Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On the Farm

On my grandparent’s dairy farm as an infant I (Andy) was introduced to the world of domestic animals. The farm is in the center of San Juan Island in the very northwest part of Washington state next to the Canadian border. We lived among domestic animals such as cows, work horses, a Jersey bull, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, dogs, cats, and of course wild animals such as rabbits, deer, raccoon, pigeons, quail, crows, pheasants, eagles, hawks, and probably a few others. Nearly all of the domesticated animals spent most of their time foraging together in separate groups in the nearby woods and grassland. By the age of 4 or 5 I felt comfortable wandering around among most of the farm animals with the exception of the bold and aggressive white geese. Whenever I wished to go out into the barnyard I would first check to see if the geese were nearby or anywhere in sight. If I happened to step through the gate and into the yard and the geese spotted me even a city block away-watch out! To put it mildly, my goose was cooked! The geese, a flock of about a dozen strong, would immediately go into an attack mode. I could see them in the distance running towards me flapping their wings, lowering their heads to the attack position and squawking loudly as they gathered up speed and momentum. With big 15 pound geese, almost as tall as I was, running at me with wings flapping, heads and necks stuck out in front like big snakes, with red beady eyes, and big wide open orange beaks I would immediately turn tail and run for my life. I would quickly escape back through the gate to avoid their wrath. That was first encounter with what I would now label a "collective beast".

The only time I would venture out in the barnyard was when my grandmother was there to protect me from those dreadful geese. I had no fear of the other larger animals even though for a small boy they were potentially more hazardous. One day I was playing out there while my grandmother was busy nearby doing her daily chores. The big Jersey bull out of curiosity quietly sauntered over and shoved his big nose into my face as he sniffed me. and I eagerly was about to pet him when behind me I heard a loud scream.

My grandmother, granny at the last second rushed over to save me screaming and shouting.
"Andy, come away from that bull!!"

Needless to say I was puzzled that granny would become so upset when I tried to pet that nice bull.

It wasn’t too long afterwards that my grandfather, no doubt from granny’s insistence, decided that for safety’s sake, he needed to domesticate the bull. A 6 foot high fence of heavy logs was erected to form a sizable bull proof pen. When the pen was ready the bull was moved into the bull pen. At that time his horns were cut off and a large brass ring was put in his nose so that he could safely be led around with a pole attached to his nose ring. With these precautions our bull had been transformed from a potentially dangerous beast to a safe and controllable domestic beast. I saw for the first time a potentially dangerous beast being domesticated.

A few years later as a teenager I had by then developed a fear of bulls. In that time period there were still millions of small family farms around the country. It seemed that every few months the newspaper reported that some unwary dairy farmer in the United States had been killed by an enraged bull. Even though most of the time a bull can be a rather docile creature he still retains within his genes traces of his past role as defender of the herd. It is not difficult to imagine that some thousands of years ago the ancestors of today’s bull was defending his herd from vicious predators who were constantly out looking for a meal. With genetic behavior inherited from the distant past, the bull from time to time imagines himself defending his herd. The only truly safe bull is an adequately domesticated bull.

Our nearest neighbor, Chancy Brown, had an especially menacing bull. The bull was kept in a ten acre field right next to our farm. The field was surrounded by a wire fence that was flimsy and weak. It provided only a psychological barrier to the bull who, fortunately for me, was too stupid to know that he could easily crash through the fence any time he so desired. Consequently whenever I went down the narrow lane adjacent to the bull’s field I always tried to sneak by quietly so as not to alert him. Occasionally he would spot me anyway and then would come charging across the field towards me excitedly with head held high and eyes bulging. During those encounters I would hastily retreat or run like mad while that angry bull would rush along the fence snorting and threatening to attack. I was a complete coward whenever I was forced to encounter that semi-wild ferocious beast.

I spent my early years immersed in the agriculture age where the machine was largely absent and most work was done by our own muscle power. The luxury moments came when we used horses to accomplish some task such as cultivating or move some heavy load by horse drawn wagon. I experienced the last moments of the more primitive form of subsistence farming, a culture that had existed almost unchanged in America , Canada and Europe for hundreds of years and other parts of the world much farther into the past. I was just barely crawling when the first radio was introduced to San Juan Island by a local farmer who strung an antenna wire between 2 poles 70 feet in the air. The second radio was purchased for the local tavern. The local farmers would walk or ride horses miles to town in the evenings just to have a beer at the tavern and of course hear those voices and music on the new radio. The radio could pick up the news from Vancouver Canada which was located some 60 miles away. It was hard to believe then but when conditions were right the radio could pick up music and news even from far off Seattle, Washington a good 100 miles away!
As time went on I saw the development of the industrial age with the appearance of airplanes, better cars, washing machines and even refrigerators for towns people but usually not for farmers who went to bed with the chickens since it was difficult to see by kerosene lanterns and lights.
Around 1930 a big event in my life occurred. In school I had learned about airplanes and Charles Lindberg who gained huge audiences world-wide by flying solo across the Atlantic trip from New York to Paris. At that time I had never seen an airplane. One day, while standing out in our front yard, I heard a loud noise coming from the direction of the harbor. All of a sudden this big bird looking contraption with wings appeared over the horizon and flew over Friday Harbor bay and the bug station(that was where the University of Washington had some laboratories). I knew instantly it must have been an airplane. I was convinced that I had seen Lindberg flying over Friday Harbor just to see the sights.
It was years later before I realized it was probably an airplane carrying U.S. mail north to Vancouver, Canada.

No comments: