One of my favorite places to walk is an old farm that was bought by a town as conservation land. They lease land to sheep and goat farmers and there are chickens sometimes as well. The pastureland is kept open, mowed naturally by its inhabitants. There are a few trees for shade though they have no low-lying branches, due to above mentioned inhabitants. It’s a very peaceful place, surrounded by woods and trails that lead to a pond and beech forest.
This past week I visited early one morning before a program that I was deliberately too early for. There were many of the usual birds; robins and bluebirds, blue jays and flickers among them. There was a border collie being put through its paces while another sat on the sideline, patiently waiting. I had a dog that was half border collie once, so I stopped to watch the synchronized interactions between man, dog, and sheep. The sheep, all newly sheared, looked bored with the whole thing but they dutifully played their part.
As I continued my walk, a phoebe flitted around from fence pole to tree branch to catching insects midair just ahead of me. It pumped its tail as phoebes do and gave me a quick glance. It made me think about the way some birds and animals have become so accustomed to dealing with humans that they more or less ignore us.
A catbird stood on a rock and watched to see if I was going to interrupt it. I took a few pictures with my phone and went on my way, leaving it to eat in peace. Like the aforementioned birds, catbirds not only are used to us, they seem to thrive in our neighborhoods and yards.
As children, many of our first encounters in nature are fairly benign. We see birds, squirrels, rabbits, frogs, turtles and perhaps a deer or two. We don’t automatically think of potential danger when we step into the woods, at least here on Cape Cod. The worst thing most of us will probably run into is a skunk all nerved up by our dog.
When I was a child we visited friends of my dad’s on their farm in Vermont. I loved going to this farm so much I talked everyone into letting me stay there for a week all by myself. This farm had everything a 10-year-old girl that loved animals could want. Gentle dairy cows, horses, chickens, and pigs filled the barns and pastures. There was a massive vegetable garden, fields full of hay and more dogs and cats than a horse could swish its tail at. These were mostly working dogs and cats and with very few exceptions, they slept in the stables or barn and ate outdoors. Old retired collies and hounds got to rest their weary bones by the fire and a few old cats were allowed to sleep on the window seats on cold winter nights, but the rest were expected to earn their keep.
I got up in the dark and helped with the chores. There were potatoes to be peeled for the enormous breakfast served to the hands after the early morning shift was done. There were cows to be milked, calves to be fed and pigs to be slopped which I thought was pretty disgusting, but they didn’t seem to mind. I put out dishes of food and water for the dogs and the cats and in return some of them let me pet them.
On walks through the pasture with the farmer’s kindly wife who was checking on a pregnant cow I learned that cow patties were not what they sounded like but something not to be stepped in. I learned the names of meadowlarks and bobolinks that nested in the fields where the hay grew and how to check the vegetable garden for weeds and pests.
There were robins, blue jays, phoebes, barn swallows and birds I didn’t yet know the names of. The farmer told me they lived alongside farmers because there was always a lot of food to be found. The farmer was happy to have them because they kept the bug populations down. The chickens had a pen with a roof to keep the hawks out but generally the farm hands liked having the hawks around as they kept the mouse and rat population manageable. The cats helped with that as well.
Even at the ripe old age of 10 I got that people and animals were interconnected with their landscape. It was reassuring to me, like fitting pieces of puzzles together with my great grandmother on long, rainy afternoons. It made sense, this getting along, working together, taking care of each other so all could thrive.
Perhaps I subconsciously visited this farm this week to spur this thought, this memory. The farmer and his wife, as well as my dad, are long gone, but if I close my eyes I can smell the earthy scent of cows in the warmth of the barn, hear the cats mewing as I bring them their breakfast and watch robins pull fat worms from the compost pile like kids with licorice in a candy shop.
None of us are in this alone. It’s time we remember this, I think.