I forgot to post my regular pagan holiday greeting and here it is almost spring equinox! Since I wrote this, buds have broken in Santa Rosa. Our mini fruit orchard is at the end of its bloom and we’re seeing a few pollinators buzzing the yard. Goldfinches are chattering melodiously and a few other birds visit as well. Nature touches us with a tinge of hope. Sending virtual hugs (because, Coronavirus pandemic. Sigh.) –Molly
If you celebrate the Lunar new year, happy new year! It just occurred to me that I first learned about Tet from the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive, launched in the wee hours of Jan. 30, 1968, against the American invaders is what I think of when I think of Tet. How sad. Forever associating the Vietnamese new year holiday with war is a curse of my generation.
Here in Santa Rosa Holly and I are celebrating the pagan holiday of Imbolc on February 1. To me Imbolc marks the start of spring (even though it’s technically still winter) and the most beautiful season here. Hillsides have turned a hallucinogenic green, like the artist had only one color left in her palette. Today is sunny and 60 degrees. I can see that the sweet peas I planted in December are sprouting and the greens are producing tender new leaves. The artichokes have spread their giant gray-green leaves out into the garden and a black-eyed susan planted last spring still flowers. Poppies and bulbs are sprouting up all over. The neighbor’s lemon is full of bright yellow fruit but our orange has a smaller crop this year. I’m continually amazed that these citrus trees can thrive in this climate. But it’s only gotten down below freezing a couple of times this winter, and not for long. We’ve had plenty of rain this season but only one atmospheric river.
On Imbolc we shall ceremoniously mount the bird house on its pole (we took it down last fall after rats started nesting there). Last year we watched titmice (they are little gray birds) fledge from the house and we hope the parent pair will return again. We love watching birds though our picture window but this winter there are many fewer birds than last year.
This is very disturbing to us. What has caused the drastic decrease in bird activity? Are there more bird-killing cats in the neighborhood? (friends, please keep your cats indoors. They are the number one enemy of wild bird populations). No doubt climate change plays a role. Another factor might be the death of the mature sycamore tree in our neighbor’s yard. The backyard house, which had a reputation as a drug house, was condemned, remodeled and sold to a new owner who promptly cut down the huge tree. We thought perhaps the insurance company required it, a frequent demand now in fire country. But we learned that wasn’t the reason. According to neighbors the tree was in bad shape (although it looked good from our yard). The drug-addled previous owner had used it for target practice. Yikes! The removal of the tree, along with all the living things on and in it, saddened us. The Western Sycamore, Platanus racemosa is native to California and we felt it belonged here in our neighborhood.
January saw us down at Courthouse Square for the Women’s March (smaller this year) and the impeachment rally. Plenty of people in Sonoma County have political anger issues. I’ve been writing postcards to voters all over the country at local postcard writing parties hosted by a few activist women. This at least makes us feel better and provides a sense of community with like-minded folks. We resist the onset of fascism any way we can. If there is an Imbolc goddess I implore her to help us now.
“Do you remember killing chickens?” I asked my brother Don.
“Are you kidding? I killed, gutted and plucked hundreds of chickens. Nasty job.”
“ Yeah, I remember holding the headless chickens to keep them from flopping around as blood spurted from the necks, and stuffing them in the haystack as they bled out, and I remember the plucking station behind the barn, dipping each chicken into a bucket of hot water, then pulling off the feathers. That was a tiresome job. But I don’t have a memory of wielding the axe. Though I must have. I wasn’t squeamish and I always wanted to try everything. I must have done it.”
Living with animals on our little three-acre farm in Yakima, Washington taught us much about life and death. Animals were born, and sometimes we got to be part of that. And animals died, sometimes by our hand. Sometimes we ate them.
As I remember we only ever had one sheep. The word for a motherless lamb is bummer, and that’s what we named the lamb. My father bought him at a livestock auction. We loved Bummer. He was so darned cute. We fed him with a bottle and got pretty tight with that wooly guy. But I guess lambs, as they mature, like butting their heads against things. The thing became my little brother Terry, who, at four, was no match for the strong animal two or three times his weight. Technically, sheep are no longer lambs when they reach one year in age. After that they are classified as adults, or mutton—that is if they are to be eaten. Bummer was mutton. And when he was served up to us as stew, we kids looked across the table at each other wondering how to respond to the invitation to eat our friend?
Terry, the four-year-old, may have been too young to understand. Tim, six and a half, refused to eat one bite of Bummer. Don and I, nine and eleven, with adult stoicism, gamely dug in. The meat was fatty and tough, the taste gamey, not at all pleasant. We looked at our parents who were not able to disguise their own distaste. It turns out mutton is not very good, unless maybe you’re a Basque shepherd. In some parts of the world it’s probably a delicacy.
Gus the goose died by stomping. Don saw the whole thing. Gus enjoyed teasing the horses, following behind and snapping at their fetlocks. This seemed like a particularly suicidal pastime to me, the horsewoman. But I did know that to avoid being kicked you come up along the side, touch the horse’s hindquarters so as not to surprise her and walk close in to her body. The horse can’t get enough power to complete a kick and maybe Gus had discovered this. Maybe the bird delighted in frustrating the huge animals. But Gus pushed his luck with one horse too far. She wheeled around and came down on him with a front hoof. We didn’t eat Gus. We buried him in a gander grave.
