As the gate closes on the horizon and the field below, the other opens to a new lot of heifers, black Angus, fifteen of them, herded into the ring for us all to get a good look at them. “You might want to sit on your hands Madonna”, teases Ervin. “You French have a tendency to wave your hands around a lot and I wouldn’t want you bidding on more than I’m already prepared to buy.”
While some of the red-headed heifers seem a little more bewildered and prone to swirling, like dervish cattle, a couple of these black beauties stop and stare at us in the bleachers eating our beef on a bun and drinking our fortified coffees. They seem more curious than afraid, a state of being I am all for, but often fall short of, yet always praise as an asset in those of my friends who flip the coin of fear to excitement more often than not.
This young virgin cow is all big wet eyes, staring out at us. And, while I resist the urge to anthropomorphize, I speculate on her emotional awareness. Is she upset by the pounding gavel or the tight confine of the pen? Is she dying to be back outside or is she longing for her ancestral homeland and its far milder climate? How long before she’ll adapt? Get used to it? Make ‘the norm’ normal? I’m trained as both artist and journalist to ask questions, even dumb ones. But I know better to ask these aloud in a room full of ranchers. So I lean in to whisper to Amber, Ervin’s ranch hand’s girlfriend, a biologist, animal behaviourist, gymnast and curious observer. “ Do you find yourself thinking about human behaviour when you observe animals?”
One thing I do know, I never lived anywhere where I could get close enough to farm animals like cows and pigs and chickens until now. Even when I moved here my animal interests lay more in the wild: the coyotes, the owls, the deer and the turtles. And, of course, the re-introduced buffalo. Several years ago a friend introduced me to animal totem cards. I had always known that indigenous people around the world look upon animals as brothers and sisters. Even trees belong to this large, embracing circle of relatives, as far as they are concerned.
For a couple of decades, waking to the noises of cities like Vancouver, Memphis, and Toronto, I would pull an animal card from the deck. The animals in my deck are North American, among them: eagle, hawk, elk, lizard, snake, skunk, moose, porcupine, coyote, wolf, raven, spider, bat and salmon. I’ve been using this deck for years and there are some animals I never pull: like Jaguar, or blue heron or antelope. And yet dozens of times ant shows up with its infernal life lesson: use ‘patience’. An ant, I am reminded, will strip a forest bare for food, even if it takes a year. Also, it is a builder like beaver, is aggressive like badger, has stamina like elk, scrutiny like mouse, and give-away like turkey. Each animal is either reminding you of a ‘medicine’ you already possess and need to draw on, or a ‘medicine’ you need to acquire. In my case, possessing ant medicine means long-haul focus and being content in knowing that what is mine “will come in good time.” Such knowledge escapes me most days.
The belief that we are all related is not just an indigenous perspective on life, according to the Buddhists, all sentient beings are our family. And Christianity, long before fundamentalism, believes that we need only “ask the beasts for council”, to learn the lessons of right living. In fact, theologian Elizabeth Johnson, in her book “Ask the Beasts”, uses this text (Job 12) as a crowbar to pry open “Christian theological inquiry into the world now being laid out so lavishly by the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology.”
Johnson’s book is a kind of conversation between Charles Darwin and a follower of the Christian Creed. While, as one reviewer suggests, “ about half of the Christians in the United States would consider such an encounter inconceivable”, Johnson suggests that in fact a creation that is infinite and infinitely loving would in fact look very much like “the extravagantly rich and self-creative drama of life that Darwin narrates so compellingly in The Origin”.
Enter Stage left, again. A new swirling vortex of “good ol heifers, boys. These have April birth dates but come March they’ll fill out” assures the auctioneer. “Startin’ at nineteen hundred nineteen and a half I’ll take nineteen seventy-five if you wanna go boys yes-sir boys one more time nineteen seventy-five.” The rhythm and speed of his hustle trips along nicely like a kind of rap for cowboys.
I keep my hands safely grasped around my third cup of strong coffee and watch Ervin seated at the end of the bleacher to see if he’s bidding. It’s hard to tell. He sits calm but steely-eyed. The only sign of a bid is the slightest wave of his program at his side. But he passes on the dervishes blazing across the turd-matted stage and a rancher from Wyoming buys the lot. Stage door right opens to release the more-than-willing starlets out of the glare and into the great, chilly outdoors. I catch another glimpse of the bright December sky stretching over the blonde brush-cut landscape and the door closes again. Exit stage right. All the world’s a stage for ourselves and our critters. The ring men scan the bleachers for buyers and a young cowboy, no more than five, is now beside one of them, mimicking his gestures and entertaining me and Amber.
And then its over. And we drive home, followed by a swiftly rising full moon.
Sunday the snow begins to fall and then to blow. I want to see the new heifers introduced to their new home. So I ride up in the truck with Ervin and Ian. I help clear the pens of any large stones, trying to stay out of the way of the tractor moving fences around. These rocks, explains Ervin, can act as missiles if a wheel hits them just so and they go shooting out. After we prepare for the cattle we sit in the truck and wait for the truckload of animals, coming down from Cadillac. It’s not a good day to be hauling anything, the roads are slippery, the snow is piling and the visibility is lessening in the blowing sleet and the growing darkness.
Geez, I say, there are so many ways a person can get killed around here. The conversation turns to the topic of farm safety and the fact that farming is the third most dangerous job in the country. Also, farmers have the highest rate of suicide compared to all other occupations. However, the exact number of suicides is difficult to determine because farmer deaths are often reported as hunting, equipment or accidents instead of suicides.
It gets darker. Lights appear on the horizon, but it turns out to be a plow. I grab the magazine from the dash and begin reading from the Harper’s Index:
“Q: What’s the treaty payment in dollars that the government annually offers First Nations individuals? A: $5. Q: Portion of Canada’s black population that lives in Greater Toronto? A: 1/2 . Q: Percentage of black Toronto men aged 25 to 44 who report having been stopped by police in public? A: 79. Q: Factor by which the rate of imprisonment for indigenous Australians exceeds that for non-indigenous Australians? A: 13.”
Over these few years I’ve watched ranchers work with their animals. How they get up early to feed them every morning in freezing weather. How they go searching for lost calves, treat foot rot, birth babies at 4 am. I listen to stories of encounters with bulls, protective moms, babies stuck in badger holes. I also cringe at night when calves get taken away and their mothers cry for them all night long for weeks on end. I’m constantly amazed at how animal husbandry grounds humans in ways that I’ve never been privy to.
As much as I have learned from animals, through pets, totems, farms and the wild, I still find myself craving meat and enjoying my beef stew after a day in the cold wintry wind. I have vegetarian and vegan friends and I understand their arguments against eating our furry friends. And I can’t imagine an animal without an emotional life, especially after spending time with them close up. On the drive home, sitting in the back seat with Amber, that night under the rising full moon, it suddenly occurred to me how the shock of the new can often wear off after constant exposure. How repeated viewing of violence in the news or movies, as an example, makes it banal, even boring, and we have to up the ante. I hope increased exposure to animals will, in the same way exposure to other people, endear me to them and not inure me to their cries as they exit for the last time.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.