Staying Cool

It has been very hot all week. I go out to the garden only at night to water the young plants; this keeps them alive, but still, they do not get a really good drink the way they do from a good rain. The garlic tops are turning yellow, the pea trellises look unhappy. At night we open the windows to cool the house and in the morning we close them; the house stays cool most of the day this way, but not when it is in the nineties. Not when it is this hot, day after day.

By early evening when it is still very hot I go to the river for a swim. The ride there on my bicycle is tough, with no shade along the road, but I endure knowing that at the end I will be able to plunge into the cold river. There is a stretch of the lower H. where it is possible to swim laps, and to swim in place in the current where there is a small rapid. I swim through the shallows as far as I can before I am scraping bottom, then turn around and swim back around the giant boulders where the water is deepest and coolest, and into the white water, where I swim in place with my nose upstream in the current like a salmon headed home.

Yesterday the forecast said heavy rain in the afternoon, but the sky was clear when I headed out. It started raining as soon as I arrived. I swam the length and looked up to see the needles of rain etching silver circles on the surface, forming starbursts all around me as by now I was alone in the river. The couple who arrived when I did climbed out of the water and left. And the small group of bathers who were sitting on the giant boulder in their bathing suits, holding their drinks, scattered and ran to take cover under a large tree. I continued to swim, as I heard no thunder. I saw the group still standing under the tree. When the weather is hot like this it is the only time of day when my head feels clear, and all the tiredness and oppression of the heat is washed away. By the time I get back on my bike to ride home it is still very hot but my body has cooled off and I am in my wet bathing suit under my clothes and in ten or fifteen minutes I am home.

By then it is almost time to open the windows. We pick salad and make dinner –garlic scape pesto over pasta, or omelets with sorrel, maybe new potato salad or zucchini sauteed in garlic, maybe stuffed squash blossoms — and eat outside on our porch, watching a cardinal who has landed in the birch tree, listening to the high-pitched screech of the kestrel who flies back and forth between the barn roof and the tallest limbs of the elm. Or the blue jay who has set up house in our big white pine.

The H. River spills down from the mountains through a spectacular gorge, where the canyon walls have been scooped by the passage of water over the years, and then disappears as it drops down over a lesser gorge. Before it reaches the valley floor where it joins the Winooski, there are a few nice swimming holes, as well as lonely stretches of shallow water where on a hot day there will be people sitting on lawn chairs with their feet in the cold water, alone or in groups. We used to go to a spot farther up river that required walking (riding bikes, in our case) down to the water a ways through the woods, where there was a large, deep clear pool and a little waterfall where you could wedge your body between the rocks to be pummeled by jets, and then let yourself be carried downstream.  Tall cedars reached over the river from the far bank and shaded the stretch of sandy beach. There were downed whole trees forming pools of their own that had been yanked up by their roots in some storm with no one there to witness but there they were. We stopped going there regularly after the river changed its signature and the pool was not so long anymore, and then we discovered Stone Beach, the pool at the bottom of the river, refreshed by a jet of glacial spring water, a popular spot for good reason and so much easier to get to.

Just above the gorge there is a parking lot next to the most popular swimming hole on the river, but we have never gone there for swimming. There are often swimmers diving into the gorge. I have watched this: someone standing on a ledge where the canyon walls swell outward and the jumper has to fall through a narrow gap between the twisting walls of the gorge and then climb out without getting sucked down river into the maw of the treacherous rocks. It is sheer terror to watch this. I often see people down below the falls, sunbathing on the rocks, and I am not sure how they managed to get there. Many people have drowned in this gorge: on a placard at the site are the names of twenty-two who drowned there, but many more have drowned since the marker was put up in 1996. Among those who drowned were rescuers who gave their lives to save bathers who were sucked into the deep gorge. But despite all the warnings, “The current is deceptively strong and fast…” people continue to swim there, and to jump.

The last person drowned while walking along the edge of the swollen river when she slipped and was carried away. Last summer two women were lazily drifting downstream in the gentle current above the falls and were swept over the gorge but were rescued and survived.

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A Halloween night storm took out a big chunk of the road.

Last year the road to the gorge was closed because a storm on Halloween night carved out a big chunk of the road. To ride D. Road you had to squeeze around two sets of fences and big mounds of gravel and dirt. The upper gorge was closed to swimming and parking, but people still went swimming there.

The other day there was a family there when I arrived at my regular spot near where the H. joins the Winooski. They were camped on a little spit of gravel down river from the boulders where I sit. A group of children were riding the ripples of white water where it is very shallow, the smaller ones wearing floatation wings, or life jackets, the bigger kids riding on tubes. Their heads bobbed in the ruffles as the current carried them along. The big kids in tubes would get stuck on the rocks and would have to rock themselves to get free. I saw limbs tossed here and there and little heads and bodies tumbling as the current carried them. The current was especially strong that day. Meanwhile Mom was holding an infant on the shore while Dad stood by and at some point he got a small fire going. Finally Dad joined the children as they climbed along the rocky river bank again but this time they kept walking up river to the next beach. I watched them as they floated down river, and then got on my bike and went home.

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A Pandemic Journal


A deserted DUMBO, where my sister and her family are in isolation.

It has been more than a month and I have been to town only once, to mail some packages. I live in the country, where the stay-at-home order does not feel so confining, only strange. And sad. To live inside a circle of life, watching the seasons turn, apart from history, which comes to us on the radio not like a distant foghorn, but like a blaring siren inside our living room. I cannot shut it off. I talk with family members almost everyday who are sheltering inside their Brooklyn apartment, all of them sick, and feel as if my hands were bound. I would endure this time of seclusion with more grace if I did not feel so useless, so removed from the overflowing hospitals and the city of my childhood where so many are sick and dying.

We are boiling sap on our woodstove as we do every year, planting seeds indoors for this year’s vegetable and flower gardens. The end of winter always comes slowly, but this year time is distended, fraught by strangeness and necessary hope. We had a few days when the sun was out, the crocuses up and early daffodils; we turned over the compost piles and cleaned up winter’s debris. And then a cold rain came, falling to the earth like so may thrust spears. More darkness, more winter.

