emergency shift full of losses, I looked at the euthanizable kitten and felt unable to kill him. I saved him to save myself. After leaving many dear places, and seeing the destruction of our family farm, a fragile part of me resisted dismantling this old barn.

Buildings, unlike kittens, do not usually inspire my affection. Since childhood, I have mistrusted human structures. Tall buildings seem to waver. Bridges cross implausible spans. Parking garages make me cold sweat. So I surprise myself by sitting calmly astride century-old hemlock beams, firing a nail gun at chin level. This is an ailing dairy barn, built by Dutch settlers, that has been used and abused by generations until the foundation crumbled.

Now, this is our barn. We have spent months un-building and rebuilding it. My hands have learned various power saws, crowbars, sledgehammer, angle grinder, nail gun, a bit of plumbing. My body has been in a trench, up to my shoulders, and on a lift, forty feet high. Somehow I trust this barn. As it often happens, familiarity has dissolved fear.

This barn is no longer an unknown, and, being human, I tend to trust what I know. I understand how the posts and beams fit together. I have stood inside the barn and lifted it with my one arm pumping a bottle jack until thin daylight appeared under a post. Sturdy creaking sounds describe this movement, and I have listened with respect, but not panic. There is surprising strength in damaged things.

My work this summer relies on that strength. I go from removing a pair of underwear that clogged a dog’s small intestine to soldering a new joint onto the old water line. Taking off my surgery-stained scrubs, I pull on overalls smeared with the dark red of our new barn siding. Hoping my reconstructions hold and none of my plumbing leaks, I realize that the outcome depends on strength that is already there.

Repairing damages is not heroic; it is messy and ordinary. It is not solitary work. At home and at the vet clinic, I am shoulder-to-shoulder with people I love, people who teach me. Many times, things do not go as expected. Important boards break. Patients die. We estimate wrong. We communicate poorly. Healing is slow. Progress is slow.

In this work, we gain intimacy with each other and with the damaged, with our own damages. Again, closeness brings understanding. We feel less afraid. We keep working, and sometimes wounded kittens sleep with full bellies. A barn stands tall, ready for whatever the next hundred years will bring.







To Stay Awake

Sometimes I need help talking less and listening more, so the laryngitis could be a good thing. Anyway, the thought boosts the morale that sags on my drive to work. When I arrive, my coworkers do not recognize my voice when I speak to them from behind, with my alto turned into a hoarse bass. Throughout the day, I am quieter than usual.

“Listening is a hugely powerful form of attention,” says Krista Tippett, who interviews people about the meaning of life on public radio. Twice this weekend, I lie on the floor with a person and their large, sweet dog, who dies as my fingers push a syringe plunger. One dog afloat in fluid that fills his chest and abdomen, but wagging his tail. The other dog paralyzed from the neck down. Their eyes are the same, showing only concern for their sobbing people.

I place my palms on the dog’s quiet thighs, unable to leave, unable to even whisper. I press my stethoscope to his ribs to hear the silence. In this moment, listening does not feel powerful, but I am the one with the stethoscope, not with my heart gone still on the floor. This is what power means. In vet school, the top cardiologist told us the most important part of the stethoscope is between the earpieces. Our ears, our minds. Now I know that my heart lives there too.

The day is long and full of broken dogs and cats. I leave in darkness. To stay awake and focused while driving, I bring a hunk of crusty French baguette leftover from someone’s lunch. I take small bites and chew slowly, so it lasts the whole way home. The way it weirdly lingers between my teeth longer than any bite of anything reminds me of communion from years ago. I involuntarily think, “This is my body, broken.” And I get weepy.

“Compassion,” Krista Tippett says, “is not necessarily about agreeing with somebody else, and it’s not necessarily about liking them. It is making a choice to honor their humanity.”

It’s a complicated world, though, and I don’t know how to honor humanity beyond each person I meet, each dog on the floor. And I feel, achingly, that we need big, wide compassion these days. I chew on things to stay woke, in the sense of maintaining an awareness of the world around us, to keep informed of things that are changing and things that refuse to change.

Despite the aching, I will pay attention. When my voice is ragged, when I hold power, I will try to listen. But I will also stay awake, so that I will be ready to speak.