We saw chicks hatch, the births of kittens and puppies, but I only ever saw the birth of one horse. It was awesome. I was seven and in second grade. Bonnie the Shetland pony mare had given birth to many foals and so perhaps she was not bothered by human presence. But all other horses on the farm were born out in the far end of the pasture in the middle of the night.
We never had a cow. My father, nostalgic for his country childhood, wanted one but my mother drew the line. She knew who would end up with the job of milking while my father stayed out drinking with his buddies. But Dad did get a calf. The calf was wild but Dad committed to its domestication. You couldn’t get close to the calf after he was let out into the pasture so Dad sat down in the middle of the pasture and didn’t move. The curious calf moved closer to get a better look. Dad sat there like a meditating Buddhist monk for maybe an hour. Finally the calf came up to him.
The calf grew up to be a handsome Hereford, the cattle breed Dad had raised on his family’s South Dakota ranch (the farm’s address was Hereford Rte, SD). Dad hired out the slaughtering. That steer was shot, then hung up on a tripod and slaughtered right there in the pasture where he had first encountered Dad. Do I need to add that we ate him? Cousin Gail recalls two calves fattening up in the field. “When it was time to slaughter, the one waiting his turn seemed to recognize his fate. Oh, the bawling, rolling eyes, and frantic attempts to escape the fence. Too much for a city gal,” she said.
My brother Don, the poultryman, raised many different breeds of chickens and exotic poultry including peafowl (the males are peacocks, the females peahens). Neighborhood dogs would form packs and could take down a calf or a goat. When one of our dogs misbehaved he was immediately put down, even as my brothers protested. One night a pack dug into the peafowl pen and killed all its residents. We buried them in the rose garden. Afterward my mother dreamed that the roses bloomed as peacock feathers. She wrote the story. I penned the illustration. Don couldn’t remember if we ever ate peafowl, but he did research the prospect and learned that it’s quite common in India.
Brother Tim told me of the deaths of animals that came to the farm after I had left home. A goat was killed by a falling tree after my mother wished him dead for trashing her flower garden.
There was a pregnant sow, traded for some treasure, who gave birth to eight piglets. I was given some of the resulting meat, which I shared with my collective college household. Best pork I’ve ever tasted.
At one time Dad and the boys raised rabbits. Tim remembers that they multiplied quickly. When skinned they looked like human bodies. The story goes that Dad had such trouble killing them, he had to give it up.
We were used to animals dying on the farm, but the death of a foal took on greater significance and resulted in my teenage existential crisis.
My mare, Barbie Q, the color of the sauce, was another livestock auction rescue. She had been orphaned at three days of age when her mother was killed by a dove hunter. The little sorrel filly cost my father $30. She was in bad shape as a result of neglect, with a case of mange and a number of other disorders.
We sometimes called on a large animal vet named Dr. Heffernan, but, as my dad had done on the farm in South Dakota, we doctored our animals ourselves. My dad had an animal husbandry book from the 1940s that we studied. I remember having to give Barbie injections for some ailment. I had to stand back and throw the needle into her hindquarters, like a dart. I didn’t always get it in the first time.
Barbie survived and grew into a mare with excellent conformation. We knew that her mother had been a registered Quarter Horse. Barbie was small, only 14-2 hands high, easily mounted bareback by my 12-year-old self. I took charge of Barbie’s training, teaching her to lead, setting the saddle on her back and riding her for the first time. We trained in the small pasture, repeating figure eights and practicing changing leads. I showed her in 4-H shows and fairs.
I was 13 when I won an essay contest sponsored by a woman who bred Arabian horses: “Why I want to breed my mare to your Arabian stallion.” The combination of Quarter Horse and Arabian genes resulted in a filly who exhibited the best of both breeds. She was a bay with a white star on her forehead and three white socks.
Barbie was a good mother and the filly was healthy. One day when she was about three months old I noticed her putting her head in a funny position. She pointed her nose to the sky and didn’t seem able to move her head. We consulted our old vet book. The common name for tetanus is lockjaw. There was no cure.
The filly was in agony. We called the vet who came out, laid her down and injected her with whatever they use to kill horses. A flood of urine told me she was dead. Ever the stoic, I didn’t cry.
But I was shaken. By that time I was already struggling with the contradictions inherent in christian doctrine. The foal’s death inspired me to abandon a religion whose god commands men to have dominion over all the earth and its animals and who allows beautiful beings to die before their time.
I’ve been going through my collection of Tradeswomen magazines (published by volunteer tradeswomen 1981-1999) and thinking about how much of what we wrote still has relevance today. We started writing and talking about sexual harassment before the term was even in the mainstream lexicon and before we had any legal backing. We were truly foremothers in this fight, and our persistence has paid off in improved industry standards and better working conditions for women in the construction trades. Here’s a story we published in 1983.