On Sunday, May 22, 2016, our finest alpaca, Fair Winds Sweet William, suddenly showed signs of illness. He went into cush, the legs-tucked-in resting position of the camelid family, and remained there, out in the middle of the field despite an increasing downpour of rain.
Dale went out to investigate and found that Billy, as we know him on the farm, was exhausted. He had no energy to stand or take himself out of the rain. And his herd had abandoned him. They had moved off to find shelter, placing the herd's needs ahead of that of the individual animal. Sadly, this made Billy's distress even worse. Alpaca are herd animals, and without their herd, they are stressed. They know their survival is linked to the herd's survival. Billy would have felt the absence of the herd at a very instinctual level.
Dale got him under shelter and got our vet to come out and examine him. All signs pointed to a sudden and severe infestation of barber pole worms, a particularly vicious parasite that takes hold and literally drains the life from their host. Dale immediately treated him, but Billy died about 3 hours later. We were heartbroken. Worse, we were thousands of miles apart. We both found ourselves alone, like Billy was, as we faced this tremendous loss for the farm and a very personal loss due to our connection to and love for this spectacular animal.
I know that being alone made this so much harder to face. Every instinct I had told me I needed to be grieving this loss in the company of someone I loved who had also loved Billy. I felt a physical reaction when I couldn't. There was an ache in my chest and a loss of appetite and interest in what was happening around me. The keening of my heart seemed like it would overwhelm me and I had to deliberately force myself into my intellectual side to find relief. When I was able to talk to Dale, it was clear that he was struggling in his isolation too. We cried together over the phone and that helped, and we both acknowledged how the separation made it worse when it already was so bad. It was hard to hang up, but we knew we had to and so we soldiered on.
This experience made it crystal clear to me what it means to be a herd animal. Being with the herd makes celebration happier, loss easier to bear, survival more likely, and day-to-day life more content. Being apart from the herd makes it all harder. Lots harder. There is a very real, very serious downside to isolation, for alpaca and for humans.
As we move forward from this loss we will be examining our practices on the farm. I'm sure we will be very critical of what we did before, but by so doing we will find better ways to sustain the integrity of our alpaca herd. We need to examine how we treat our human herd too. Figuring out how to keep the herd together will surely be a focus of mine in the future. Mending relationships, finding ways to connect, devoting time to bring us all together -- these actions just jumped in my priority list. I hope others can learn from our loss and move these items up in their priority lists too.
Winter Storm Jonas came to town in a very big way this past weekend. He dropped well over two feet of snow at Fair Winds Farm and we got to stay home from work. Dale spent most of each day out clearing snow from the drive and making paths around the farm – paths for us to be able to get to the animals and paths for the animals to get a little exercise.
The animals like snow just fine. At least they like it when they can walk through it easily. When it gets up over about 4 inches, though, they just don’t seem to like the sensation of sinking in over their ankles. Instead of venturing out into the snow, they’ll just hang out in the run-in shed or under the barn awning…basically anywhere the snow didn’t stack up. The problem with this is that they’re just standing around and they start to get a bit peevish with each other. That level of closeness would get on anyone’s nerves. The fact that this intimacy is complemented by an accumulating pile of rather odiferous manure doesn’t help, I’m sure.
With a very little help from me, Dale carved out some exercise paths and we made sure they could easily transit to hay racks and water buckets. It would have been nice if they would have tramped out some paths themselves. They certainly had the ability to do so. I can’t really blame them though, it’s a bit of an effort to pull one’s leg out of a snow drift just to plop it into another. And I suppose it wouldn’t be all that pleasant to feel the snow on one’s belly as you moved along. There’s a bit of uncertainty too. Sometimes that snow is covering uneven ground and it might be tough to manage one’s footing.
