No Time to Chat

In my last blog, Hibernation, I described how Danny struck up a conversation with the stranger seated next to him on an airplane.  That was not an isolated incident.  Danny has absolutely no difficulty talking to strangers anytime, anyplace.  He can be filling gas in a convenience store parking lot, begin conversing with the guy at the next pump, and by the time their tanks are full, he will know where the guy’s third child went to college, what he majored in, and that the kid just returned from a backpacking trip through Europe.

Okay, I may be exaggerating, but only a little.  I no longer allow him to accompany me to Walmart.  I shop out of necessity, not as a social opportunity, and the quicker my Tahoe is loaded and headed back to the farm, the happier I am.  When Danny is with me, not only will he stop and chat with everyone he knows (which is virtually everyone) but he will make new friends based on the fact that they use the same brand of shaving cream.

I want to make this very clear – I am not anti-social.  Within my circle of friends and family, I’d like to think I can be fun, interesting, and quite pleasant.  It’s just that my circle is much smaller than his.  And I feel no particular desire to enlarge my circle.

And so, had I been seated for two hours next to the stranger on that plane instead of Danny, not only would I not have known that the man was a transplanted Midwesterner, I would not even have been able to identify him in a police lineup.

Because I learned long ago that if you wish to not speak, it is best to not make eye contact.

A few months ago, I had a longer-than-usual layover while traveling to visit the grandkids.  But I was prepared to make very good use of that time.  I had brought along a yellow, lined legal pad and my favorite pen with which I intended to compose my next blog.

I was seated at a table near my gate in the Denver airport with a man seated across from me.  At that point, I knew no more than that.  I began to write.  I paused, re-read, scratched out, re-wrote, and composed for about ten minutes.  Then I committed a significant error.  I looked up from my pad to check the time.  As my eyes moved upwards, I made eye contact with the man across the table who, I realized then, had been watching me while I was writing.

He immediately seized the opportunity.  “Are you a teacher?” he asked with a friendly smile.

“A retired teacher,” I replied with an equally friendly smile.

“Did you teach English?” he asked.

“No, math,” I replied, keeping my answers as short as possible, with the hope of returning to my writing.

“Oh!  I just assumed you taught English since you’re writing.  Are you writing a math paper?”

Is it even possible to simply reply “No,” and politely end the conversation there?  Of course not.  I resigned myself to chatting.  I clicked my favorite pen closed and put my legal pad in my backpack.  I knew there were to be no more words written by me that day.

By the time I boarded the plane, I knew where he was from, what he did for a living, where he was going and why.  None of this information had been solicited.

So, you may ask, what does any of this have to do with living on a farm?

Everything.

Would you be willing to spend an entire week on the farm with only the companionship of non-verbal animals during the day and your spouse in the evening?  If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then please don’t become a farmer.

Would you be content to back your car out of your garage and leave the farm boundary only once, maybe twice, in an entire week?  If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then please don’t become a farmer.

Are your physical tasks, your natural surroundings, and your own thoughts enough to keep you happily occupied for an entire ten-hour day?  If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then please don’t become a farmer.

My dad was a farmer.  And he was happy doing it.  My mom, on the other hand, had a personality more like Danny’s.  She was a social creature who craved and thrived on human companionship.  After the last of her seven children (me) married and moved off the farm, she was alone too much and she lost her enthusiasm for farming.  She told me more than once that if anything ever happened to Daddy, she would not spend even one night alone on the farm.

In this one respect at least, I am my father’s daughter.  One of my daughters-in-law told me, “You know Mary Kay, if anything happened to Danny, we know you’d be okay by yourself at the farm.  Our only concern is that you’d become a recluse out there.”  When she told me that, I paused, thought about it, then nodded and said, “I can see that.”

But sometimes I worry, just a little, about the social butterfly that I married.