For a long time I associated spring with death because my mother died in spring, and so did my brother. We held his memorial in Washington DC, where he lived, while the cherry trees were in bloom. The magnificence of color hurt my eyes; I blinkered through the lengthening days in my grief. After so many years, this association has faded a little. But we will never forget this time, all the burials, the intensity with which we watched for the lilacs to leaf out, listened for the song of the white throated sparrow, waited for permission to resume our lives again.

Usually at this time of year we are lambing on our farm. But we chose not to do this anymore, at least for a while. I did not know, of course, when we made that decision, that come spring, we would be forced to stay at home; that this would be a time when new life would have brought much-needed delight. More life. I look out at the paddock where I should see tiny lambs standing beneath their wooly mothers, their little tails trembling, while the ewes raise their chins into the air, as if whistling a familiar tune. I miss them.

I chose this life because I have never had much confidence in a precarious, bloated economy of global supply chains, credit default swaps, technological dependency, two-thousand-cow dairies, and over-specialization. Instead, it is the rhythms of a rural life –collecting sap in buckets, cutting wood for the stove, caring for animals – that are more reliable. When everything else is failing, these do not fail us, cannot fail us. John Berger wrote that when the animals are gone, it will be “their endurance we [will] miss.” An old ewe dies, but she has “already lambed her permanence.” It was the same ewe, forever and forever, her milk flowing into eternity, the lambs arriving year after year. Animals, who have always been with us, are our link to the past before the past. By caring for them, for the soil and the forests, the carbon and nitrogen cycles and the rain, we are keeping forever alive and this is surely not useless.

Spring will be here soon.

The good news is that CSA subscriptions and farm stand sales have doubled in recent weeks. Local food, honestly grown, is something we can trust, and if we want our farms to be there when we need them, we better support them now. Meanwhile, the mega-dairies are dumping milk as prices are in freefall. I am reminded of those images from the Great Depression of mountains of surplus grain, farmers burning corn and, yes, dumping milk by the roadsides. These became our symbols of the cruelty and insanity of unbridled capitalism, of allowing the Invisible Hand to control our lives and to grab us by the throat. The Vermont legislature is considering emergency rules for putting a floor on milk prices – so that prices don’t go below a farmer’s cost of production – and for distributing milk surpluses to kids, food pantries, and shelters. These were the kinds of policies put in place by the New Deal, and over the decades since have been dismantled chip by chip. And here we are again.

It is hard to see how we will ever go back to the way things were. Putting a floor on milk prices so a farmer doesn’t lose money by working seven days a week to feed us, and buying agricultural surpluses to feed the hungry – is this something that will ever make sense not to do? Will we go back to mass evictions of poor black single mothers and their children? Throw the homeless back on the streets? Can our system of medical apartheid really continue after this? This pandemic has made visible to all the faults in the system, the gross inequalities, so that they can no longer be denied.

The other day Art was looking through some boxes for some old photographs and found a newspaper clipping from 1979: “Use of fossil fuels called threat to world climate.” The story appeared on page D1 of the New York Times. Even a magazine printed a few weeks ago arrives in our mailbox as if it were sent to us from a distant past, as did this newspaper clip. The world before corona. I worry that the climate threat is once again pushed back to page D1, although we know now that the effects of fossil fuel burning will not wait two hundred years, as the professor thought in 1979. That they are already here, and that climate change will bring more pandemics, more economic disaster, and will kill many people. We will have to reckon with the knowledge that, once again, it is only in times of economic contraction that emissions decline.

I worry that the climate threat will always be pushed back to page D1 because there is always an immediate crisis, because people need to eat, to work, to live, while the earth is more and more diminished and ecologically disturbed, meaning that there will be more crises, more unmet needs. A forest, writes David Quammen, “with its vast diversity of visible creatures and microbes, is like a beautiful old barn: knock it over with a bulldozer and viruses will rise in the air like dust.” We have been warned.

Friends and family members tell me they are rereading those plague-themed books, like Camus’ La Peste, and Love in the Time of Cholera. I am rereading Angels in America, and grieving for the millions who died of AIDS while the world was indifferent. We did not, as a collective, stand in our doorways to bang pots and pans at seven o’clock. The stars did not go out, we did not pack up the moon and dismantle the sun. I want to believe that the near universal solidarity we are living right now will not fade away, that it will change us, deepen our powers of empathy; that the circumference of our sphere of care will expand in time and space, to include the past, the far away, the seventh generation, the neighbor we never knew. The animals, too, who are our permanence, our forever.



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Spring Surprise


We were not expecting lambs this year.

After last year’s horrible lambing season – followed by a drought ­– we decided not to do this anymore. Last year, as if in a conspiracy, all the ewes decided to take care of only one of their twins – and all of them, save one, gave birth to strong healthy sets of twins. Thus we had, at one point, five bottle lambs at the same time – a record for us, by far. And almost all the lambs were rams – another conspiracy.

And then came the drought. In recent years we have come to expect monsoon rains and floods in summer, but last summer, the rain did not come, the grass turned brittle and brown, and the hungry flock rebelled and bolted, time and again. Art spent half his summer moving fencing and the other half chasing sheep. We had to buy hay, at great expense, in the middle of summer. That was surely the last hay stalk—in a long series of demerits against the diminishing merits of raising sheep.

Among the checks against us as sheep farmers – our wool processor, just down the road from us, retired. And so did our shearer. It’s mid-May and we still don’t have a shearer. The older ewes are shedding their fleeces, which hang down in long trains of ropy curls, as if they were wearing long skirts or shawls. They look as if they were getting undressed and got distracted.

Worst of all, the invasives are winning the war of the grasses: our Soays – our last ditch strategy for controlling these weeds– it turns out, are just as finicky as our other sheep and won’t eat them. All of these occurrences add up to a single argument, which is that it is time for us to let our ewes live out their lives in retirement. Fewer in number, and with no lambs, they are simply less trouble all around.

And then the lambs arrived. I was not all that surprised (though I hoped not) as the ewes looked very pregnant to me (it is hard to tell under all that wool). It is not unknown for the rubber band to fail – the method we use to neuter our ram lambs. This year, those same ewes who rejected their second-borns last year are this time taking devoted care of all their twins. One ewe even had triplets.

