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The Wise Use and Wisdom of Purl

Purl and Akoya, April 2015

Purl and Akoya, April 2015

“We were shooting at some birds, and one of them started hopping around acting funny, and we don’t know if we hit it or not….” Of all the ewes, it had to be Purl. Purl, a high-producing Icelandic, whose charm and winsome personality marked her as a leader sheep. Purl, whose likeness appears in the Ballyhoo logo. The .22LR ripped the aorta along her spinal cord open and she bled out in front of the pasture gate.  The same bullet exited Purl and hit Cinnabon, another Icelandic ewe, in the shoulder. The sheriff and state police said the county attorney will see to it that we are compensated for Purl’s loss and Cinnabon’s vet bills. I can never replace Purl. I do not mean her emotional value, which is intangible, but her “value-added” characteristics: her ability to lead the rest of the flock, her willingness to participate in public events where several hundred children shoved their hands in her face, and her intelligence in alerting us to problems in the flock. Purl’s life and death are proof that humanity is only as concerned with Nature as they are connected to it, and that the value of every living organism is predicated upon its relation to others around it.

                By Nature, I mean the non-human world - terra firma, flora, fauna, weather – organisms outside man’s immediate person or habitat. One might argue that a farm is a laboratory where humans conducts experiments with Nature, some of which are self-serving while others are merely observational. Indeed, a farm is terraformed by hoof and plow, by the mouths of grazing animals and the fences that contain them. Farming is a form of “wise use”, deemed necessary and beneficial because it sustains man’s way of life, but criticized for practices that are detrimental to the environment. Factory farming and genetically modified crops lead to the extinction of natural species, erosion and the leaching of nutrients from the soil, and a system of economic dependence whereby the farmer’s ability to make a living is based on market speculation and a lifetime of debt. Small family farms face an even bleaker outlook, and most support themselves with off-farm income. The inevitable outcome of “traditional” modern agriculture with the experience of personal economic instability is that the next generation chooses to disconnect completely from the land.  My father was forced off the land twice; first as a child, following a house fire, the second and final time as a young married man, when crop failure wiped him out. I was not able to return to a life in conjunction with Nature until I was in my twenties.

                By connection with Nature, I do not mean enjoying a round of golf, hiking in a state park, or hunting for a weekend. To live alongside Nature is to accept one’s role in the ecological system, to enjoy a partnership with natural forces rather than attempt to conquer them, and to validate every organism’s right to the great and swirling struggle for homeostasis. Connection with Nature denotes ecological consciousness, an acknowledgment that sustainability is linked to the value humans place on non-human existence, and a covenant to use and maintain Natural resources in a way that promotes their future success.

Purl was an efficient grazing animal whose broad palate helped maintain a variety of competitive natural plant species in the pastures. Her hooves tore up dead plant matter and aerated the soil, making nutrients more accessible for microbes. Her manure fertilized the pastures and provided nutrients for insects, who in turn fed spiders and fish, who fed birds and lizards, who fed omnivores, and so on. Purl’s body has been returned to the earth; in a matter of months, her physical form will be memorialized in the grass above her resting place. As a holistic farmer, I feel directly responsible for Purl’s death. Had I rotated pastures sooner, she might have been out of the boys’ line of fire. If I did not create hedgerows, the fence line would not have appealed to the bird at which the boys claimed to be aiming.

Had Purl’s killers been connected to Nature, they would not have fired at the bird, recognizing that its purpose in the ecological web did not include them. They would have understood the thoughtfulness and energy required to produce animals that thrive in a low-impact management system. They would have a rudimentary understanding of social balance within a group of animals and the repercussions an untimely loss can have, as well as the cost of their choices, to Purl and the flock as well as to their pockets. Nature keeps a careful ledger of debits and credits; her books always balance.

In my first three months on my current farm, I lost several pullets. One night I caught the culprit in flagrante delicto – a female skunk huddled under the roost with my dead chick clutched in her front paws. I could not bring myself to kill her, for I knew she had a surfeit of kits under the tool shed. Skunks are single parents, and feeding six to eight extra mouths is no easy feat. I simply could not begrudge her when I was responsible for bringing a stable food source to her doorstep. I secured the young pullets in a dog crate, forcing the skunk to resume hunting. Less than a week later, she was killed by a car. I felt terrible for the kits; without a mother, they would starve to death. Yet I did not intervene; my ethical obligation extends only to the systems I have joined on my farm. By traveling off the farm, the female skunk made a costly choice. All decisions have a price, whether or not the behavior is innate.

The boys did not shoot Purl for meat; no one profited from her death. Purl was wasted and the boys tore the delicate web of Natural and unnatural (that is, created by the farmer) that sustains the farm. One could argue the contrary, that in death Purl served to educate one last time. Although they live in close proximity to farms, none of the boys had knowledge of a sheep. Here I define knowledge as a tangible, working comprehension based on one’s sensory experience. Indeed, they were not sure whether Purl was a sheep or a goat. When the sheriff asked, “What did you think would happen if you missed?” they replied, “We didn’t think we would, but it’s not our fault.” In consequence of their separation from Nature, they learned how difficult it is to give a body back to the earth, the physiology and intelligence of a sheep, the value of wool, and the repercussions of thoughtless action. If humans are to thrive, the last of Purl’s gifts - the knowledge that human arrogance has and always will be at cross-purposes with the comfort and convenience we crave - must be absorbed by every member of our species. Humanity is “free”, and like the slogan “Freedom Comes With a Price”, we are only beginning to understand that Nature is paying our bills.