(There was a time, in my adolescence, when I was not happy being alone at the farm.  You can read about it in the February chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Merry Christmas from our Farm! (A Pictorial Tribute)

Never Riding Alone

One of my sisters once asked me, “What do you do out there on the farm alone every day?”  I responded, “Are you kidding?  I’m never alone!  My animals are constantly around me.”  While it’s true that I don’t often have human companionship during my days at the farm, I know there are many who will concur that animal companionship is often equally, and sometimes even more, rewarding. 

As I’ve often told my husband (always with a grin on my face), “My animals do what I tell them.”

And so, I found this quote by Jane Smiley particularly appropriate for this blog:

“I learned why ‘out riding alone’ is an oxymoron:  An equestrian is never alone, is always sensing the other being, the mysterious but also understandable living being that is the horse.”

One of my friends asked me quite recently, “Do you ride every day?”  It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that.  My standard response is always, “I wish.”

The truth is, I don’t ride very often at all.  The reason for that is because I ride solely for pleasure.  I don’t have beef cattle to move to another pasture or dairy cattle to bring to the barn, so I ride only when the weather is gorgeous and my other work is finished. 

Do you have any idea how rare that combination is?

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t spend time with my horses, because I do.  In fact, I can only ride one at a time but I can spend time on the ground with all three of them, so the argument could be made that I actually spend more time with them by not riding.

But I miss riding.  I miss the perspective that one gets while sitting on a horse’s back.  I find it extraordinary that a creature as powerful and athletic as a horse will allow a creature as puny and feeble as a human to sit on his back – the same back that a cougar would leap upon in search of its next meal.

So, I did a little soul-searching recently and asked myself, “What is it, exactly, that keeps me from riding more?”

I think I figured it out.  Too much of it seems like work.  And believe me when I tell you, I have quite enough work at the farm.  But in order to take a long ride off the farm, I must first work BJ in the round pen to get the “skittish” out of him, then I groom him, and then I saddle him just right.  When I get back from our ride – both of us worn out – not only do I need to groom him again, but I also need to groom BB and Zip who managed to work themselves into a frothy frenzy during our absence.

The entire process takes hours, and it is far too easy to convince myself that “I don’t have time for this.”  And so, another day goes by when I don’t ride.

During my soul-searching, I reflected on my days growing up on our family farm when I rode often, but sometimes only for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time because many of those rides were without a saddle.  It was all so simple and quick.  Why couldn’t I do that again?    

I came to a decision.  I was going to teach BJ to let me ride bareback.

I used to ride BB bareback often, but now that she has arthritic front knees, I can no longer ride her at all.  During BJ’s training years I didn’t feel confident riding him without a saddle, but now that he is ten, he has settled down considerably.  I decided to give it a go.

I’ve mentioned before that BJ is a huge horse.  And I am not a huge person.  Was there some risk of injury?  Possibly.  But here’s the thing.  Did you know that the horse has the largest eyes of any land mammal?  They’re eyes that look right into the human soul.  If they see kindness and goodness, that’s what the horse will give back.  If I didn’t trust BJ, how on earth could I ask him to trust me?

I put on his bridle and led him next to the corral rails.  I told him “Whoa”, then climbed up on the rails high enough so that I could slide onto his back.  Standing on the rail with my left foot, I swung my right foot across his back and rested it there to gauge his response.  He didn’t move.  Gathering my courage, I said, “Here we go” and slid my entire body onto his back.  He jerked his head up, but didn’t take a step.  I could tell he was thinking, “Well, this is different!”

Several times during our ride around the corral, he tossed his head and snorted, but I scolded him and he immediately settled down.  To dismount, I brought him to a stop, swung my right leg across his body, and slid down to the ground.  But he is so tall that it stung my feet when I hit the ground.  So, I again took him to the rail, mounted him and rode around a bit, but I dismounted by bringing him back to the rail and climbing down the same way I got on.

I’ve been riding BJ bareback for several weeks now, often just ten or fifteen minutes at a time.  I get the sense that BJ understands the fragility and precariousness of my position on his back.  His gait is easy and steady. And when I mount or dismount, he stands perfectly still and doesn’t squeeze me against the rail. 

He takes care of me.  Because I’m not riding alone.

(I describe the scariest ride of my life in the August chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: Hibernation