“Another lamb,” Art said, coming in from feeding them one morning. I went out and found a medley of tiny black lambs scattered all over the paddock and barn, crying their heads off. (It is always mayhem when the sheep are fed, when the lambs are not as important as breakfast.) I had to sort out who belonged to whom, and which one was the new one. After figuring it out, as well as identifying the mother by her tell-tail of afterbirth (the origin of the word?), I then wondered if there was a twin. There were still all those little crying lambs. After sorting them out, I decided one of them was the twin, and moved both newborns and their mom, Eweripedes, into the lambing pen. A little later, I returned to check on them, but there was still a little screaming lamb, unaccounted for. Could it be a triplet? I placed her in the pen with the other. Eweripedes sniffed her, approved, and then raised her chin in the air in satisfaction, as they will do. Thank you, she seemed to say. You are welcome.

Ewekraine is our sweet bottle lamb.

I left them and hoped for the best. Would she have enough milk for the three of them? And just how, logistically, would it work? We have never had success before with triplets, who come rarely. Last year, in what was another misery in a long list, a triplet came as a breech birth. In our experience, a triplet, if it lives at all, will surely be a bottle lamb. In that case, two of the three were bottle lambs.

But all three of them were standing and nursing, managing to do so all at the same time (the ewes often have extra teats), disappearing beneath Eweripedes’ long wooly skirt, with only a forest of little legs visible beneath her and their tails trembling with happiness.

I don’t know why but the lambs this year seem especially sweet to me. The tiny band of triplets running behind their mom in perfect unison, or lifting up their faces with their splatterings of white, like spilled milk. For the lambs life is one ongoing slumber party. They curl up together, pairs of them, black and white, nested together like inverted commas, yin and yang; or together with their cousins and the ewes, napping in the shade of the elm tree. Who will run rings around a big tree, and jump, one at a time and keeping score, from the back of a resting ewe. At siesta time, they will rest, chewing their cud, with the eyelids drooping and their chins raised up, acting all grown up (they do actually eat grass at so young an age). Our bottle lamb follows me everywhere, keeping me company when I work in the garden, nibbling on last year’s fallen leaves and then finding her way back to the barn on her own.

Spring to me is the most beautiful season, and it always comes as an astonishment. Now the forest canopy over the hills is in full spring foliage – as varied in color, or more, as in autumn, though the colors are more subtle – from the pale lime green of the birches to the purplish emergence of the maple leaves. The lambs, black and white, on the vibrant spring grass blazed with dandelion flowers, the fruit trees –pear, apple, plum and crabapple – are in blossom. The air smells of spring water and apple blossoms. Our world opens up from the confinement of winter in the midst of all of this emergence.

Usually lambs who are not bottle raised are not as friendly as this one.

Biologists use the term “recruitment” to mean the replenishing of a new generation, from the French world croître, to grow, or croissance, growth. The lambs signify regeneration just as do the new shoots of trees. All human cultures (but ours) have embraced respect for natural cycles –night and day, growth and decay, winter and summer, and accepted the recurrence of life as a gift, as reliable as it is astonishing. Only with fossil fuels– which is sunlight bottled and stored, that we can pour from a spigot at will– have we been able to live out of synchronicity with these cycles. We have so taken this for granted that it has distorted our sense of place in the universe, and we have come to expect “renewable” energy to do the same. But cultures that relied on current sunlight (“renewable” energy sources) embraced a life of periodicity, of cycles of light and darkness, abundance and scarcity, and expressed this sense of structure in their cosmologies and their art.

To live in “harmony” with nature is much abused and derided notion. Webster’s defines harmony as  “a just adaptation of parts to each other; agreement between parts to each other; giving unity of effect of an aesthetically pleasing whole; the structure, relation and progression of chords.”

Indigenous cultures did see themselves as living in “mutually agreed upon arrangements” with animals, who chose to “give themselves” in exchange for being treated in respect, and only if the People followed the rules. Raising farm animals is also an arrangement – or should be – in which the needs of humans is balanced with the needs of the animals who give their lives so that others will live. Their lives may be short but they are good, and they are given a good and dignified death in return. (We tell ourselves stories in order to live.) I like to think of living “in harmony” in the Greek sense of the music of the spheres: that is, living in compliance with the laws of nature. Composing in accordance with a structure of limitation. Meanwhile, seeing the black and white forms grazing against the backdrop of verdant pasture, festooned with dandelion flowers, the mountains behind them in their color-shadows, does indeed form an “aesthetically pleasing whole.”

Back scratching.

Ask me again a few weeks from now, when we are tearing our hair out, chasing sheep; when the yellow grass spreads like a fading bruise on the flesh; when the thistle has clawed its way out of its dark hell. Right now it seems hard to accept that we are saying goodbye to this, that we are bringing to a stop a cycle that has come and gone for as long as I have lived here. The old ladies, and our pair of Soays, will still cut the grass for us, but there will be no more recruitment. There are other ways we are imagining living in relationship to this place; other ways of seeing the world renew itself; other ways of living in the presence of our days.


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The Wild and the Domestic: Introducing Soays

Green Gardens.

Years ago Art and I visited a place in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, called Green Gardens, a spectacular stretch of volcanic coast with stupendous coal-dark cliffs crowned with lush, velvet-green meadows and wind-twisted spruce trees. We camped for two days under a half moon that lit the sea foam below as it swirled in and out of sea caves and skirted tall stacks of lava pillows.

The cliff-top meadows were once summer pasture for sheep, who still grazed there, though the farms and shepherds were centuries gone. It was a sheep’s paradise, who would select the high points with the best views, we noticed, and bed down at night under the giant white pines. The scotch thistle flowers were in bloom, forming pink banners rippling in the ocean breeze. Lovely, except that the thistle, a plant that the sheep won’t eat, was therefore taking over. The sheep were in effect selectively grazing themselves out of a habitat.

That was ten years ago, when we weren’t yet worried about thistle taking over, as we are now. Green Gardens served as a warning. Little by little, another variety of thistle, introduced here when the Monitor Barn was removed, was becoming a problem. This kind does not even have a pretty pink flower, but rears its thorny head like a pair of ugly fangs. Everywhere. Especially around the footprint of the former barn. It is proving to be inextinguishable. We even saw it grow up through a great big pile of wood chips, as if it were clawing its way straight out of hell.

And then, another invasive grass that the sheep won’t eat– we call it the jaundice grass for its sickly yellow hue – was becoming even scarier.

We considered introducing a pair of goats. But that would involve some serious fencing, if we hoped to have a tree left standing. I shuddered to think what they could do to all the hard work of the farm crews and volunteers next door. Not to mention our laundry.

Then we learned about Soay sheep.

Soays are a rare breed of primitive sheep that were isolated for two thousand years on an island in the Hebrides. They are thought to be close to the earliest domestic sheep herded by Bronze Age shepherds. They are small, and horned, and resemble deer rather than ovines. Having lived on an island – not unlike the cliff-top meadows of Newfoundland – they would have learned not to be such fussy eaters, once there was nothing left for them to eat but thistle. Soays do not need shearing, for they shed their fleeces naturally, nor nail trimming, and even the rams are gentle, unaggressive creatures which means they don’t need to be separated from the flock. They are a good choice for farmers who are reluctant – as we are – to intervene too much in the lives of our animals, but rather to live with them in a spirit of mutualism. You give me water. I give you wool.

Soays at Soli Deo Gloria.

The day came to pick up a pair of Soay wether lambs from the Soli Deo Gloria farm in Whiting. We caught our first glimpse of them in the field – whom I might have mistaken for deer, except for the way they were so tightly flocked together. The farmer led them into a corral, and as he tried to grab one for us, they moved swiftly, swirling around him in a blur like a school of fish around a diver. “They’re impossible to catch,” he said. As we were soon to learn.

We brought them home in a U-haul mini-trailer and let them out in the paddock to mingle with the other sheep. They retreated to a hidden corner of the paddock behind the barn, where I stood and watched them for a while and who, in their shyness, returned my gaze. These are animals who will remain calm in your presence, and seem to be as curious about you as you are about them, as long as you move slowly and make no hint of giving chase. Their curved horns sweep back from their faces, marked with white swooshes of war paint, giving them a noble look.

I was excited to observe them over the next few days to see how they would adapt to their new home.

But the next morning, Art woke me up, saying, “They’re gone.”

I got dressed and followed Art down the road and into a thicket of poison parsnip running into a ravine, where the lambs were last seen. We walked up a little streambed into the woods and came out at the edge of the VYCC farm. No sign of them.

Paul Feenan, the farm program director, was there with his youth crew, giving the teenagers instructions on their morning’s task. Never missing an opportunity for a teaching moment, he said, “Let’s introduce Art and Alexis.”

He explained that we are the ones who live next door, with the sheep. “They help us out sometimes, and we help them out at times. Right now is one of those times.”

We explained our situation, and described the lambs to them. “They look like tiny antelopes,” I said.

“What’s an antelope?” one of them asked.

As it turned out, we were very lucky that the crew happened to be working there that day, who would keep an eye out for our lost lambs.

We bushwhacked through the jungle again, but still no sign of them. Only a few of their tiny triangular prints in the dirt where they entered the ravine. The understory was dense with tall weeds, and the woods merged into the town forest and continued on towards Canada. We despaired that we would never find them, and even if we did, as the farmer said, “They are impossible to catch.”

Later that day, I received a phone call from Cae at the VYCC. “Our crew has spotted your lambs. They were seen poking their heads out of the woods. Brown. With horns.”

I ran back and there they were, out in the open, noses to the ground like a pair of brown dogs sniffing around. I followed them for a while, slowly, as they made their way down the path at the edge of the woods, and then meandered into the tall weeds where they munched happily on leaves from the low-hanging bough of a box alder. They looked at me, and we exchanged gazes again, and they went on grazing. Like Jane Goodall and her chimps, they accepted my presence as I lingered and observed.

I had no way to get them home, of course, but it was a source of hope that they had stayed nearby, and did not take off into the deep wilderness, as we had feared. When Art returned from work, we went back to the same spot and found them again, their war painted faces visible through a slight gap in the weeds, like an image from a Henri Rousseau painting. It seemed fitting that these creatures, at the confluence of the wild and the domestic, should find themselves on the line between forest and farm. They would have everything they could ever want here, I thought – water, shade trees, and good browsing. Everything but a herd.

They were, to our horror, choosing to bed down in the exact place where we feed the coyotes.

However unlikely our success, we would have to try to grab them.

Our plan was for one of us to come around from behind and flush them out of the weeds where Art and Cody – a neighbor who came to help us – would grab them. “Their horns make good handles,” the farmer had said.

I crashed through the tall goldenrod and then crept up the streambed and climbed a bank to reach them. To my surprise, they did not notice me until I was standing over them. They looked up at me with those sweet faces, and before I could apologize– they bolted. I grabbed one – but the other got away. He went bounding past Cody and Art up the path toward the lean-tos, graceful as a deer, and then leapt into the woods and vanished. That was the last we saw of him, although we looked and looked, for two days.

I got to know the edge of the woods, the little streambed, and the new farm crew and apprentices, who were by now all invested in helping us to find our lost lamb.

I could not help but think about him, scared and alone, and possibly lost, in the deep woods. As I focused on my tasks – in the garden, the kitchen, or my desk – those woods were at the periphery of my consciousness, a mystery that would never be resolved. The endless possibilities – some hopeful, some horrific – turned over and over in my mind. Nature, I know, has its cruelties, but we were responsible for this lamb, whom we wrenched from his family, grabbed by the horns, and brought to this strange place with its gang of bully-ewes. In truth, I do not like animal husbandry with all its little brutalities – the wrassling, the chasing, the penning-in. And so much death. There are times when I wonder why on earth we are doing this; this was one of those times.

Meanwhile the lamb we brought home settled in. It took only a day for the other sheep to accept him – they were mean to him at first, which is probably why the Soays ran away– the new lamb eager to become a part of the group. Seeing how closely he stayed with the herd, I was hopeful that the other lamb would find his way back to his brother.

He did. After two nights alone in the woods, one of them in the pouring rain, he made his way across the open farmland under the cover of a morning fog.

We opened the gate for him, and watched as the settled lamb led him proudly, like a college senior showing the way to a freshman, into the barn.

