I remember the spring the year after I turned 13, standing in the kitchen, scrubbing dirt off of the beets that I just pulled up from the garden row. I was looking through the kitchen window at the soggy brown field that we use to turn out newborns with their moms. It was empty, except for mud. The wash water was slowly turning magenta and it was speckled with dirt. I was trying to kill two birds with one stone by washing under my fingernails while I prepared these beets for pickling. I knew that when the summer showed up, suddenly and with a blaze of heat and humidity specific to Kentucky, that this is what we would be snacking on. As the husband and wife that I was working for started preparing dinner (likely that we wouldn’t get to eat until it was dark), they started giving me instructions for the night.
“See that?” she said, pointing at the barometer on the wall. “Tonight that’s going to start dropping, and when it does, you need to be in the barn. These moms have been overdue a while.”
I nodded, knowing that I would get an hour nap before I woke up at 10 PM to start my eight hour watch. And then I would get another nap during the day, before getting up to do the afternoon shift caring for the babies.
Over a decade later, I was standing in front of the seasoned farmer as a newly minted veterinarian, fresh out of school. We were running his cows through the chute to get everyone vaccinated, dewormed, and otherwise ready for the year. I suggested castrating the bull calves today, because it had been a tough year for farmers financially, and if I came out on a different day, it would cost him more money. No, he insisted, we don’t cut bulls during this phase of the moon. I blinked. With a head full of science, I told myself I knew better.
Five minutes later after textbook castration technique, I stood at the back of the chute watching a steady stream of blood splatter onto the ground, struggling to find an explanation as to why this was happening. But, he didn’t need one. Shrugging, he said “I told you kid, we don’t cut bulls if it’s not the right time,” and pointed at the sky. He stood at the calf’s head, explaining to the calf that he would be just fine, as a calf stood there munching on some grain, seemingly undisturbed. I called my boss and explained to her that I had just castrated a bull and there’s a steady bleeder that I couldn’t find.
“Well,” she said, “why would you cut a calf during this time of the month? Where are you at? I’m shocked Bill even let you do it. He knows better.” She chuckled. “Don’t worry. All bleeding stops eventually. Just don’t tell him I said that.”
It’s been a couple years since then, and my former boss sent me a text message reminder last week. It said: don’t forget, put off all of your castrations until after the 10th. And she punctuated the reminder with a winking emoji.
Looking back on my first laparotomy and abdominal explore on a sheep, I remember that he was small. Once I felt around the perimeters of his rumen, I was able to sweep my palm across his diaphragm. I could feel nothing abnormal, but the perfect rhythmic hammering of the apex of his heart caused me to pause. For a moment, I lost my breath as I felt his heart beating in the palm of my hand. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a tear spring to my eye in pure wonder and appreciation for what his body could do.
There have been countless times since then that I’ve had to lay my hand on an animal’s chest as I feel their heart beat fade away. And I always think back to that first exploratory laparotomy. In my own way, every patient that I usher towards death adds to my sense of spirituality. As you watch for those final deep breaths, it takes a conscious effort not to align your breaths with theirs. It’s difficult to feel the tension being released from your own body as you see them finally relax, knowing that you get to keep on living but they don’t. Mother Nature takes who she wants, when she wants them.
Going back to that spring in Kentucky when I was 13 years old, I remember having to tell them that a groundhog ate most of our greens. I remember feeling like their anger was a total overreaction, until I realized what that meant for our dinner plates and those of our neighbors. That’s the day they taught me how to shoot a gun. Later that week, a rabid raccoon killed our kindest and gentlest workhorse.
Nature is the most beautiful and the most violent thing that I know of. She is neither fair, nor just. Nature is primal, poetic, somehow symmetrical yet nonsensical. She causes joy and pain. If you’re reading this, and it doesn’t make sense to you why I had to go out to the barn when the pressure dropped, or why certain procedures have to wait for certain weather, or certain changes in an animal‘s life are timed with specific seasons, or why some things have to die so that others may be safe, just know that there is a huge demographic of people that will understand all of this as they read along. They are the farmers. They are not Hollywood. They’re not the people whose only connection to food is the Trader Joe’s. Next time someone on TV complains that society has lost our connection with nature, just know that he’s definitely correct about that. He’s just wrong about who. There are so many of us who still feel the connection with our earth every day, and live that truth no matter how ugly that might be. I know this because although I am not a farmer, I’ve spent my life working for them.