The Things I Heard

IMG_1451When I said I was traveling to Australia in 2011, I got a number of responses that surprised me. So I did what I do and wrote about it. Rolereboot.com posted it today.  Check out the link below:

http://www.rolereboot.org/life/details/2014-07-surprising-responses-got-told-people-moving-different-country-alone/

The Stuff We’re Made Of

TheStuffWe’reMadeOf-Sojourns12.2013

This is one of the most challenging – and I think one of the best – pieces I’ve written. Yes, it’s about dirt, but dirt in the context of the Colorado Plateau, that iconic wild-west land. Click on the link and you’ll get a PDF of the original as laid out in the magazine, including all the gorgeous photographs. Enjoy.

(for Sojourns, a publication of the Peaks, Plateaus & Canyon Association. Copyright Sojourns journal)

 

Staying in the Solution: Peter Byck is a Glass Half-Full Guy

Peter_Byck_UPS_Shoot_Ronald_Eastman-1024x768(As seen in Green Living Magazine, Aug. 2013 – greenlivingaz.com)

In a world of many glass half-empty (or completely empty) environmental documentaries, filmmaker Peter Byck is a glass half-full guy. Consider his 2010 documentary, Carbon Nation. Not only does the title indicate that its maker doesn’t take himself too seriously, the solutions based film reaches out to everybody – whether they believe in climate change or not.

Byck, a freshly minted addition to the Arizona State University faculty, didn’t set out to be a teacher.  After finishing film school at California Institute of the Arts, he embarked on a career in the business, spending more than 20 years doing things like directing shows for MTV, and editing documentaries and promotional shorts for big names and big studios.  Yet even though he didn’t plan on becoming an educator, his mind sort of worked that way.

“It’s funny. When I was in film school, which is a long time ago, 82 to 86, I was already thinking of ways to teach, not planning on it, but things were popping into my head. There’s always been something there.”

Something there will be something here this fall when Byck starts his new job as Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media.  There, in a class called Sustainability Storytelling, students will learn how to make documentaries about clean energy.  Byck describes himself as a big fan of solar power, the perfect thing to explore in Arizona.

“The first place that we’re going to delve into is all the solar work that’s going on in Gila Bend. The class starts in August and we’ll starting shooting in September.”  Byck’s goal is to teach his students everything he knows in the process.  “You can’t replace experience, but you can give the rules … all the mechanisms I’ve learned in filmmaking.”

One of the recent mechanisms he’s used is approaching environmental issues, most notably carbon, from a positive standpoint. While Byck notes that there are films he admires for how they were able to motivate change, he wanted to take a different view.  “When I saw ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ I thought it was a very well-made film about what the problem was. And then I wanted to make a film about the solution.”

That fresh perspective has opened doors. According to Byck, donors, audiences, liberals and conservatives all liked the approach.  “I’ve been asked to show the film and speak at places all over the world and I don’t think it would happen if it wasn’t about solutions. No one knew who I was before I made the movie, so it wasn’t that.” Nor is he focused on making everybody believe the same thing he does. In fact, one of the individuals featured in the film does not believe that humans are causing climate change, yet has created break-through geothermal technology.  By setting aside the debate about whether or not climate change is happening, people can look at larger issues. Byck suggests that the commonality between us is that we all seem to like clean air and water.

Most of us can agree that, by their nature, documentaries are educational, sometimes to the point where viewers might feel like they’re being hovered over by a watchful parent and being forced to those mushy brussel sprouts. Carbon Nation is a meticulously researched educational tool, but it’s more than that.  “We look at is as entertainment, too. If it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to watch it. Even our title has a sense of humor. We want people to know that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. … (But) we took the art and the entertainment piece seriously to make sure it communicated to people.”

That approach is working. After a screening for 250 students at a Lexington, Kentucky high school, the film received a standing ovation. “What we’ve been told and what we’ve seen is that climate and energy films really scare the living daylights out of kids. Our film doesn’t scare them. It was a relief to them.”

