Eulogy for Fifi and Maxine
Friends, the podcast is suspended while my dad ships a replacement hard drive for my laptop; however, I will continue doing interviews so we'll have plenty to enjoy as soon as possible.
This has been an eventful week for Ballyhoo Farm. We found Fifi last weekend. She'd been missing for five days and, along with the fear that she was dead, we feared we would not be able to lay her to rest on the farm. Find her we did, dead in the pasture. The sheep knew; they'd been avoiding that spot for two days, but I assumed they'd only sought out greener pastures.
I spent Friday and Saturday at the Organic Association of Kentucky's annual conference. I am not certified organic, mostly because the certification process and label would add costs to my customers, and I'm not sure "organic" means as much to yarn buyers as it does to epicureans. I will pursue labels such as Predator and Wildlife Friendly, Green, and Sustainable, but "natural" and "organic" have been usurped by big business. The meaningful part of those words is intent, and my customers are more than welcome to scrutinize my process and values. My heart is in this land, in my animals, in the plants I grow for food and dye, in the water I use and the waste I create. A farm is a petri dish of needy organisms, flourishing when all its parts sum up to symbiosis. No one knows more about this than Wendell Berry, who I had the privilege of meeting yesterday. In his keynote address he spoke about the art of agrarianism and the beauty of beholding systems working in harmony. He stressed the importance of limits in production and economy, and explained that the earth can only be as limitless as we perceive it to be when we constrain our use to what it can bear. All systems have a carrying capacity, especially biological ones.
Friday night, Alex brought a Canadian goose home. She had been hit by a car. He called it Max, because it could be Max if it was a boy and Maxine if it was a girl. We learned that there are no waterfowl rehabilitators in Kentucky, so the following morning I took her to Dr. Albert at Mt. Washington Animal Clinic. Both sides of the goose's face required stitches, as well as one eyelid. She consented to treatment because she was too weak to lodge a typical goose complaint. (A healthy Canadian goose can break a man's arm with its wing.) She sat quietly to be weighed (at 10 lbs, more svelt than a smaller bodied peacock or Muscovy duck), posed for photos, slept when returned to her plastic bin covered with a blanket. One of the technicians asked what to call the bird. I replied that Mr. Berry would say the goose was not ours to name. The goose, being wild, was its own creature. That fate rendered it in dire need of assistance placed the goose in my custody, however, it was not ever momentarily my possession. Likewise, a licensed rehabilitator could not have claimed the bird. A full-grown adult, she had learned all the necessary lore of her species, successfully migrated, and readied herself to mate. Goose level: expert. She had more practical knowledge of the elements, of physics, aeronautics, navigation, and geography than any scientist. We had no right to call her anything. Dr. Albert took the goose to her farm, hoping (I expect) that in time the bird would be released to her pond and take to the sky when it was ready. Alas, such was not the case. The goose died that evening.
The death of Fifi and the goose highlight the two ends of the broad spectrum that is farm life, or life with Nature. Fifi belonged to the farm; she chose to be here a decade or more ago and stayed despite a change in ownership and drastic changes in landscape, family, and routine. She accepted a minor change in name (Fifi became Feefs), was always first to greet people, purred constantly, and was the best mouser I've ever had. Symbiotic, yes: we provided shelter in familiar surroundings, attention, catnip, and a stable food source, and she controlled rodents and other neighborhood cats. Fifi lost a lot of weight over the winter, but didn't stop mousing. We were advised she might be headed for kidney failure. Ours to care for, yet independent in her felinity, Fifi did not represent or belong to the network of wild things, yet she passed freely between the Natural and domesticated worlds.
I felt overwhelming relief when we found Fifi in the pasture. At least her demise was immediate and determined by Fate. No protracted illness, no wondering whether or not it was time to euthanize. Yet I also felt guilty, because I strongly suspect that Fifi caught a mouse that had ingested bait. If that was the case, her death was manmade - indeed, owing entirely to my decisions - and thus unnatural, and unfair. I was also relieved that we were able to bury her next to the driveway, where she greeted us every day. Fifi belonged to the farm as much as the house and the Emporium do. Possibly, we needed her more than she needed our provenance. She was our guide, she stayed until we were settled, and she left the farm she loved in our care.
I respected both animals equally, for their individual natures and their decision to leave on their own terms. Dr. Albert treated them both; she is a model of compassion, generosity, and courage. It is not easy to be a warrior of biology, and she has the gift of gentle intuition that perceives limits, so that she always leaves an animal's dignity intact. It is a privilege to watch her work and call her friend. And what a harmonious life she leads, befriending and advocating for all creatures.
Harmony does not equal peace. Nature affords very few moments of tranquility; all its parts sttuggle for life, for resources and the best possible legacy for their genes. The whole struggles for homeostasis. One of Mr. Berry's most believed poems is "The Peace of Wild Things", yet such a thing only exists as a construct of the tamed imagination. Like other citizens of the Natural world, Berry expresses concern for his offspring, is alert in the night, looks to others in his vicinty for feeling or action to follow. He calls this "[coming] into the peace of wild things", which he equates with freedom. As with Dr. Albert's description of wolves and dogs (dogs have given their lives over to us, while wolves have retained their autonomy), Berry's wildness is a self contained and, autonomous collective. He can visit, honor, draw from it, and have a parallel experience because Nature is independent of him, the wild models the freedom he seeks. In another view of irony, Feefs the domestic cat did not tax herself "with forethought of grief", but the wild goose almost certainly did. I have seen a dying possum flinch at the sound of approaching cars as it tried in vain to drag itself off the road. Surely a similar anticipation, and possibly the mental process of the acceptance of impending mortality, took place within the goose as it settled on the edge of a four lane road. Perhaps there are no more wild things, the peace has been irrevocably broken by the infection of man. That such may never be restored, not that these animals are lost, causes me to mourn.
Not many people can say they've held a Canadian goose. Not many cats welcome an entire farm onto their territory in old age. Thank you, Feefs. I still look for you around every corner. The farm is adjusting to your absence: the mice grow fatter, Widget ventures outside now, the pastures will soon explode with lambs. No one helps me close the chicken coop at night, and last night there was a goose on your screened porch. I'm sorry, goose. I'm sorry your wild life ended in captivity. I'm sorry you struggled, and that your Nature lost to man's unnaturalness. Thank you for sharing your magnificent self with a small group of humans for a brief span of time. Thank you for allowing us to try.
That's the lesson, isn't it? The only lesson. Everything has a limit. Keep trying.