Thursday, April 26, 2012


As I was walking to the barn yesterday to start my morning chores, I noticed an unusual huddle --a wild turkey and a few crows picking at something down by the pond. The something was snow white, which puzzled me, as I knew all the chickens -- including the few white Columbian crosses we have left -- were safely locked in the barn. 

I struggled to think what it could be -- the wild ducks that we've seen visiting our pond are all dark and brown earthy colours. Then I remembered: two of the Muscovies, one male and one female, refused to come into the barn the previous night. I tried to chase them, shoo them in, but they simply flapped away from me. As I left the barnyard I felt uncomfortable leaving them outside as we'd seen a mature fox just the week before, but the male duck can be a vicious beast, so I told myself the lady would be ok.

As I walked towards the carnage crew, I realized I was wrong. As the wild birds flew away, I saw the lady duck, gutted; her chest and body cavity ripped away, with bloodied feathers scattered around her.

I didn't cry or freak out; in fact I felt strangely disassociated from what I saw. I was disappointed, sure, but we'd lost ducks and chickens before (though usually all that's left is the feathers) and my mind started spewing platitudes of all sorts -- "Where there's livestock, there's deadstock"; or "It's part of farm life"; and "Nature can be cruel."

I picked her up carefully by her limp neck and started walking back up the hill towards the barn, stopping only to grab a shovel. I continued past the barn and into the woods at the back of the second paddock, the donkeys and horse following me in a bizarre funeral parade.

I quickly dug a grave and buried what was left of the lady duck, saying some sort of cursory 'return to earth' blessing, ending with an apology. Then I returned the shovel and continued on with my chores. This is part of farm life, I told myself -- buck up and get on with it. It's just a duck.

But for the rest of the day I felt agitated, uneasy, fragile, and the more I tried to dismiss that, push it away, the more it grew. Until finally, just before the kids got home, Lucas called me on the phone to see how my day was.

My eyes started to gloss over, my throat tighten and a sick churning began deep in my belly. The details of the story gushed out and I wanted to share with him, unload, all of the gory images that were weighing heavily on me -- the shocking contrast of the blood to her feathers, her breastbone picked clean of all flesh, her unseeing eyes, and how just the night before, after giving up on trying to get her back into the barn, I had taken a moment to admire her form, her beauty, her aliveness and gentle personality, as she paddled off into the darkness after her mate.

As I shared the story, I could sense the pain lose its grip on me. I didn't feel any less sad that the lady duck had been ravaged this way, but I could feel the sadness and not suffer by it.

I thought of a passage that author Jon Katz recently wrote on his Bedlam Farm blog about how these sorts of losses are a part of life:

"This is a familiar part of life on the farm, this sickening feeling seeing things you are responsible for and live with killed suddenly, and then the process of sorting through it, because you know the foxes or raccoons or whatever will return... It is a nice life, not a perfect life, and there are no simple or easy solutions... So there is the happy time cuddling a lamb and the other time picking up body parts of animals you were talking to the day before…. It is disturbing, yet also oddly routine. It happens, anyone with a farm and livestock has experienced it. This lesson, I learn again and again. It is not a crisis, not a drama. It is life itself."

In trying to remove the drama, or what I thought was drama but was actually just feeling, I stifled a piece of my humanity. Rallying against these inevitabilities creates suffering, but so does not fully acknowledging the pain that accompanies these losses. Keeping animals on a farm is such a gift, but if you're not careful, it can become a burden, and I've wondered before that perhaps I'd be better off if I didn't keep animals as I get so attached to them. But that would deny me the happy times. 

So what's the solution? I'm learning that allowing myself to completely appreciate the joy of their life, then fully acknowledging and experiencing the sadness of their death, before finally letting both go, leads to greater feelings of peace, acceptance and ultimately freedom. It's something of a roller-coaster ride, but then again, that is life itself.


Laura said...

As you said, it is a part of farm life. I have lost two little meat rabbits in the past few weeks, and there is nothing worse than picking up the carcass of where there once was life and personality but now there is nothing. I think, for myself, it is made more emotional when I know that I could have done something better that would have prevented the death. With my rabbits, I failed to go over their pen with a fine tooth comb to find the spot where they were getting out. I agree with you that you should allow yourself to feel the sorrow and the loss and even the anger. Let it go through you and out of you. Holding it in just makes us sick. And remember that you are doing your best to give them good and happy lives. That's worth a lot.

karmacoy said...

Oh Fiona, what a lovely post!
My eyes are all welled up, poor lady duck. So, sorry for your loss. How (where?) is the drake?

Fiona@RowangarthFarm said...

@ Laura -- thanks for sharing your story (and told so beautifully too) and I'm sorry to hear about your loss. Yes, self-blame makes the pain more acute... I've felt that many times and even after 30 years here I'm sure there will still be preventable mistakes, but you're right that the holding on is even more painful.

@karmacoy -- thank you. And the drake is just fine. He was sitting outside the barn waiting for his breakfast. Not such a great protector after all...

Jackie @ Auburn Meadow Farm said...

This is really beautifully written. I wish I didn't understand it quite so well, but who with animals doesn't?
Bittersweet business...

Fiona@RowangarthFarm said...

@ Jackie -- thank for your kind words. Bittersweet, indeed. I find there's a fine line between protecting one's hard and hardening it -- but then it's harder to let the love in. (By the way, I'm enjoying reading your blog -- you've got an amazing wit!)

Annie*s Granny said...

Fiona, I am so sorry for the loss. It brought tears to my eyes, and visions of our pet rabbit, Cookie, as he gasped those final breaths from his little bloodied body. Nature can be so cruel, and you've learned to deal with the losses much better than I.

Fiona@RowangarthFarm said...

@Granny -- thank you for sharing your own story of loss. It seems everyone has one. I don't yet feel like I'm dealing with the losses better per se -- but I'm finding a way to be with the pain of loss without taking away from the joy of life, if that makes any sense.

Erin said...

Sorry for the loss Fiona, you are right that it's part of life on the farm, sad but you do a great job there and there will always be oodles more good than bad at your homestead :)

Fiona@RowangarthFarm said...

@ Erin -- awe, thanks! That means a lot coming from someone who I truly admire for all the good that you do on your homestead!

Chris said...

Very sorry Fi. Never easy to loose an animal in any way. You're so right about it being just part of life. I look at it in terms of how the Fox has to eat, feed its young family etc. and that thought tends to take the edge off the immedaite rage I feel when something like this happens. Then I beef up the fencing, lol.

I share your thoughts sometimes on maybe being better off without the menagerie to look after. I wouldn't have to get up early everday, trudge through mud, rain, snow, ice and heat to look after them, feed them water them. Wouldn't have to go out into the dark to round them up, also in atrocious weather. I'd save on gas, drugs (for the birds not me), feed bills. I'd be able to go on holiday without worrying.

But then I realise I would miss out on one of the most rewarding things I have ever embarked upon.

David said...

Fiona, homestead life is an emotional experience for sure. It can be way up or way down. It's why I have wild pets and not domestic. They take care of themselves and if they succumb to the circle of life, I don't usually see it. Shame on the drake for not protecting his lady. Even though it can be painful to be connected with the animal life on a homestead, I believe it's also more fulfilling and satisfying. The pain of the loss will soon pass into joy of the memories lady duck provided.

Have the best day that you can.

Fiona@RowangarthFarm said...

@ Chris -- you're absolutely right that we're all part of a bigger system, and my loss is another creature's gain. It's good to be reminded of that -- thanks. And your last sentence... just awesome.

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