Now the two of them are together again, inseparable, and show no inclination of running away. These gentle creatures are teaching us to be gentle ourselves, who will never again give them chase, and should never have reason to use their horns as handles, as they live out their lives here in peace.


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Autumn in Vermont

Art took these photos on his bike ride the other day– from our place past Gillette Pond,  to the top of Robin’s Mountain, with great views of Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump.


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Do animals have souls?


The writer and ecologist Carl Safina has been looking at animals his whole life. I am not talking about sheep – but dolphins and whales, elephants and wolves, crows and razorbills. His beautiful book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, contains a wealth of observations of animal life that lend a whole new depth to the question, Why look at animals?

When your dog rolls over for you to rub her belly, or wags her tail and beams at you – is it fair to say that she is happy, or would you be assuming too much? Is it possible that humans are so different from dogs, or cats or lambs or elephants, that we are the only ones who experience happiness, or that other creatures cannot express it in similar ways? Science has collected evidence abundant to demonstrate that animals are individuals – as humans are – that they use tools, that they are aware of the minds of others, that they can use deception and cleverness to out-smart others; that whales, dolphins, wolves and elephants grieve and mourn their dead, help and care for others in distress; they play, laugh, joke, and cry (elephants even produce tears). We are not anthropomorphizing when we apply these words to animals; these emotions and abilities do not belong exclusively to us. “Certainly projecting feelings onto other animals can lead to us misunderstanding their motivations. But denying that they have any motivations guarantees that we’ll misunderstand … Not assuming they have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science. Insisting they did not was bad science.”

Jane Goodall was famously scorned for her work with chimpanzees when she enrolled as a doctoral student. She shouldn’t have given the chimps names, her esteemed professors told her, and she shouldn’t have talked about their feelings or personalities. But this insistence on human uniqueness and difference contradicts what we know about biology and evolution – not to mention what is evident to just about anyone who has ever had a dog. Biology tells us that each newer thing in nature is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess comes from somewhere – frogs and chickens have femurs, the precursors to our jointed leg. That is to say, that most of what we possess as a species is shared. “Species differ,” Safina writes, “but they are not really very different.”

“We never seem to doubt that an animal acting hungry feels hungry. What reason is there to disbelieve that an elephant who seems happy is happy? We recognize hunger and thirst while animals are eating and drinking, exhaustion when they tire, but deny them joy and happiness as they’re playing with their children and families. The science of animal behavior has long operated with that bias – and that’s unscientific. In science, the simplest interpretation of evidence is often the best. When elephants seem joyous in joyful contexts, joy is the simplest interpretation of the evidence. Their brains are similar to ours, they make the same hormones involved in human emotions –and that’s evidence, too.”

I doubt that there is a reader out there who would question Safina’s reasoning – but in the hallowed halls of animal science, to make these kinds of statements is to commit professional suicide.


Ironically, we began to learn about the social and emotional lives of whales from watching them in captivity. It did not take long for their captors to realize that these creatures were not like sheep or cattle. Babies taken from mother killer whales provoked displays of grief that could break anyone’s heart. “One mother,” describes researcher Alexander Morton, “stayed in the corner of the pool, literally shaking and screaming, screeching, crying.” Another watched as her calf was lifted by crane from the pool and “as her baby’s voice left the water and entered the air, the mother threw her enormous body against the tank walls, again and again, causing the entire stadium to shake.” Another mother who lost her baby was inconsolable, and for hours would face the gift shop, staring at the toy baby orcas.

Anyone who thinks that animals have no consciousness, no language, no ability to plan ahead, no self awareness or consciousness of death, or that they do not have “theory of mind,” meaning that they cannot know that “others have thoughts different than their own,” would be astonished by the observations recorded by researchers who have logged countless hours patiently watching them. All animals, it turns out, are individuals –even the squishy octopi are different, one from the other, just like we are – where one octopus will screw open a jar to retrieve its contents, and then rescrew it, another will show no interest whatsoever in the jar. A razorbill knows every other razorbill by name– out of thousands in a colony –and can find his mate among them, without fail. Groupers are clever, who solicit the cooperation of eels at capturing their prey. Jays plan consciously, storing food and eating the perishable food first. Elephants mourn and remember their dead. Killer whales – orcas – live in social units with their distinct dialects and avoid mixing with other units for cultural reasons. There is no parallel for this, that we know of, outside of humans. Above all, the species that is most like us is not a primate – but the wolf, who lives in family packs, in socially complex groups, who is as loyal as she is brutal. Wolves will banish one another, defend their loved ones to the death, and lead suffering, tragic lives. Males care for their spouses and offspring for life, and bring food home to their families – only humans do this, and no other species is at war with itself, wolf against wolf, the way we are. “Wolves and humans understand each other,” Safina writes. “That’s one reason we invited wolves, instead of chimpanzees, into our lives.” Wolves, dogs, us. “We were made for one another.”


The stories of whales and dolphins are the most extraordinary. Dolphins escorting lost boats through the fog. Accounts of dolphins lifting drowning bodies to the surface are legion – although humans have not reciprocated their kindness, dolphins and whales have shown an extraordinary gentleness and care towards our species. A group of bottlenose dolphins forms a protective ring around a surfer who’s been bitten by a shark. The attendant dolphins who cared for the boy Elian Gonzalez, adrift at sea, nudging him back onto his tube to keep him afloat. The dolphins who suddenly abandon the sardines they are feasting upon to swim six miles to where a woman lies floating, face up, unconscious but alive. In another account, a group of dolphins suddenly acts strangely, abandoning their sportive diving around a boat’s bow to swim in a column along the portside, keeping a solemn distance. It turned out, someone had died in his bunk on board; only after the body had been removed did the dolphins behave normally again, diving and frolicking around the bow. These researchers had watched dolphins for twenty-five years and never saw them behave this way.

These accounts are too many, too detailed, and too consistent to dismiss as mere anecdotes – many of them recorded by hard-nosed scientists with recorders and notepads in hand. Things like dolphin telepathy – what sounds to a rationalist like woo-woo – has compelled a scientist like Safina to reconsider. Whales and dolphins and elephants caring for lost and injured human beings? What on earth is going on here?