The film’s reach into educational settings will grow this fall.  When Byck learned from leaders at The Boeing Company (who also sponsored the film’s premier in Seattle) that the film could be an important supplement or to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, he decided make sure it was accessible.  Recently, at the Clinton Global Initiative America, he announced that Carbon Nation will be available – free – to students and teachers. Interested educators and students can go to carbonnationmovie.com to sign up for viewing.

In addition to his teaching duties at ASU, Byck has started work on Carbon Nation 2.0. As he starts to put together the pieces for a new film, finding those who are making a difference and introducing them to us, he’s sure that the project will be delivered with a light touch.  “When I’m laughing, I’m also more apt to take action. That’s part of the inspiration.”

 

 

 

The Biggest Problem You’ve Never Heard Of

(Appeared in Green Living Magazine Nov. 2013 – greenlivingaz.com)

According to Jim Elser, the only reason to care about phosphorous is if you drink water and eat food.

Elser is a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, and a Regents’ Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Sciences.  He’s also the co-coordinator of ASU’s Phosphorous Sustainability Initiative and has studied phosphorus for more than 20 years. He is convinced that if we can find a way to recycle phosphorus, we can secure food supplies and ensure clean water.

Most of us recall phosphorus being one of the elements on the Periodic Table – number 13, to be exact – but beyond high school chemistry and the label on multivitamins, don’t know much else about it. In fact, all living things require phosphorous to live. Our bodies use phosphorus to synthesize calcium for bones and teeth, change food into energy, produce hormones and more. Phosphorus is an important ingredient in nucleic acids and is in our DNA – literally. We cannot survive without it.

Plants can’t survive without phosphorus, either, and it is a key ingredient in the synthetic fertilizers that make high agricultural yields possible. But there’s a finite supply. Phosphorus is derived from phosphate rock, and global deposits are dwindling. As supplies decrease, prices increase (from $100 per ton in 2000 to $850 per ton in 2008) and those who need the fertilizer, especially those in developing countries, can’t afford it. In order to feed the earth’s seven billion people, the supply and affordability of phosphorous has to be protected, or the supply increased

Increased? Impossible, since the supply is finite. Conserved? Certainly. Recycled? Working on it.

Elser is also a Principal Investigator and member of the steering committee of the Phosphorous Sustainability Initiative’s Research Coordination Network.  The RCN is meant to bring experts in various disciplines into better communication with each other to integrate projects and focus on new analyses to answer questions about reducing phosphorous waste and recycling phosphorous.

Phosphorus is an indispensable nutrient for plants, but of the fertilizer added to crops, plants use only one-third to one-half of it. Some gets trapped in the soil, but much of it gets leached out or eroded out.  When infiltrates water supplies, a chain reaction starts: phosphorous causes algal blooms, bacteria consume the algae and suck up oxygen, lack of oxygen suffocates aquatic life, creating areas where plant and animal life is unsustainable. The most infamous of these is the 5,840 square mile (about the size of Connecticut) “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

But there are sources of phosphorous besides phosphate rock deposits.  Every well-nourished human wastes phosphorous every day in their – well – waste.  Wastewater treatment plants have been removing phosphorous from water for as long as 40 years because phosphorous rich water was another cause of algal blooms. Now, effluent treatment facilities that have started to use a process that transforms sludge destined for a landfill into struvite, a pellet that can be used in fertilizer that’s commercially viable. Studies are underway about treating animal waste in the same way.

Another issue is food waste. Elser says that about 50 percent of the global food supply “is lost before it even gets to the plate.” In developing countries, waste happens mostly between the farm and table as spoilage. Most of the discarded food ends up in landfills. “There’s a lot of energy in that food. There needs to be technology to extract that energy value and get that phosphorous back to a field where it belongs,” Elser says.

Being mindful of our carbon footprint is a familiar concept, but what about a phosphorous footprint? To conserve this precious supply, consider making some simple changes. Americans love lawns. According to information gathered by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, lawns could be considered America’s largest crop. There are about 31.6 million acres of turf – almost 50,000 square miles – in the U.S. Consider the tons of fertilizer applied to green up those yards every year, and xeriscaping or using organic lawn care could be a good alternative.

Since meat production is an inefficient process for phosphorous, consider eliminating or decreasing meat in the diet.  Those who aren’t ready to become strict vegetarians can consider becoming demitarians, people who have committed to decreasing their meat consumption for environmental and personal health. Some restaurants already offer demitarian choices, serving the same entrée with only half the meat. Or go organic. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program prohibits the use of most synthetic fertilizers on organic farms.

Some sources project phosphorous production peaking as soon as 2035. Yet as prices increase, users may get by with less, and suppliers find or create new sources. But since there is literally no way to make phosphorous – no way to synthesize is in a lab – and no way to produce food without it, research on conservation and recycling is imperative.  As Elser says, this may be “the biggest problem we’ve never heard of.”

Little Green Machines

Algae-LittleGreenMachines(As seen in Green Living Magazine, Oct. 2013 – greenlivingaz.com)

If a person thinks of algae, they mostly likely think it’s time to clean the pool. But there is a place in Mesa that concentrates on growing the stuff on purpose. The Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), a part of the College of Technology and Innovation on the Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, is dedicated to researching the uses for those little green organisms.

When I asked Dr. Milton Sommerfeld, professor and co-director of AZCATI, about the difference between what clouds up the swimming pool and what the lab grows in giant test tubes, he says, “It’s essentially the same thing. One of the best strains in terms of petroleum was isolated from a small pond in Phoenix.”

Striking Oil

For years, the big story about algae is about turning it into biofuel. According to Sommerfeld, about 50 percent of some algae strains are oil. He provides a brief history lesson:  In the late 1970s, the government realized that the country had become too dependent on foreign oil and initiated the Aquatic Species Program, an effort to research algae as a potential oil source. He and others went out bio-prospecting throughout the Southwest, identified as desirable because of its sunny climate.

Oil extracted from algae looks like dark crude oil. When processed into biodiesel, it’s as clear and gold as the vegetable oil in the pantry. (It even smells like vegetable oil.) Unfortunately, although research findings continue to look positive, he says that developing a fuel product to compete in a commodity market is challenging and that while we’ve been extracting oil for more than 100 years, research on biofuels is relatively new.

You’re Already Eating It

To illustrate the diverse range of products that contain algae, Sommerfeld has a line of containers on his desk. He holds up two jars – one with dark green powder, one with lighter green powder. Both are biomass, what’s left of algae once either water or oil has been extracted. This is the stuff that is rich with protein and carbohydrate and is put in health supplements, or used by his wife for algae cookies.

Even if you’re not a health-food-healthie, you’ve probably been consuming algae without knowing it. Sommerfeld hands over an empty ice cream carton with the ingredient carrageenan circled, explaining that anything a food producer wants to be creamy (including ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, salad dressing or even the head of foam on beer) contains a by-product of red algae, agar or algenic acid.

Algae is not only a source of fuel oil, but a source of omega 3 fatty acids, what most of us call fish oil.  The latest health supplement, derived from red algae, is astaxanthin (ast-a-zan-thin), a powerful anti-oxidant.

Cool Clear Water

When research on algae started in the Southwest, researchers were using highly saline aquifer water. The idea was to find environments in which the algae would survive. What has evolved it using algae to assist in water purification processes. AZCATI uses various waste water sources to test how algae absorbs nitrogen and phosphorous from effluent and gray water. Once the organism has eaten its fill, so to speak, it can be used for fertilizer. Sommerfeld hopes that in the future, farmers use and re-use algae as a soil amendment, cutting down on synthetic fertilizers that create unhealthy run-off.

In the Field

The AZCATI facility looks like any other office or classroom building, full of offices and labs, including a small room full of very technical-looking devices that Sommerfeld calls the million dollar room. We pass through areas where men and women in lab coats examine slides, and test tubes the size of packing cylinders bubble. This is where algae strains are identified and tested. Depending on the results, they get promoted to be tested outside.

Across the street behind a high fence are shallow pools in sizes small, medium and large equipped with paddlewheels to keep the algae moving and exposed to light. Farther back, in 50-foot rows, are panels approximately four feet tall and three inches wide, slim acrylic sandwiches full of bubbling fluid in various shades of green.  Once the algae appears nearly black, it’s ready to harvest and process further.  Not far away is a field lab where further testing is done.

