Reflecting on Life and Death on a Family Farm

Reader Contribution by Norma Vela and Dovetail Family Farm
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It’s noon on a rainy, cold day in February and my son and daughter-in-law have brought in a newly born buckling goat. He’s having some issues: difficulty latching on to nurse, some fluid in the lungs, possibly something going on with his front legs. But I already know not to get attached, not to take cute little photos of him and post them on social media with excited captions, “Look at the new baby!” Because death is still too close by, waiting for a shot at him.

That has been one of the hardest things about moving from my previous life to the small family farm in rural Maine, where we live today. I had to learn that death is always happy to grab what it can, every chance it gets. I had to learn the reality of that old expression, “If you’re gonna have livestock, you’re gonna have dead stock.”

Fortunately, my daughter-in-law was a vet tech, attended vet school for some time, and she quickly passed a feeding tube, made appropriate assessments and has handed off a well-fed, but possibly hypothermic little buckling to be wrapped up and warmed inside my house robe for the day, while I write.

I have been a human heater for piglets, turkeys, baby chicks, lambs, and goats thus far. I’ve worn injured chickens in my sweatshirt and baby turkeys in my bra. I’ve carried lambs in a hurriedly rigged baby sling. I have held those babies for hours, willing them to life. Sometimes I win, sometimes death wins.

But it’s a fact of farming if your farm includes animals.

I had horses in my previous life. We had four acres outside Los Angeles, and I saw death from time to time due to colic, trailer accidents, age and so on. I had owned dogs, cats, birds — even mice, when I was a child. I thought I was equal parts compassionate and pragmatic about dying animals. But it still didn’t prepare me for what felt like the onslaught of death in the first few years on the farm.

Piglets were crushed by their mothers, lambs were suffocated in the night by a concerned but first-time mother, a dozen baby ducks, waddling in line behind their mother one day, carried off by a bald eagle the next. And turkeys just being turkeys, who knows why they died. We were told it was a “bad batch”. I knew my heart had hardened quite a bit when I found a tiny piece of fleecy white lamb skin in one of the fields after a new lamb had gone missing. Well, the wildlife was getting fed was all I could think.

That’s what happens: baby animals die, aged animals die. They get sick; they get injured and must be put out of pain. Other animals eat them, or it’s time to slaughter and butcher them.

We raise turkeys, chickens and pigs for meat. When it’s time for them to go to freezer camp (yes, you develop some dark humor on the farm), I watch as the turkeys and chickens I fed and tended go to slaughter. I’m not yet able to handle the killing, or evisceration (or even plucking, really), but my son assures me that I’ll learn to process chickens at some point. I remain doubtful and unenthusiastic.

But let me stress, you can’t get away with being like me, if you’re going to raise animals.  You need to have someone willing to do the killing. Because if there are animals, there will be a need for killing for a variety of reasons.

In the past, I’ve had to wait hours for a vet to come put down an injured horse. In one case, it was a horrible injury to a neighbor’s horse, compounded by the horse’s frantic reaction to the pain; and I had to watch the worst two hours of suffering as I tried, helplessly, to keep the poor animal calm.

It made me wish I had the emotional strength and knowledge to handle a gun myself. My daughter-in-law’s veterinary knowledge allows us to save every life that can be saved here. But it is my son’s compassion for animals that extends all the way to helping them quickly end their time when there is suffering (Lucy, the pig, gratefully drank a couple of beers prior to leaving this world, and was happily soused). 

You could get really bummed seeing all that death. Except the Universe keeps offering up replacements. New life keeps blooming and bursting around us. Soon after we lost a goat and two sheep, we got a new bull calf. As the turkeys and ducks died, we had new chickens and ducklings hatch. A fabulous new kitty, Maynard, was brought home to replace a dearly beloved hit by a car. More piglets were born, squealing and adorable. One of our sheep lambed a perfect little ewe lamb, Fiona. Life keeps offering itself up.

In those first years, it seemed that the universe was, perhaps, preparing me, because amidst all of the farm life-and-death, a human life ended. The father of my children and husband of 29 years was diagnosed with brain cancer and died very quickly back in California. Although we were divorced several years, I had spent half my life with him. It was shocking and sudden and sad. But the Universe had just given us an offering — a new life — my grandson, Oran (named after my amazing stepfather, who also died of brain cancer). Not a replacement, certainly, but a message of the eternal circle of life and death.

A combat veteran told me that many of today’s soldiers are coming home with PTSD in part because they are more often from the city than from a farm. They have not experienced life and death and life and death and death and death and death like you do on a farm. They see death and don’t know for certain, like farmers do, that life keeps offering itself up; life keeps coming back for another go at it. It’s the knowing that for certain that makes the difference. 

After these few years here as a farmer, I now know for certain: Death takes us all. And Life goes on.

Author’s Note: In the time it took for me to write, proof and post this, the little goat died, and twin black lambs were born. On and on.

Norma Velais a television writer in Maine with a fixation for land, horses and gardening. She owns a rope basket-making business,Tether Made, with her son-in-law and daughter and is learning surface pattern design, illustration, watercolor and digital art. Connect with Norma at Dovetail Family Farm.

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