On beaches where killer whales hurl themselves onto the sand to drag away thousand pound sea lions, whereupon they will beat them and tear their bodies to shreds – the same whales will, docile as puppies, form a ring around a park ranger who has slipped into the surf in his kayak. Giant predators who will crush and kill any other mammal in the water, have never killed or hurt a human being, not even accidentally. How is it, Safina asks, that they have never – not once– even tipped over a human being in a kayak? Or accidentally smacked one of us with a tail or fin? Whales will seek out our kind, hanging around boats, putting on a show for whale watchers, seeking us out as playmates and companions; they have escorted lost researchers home, guarded humans from sharks and mourned our dead. Something very mysterious is going on here. Is it possible that whales and dolphins detect a kinship with us, that they do not feel they have with flounder or seals – and that it has something to do with our minds, our consciousness, or dare I use the word, our souls?

Elephants, too, have been known to defend and protect us – showing an empathy and kindness that we surely do not deserve. One elephant carried an injured woman to a safe place, covered her in branches for warmth, and sat with her through the night to defend her from hyenas until help arrived. We have heard the stories of elephants carrying people to higher ground during the Boxing Day tsunami. Elephants will stop dead in their tracks to avoid hurting a human in their path – treatment they would not give to a hyena or a warthog. What is it that elephants see in us that they give us this special treatment? Especially us – who are the only species to massacre their entire families, destroy their forests, and cause them to live their lives in terror and trauma?


Not all animals mourn their dead, or experience the profound and inconsolable grief that whales and elephants do. I have seen our sheep step over their dead lambs as if they were nothing to them. And when we take their lambs away, when they are a year old, the ewes that gave birth to them and cared for them so tenderly in their first months do not even notice they are gone. They graze and chew their cud and lounge about as if nothing whatsoever were amiss. I can say this with as much confidence as I can say that they are happy when they show happiness, or that they are bored and pissed when they are pestering Art to move them to new pasture. This may be what Joel Salatin means (of Polyface Farm) when he says that he has no problem with killing and eating animals because “they have no souls.” By this measure, livestock are different than elephants or whales, who are the very embodiment of soul. If our sheep wailed and screamed and shook when their lambs were taken, it would surely not happen on our watch.

But to say that they do not miss their lambs is not to say that they are machines, or that they do not suffer, nor is it to deny that each of them is a who, not an it. (Every time I type a “who” to refer to an animal, grammar-check advises me to change it to a “that”.) It is our responsibility as their guardians to provide them a good life, and that means, to allow them to live a sheep’s life– to borrow from Salatin again – that is, a life in which they are allowed to express their sheepness. That is their ewetopia.

We are all too familiar with images of nature tooth and claw. But what of nature heart and soul? What about the myriad displays of intelligence, joyfulness, empathy, caring, kindness, loyalty, even soulfulness, that is there for us to see in the animal world if we would only bother to look? How is it that, having lived with animals since time immemorial, we have missed all of this wonder and astonishment? Our science-based understanding of animals is coming around to what the aboriginals always knew, who certainly never doubted that animals had “theory of mind.” To accept that all animals have inner lives that are a mystery to us– sheep and cattle, too –is to admit the sacred into our daily lives. The world, it turns out, is a much more interesting and mysterious place than the one mapped out by Descartes and his descendants– alive with consciousness and empathy, language and music, and webs of communication across the species barrier that we have barely glimpsed. We need not be so lonely as a species. Surely we could not be as cruel – if only we would pay attention to what is hidden in plain sight.


Posted in animal consciousness, Carl Safina, empathy, sheepness, Uncategorized, whales and dolphins, wolves | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Looking at Lambs

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Lambs in spring.

Of course, that is when they are supposed to arrive. Not in dead of winter.  To postpone the lambing season – which would naturally begin five months after the first cold nights—until the milder weather arrives, requires making sure all the ram lambs are neutered, and either separating the ram from the flock or not keeping a ram at all. Last year we had no lambs, and we had no ram, and in the fall we borrowed a ram (who was not easy to find) for two months, returning him after he had performed his “service.” He was a gentle giant with a roman nose and a bell hanging from his neck, which meant we always knew when he was near. His name was Obama. I was not sure how I felt about that name—though soon enough the name belonged to him. Obama did have a fringe of grey frost to his dark wool, and he had that certain presidential coolness about him. After the tragic events of November 8, I felt a pain something akin to grief whenever we spoke his name.

When he first arrived, the girls (as we call them) were afraid of him and took off running. Obama ran after them, his bell ringing, but since he had a sore ankle he had difficulty keeping up. This went on for a few days. In time, it was the ewes who were seducing him, rubbing up against him and batting their eyelashes, and he became well integrated into the family. He turned out to be the nicest ram we ever had here; he never bullied the ewes and never so much as suggested any aggression toward us. When we had to get him into the truck to take him home, I stood back and watched – having been spooked by the aggression I have seen from other rams – as two girls from next door helped Art to lift up his front legs, then the rear, to get him in the Uhaul. They were dressed in clogs and colorful scarves. Obama only shrugged as he took one last look at us, before Art closed the door and he was gone. Ci vediamo.

The lambs came five months later, in two sets of twos, at two-week intervals, starting in mid-March. The first lambs were born– both ewes, one black and one white– to Eweriah, a granddaughter of Ewelysses. They were both strong and healthy. The following day we had the biggest snowfall of the season: twenty-nine inches in Burlington­ – a record. The next day more pairs of twins were born. And then more. All the ewes, in the end, had twins, except for Eweripedes who produced one big black ram lamb with a white X mark across his face. Lambs in snow still sounds like winter, but the temperatures were in the twenties at the lowest, t-shirt weather for the sheep, who had no trouble with it at all. No frozen ears snapping off like tortilla chips, no cold blue tongues. We never had to bring any lambs inside to warm them by the fire. And no bottle lambs.

We dug out a trail to the barn through the knee-deep snow. I looked back at the barn from the house through a lacey curtain of snowfall to see the newborns, white and black, nudging at their mother’s underbellies, their heads disappearing and the little rumps sticking out, the tail shaking to say to the world that that all is well beneath its milky firmament. The white blanket of snow covered the bare paddock, the sheep tucked in as if in a freshly made bed. They will not try to make their way through the deep snow, and so they are confined to the barn, but this is a good time for them to stay home, absorbed as they are in their tender domesticity.

