I could blame it all on the horses. In fact, when exhaustion and overwhelm creep in, when I momentarily lose my footing and wonder how in the hell I got here, when the van gets stuck in the mud and I’m barely making my bills and the goats are eating the weatherstripping off the house and the puppies are raking my flesh with their terrible love (more on them in a bit)… I remember that it was the horses that brought us to this place, and more importantly, brought us to the point within ourselves that we could take the steps to come here. When things get a little squirrelly, all I have to do is look out the kitchen window and see Amalia resting, taking in the late afternoon sun, long coat steaming, her whole body radiating relief and calm, to center myself again and lean back into the wonder and challenge.
It is fitting that this is our 10th year together – when I was 17 I met a beautiful little grulla mare that I just had to make mine. It was ill-advised and nearly impossible, so of course I did everything I could it make it happen. Putting my trust in her mysterious hooves has opened my entire life, shattered so many illusions, shown me my deepest self and determined the course of not only my life but also the lives closest to me. 10 years ago I promised her freedom – some way, somehow – and while we now are learning that freedom is admittedly often cold, wet, itchy, or alarming, she is much closer to it than many of us will ever be. She and Bella the cat are the only animal beings left from that long ago. We’ve lost a few and gained a good deal more – 99, to be exact, for a total of 101 creatures (at this brief moment in time). You’ve heard about the horses, goats, cats, dogs and laying hens, but we’ve had a big influx of numbers lately…I’ll break down the latest additions for you:
I Got 99 Problems and a Pig Is One
Are rap jokes lost on this audience? Perhaps. In any case, the pig is not actually a problem. She is, however, 600 pounds, pregnant, and rather lonely. Technically she is a hog, being over 120 pounds. Does that make her 5 pigs, then? I digress – Emmylou was an idea that became a reality faster than I was entirely prepared for, but then most things seem to go that way these days. Rather than raise weaner pigs for slaughter, we decided to invest in a proven sow (meaning she’s had a litter before) and raise the piglets. A local heritage pork farmer was more than happy to downsize and Emmylou came home in a home-made pallet crate on the back of our little Tacoma truck.
As you might imagine, transport for any animal is a stressful ordeal. Pigs are also very social, intelligent, and emotional animals and I knew how hard it would be for her to leave her sisters and her boar, her family and friends. The crate ride must have been cold, terrifying, confusing and profoundly uncomfortable, and when she arrived we had to force her to back up and out of the truck and down a ramp, which she very understandably didn’t want to do. When she finally did disembark into her roomy new quarters, she ate gratefully and burrowed into the hay we laid out for her.
I had been prepared for a wary, even aggressive hog that we would have to win over with cookies and compliments, but Emmylou was thankfully used to humans; she came over to snuffle me and then lean hard into the ear scratch I offered. What I was not prepared for was the way my heart streamed wide open and right toward her, this huge bristly thing; for the way I wanted to wrap my arms around her great girth and for the way she seemed to welcome the wholehearted touch. I never assume I will have an instant connection with an animal, nor they with me. Sometimes, I am surprised to have virtually none at first. It can take time to learn a new consciousness – the first time I met a rat in a personal sort of way I was struck by how much my felt-sense had to adapt to connect with him. I’m so used to horses, cats and dogs that I really enjoy the process of learning how to be with other species. I thought I’d have to ease into a piggy brand of consciousness, but the switch was instantaneous – faster, even, than when I meet a new horse.
I went back once the rest of the farm was settled to find her grunting softly and shivering in the tube of hay she’d made for a bed. Compelled by this surprising soul, I didn’t stop to think before climbing in beside her like a sister-pig. And there I found myself spooning a huge, black, fanged and omnivorous creature I’d only known for a few moments (the quote from Brick Top regarding hogs in Snatch running through my head: “they go through bone like butter!”), suddenly crying as she flowed to me a wash of sadness and loss. She missed her pig people, and I told her I understood, and that I was sorry, and that we’d do our best by her, and that we’d like her to be our own Very Special Pig. She snuffled as I kissed her giant ears, adjusted her heavy body to let me rub her chest and belly. Later we brought her a heat lamp, a fuzzy lavender throw blanket, and a horse rug, all of which she accepted happily. The next morning, she was up and waiting for her grain, the horse rug was accordion-folded neatly by the side of her bed (I kid you not), and the blanket was in a small, clean pile.