Sketching Shenanigans

photo credit: Sam Gascho

Instead of washing the dishes, I run a half-dull pencil across one corner of someone’s school paper I just flipped over. Hours of talking with an unstable client at work this weekend have left me without words. My fingers want to trace clean lines, simple forms. I need something quiet and directly satisfying, completely under my own control. The papers pile up as I draw a kestrel, geese in formation, barns, a wood frog.

photo credit: Stella Gascho

Around home, we compile shenanigans. We chug to the hilltop with Eloise the Tractor and her trailer and our tent. Pitching our two-person tent that takes me back to our honeymoon fifteen years ago, but now, I pitch it with and for our kids to snack and read while Andrew and I scuff across the newly disked fifteen-acre field, picking rocks. We move our rainbow rangers—adolescent meat chickens—from the kitchen brooder to a chicken tractor, fortified with cardboard and heat lamp against the chill, and rearrange the brooder to make room for new chicks this week. We work on cleaning out the barn, tearing down ceilings that release a foot of dust, mice, hay, and more dust.

Skip, always helpful, finds a duck egg and totes it so carefully in her mouth that her teeth don’t even scratch it. Sam, always zooming around, plays soccer and baseball and football in cleats, pausing to hug passing chickens. Stella makes dirt soup, tricycles, calls Skip with a high-pitched “HooHoo” that Skip always comes to, and also hugs the chickens.

wood frogAt work, I often have several patients at once—a lacerated paw, a hard-breathing dog, a vomiting cat. At home, there are competing noises—Sam yelling, Stella yelling, hungry birds, the cacophony of toys covering the living room floor. Right now I am drawing this frog.

Somehow, probably while I was a work, Andrew has replaced a board in the ramp leading into our barn’s top level. The gaping, leg-tempting hole across the ramp is gone, as if it healed. That one board changes my whole outlook. What seemed unsightly, un-useful, treacherous for the past year is now strong and whole. Inviting. One board, making all the difference.

onenewboardI pause in sketching because a gawky Barred Rock chick has managed the jump to brooder-edge, where she poops over the side onto the kitchen floor. These laying henlets will need to move outside soon, too, following the meat birds. Silkies and Polish chicks and Mille Fleur d’Uccle chicks will arrive this week, completing our three-ring poultry circus. In the next two weeks, we will plant close to 300 trees, and we’re scheming with our neighbor to install a fence around our lower field.

Our April activity rivals the spring peepers in frenetic volume. The wood frogs, though, early and brief heralders of spring, have chuckled themselves into silence. They are still, like a pencil drawing of a wood frog on a quiet kitchen table near midnight.


Coaxing Life



On Sunday morning, the first tracks on our road scroll out behind my tires. It is my snowiest drive to work all winter—April 3. My feet make new tracks on the sidewalk at the emergency clinic. I am walking in to a kitten with an infected eye, a dog with dog bite wounds, an old cat with an intestinal blockage who tries to die under anesthesia.

I wish I had stayed home and sat all day, cross-legged, in the brooder. Light is constant and warm there. Peeping balls of fluff skitter across clean shavings and droop into naps. Chicks are simple babies, able to eat and drink and run on their own. Curiosity is their survival trait. They see everything, peck everything. They reassure me with their fragile, feisty lives.

weekoldchicksThey arrived early one morning, and we rang the bell at the post office back door, where we could hear the peeps inside. Sam carried the noisy box carefully to the car and held it on his lap. At home, we lifted each chick, weighing nothing, and dipped their beaks in water. It’s a ritual of welcome and a promise—we will care for you.

A farm, even a barely operational farm like ours, holds one hundred opportunities for tending—animals, plants, buildings, equipment, soil, each other. It is rhythmic work interspersed with frenzy, both meditative and stressful. The work is coaxing life, guiding life, and respectfully ending life to feed other lives. In spring, there is tiny new life to nudge forward.

At one week old, the chicks already seem like strapping young birds compared with a week ago. The twenty-five chicks that will grow into meat seem burlier—meatier—than the twenty future laying hens. They are all growing accustomed to us, and I indulge myself in reaching into the sleepy crowd of them and strumming my fingers among their soft bodies.

SkiptendingThe chicks are getting their first feathers that extend fuzzy winglets into more useful-looking patterns. Oblivious to the April snow, these babies have everything they need. Our dog watches over them with all of her border collie concern, whining if her peeps sound distressed. I feel the same way about them, and about my veterinary patients.

At the emergency clinic, I think of the chicks as I stroke my fingertip up the nose and downy forehead of the old cat. The adrenaline settles in my bloodstream from navigating his rough anesthesia. This old cat survives, sits up, and we blink at each other, bewildered by the afternoon’s events. Relieved and subdued, I listen to his chest and tuck his blankets around him. It’s a ritual and a promise—we will care for you.




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.