And when the sheep are out on pasture, we get to watch the lambs racing across the brilliant green velvet of new grass. They have long tracts of grass for their races, and we watch them tearing across the pastures in a zebra-striped blur. They will play their king-of-the-mountain game on the backs of ewes, who remain placid, chewing their cud, as the lambs jump on their backs and run across the ridgeline of their spines, then jump off and jump again. Art made them a jungle gym out of some pallets, an artificial mountain for their games, which we can watch from our kitchen window. How they kick their feet together in mid air when they jump, twisting their bodies like a high diver in her descent. They will run circles around their mountain, then take off in a race across the length of the paddock and back, more lambs joining into the throng until they are a full herd galloping across the prairies.


In his classic essay, “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger reflects on the disappearance of animals from our lives, who have been with us as partners in survival throughout our history. In Vermont, there are almost no cows or goats or sheep grazing on open pastures anymore, though that iconic image still persists in our minds as if it were still true. There are two large dairies in our town, though no cows anywhere in sight. On one farm, the cows sleep on waterbeds and are milked by robots. On the other, it is possible to catch a glimpse of their big-boned bodies through the barn door, and to see the calf hutches lined up behind it, though not the poor animals that must live their short lives in them. The animals are still here but we do not see them, and they can not return our gaze to look at us.

We are not the only ones looking at our animals, which can be seen from the road by passersby who often stop to admire the lambs. Berger says that the presence of animals gives us a sense of endurance.  The ewe that has died “had already lambed her permanence.” So it was that the animals who had been with us were still with us and will always be with us: with every season there will be new lambs, who will fill the air with their cries and will delight us with their pink-eared faces and their leaping. That is why we are grateful to see lambs out grazing, or resting together with the ewes beneath the shade trees, chewing their cud, in their blessed contentment. That is why we are so glad to see the VYCC’s cows on the hillside pasture behind us. This year they are Jerseys, those caramel colored cows with the long curly eyelashes and the dreamy eyes of young girls in love. The animals have not disappeared altogether, their presence says to us, the soils have not all been carried away by the winds and the rains in their absence. There are still animals to anchor us on this earth, its axis fastened in its reliable turning, four-leggeds speaking in their strange tongues of this day and forever.





Why Look at Animals? John Berger. Penguin, 2009.

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Going Gently

Ewelysses (right) with her lamb Eweclid.

We buried our favorite ewe yesterday.

Ten years old, Ewelysses died the way the old ewes always do: she just lay down one day and never got up again. It was in the middle of lambing season, and during her last days, the new lambs were coming into the world, playing and crying and sometimes jumping onto her back. Such is the nature of farming: so much life, so much death.

Ewelysses was a favorite because she had personality. She had these crescent moons under her eyes and she had a sense of humor. She was also my first bottle lamb, born on the eve of the Valentine’s Day blizzard of 2007. I had to hold her in my arms to feed her during that first night, because she would not stand up to drink, but by the morning she was upright and bleating away, and by the second night she was already bounding out of her box.

On the day of the blizzard, another pair of twins arrived. We had to dig a trench through the snow to get to the barn, which quickly filled up with snow again. We asked our tenant to come out to help us with the stubborn ewe, and waited almost an hour for him to make it from the house to the barn through the chest-deep snow. Our woodpile, the car, the fence posts, were all completely buried, and later, when the snow hardened, the sheep could walk right over the top of the paddock fence, trailing their lambs behind them.

One of the new twins could not stand up; the ewe stood over him, pawing at the ground, as if to say, get up, get up. What else was she going to do? We decided to bring him inside to warm him up and soon he was up on his feet and ready to go. We brought him back out to the barn to his mother and hoped for the best.

That night I opened the back door and heard a lamb screaming as if to split the world in two. It was the loudest, most heart-rending cry I had ever heard. I went out and found the little black lamb curled up in the snow in front of the creep, screaming and facing the house, as if to say, “Come and get me!”

So we had two bottle lambs that winter and spring, Ewelysses and Rudy Valentino.

I remember it all so well because this was the winter I was traveling back and forth to Washington DC to help care for my brother in hospice. These were the two lambs who appear in my poem “Coming Home”:


Coming Home

When I got home from the airport


The first thing I’d do

would be to go out to the barn

to feed the two lambs, where I’d let

my body sink down to the ground,

my back against the wall,

as the lambs ––one black, one white –

climbed all over me, until they found

their bottles, which they’d suck

with a great ferocity, until

they were satiated, and calm,

the one resting across my lap,

sleeping, murmuring.

There I would sit for a while

in the dark, listening to the slow

heavy breath of the ewes,

the ground soaked, through the years,

with the blood of afterbirth, and where,

when the old ewes die, they just

lie down in the straw and never

get up again, wanting to remain

with the animals, as the old poet said.


We gave Ewelysses a forest burial. Art carried her through the rain in a garden cart across the muddy field to the edge of the woods, where he lay her down on the forest floor. The coyotes know the spot – it is our unwritten covenant with them. In a few days, there will be not a trace of her left. She will become a part of the forest, in the song of the coyote on the hill, in the black streak of a raven’s wing in its flight. Other than the snow and the hail and the rain, and her birth – a creature coming into existence from the watery, dark warmth of the womb, like a nimbus star– this will be the most wildness that she will ever know.

And now that I come to mark the tenth anniversary of by brother’s death, I measure it in the length of a ewe’s life, and it feels too long, too much, to have passed so quickly. This small grief is cast like a shadow from a much larger one. An animal’s death occurs inside a circle of living and dying; I do not rage against it. But for a brother’s death before his time, there is no circle, no poetry, only these small consolations – a lamb falling asleep in a lap – that tether us to this world us as we stumble through our grief.




Niles Lathem , June 21, 1955 – April 12, 2007.

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The Monitor Elm



We have some great old trees on our property, but the tall one-hundred-year-old elm tree is the grandest of them all.

It rises straight up from the roadside and then opens up like a fountain in the sky.