A week later, she grunts insistently whenever we’re in the yard, roots busily in her hay-bale bedroom, and enjoys visits from the humans, dogs and goats. The horses continue to be absolutely appalled and terrified, but I’m looking forward to the day we can safely let her out to roam and properly integrate her into the family. And then, of course, she’ll farrow (pig for “give birth”) and we’ll have 7 to 14 adorable and impossibly tiny Emmylous to contend with. Oh, and then we’ll have to raise them, kill them and eat them. Wait, what?
82 chicks finally arrived at the airport an hour’s drive away, after spending an unplanned night in another airport. If you’ve never raised large quantities of chickens, it is entirely, absurdly normal to pick up huge numbers of day-old chicks either from baggage claim or from the post office in cardboard boxes. I never knew. Of course, if deliveries or planes or anything at all is late, the chicks pay the price. Ours were still alive but quite ragged and road-weary, still living off their yolk-reserves and fading fast. We’d built a box for them in a near-panic a couple days before, which is now taking up most of the basement by the wood stove, glowing an ominous red from the heat lamp. My mother transferred each tiny yellow beastling, dipping its beak in the water to teach it to drink.
The first three days were rough and seven chicks didn’t make it. People say this is normal but death is still death; normal, devastating, often avoidable. Chicken-and-human-momma tended them carefully, holding the weakest ones on her chest while they slowly, slowly slipped way. Populations eventually stabilized at 75, and now we have 75 screaming, confident, feathering little dudes and dudettes who require the house to be kept roughly at sauna temperatures, who shriek and scatter to the edges of the box when the dog yawns, who sleep so casually (legs splayed, face-first in feed dishes) I am often compelled to prod them to check if they’re still alive. Now that they’re okay, we’re praying for the weather to warm up quick enough that we can move them outside before they outgrow the basement…
Oh! And we had surprise puppies out of our, well, puppy. Beatrix was barely 8 months old but clearly “old enough” according to our older dog, Jimmy (now neutered, after the fact). Nothing makes you feel more stereotypically country than your baby having babies – 67 days later we midwifed four delicious little sheepdog/bear dog/mountain dog mixes into the world. Watching the maternal instincts kick in was incredibly touching; it seemed a remarkable thing for Bea to push aside her own childhood to expertly mother these squirming little things, that seemed to surprise her much more even than they surprised us. At eight weeks old now they are terrible and gorgeous, all spoken for by friends and neighbours and waking us up every single night with their partying.
Taro, Orca, Francoise and Thomas (some names subject to change) are little bratty gifts to the world, just like their eccentric and deeply loved parents. These robust, insistant beings consume countless pounds of raw meat voraciously, charm everyone they encounter (except the cats and their own father, who believes they are the worst thing that ever happened, ever), and have joined the hierarchy of barnyard mischief (dogs chase horses, horses chase goats, goats chase puppies, and puppies chase chickens).
It seems that keeping domestic animals (and especially raising animals for eggs, milk and meat) is a constant string of delights and compromises. The delights are easy, of course; the compromises weigh heavier. My empathic, logical self plainly feels and sees the pain and stress we put them through for our own convenience, no matter how well-meaning we are. My ever-so-slightly hardened realist self has to let go over and over again, as I realize that I can’t make it perfect, not even close. And when we face the fact that a good deal of these critters are being raised for meat (the chicks, the eventual piglets, the goat kids we’re still waiting on), we get to walk the line all backyard farmers must walk, choosing to love and care for what will eventually become our food and livelihood – while certain others are destined to live out their natural lives by virtue of their species or their bonds with us. It’s not fair, but neither is most of life. There is no equation to make it right, no option to turn away, unless we want to choose to let someone else do it for us. I like to know, at least, that we did our best by them.
And then there’s the part where you’re just barely keeping everybody alive and fed, let alone properly loved and cared for: bandaging goats’ wounds with honey when they fall through the cold frame glass, pouring oil of oregano down the same goat’s throat for a persistent cold, trying to un-lonely the pig, cleaning up endless puppy mess, filling chick waterers for the umpteenth time, lugging firewood up and down and all around, building yet another haphazard barrier, box, pen or crate…
And The Horses?
