Wednesday, October 29, 2008


"The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
- by Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

If anything sums up my feelings about animals, both wild and domestic, it is Henry Beston's eloquent thoughts.

My maternal grandparents were self-sufficient farmers. They raised sheep, pigs, cows, chickens and all the crops needed to feed their livestock. They also tended a large, productive garden and preserved as much produce as possible. Grandma put up wild fruit too - elderberry jelly, for instance. They sold the excess milk from their two cows and sold eggs from all of Grandma's chickens to help bring in a bit of extra cash. They themselves drank the milk, ate the chickens and the eggs. They butchered a calf from one of the milk cows every year. The beef and poultry were kept frozen, wrapped in white butcher paper, stored in the "locker" in town. (Before the days of home freezers, each little town and burg had a meat locker where people could rent space to store their own frozen meat.) Whenever my grandparents went to town, they would stop by the locker for several frozen packages of meat to restock their refrigerator at home.

Their livelihood was dependent upon their animals, and their lives were dependent upon their animals. None of the animals were kept as pets but my Grandfather never abused any of them in his care. He got up before dawn every day of his farming life and tended to all the animals before he himself ate breakfast. He was a gentle old man with the milk cows, patiently waiting for them to find their stall and situate themselves before he started milking. Of course, he was an old man by the time I knew him, but I can not imagine that he was ever anything but kind to his livestock. He had respect for them and some measure of affection for them as well.

My paternal grandfather raised Hereford cattle. He knew all of his cattle by sight, amazingly enough. Beef cattle are roped, de-horned, branded, castrated, herded up and hauled off to market. I was never around the messiest activities, but I am certain all activities were expertly handled with the least amount of pain and distress to my Grandfather's animals as possible. Beef cattle are not coddled by anyone but some ranchers treat them better then others.

My paternal grandfather was also a genuine cowboy, an old bronc rider. I have photos of him as a young man riding saddle broncs at Kingman, Kansas. He knew all about horses. The old ways of "cowboying" were extreme compared to some of the more enlightened methods of today. I am certain my grandfather was as kind to his horses as anyone knew to be in those days. He cared for his livestock and held affection for them as well.

It was my mother who taught my brothers and me how to respect and care for animals. She loved all animals and held a gentleness and an empathy toward them. If a dog growled over its food bowl, we were taught to leave that dog alone while he was eating. I see on television that it is common practice to have those types of "food aggressive" dogs destroyed in shelters. If children have not been taught to respect a dog's space, then perhaps it is better for all involved to put those dogs down. Personally, I feel it is a grave injustice to some of the dogs.

Our mother taught us to be kind to animals. No one was allowed to pull on our pets, or squish them, or treat them roughly, not even young children. We were taught to treat animals gently and with respect. We knew to be careful of strange dogs. We knew to be very watchful around all the livestock, especially animals with babies.

The Native American respect for animals as fellow beings on this planet, as brothers whose sacrifice fed and clothed The People has always resonated with me. How simple it is to acknowledge the sacrifice of any animal that gives its life so we may live. Our current American society holds little respect for the animals slaughtered in the millions so we may eat, or earn a living. It is an illness in our culture to consider cows and chickens as stupid beasts. Comedians make fun of them. Animals are simply commodities, not living beings. It seems that a majority of "city folk" think intelligence has been domesticated out of cattle and pigs and chickens and other food animals. That is a mistake.

Earlier this summer I parked my truck along the county road to sit quietly sketching the scenery. When I first arrived, a herd of perhaps thirty-five cows were watching me intently, most of them along the fence. In a short while one of the cows began to moo, but I did not pay much attention. When I happened to look up, all the cattle had moved out of sight just over a rise, except one. She was standing alone, carefully watching me and my truck. I realized she was the one who had warned her charges to safety, out of sight of the human in the truck. She was bravely standing between her herd and me. If cattle were allowed freedom, if all the millions of miles of barbed wire vanished and the cattle could roam, they would survive.

Cattle have a herd society when they are allowed to live as naturally as possible. Sometimes the calves are watched over by one or two babysitters, while the mothers get a break away from them. When the bulls are allowed to live among the cows and calves, even the bulls have been known to babysit.

I admire people who can be vegetarians, but that diet is not for me. I can not seem to survive without meat. I send up silent acknowledgment for the give-away of the animal when I eat. I have performed simple ceremonies on behalf of the animals that have given away so that I may live.

I understand the extreme militant faction of groups like PETA, but I do not agree with their tactics. I do think we could make some fundamental and relatively inexpensive changes in the way animals are raised and slaughtered. I believe intensive corporate farming is inhumane. Once the world has been depleted of cheap fossil fuels, then we all will have to move to a local economy out of necessity. Once again people who lived like my grandparents will be needed, farmers and ranchers who supplied their own food with surplus for sale to their neighbors. It will go better for ourselves and the animals.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Large Moth

Antherea Polyphemus

This beautiful moth was photographed right outside my front door earlier this year. Its wingspan was about five inches across. I had noticed a furry looking large bug stuck on the screen when I left the house, but did not look closely. It was a wasted opportunity because when I returned, this moth was motionless at the bottom of the door. I could have observed it emerging from its cocoon and watched its wings unfurl!