It’s been warm during the days since the storm. The snow cover is melting off fairly quickly. The last time we had this much snow it took days for it to melt off to the point where the ground started showing through. Dale and I watched it go from feet of snow to inches of snow. And the whole time the animals stayed contained to their shelters and the paths we had carved out for them that time. Even when the snow was only a few inches deep, they wouldn’t venture out into it. This might strike you as strange since I told you they are fine with snow under 4 inches deep. It really isn’t though.
You see, the animals don’t realize that the depth of the snow has changed. They see that white covering over the pasture and they remember that it was really deep and they didn’t like that at all. Without the knowledge that it has been melting away, and without the reasoning to understand that the fact that it’s only a few inches deep along the edges of the paths means its also only a few inches deep across the pasture, they think the pasture is still covered with feet of snow. It’s really too bad, because we know they would enjoy getting out away from the shelters and stretching their legs. But their fear and unwillingness to explore has them snow bound, even when it’s only in their minds.
People sometimes behave in a similar way. They let bad experiences affect how they approach the world. When they experience a situation that is frightening, uncomfortable, awkward or challenging, they turn their backs on it and refuse to explore its possibilities. They just remember the last time they tried to face it and decide they won’t take the risk that things might be better this time – or that the situation isn’t the same as last time at all – or that they’ve changed and can handle it now. The result is that they miss out on a lot of opportunities when just a little boldness could have shown them that they have the power to make their own new paths. It’s something for each of us to think about. Are we creating artificial obstacles to our success because of our assumptions about the way things are? I suggest we work on changing our assumptions by actually testing the depth of the snow to really know how deep it is and by figuring out how we can learn new skills to deal with it even if it is still deep. We’ll have a lot more fun if we do.
And as I watch this snow melt, I think I’ll try a little experiment. When it does get down to the 2-3 inch level, I think I’ll see if I can lure some of the animals out into the pasture with a bucket of grain. I want to see what they do when they realize nothing is actually holding them back. I bet they’ll kick up their heels.
As we move forward on our farm venture, there have been a few people who have asked me why we’re doing it. They have said things like, “You guys have good jobs and you have pensions from your military service. Why on earth would you want to put so much time and effort into something that can’t possibly make much money? It can’t possibly be worth your time…I just don’t get it.” I find it difficult to answer them.
It’s not difficult because I don’t have a good answer. It’s difficult because what I just don’t get is how to try to answer this question in a way that communicates with someone coming from such a different perspective. They just don’t have any sense of how priceless it is to know that you are capable of fulfilling most of your physical needs for food, clothing and shelter with your own two hands? (Truth in advertising, we don’t come close to doing this, but we have demonstrated that if we had to, we could do this!) And they don’t seem to have a sense for how compelling is the feeling of producing something that someone else wants to purchase. Even when I’ve charged a price that put my labor rate at the minimum wage, or even lower, I’ve felt well compensated.
We are compensated again and again as we work on the farm even without any customers. Our animals compensate us with their eagerness to get attention from us – sure, a lot of it is eagerness for food, but I’m convinced that many of them have a real attachment to us as well. They depend on us for so much and we are rewarded by their greetings and the chance to watch them explore and play. They amuse us and they challenge us to learn and grow on a daily basis. And when springtime rolls around most of them give us their winter coats so I have plenty of fiber with which I can play and create products from which others will also find great value.
Our crops compensate us by responding to our experiments in tending. They’ve provided us with a whole new area of learning. The challenge to develop expertise sufficient to keep plants alive and thriving is very real and our brains benefit from it. I’m convinced that the constant need to observe, research and plan is helping my synapses stay young. And then we get to eat, use or sell the results of our education. That’s a far cry better than just getting a grade on a paper or a test.
Just being on the farm has value – the walks in the woods, the sitting on the porch watching the sunset, the cooking a meal with food from our garden. You can’t put a price on this stuff. These things give us our connection to time and place. They make us more sane and more appreciative of the things we have and the people in our lives. They make us happy. It’s just not about the money, it’s about so much more.
Hmmm…I guess that’s my answer!