I have many fond memories of gathering with friends around a picnic table in the shade of its great canopy. Our sheep like to take their siesta in its ample shade, and in summer its crown is filled with songbirds. We have even seen the pendant nest of the Baltimore oriole suspended from its uppermost branches.

It is odd that friends who have been to our place many times are surprised to learn that there is an elm tree here. That may be because its telltale tall straight trunk is disguised by the maple that grows with it like a conjoined twin.

A few years ago a botanist from the University of Vermont stopped by to study the tree; he told us it might be the healthiest American elm tree in the state. More recently, someone with the Nature Conservancy knocked on our door – he was passing by when he happened to notice our elm. The Nature Conservancy is searching the region for the largest and healthiest surviving elm trees for its floodplain forest restoration project, with the goal of planting seven thousand disease-resistant saplings over three years in Connecticut River Watershed. *

Only last year another large old elm tree in Richmond succumbed to the disease that has taken 77 million elms since the 1970s. The tree was removed by Vermont Tree Goods, which makes unique handcrafted furniture out of very old trees. The Tilden Street elm was made into a conference table that now dignifies our town offices, and can be admired and used by the people of Richmond for generations to come.

Before I learned about the Tilden Elm, I had been rather complacent about our own, believing that if it has survived this long then it is not in danger.

Then I learned about the death of another elm, this one the largest elm tree in Vermont – called the Vermont Elm – last November in Charlotte. Vermont Tree Goods took down the tree, milled and kiln dried the wood and turned it into furniture. The bottom 20-foot long section alone weighed 25,000 pounds.

The elm tree once dominated the floodplain forests in New England and was planted along city streets to form living arches, in city parks and town centers. They are fast-growing, robust trees that can tolerate urban environments and all kinds of storms. And they are beautiful.

We did love the elm tree to death, however. Planting rows of elms along city streets was, in effect, to create monocultures that made them susceptible to epidemic disease. When dutch elm disease arrived, it swept through these plantations, spreading from treetop to treetop, and then, infected elms in their natural habitats as well. Trees that remained isolated from affected trees, and those with genetic resistance, survived. Our elm is one of those.

American elms are still abundant in floodplain forests but they do not survive to maturity. No other tree has come to take the ecological place of the largest, longest- living tree in the floodplain forest. Elms with their deep strong roots kept soils from washing away and maintained water quality of rivers and streams, while providing habitat for osprey, eagle, barred owl, songbirds, bats, and flying squirrels.

Trees have a trenchant psychological power over us that may be difficult to explain. But it makes sense, given the importance of trees to our survival, and given our origins as tree dwelling primates. In his beautiful essay, “The Brown Wasps,” Loren Eiseley writes that he passed his life in the shade of a non-existent tree – a tree that took root and flourished in his memory as it failed to do in the patch of soil where he planted it, with his father, as a young boy. The house and the street where he lived had both rotted away, but not the memory of the tree, which, he learned many years later, had perished in its first season, just after his family moved away. “It was part of my orientation in the universe,” he wrote, “and I could not survive without it.”

I know what it is like to lose a big old tree. Before I moved to Richmond, I lived beside the New Haven River in an old house surrounded by large trees that were badly damaged in a late summer thunderstorm. One tall black locust tree lay sprawling across the road, others lost their tops. A neighbor broke a leg when a tree fell on him during that storm, which whipped around and twisted like a cyclone. For a long time I mourned the loss of those trees, and I felt that sense of disorientation– the kind that comes with grief, when we stumble about on our sea legs, stunned and unanchored in a world we dimly recognize.

It was a bit like that for us when the twin towers fell – we lost our physical orientation in the city, and in some ways, our orientation in the world as well.

Our farm is exposed to the most violent winds that are funnelled through the river valley, picking up strength as they barrel across open farmland. In the aftermath we find tree limbs and branches wrenched from their bodies, or whole trees felled and uprooted. In her poem, “Tornado at Talladega,” Gwendolyn Brooks describes the wreckage after a storm:

Certain trees

Stick across the road.

They are unimportant now.

They cannot sass anymore.

Not a one of these, the bewildered,

Can announce anymore “How fine I am!”

Here, roots, ire, origins exposed,

Across this twig-strewn, leaf-strewn road they lie,

Mute, ashamed, and through.

Though there is some danger, or sentimentality, in personifying trees, it is hard not to, as a tree’s life cycle so uncanningly parallels our own. Gachelon Bachelard writes, “the suffering tree is the epitome of pain.” But storm-ravaged trees recover, limbs grow back, a hole in a forest canopy lets in light for the growth of young saplings, and the rotted wood from downed trees is host to whole galaxies of life. This may be where the mimesis between the human and arboreal life cycle begins and ends.

Another favorite poem, “B.C.” by William Stafford, imagines the millennial history to which a single sequoia has borne witness. (“Great sunflowers were lording the air that day; this was before Jesus, before Rome…”) I like to think about the history our elm has observed from its transcendent position in the sky—the disappearance, and recovery, of the forests; the meadows dotted with sheep, then cows, and now, a pox of subdivisions and their cul de sacs. This old farm. The raising of the seven-story-tall monitor barn, its slow decay, and its resurgence, lazarus-like, from its ruins.

Our elm tree does not have a name, but perhaps it deserves one. I would suggest: the Monitor Elm.

Our box alders have been split and wrenched and mutilated so many times they are by now shapeless malformed trees, with all their amputations and perversions. The birches do what they are supposed to do – they bend over backwards and never get up again. But the elm – the elm lords over all of this mortality and remains unscathed, with its canopy high in the stratosphere.

As the climate becomes more and more deranged, there will be more storms and more lost limbs. The elm – if it remains untouched by dutch elm disease – with its immense trunk and tenacious roots, may be poised to weather the storms to come. We will need these giants in our floodplains to hold back the waters of the deluge, and the forests to hold the world together through its pain.

[In memory of Larry Hamilton (1925-2016), whom I first knew as “the tree guy” in Charlotte, lifelong conservationist and peace activist.]


* The cultivation of hybrids should not be confused with genetic engineering. To learn about the dangers of genetically engineered trees go to the Global Justice Ecology Project website (

Nature Conservancy Connecticut River American Elm Restoration Project:

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Dried Flowers for Thanksgiving


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