How to express gratitude to a place that invited me in and nourished me in ways I cannot yet even know. B. simply emailing and saying, “Come…be here.” And so each morning I have woken to the sounds of the ranch–chickens, pigs, sheep, the emus and more. I’ve gazed out a kitchen window that opened onto fields, mountains, pastures. And each day, Ruby and I have walked the ranch in every direction, heading off on one of its many dirt paths or narrow grass lanes created by the steady tread of animals—both wild and domestic–that inhabit the land here, knowing they all share a common ancestry.
Sitting here now at the long kitchen table, I realize I have walked south, north, east and west on this 5,000 acre ranch. Walked for hours more days than not. I have reached its southern end and its northern end, as well as crossed over the hills into a second valley that is as still and teeming with life as nature allows its abundance to be.
This place has gifted me with so much of its presence.
But as I woke this morning two thoughts came into such lucid focus: finding the balance between 'managing' our lives and being alive to, living in, the sacred–letting the sacred infuse our lives and taking time out to simply honor it, speak it, feel it. And leave-taking. I am not so good at dis-entangling myself from others, from a place, from a job, or a situation that I have loved, honored, or struggled with. Taking leave and being fully present to the moment of it–honoring it and understanding–no matter how deep we go into one place–all places and all of us are connected no matter where we are, no matter where we live. It is all one place. To know this not just conceptually, but vibrationally–to feel, know this, as part of the breath we breathe. We are all part of the woven whole, the shared cloth of humanity, the sacred fibre.
It is a living truth of our presence here. And thus, to harm part of us is to harm all of us.
We touch each other’s lives in ways we cannot comprehend, we cannot imagine.
One of the gifts to the animals that come here, and other places like this, is that they get to live out their natural lives–to the very end. They get to become elderly. In contrast to so many product-based farms, they are not ‘put down’ after their productivity wanes or comes to an end. The animals here in their dotage, their old age, are not seen as a burden, an added expense. They are honored for who they are. In fact, it turns out, we don’t know a lot about animals in their elderly state–what they contribute to the herd, the flock, the coup, the pack, etc. because as a culture we have dispensed with so many when their commercial value ended.
I have seen young domestic animals die–held a dog in its last breath, watched as ewes disowned their weak newborn and carried them back to be tended and still watched them die. But I had not seen a large steer go down, an elderly gentleman of a herd. I had watched a calve birthing, though not a death. But a couple of weeks ago in the midst of the rains that swept this area of California, one afternoon in the shallow banks of the sun, one of the steers whose photo that has graced many of the ranch's printed newsletters, proposals and more, laid down–on its side.
That afternoon was the last time it would stand on all four legs.
Cows are known to stay with their dying, sometimes in circles, but its hard for them to know, remember this, when so many of their peers are carted off early, when death has been erased from their community, except in extreme weather challenges such as the dairy cows faced in eastern Washington this winter as hundreds died in blizzard conditions. But in the last hours here what struck me most were two things: a brown cow that they said had recently arrived and was somewhat ‘aggressive’ about other beings, and stayed mostly alone, came and stood with the steer, stayed with it into the night. Stood at its back. Twice late in the evening, I went out in the dark and he was there. And the other was the young co-manager of the ranch, D., who was basically responsible for tending to, managing, the steer’s death and body.
Not long in the afternoon after the cow had gone down D. showed up next to him. He and a couple of other workers tried to gently encourage the steer back to its feet, but finally, to no avail. As they stood there, I watched, having seen the steer go down on its knees and then belly and then onto its side. I watched them as they stood silently–each of them feeling, trying to see if, and into, whether the steer might rise again.
A bit later as D. was bringing in the horses, he stopped, and we chatted.
"Yes," he said, "We expected him to go down some time, but it's never easy. We’ve been on watch. He’s older. We’ll wait until morning to see if he gets back up, give him the night to decide..." As I leaned over the wood fence, I could hear, feel, the resonance of grief, sorrow, in his body, his voice, but also the core of strength and realization, the knowing, that part of managing the place–especially a place where animals lived out their natural lives–was dealing, being present to, death. What struck me though was that as we talked, there was a recognition that each of them, each worker, had his own relationship with the animal–they had moved him along with others from pasture to pasture, had tended to his health, watched him in his aging. They had become ‘attuned’ to the steer’s rhythms and energy in the last months as they went about their days, knowing that he was there–held there–in the back of their minds, and held there tenderly. And so they were there, present, not long after the steer went down and made his own decision.
As the evening and night went on, I offered my awareness, my prayers, to the steer lying in the pasture for an easy release, and to D. and the workers who surely knew they’d be tending to his body the next day–they were losing a companion in their hours, an awareness that they had been carrying steadily for a while, months, even years. To honor this, even though many of them as workers here had been trained, had been taught since they were young to consider death merely as a fact of farm life. Still, it was felt, seen, and was honored even in silence as they stood around the steer in its final hours and allowed him the time he wanted to decide to stand or leave, allowing the sacred in.
Early in the morning, they were all there again. The steer’s body heavy now on the fresh spring grass.
Because these animals are not given any medications harmful to the environment—neither to themselves or to the other animals and birds–the ranch has an open burial ground far to the north and into the second valley. There the animals are laid to rest openly–to go back to the earth, to feed the life they’ve shared the land with. To have their bones picked clean by bird, coyote, bobcat, rodent, and more. Their care and feed has been natural, organic to the land itself–and thus not harmful to the birds and animals living on the land. And with a line of mountains between there and the center of the ranch, the process is given the privacy of nature.
I hiked one day to the burial ground–it was in a beautiful area, a crook in the long length of the second valley. As I walked the ground, nestled in by hills, oak, juniper and chaparral, there was a beautiful deep and profound silence. Yes, there were birds. Yes, there was an abundance of life…but also a sacred silence as the mist softened the hills and trees. A stillness that breathed from the land and the trees, even in the breeze as it later came up. I was reminded of what the Z's, channeled by Lee Harris, like to remind us of: none of know when our last day is, when our time has come, and it is good to reflect on this regularly. A practice so common among so many Buddhists...
As I walked out of the valley hours later and through the hills to come back to the central area of the ranch, I thought of the morning I saw D. flying in on his small yellow plane. I had watched him circle above the ranch, sweeping finally in over the main valley and onto the runway that stretched through more than one pasture. To manage the land. To know it in scale and detail. To see it large and small.
When we are caught up in the activity of our lives, ‘managing’ our lives or the jobs or professions we find ourselves in, we can easily go on auto-pilot, we can forget the larger vision we are all a part of. We can forget the resonance of the sacred that holds it all. But when we tend to the dying and respect their own timelines, we are asked to be alive to it, attuned to it in a different way–not only its birth and death, but how it breathes through us, infuses us every day if we only allow ourselves to feel it. If we allow ourselves to speak it, speak of it. To name it, acknowledge it, in communion with another, even if only in silent presence–a small hand or arm gesture pointing towards a circling bird or sharing how a tree becomes the central pillar of a community of animals and birds and allows the soil to ground itself into richer fibre. The connection becomes alive. The impermanence real–less fearful and filled more with awe, love.