And Beyond

AzCATI’s doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however.  Although the center is part of ASU, it is dedicated to serve as a place for research, testing and the eventual commercialization of algae-based products, providing open test and evaluation facilities for the algae industry and research community.  Sommerfeld explains that the goal is to have “universities, national labs, industries come here and collaborate with us and to, in a sense, build the innovation base that we need for an algae industry.”

Red Rock Magnetism

 

2008-01-14-Sedona-Panorama-1024x221

(Green Living Magazine, Sept. 2013 – greenlivingaz.com)

The first time I went to Sedona, I hiked Boynton Canyon, the site of one of the area’s four strongest vortexes.  At the overlook two-tenths of a mile off the main trail, back against the curve of a rock, tucked away, I watched as the Navajo sandstone flamed red and orange, shadows shifted and darkened then disappeared. I exhaled and closed my eyes and just sat in one place in that one moment and waited. I don’t know if there was a vortex or not or what that was supposed to feel like, but I do know that I sat and was present and allowed myself to be still, and was grateful to be reminded that the natural world feeds me.

On the surface, Sedona doesn’t appear the spiritual stronghold that nearly 4 million yearly visitors claim. The main street, State Highway 89A, is a series of roundabouts that alleviate traffic backed up at stoplights. Downtown, tee-shirt and tchotchke shops line the street, parking is scarce, and pink Jeeps filled with tourists intent on seeing the red rocks tool around. But Sedona boasts much more than the extremes of consumer culture and metaphysical mecca. Sedona, the Verde Valley and Oak Creek area offer a sampling of fun for the conscious traveler.

First stop: The Sedona Visitors Center at 331 Forest Road (corner of AZ State Highway 89A and Forest Road).  Keep in mind that Sedona is full of time share resorts that advertise visitor information on brown and white signs, usually with a fine print “Sponsored By” tag. A blue sign with white lettering indicates the official Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.  The center has the requisite brochures and maps as well as info about area hikes and campgrounds, state parks and the Red Rocks pass that will get you into other hiking areas. To start planning in advance, go to their site at visitsedona.com.

Sedona’s main attraction is its stunning red sandstone formations. Hiking trails criss-cross creeks and canyons. While the red rocks are stunning, Sedona has also attracted millions of people seeking healing or enlightenment for more than 60 years because of the unique energy from its vortexes, a term first used by Page Bryant, former Sedona resident and psychic.  Some say that this energy is swirling spiritual energy. Others explain that it’s magnetic, caused by the iron oxide coating the sandstone, but no scientific evidence supports this. For whatever reason, many who visit report feelings of ease, of healing, even a spiritual epiphany, after spending time at one of the several vortex sites. Myriad companies offer tours to these points, everything from strenuous hikes with an experienced guide, to yoga on the rocks, or a visit focused on healing and renewal. Smart phone apps are available that show trails and provide information about the vortexes, also.

Magnetic or not, Sedona has long attracted metaphysical practitioners: psychics, astrologists, shamans, alternative healers.  To weed through the plethora of consultants (including vortex guides) a good place to start looking is on sedonaspiritual.com, the site of the Sedona Metaphysical Spiritual Association. The group was formed to offer access to reputable practitioners.

Some of us, after a profound spiritual epiphany, just want to go have lunch. A vegan hot dog? Yes – a really good one. Stop by Simon’s Columbian Style Hot Dogs adjoining Oak Creek Brewery for a dog of gourmet proportions. Don’t let a long line or seemingly strange topping combination discourage you. Potato chips and mozzarella cheese combined with pineapple might sound strange, but somehow it works. Choose between meat, veggie or vegan dogs.

For dinner, venture out to Up the Creek Grill & Bar in Cornville, southwest of Sedona on North Page Springs Road, just off of  highway 89A.  Dedicated to offering farm-to-table cuisine, entrees change regularly depending on what ingredients are in season. Plan on spending some time out on the deck overlooking Oak Creek.

If you’re heading to Sedona for relaxing, consider lodging at a unique bed and breakfast. The Canyon Wren has cabins for one or two, direct private access to Oak Creek, and no TVs, telephones or cell phone coverage. Dream Maker Bed and Breakfast offers all electronic amenities, and also boasts a teepee for relaxation, a labyrinth for contemplative walks and a 30-foot star gazing platform.