I had no more right to end the skunk’s life than the boys had to end Purl’s. Both creatures suffered because I set my laboratory on the edge of the sword between Nature and humanity. Such is the role of the farmer, encouraging Natural processes like pasture growth, fertility of certain species, soil and water health while simultaneously waging war on unwanted native species, both flora and fauna. Holistic management encourages mindful attention to weeds and predators on an individual level coupled with introspection on one’s personal contribution to problems. If a farmer loses animals that (s)he introduced to a pre-existing ecological niche, it is the farmer and not the predator who is culpable. Therefore, the farmer must make every possible effort to enact solutions that do not harm the predator – the use of guard animals, tighter fences, lights and reflective dots, etc – in order to preserve harmony. Likewise, the farmer must learn what “noxious” plants signify, ignoring modern admonitions to poison or simply mow them down. Some plants denote a lack of calcium, others an excess of nitrogen. If humans are to maintain a healthy balance in Nature while imposing their will, we must connect to it with all our senses. Only then can we claim responsible stewardship.

Holistic management practices provide the tools for small farmers to promote viability – for a species cannot work toward sustainability until and unless its short-term survival is secure – and to emerge from the ecological holocaust of industrialization as leaders. These practices begin with plans that not only consider the impact on a complex web of living organisms within the borders of the farm, but that assume the decision will be incorrect and therefore accept “failure” as a part of the decision-making journey. Indeed, holistic management does not entertain an end goal; rather it shapes the mind to conceive plans in a multi-dimensional way, in direct opposition to industrial linear thinking.

Humanity’s folly in attempting to industrialize Natural processes was treason, not only against Nature but against itself; our separation from Nature was cultivated at every stage of our “progress”. With the last of Nature’s flickering candle humanity sees the error of its ways. Today we harvest the seeds sown by the Industrial Revolution, planned obsolescence, consumerism, and colonialism, whereby previous generations of Western Europeans (for value systems differ wildly in other cultures) justified not simply dominion over, but rape of Nature and their fellow man. The deliberate misdeeds of generations past allow us to spend life at ease, prostrate before the idols of status and technology, which will not sustain us when the candle goes out. We have lost the knowledge of physical labor that connected us so very deeply with Nature. We cause the collapse of ecosystems and the extinction of non-human species out of ignorance.

The boys who killed Purl wanted to watch a bird explode. Though thoughtless and ignorant, there was no malice of forethought. Their misdeed was entirely inadvertent – but entirely preventable. Setting aside whatever lessons they absorbed at home, what values have those three young males, raised in (global) relative wealth, education, and Western European white social mores, been exposed to by their culture? In other words, assuming the boys spend more time outside their nuclear family than within the walls of the home, who is teaching them and what are they learning?

Modern Western culture touts in-dependence, rather than inter-dependence. The promotion of self and worship of personal achievement, especially the concept of “triumph over Nature”, instills in us the social ignorance that our forefathers willfully assumed when they landed on this continent. They needed to be better than the indigenous peoples because they could not return to a state of inferiority in their country of origin. Under the feudal system that bore them, equality meant “less-than”. A new world meant an opportunity to subjugate the stranger, to justify their rights to land and resources. Willful ignorance made possible the horrors and triumphs of the Industrial Age, as censorship and confirmation bias enabled linear progress with no regard for ecological impact. Western values obfuscated reality and lauded technological achievement, rendering a connection to Nature meaningless.

Individual ignorance is caused by lack of awareness, the disconnect that resulted in Purl’s untimely death. According to Buddhist principles, true ignorance is caused by desire, laziness, regret, doubt, and indifference. The three boys embody ignorance; they desired to show one another up, they were too lazy to follow basic safety practices, they regretted that their misdeed could not be hidden, and they were indifferent to the suffering they caused. Largely powerless themselves, too young to have grappled with the existential notions of impermanence, mortality, power, and consequence, the youths do not realize the seismic chain of consequences that will follow their misdeed, let alone the impact it will have on their worldview for years to come.

As a farmer, I have cultivated soil, plants, and animals. As a human connected to Nature, I choose to confront depredation in ways that will cultivate justice, awareness, generosity, and gratitude. I choose to combat the ignorance that took Purl from me by transforming, insofar as I am able, indifference into knowledge. Purl was scheduled to participate in a three-day educational experience at the end of October; none of the remaining sheep can fill her place. I will have to explain her absence, and while many children will miss the opportunity to connect physically and emotionally with Purl, they will understand that ignorance stole their chance. Purl cannot be restored any more than the world can return to the wilds of Eden.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, creator of the Musaf movement in Judaism, visited a shoemaker working late into the night by the light of a single candle. Rabbi Salanter saw that the candle would soon gutter and asked the shoemaker why he did not cease laboring. The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.” So it is with the struggle for sustainability. We must not refrain from mending our world, for as long as the spark of life burns, there is an opportunity to change.

Humanity and Nature are at their best when neither holds dominion. Like a candle subjected to the elements, Nature sputters and shines in tangent with human labors, remarkably dependent on the stability we provide. Too much movement, too little space, nothing to feed upon and the flame goes out; too much fuel coupled with inattention and the fire will consume; but the candle with a trimmed wick, carefully guarded from starvation or excess pressure, provides light through the darkest hours. The way forward will be achieved when humans are cognizant of Nature and the consequences of their encroachment, and are willing to unite in a common life with all species though it may require long-term investment in, rather than short-term exploitation of, Nature.

Purl, 2013-2016

Purl, 2013-2016