Oh the horses. They get by on a large local round bale per week, which we have rigged with a home-made hockey-net slow-feeder (I’ll tell you how if you want to know). They are undeniably the heart and soul of this place but they don’t get much attention these days. Shaggy, unkempt and full of their own horse-ness, they still race around in the rain with the dogs and I, holler at me whenever I leave the cabin to remind me to bring their alfalfa snack, and demand their water be moved a safe distance from the pig’s pen (they think she is some kind of mutant bear). When I catch Amalia’s eye she holds mine knowingly, and when I bring out the Blade (that serrated shedder tear-drop grooming tool) they fight each other for a chance to have their dying, shedding coats raked as firmly as I dare. They’re just fine. We’re all fine. Exhausted, overwhelmed, and totally fine.
Click here for Part 11 in this series.
A barefoot hoof trimmer, a singer/songwriter, an amateur farmer – these are some of the hats Kesia Nagata wears when she’s not full to bursting with wondrous equine co-creation.
17 thoughts on “Rewilding the Herd – Pre-Spring Head Count”
Kesia, oh how I want to raise my own chickens & pigs. My head just knows my heart won’t be able to do the last part though. What a hypocrit that makes me. I have thought so many times about becoming vegetarian or even vegan but was raised on meat as was my husband. I feel it is a shift I just won’t be able to stay commited to. I love the thought of knowing how my meat was treated, raised and fed but also know my love for them after spending time will prevail, so I have avoided putting myself in the situation thus far. I also often think about how unfair animal situations are, and the crap shoot I guess we all are in when it comes to being brought into this world. None of us has the choice of who our parents or situations will be when we are born. Does not matter if you are human or animal. I myself am adopted and feel very privileged by the grace of my birth mom to be strong enough to know she was not ready and the unconditional love from my adopted parents to love what they did not physically create. Lots of adopted people don’t look at it this way and they just feel abandoned and unwanted. I still am in awe that you are living your wild. Can’t imagine the endurance it must take! Mentally & Physically! Your strength and resilience is inspiring, even though I’m sure the weak times hold strong in your head/heart. I know I can’t physically help you(which is probably what would be most helpful) but my energy strength, admiration and determination are on your side and I root for you all the way…For whatever the wild throws in your direction. ✌?️❤️?
I don’t think there’s any escape from the cycle of life. I was raised veggie and chose to eat meat consciously in my late teens for my own vitality and connection to the cycle. Even a vegetarian or vegan is deeply enmeshed in the complexities or our global food systems (not to mention the fact that plants suffer too, and many other highly reasonable points I try not to make to my vegetarian sweetie :P)…All we can really do is keep making conscious food choices that align with our values and abilities, accepting that we can’t actually meet any ideal without turning away from another, and so are best to acknowledge what went into our nourishment.
You’re so right about the birth crapshoot, thanks for sharing…I am often amazed at how rare it is to be born to capable, loving, stable families. Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is how we choose to move through life. As for the critters, I don’t think they pause to wonder why they are where they are. But when they are given a chance to thrive, to meet their own biological needs and then to have a little extra room to develop their personalities, they move into it without question. I love it.
Thank you for all the support and love; it does actually give me strength when I realize I’m not just doing this stuff for myself, that through sharing with each other we’re all working away at our own corners of the tapestry, weaving something gorgeous…
Thank you for your post! I love your writing so much…. I’m even able to escape in my mind from these 4 kiddos under six who need so much attention 🙂 thank you for letting me walk with you and think with you. I love the puppies! I’m on the watch for one too.
Hmmm, four kids under 6 sounds like more of a handful than my overflowing barnyard! In fact I was just musing on the fact that kids would take this whole thing to another level entirely….aaah! One thing at a time 🙂 🙂 Glad me and the critters could ease your day. The pups! They’re fabulous. Good luck finding your own one!!
Kesia, what a beautiful snapshot of your life process. I’m grateful for every word and photo. You’re channeling Life’s blood through your work. Never have we humans needed it more acutely.