Vinti-culture thrives in the area. Chino Valley, west of Sedona, is home to Granite Creek Vineyard. The winery claims to be one of the original in the area, and offers only organic wines. Tasting hours are generally Thursday through Sunday, with live music on Saturdays.

Despite initial appearances, Sedona is a singular destination for conscious travelers. Off the track, find the places that speak to you; revel in the energy; be fed by the natural world – and go home transformed.

Kangas and Wombats and Sheep, Oh My!

Merriwa is a pretty little town in the Upper Hunter Valley, founded in the early 19th Century, once a bustling center that provided services for agriculture in the area which was dominated by sheep and wool processing. The old depot next to the rail line that used to transport bales of wool and bushels of wheat to market was long defunct, but had been restored by devoted citizens, smartened up by fresh paint and flowers on the platform. The main street was lined with the typical small town businesses – a local bakery, a cafe that served flat whites and espressos and a visitors information center.
In Australia, just about every single little speck on the map has an info center where visitors can get free maps, brochures on accommodation, info on various area attractions, and so on. But the Merriwa center had a bit extra, Outside the center, attached to the side wall of the neighboring Iron Bark Cafe, a sculpture of corrugated steel depicting oxen pulling a cart full of wool bales to market. Inside, a huge room full of long tables placed end to end, displaying a nearly infinite variety of hand-made crafts. Quality: Excellent. Taste: Varied. Turned wooden bowls and lamp bases, felted wool, knitted sweaters and singlets and scarves and hats, beaded jewelry – and embroidery. Embroidered tea towels, hand towels, bath towels, finger-tip towels, baby bonnets, baby towels, crib bumpers, onesies, singlets, little girls’ dresses, stuffed animals, soft fabric books, boxer shorts, baby booties, blankets, table runners, place mats, napkin rings, baby quilts, face cloths, a lamp shade, gum boots, tuna cans … Okay, I didn’t see any gum boots. But there could have been. I kept moving, nervous that if I stood still, I was in danger of being embroidered.
On the other side of the expanse of crafts was a museum dedicated to the agricultural implements of days past. There was a collection of old tractors, of which I took several photographs for my father who collects models of these things and likes to go pet tractors in captivity across the U.S. There was also a model of a sheering platform, complete with some of the canvas bags that made up bales of wool, each one with a stamp unique to the station – sort of like the brands in the western U.S. I noticed that there weren’t any sort of interpretive placards for those of us who don’t know much about sheep shearing and wool processing. Maybe it’s just assumed that everybody in Australia does?
Once finished at the visitors center, we were off to visit friends of M. to have homemade pumpkin soup and see some marsupials that they happened to be nursing. They had three wombats – sizes small, medium and large – every one of them looking like they needed a pedicure. Serious claws. Two adolescent kangaroos were out on the back deck, and I was told that it was okay to go check them out. Skittish little things, but they probably thought I was a strange looking kangaroo.
There was another recuperating guest, but I didn’t notice him right away, even though I walked right by him. In the dining room, on the drawer pull of a hutch, hung a shopping bag – just a simple cloth shopping bag, the kind that grocery stores sell for a dollar or businesses give away as promotional items. The bag looked lumpy, like it was full of apples, or maybe potatoes. When I stepped back inside after visiting the two young ones out on the back deck, I could have sworn that the bag moved. Stopped in my tracks, I looked over at the nursemaids, who were looking at me.
Me: Did that just move? That bag?
She: Probably.
Me: Why did that just move?
She: Because there’s something in there.
Duh.
Me: What is the something that’s in there?
She walked over and gently removed the bag from the knob and carried it out to the deck. Sitting down in a chair, she pulled a wiggly something wrapped up in an old sweatshirt out onto her lap. Out popped a little ‘roo by the name of Jack. Turns out that the shopping bag and sweatshirt were a substitute for mama kanga’s pouch. This little one was an orphan with a dislocated foot – problematic for a species whose form of locomotion is hopping.