I did a bit of research and found this is a giant silkmoth, named for the eyespots on its hind wings. Polyphemus was the Cyclops of Greek mythology, blinded by Odysseus in Homer's poem, The Odyssey. I learned the feathery antennae catch the pheromones of the female moth, helping the males to find a mate. Once they have emerged as flying moths, they can not eat and die within about a week.

As with countless other beautiful species, these moths too are under assault. Some parasitic wasps and flies, introduced pests, are thought to be decimating the population of the polyphemus caterpillars. It is also thought that leaving outdoor lights on at night distract and disorient these large moths, interfering in their mating chances. I was glad then to know my decision to not have an automatic yard light on my property was a good one, and may have contributed to this moth being on the screen door in the first place.

When I first moved to Spirit Creek farm, the lights of Topeka often glowed in the eastern sky, but the rest of the local sky was dark. But each year, more and more mercury vapor lights ring the horizon, and the recent towering lights along the interstate are so bright that even being over five miles distant, they interfere in viewing the night sky. I have witnessed aurora borealis several times from the knoll where my barn sits. Often it is such a faint glow that it is easily obscured by the interstate lights now. Do we honestly need all this extra light? Really?

I have a yard light, an incandescent bulb, but I can turn it on and off at will. Rarely do I ever need to turn it on. On clear nights, the starlight is sometimes bright enough to cast a faint shadow as I walk my property. Once human beings turn off their electric lights, they discover they have a very serviceable and reliable natural ability to see in the dark. But, in the dark, even a little bit of artificial light is blinding. People in the city have no chance to realize how well they can see in the dark. If the artificial light is blinding to humans, I wonder how much worse it is for all the animals, who have been evolving much longer than humans on this planet, without the benefit of artificial light. Why are human beings such a destructive force on everything they touch? Why did our technology outstrip our collective wisdom at such an incredible rate? And what can we do to change?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Merle's Silo

The Silo beside Dog Leg Creek

I have painted this silo scene about a dozen times, both on site and at home from photos. I have yet to capture the true beauty I find in this vista, with all shades of green found in the prairie, crowned by the tower of dusky red. I have failed to capture in a photo what it is I see either, though I've taken dozens of this very view. I dislike capturing structures in my "nature" photos, but for some reason, I love this silo and the impact it has in the landscape. The day I took this photo was a partly cloudy day, so there were large swaths of glowing green wherever the sun shone on the distant hills. I also love seeing the dark blues of a stormy sky against the green of the landscape, which were recorded in this photo.

I often wish my artistic ability matched my "artistic eye". It is discouraging to not be able to paint exactly what I see. One time an artist I admire very much told me that no artist ever manages to paint exactly what he sees. That encouraged me only a little. It is still a worthy project for me to try to capture with paint and paper the emotional impact the red silo has amidst this green and lovely Kansas view. I do not know how to convey distance in neither a painting nor a photograph, which is a large part of the visual impact of this valley. Even if I never get it just right, I still have the living view itself. And that is better than any painting or photo.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

My Children

This is a photo of my children. I think they are beautiful. There are times when I may be looking at either of them and become amazed that these two people chose me as their mother. Even though both are grown now, in my mind they still exist as babies, toddlers, middle schoolers, and teenaged brats!

They were born fourteen years apart. I raised both of them essentially alone, though their respective fathers were around for about two to three years each, then faded out of the picture. There is no changing the past but I can state without reservation that parenthood is much easier if there are two parents. Two parents can tag-team a willful teen. Two parents can usually outsmart a three year old. Two parents can shore up one another for those late night feedings, fevers, baseball tournaments and calls to the school.

These are the kids who spoke disrespectfully to their mother, broke or lost their expensive toys, lied to and disobeyed me at times. These two wrecked cars and broke the law and got in a little trouble at school. One ran away and both have been arrested. One fell fifteen feet from a tree. One was in a bad car accident. Both have drank alcohol and done many other things against my best efforts to teach them otherwise. But so far, they are still alive and well.

Of course, they had a crazy mother who cussed like a sailor, smoked like a chimney, and rode a Harley. Now that they are grown, I understand how I SHOULD have raised them. Somehow we made it to today, and all of us are still speaking. Somehow, my kids know that I love them beyond imagining.

I had the opportunity to go into Lodge with both of my children several years ago. Though most of it is a knowing that can not be expressed in words, I caught a glimpse of who these two people truly are.... I caught a sense of their true spirits, of their souls. I saw that this life is just a tiny sliver of who they are, and that being their mother is just a tick of time in eternity. It was humbling. It was profound. It was almost beyond description. I can not say that revelation excused me from all the poor decisions I made as their mother, but I did feel somewhat better seeing how awesome they are in their spiritual aspect.

Yet, we are here on this earth as physical beings, to experience being born and growing up and growing old. We are here to experience the power and pain of free will. We are here to love one another, to worry and argue and cry together. We are here to laugh and enjoy life and live in this mysterious, beautiful world. I would not trade away one second of my life with these two people, not for anything.