My dream is to manifest at least a story of the healing gifts of the barnyard. You’re living it. In a different way, I lived it as a kid. Compared to other psychotherapists, I kinda-sorta lived it through my practice. Your telling of your journey is so raw and compelling, you have clearly tapped into our archetypal craving to reconnect with reality.
One of our human realities is that we’re omnivores. The eyes set in the front of our heads and our canine teeth that are designed for ripping meat, tell us that. Yes, certainly we have choice. Yes, in the midst of our population bloom, it’s wondrous so many humans can healthfully live without meat and dairy. The fact of the matter is, Life gave us a lot of latitude diet wise, which may be how we made through the environmental changes that have rolled through the last fifty-six-million years.
Now raising beings for food is a huge leap for most of us ‘civilized’ critter lovers. I haven’t done it, but I have been situated adjacent to it. A lot of the local ranches serve multiple functions. They may keep horses in one area, sheep in another and cattle everywhere else. I’m most eager to know how that works for you.
I’m sort of expecting a discussion on how to incorporate pigs into a therapeutic program in the not-to-distant future. If you get there, know that my brain loves to puzzle out those sorts of how to issues. Years ago, I knew a woman who had a pig. By the time I met him, he was seven years old and so huge that his bones had begun to break under his weight. He wasn’t particularly fat; he was just HUGE. He was also smart, companionable, empathic, sweet and communicative. He loved his human, as she did him. He had served as her transitional love after her husband had died. It felt like they shared a nervous system, they were so tightly bonded.
The tragedy in this story is that the pig had been bred to be a great meat producer and maker of more great meat producers. His breeding had been flawless on that end. So much so that the pig’s body could no longer hold him up once his meat and stud potential waned. Sadly, his wonderful personality that had provided the framework for the profound healing he gave his human companion was in its prime when his body gave out. It was heartbreaking for them both. They clearly were not done with each other when the pig had to be put down due to redundant bone breakage.
He’s the only pig I’ve gotten to know, so far. It sounds like your mommy pig has a lot of his characteristics. It’s probably just part of their pig-ness. It seems to me that there may be a goldmine hiding in pig consciousness. What I know without a single doubt is that there’s a goldmine of consciousness in any reasonably well-kept barnyard. It’s the sort of consciousness that can heal our human madness now. Never before in the history of our world has what you’re learning-by-doing been in greater demand.
Of course you cut straight to the chase – therapy pig! But of course I was thinking the same thing. She has a presence not unlike an elephant, rhino, hippo – though of course much smaller and a little more homey or familiar. I expect her to become more outspoken and particular as she realizes she can be here.
Thank you for this gorgeous (if sad) pig story… It is such a tragedy that so many creatures have been overbred – whether meat animals for the weight or companion/show animals for destructive cosmetic traits. We choose hardy heritage breeds and mixes wherever we can to safeguard against that same heartbreak, whether they are intended for meat or as friends. Not exactly fair to the less fortunate beings but we think we’re doing our tiny part to keep the old breeds going.
Conscious meat-rearing – after watching a few horrific Planet Earth animal hunts I am reaffirmed in my belief that we can use our human wiles to improve on the natural model by giving them a damn good life and a quick, panic-free and virtually pain-free death. If that means my heart suffers more for the love and gratitude I have for them, fine.
When I started learning to hunt I had to meditate extensively on the subject of death and taking life. The few times I have killed have been intense – I do think it should be solemn and difficult and that the nourishment should be bittersweet. Buying food, plant or animal, in packages speaks absolutely nothing of what incredible feats it has taken to bring those nutrients to a conveniently digestible state. But you know that 🙂
Always love your insights and encouragement. One of the potential farm names we’ve been offered is the Love Farm – after the Love family who used to own the land. It’s fitting, if a little precious ❤. In any case, love from our barnyard to your cattery. xoxo
I had a similar feeling watching the Cloud documentary – seeing those wild mares pregnant year after unrelenting year, with their spines bowed and their bellies perpetually swollen – and thinking, huh, domestication may offer a plus/positive after all!
Oh Kesia, the puppies are magnificent!!! So, are you the source of Jini’s bear dog, who frightened off the cougar from her daughter? That piece fascinated me. I’ve been mulling over the prospect of getting to know the energetics of that breeding. The wildlife corridor that abuts my property is sending in enough big predators that I’m beginning to feel the calling to bring in reinforcements.
At this point, my curiosity is just that. I’m not currently settled or healthy enough to take on another 15-20-year commitment. I don’t currently have a support system for my critters, should I be taken before them. I really appreciate that you’re likely to out live your animals. There are far too many near tragedies after the deaths of animal tenders.
Yes! Tiah is the puppies’ auntie – their dad is Jimmy, and he and Tiah came from a remote coastal town. Their dad (puppies’ granddad) is a Tahltan Bear Dog, a breed developed by the First Nation north of where I live now. They are technically extinct but a few are trying to revive them – many mixes still exist.
I don’t know bear dogs beyond ours, but Jim and Tiah (also half Australian Shepherd) are some of the most emotive, empathic and intense (without the border-collie compulsiveness) dogs I’ve met. They are nearly untrainable due to their independence, but fortunately are also very reasonable, communicative, and deeply bonded, so usually can be trusted to do the right thing in a round about, on-their-own-time kind of way. Jim keeps us safe from ravens and horses (haha) but also we’ve never had a predator come near when he’s been on patrol. When he sees bears he loses his mind, and he does this whole new kind of yelping bark.
Beatrix, the puppies’ mum, is a Kootenay Mountain Dog, which is what I call a purpose-bred mutt. She actually might be more your style – she is a great guard dog but she sticks close. Her line was bred for intuition and safety on trails, farms, and in the bush. Her and her brother Kumba (Jini’s other dog) can be quite laid back around the house but really put the steam on when they need to.
The puppies are going to be pretty stellar companions and light working dogs, I think. Mostly they are going to change the lives of their new partners…
I totally get the age commitment thing! Tell ya what, I will keep an ear out for older dogs of the right sort of mettle and let you know of I come across the right one 😉
just a quick note to say I loved reading this today. beautiful writing! I was especially touched by your pig story today.
Thanks, Kate 🙂
I’m glad Emmylou is already connecting with people like you. She’s a lovely lady!
You do have a choice to not to raise kill animals or eat them. There are so many other non animals choices out there as a farmer. Your heart will eventually show you the way.
Thank you, Susan – yes of course there are many choices of foods to grow and I do not take this one as a given or an inescapable reality. There are many aspects of farming that weigh heavily on my conscience, including the cultivation of vegetable crops at the expense of native species and harming the small, not-cute beings so often forgotten that live in and around the soil. But that’s for another post 🙂 After much experimentation with nutrition and years of serious contemplation, this is what feels best for my conscience, my body and my heart at this moment in time. I’m sure I will feel my way through to a balanced place over the years.
Oh, Kesia, how I love your unfailing ability to remember to look out over the horizons of your life… it is so lovely to read your sharings. I am not sure if you ever had a chance to meet my lonely lovely pig-pig while you were here… your description of your new pig’s pigness was spot on. There is something about them that is its own kind of Buddha, different from all the other creatures, like finding a beach stone in a box of sand. It just feels right snuggled up against our humanness, you know?? I’ve been without the internet for a week (a week!! not exactly an emergency) and did not realize how much I missed my constellation of handpicked far away humans of inspiration- reminders that I am not alone in the all that I am doing.
I did not meet your pig! Or at least not properly – I have a vague recollection of someone hoggy but was probably in the middle of some extreme life upheaval or another, as usual 🙂 Do you still have Pig-pig?
We missed you too! Glad you’re back with us all. Everyone hands in the middle….goooooo team!!
Thank you for sharing through such perfectly eloquent words….I can’t wait to meet you!
sending love to all your loves, and by this gift of story, reminded how precious life is, and the love for mysteries of which we can only imagine just how, and why these particular animals choose us, whether for food, or companionship…in the end it all the same ….the love IS there…..the sharing of experience and the dream is there…it is all but a dream anyways right?….it is for this Aquarius anyways..lol
Hugs ~ G
Can’t wait to meet you too Guliz! Thanks for all the loveliness… And much love to you and your beastie friends too!