So I sat and watched this woman mother the little orphaned one, getting him a clean pouch, wrapping him up in a clean snuggly, and cleaning him up. He was suffering from thrush, a yeast infection, and while we talked, she just kept cleaning him and rubbing him. In humans, thrush is caused by an imbalance in the system that allows yeast to overcome the beneficial bacteria that keeps it in check; in baby ‘roos, it’s caused by stress. She pointed out that the younger an animal is when it’s found, the more immune-compromised it can be. The flip side is that young animals tend to be more trusting since they haven’t yet been entirely acclimated to the natural environment. Once Jack was cleaned up, yummies were served – in this case, colostrum, since baby kangaroos get colostrum the entire time they’re in the pouch, about 15 months.
As we chatted about wild critters and the care and feeding thereof, one of the nursemaids pointed out that you can buy a baby kangaroo or a wallaby dressed up in a little tutu in the U.S. the general tone of this comment was reproachful. Once again, I was put in the position of having to answer for my country. It’s a damn big country (yes, the Lower 48 alone are bigger than Australia, you guys) and I’m getting tired of having to answer for all the idiots over there. After all, I’m sure that there are NO idiots in Australia. And, when I hear things like that, I’m never sure if I am supposed to apologize or explain … or if the people relaying the information are saying it to show me how awful my country is: “Oh, good! Here’s an American! We can vent all our shit on her, tell her in an indirect way how much her country sucks!” Or maybe I’m just sensitive. I pointed out that it’s a good thing that I’m not one of those people, and that it’s sad that there are individuals all over the world who are intent on having wild animals as pets, whether they should or not. They had to conceded this point, and the conversation moved on to other topics.
I learned a bit from the surrogate ‘roo mum. For example, you can tell the health of a ‘roo by looking at the circumference of the base of its tail. It should be nice and thick. Female kangaroos can choose when to develop an embryo after they are fertilized.
(Digression Alert: Wouldn’t that be nice? Probably solve a lot of unwed mother issues in the U.S. Oh, wait. Then the religious right would be busy telling women when they could choose to develop an embryo. Or when to get fertilized in the first place. Oh, wait. The Catholic Church already does that. And they’d probably be saying that personhood starts at the moment of fertilization, even before the embryo or no embryo. Oh, wait, they already do that, too. Never mind. See? I can be critical of my country – but you can’t.)
Back to interesting kangaroo info. If a male kangaroo coughs when confronted by another male, it’s a sign of submission. Same if they’ve been fighting. A cough means “uncle.” When a male kangaroo fights, he not only boxes with his forelegs, but also leans back on his tail to kick with his hind legs. The sharpness of his claws and force of the blow can eviscerate his opponent. Some of these things I learned from a fascinating documentary called “Faces in the Mob.” (FYI: A bunch of kangaroos is called a mob.) The film was produced by the University of New England, one of the several schools in Armidale, NSW, where I spent time HelpEx-ing. For anyone planning a trip to Australia, it’s worth a look. Even if you’re not coming to Australia, it’s still worth viewing.
In general, most animals that end up in care have been injured by cars. Kangaroos jump out across the road much like deer do in North America. Wombats do the same thing, although sometimes they wander out because they’ve gone blind from mange. (Foxes, a non-native species, carry mange, next in wombat dens, wombats get infected and go blind, wander out on the road, and get hit. Mange can be treated, but since the wombat doesn’t develop immunity, it can get infected again.) M. stops to pull hit ‘roos off the road, and always checks to see if there’s a live joey that can be saved in the pouch. One night, I helped drag a big male off the road by his tail. I’ll admit, I didn’t want to touch it, but wanted to see it up close. Big guy. Heavy. I admit that M. did most of the work. Another night, she came back with a fetal joey that she found in the pouch of a dead female. It had died, too, a furless pink-skinned little alien thing.
We headed back to the stud to see if any other fat ladies had popped yet. In a few days, I would head off to Sydney to see if I could extend my visa and not have to leave the country every 90 days.

Bush Poetry Night with Carol Heuchan

NOTE: For some reason the wonderful upgrade that WordPress did recently has taken away my toolbar, so I don’t have the little button to add a link. I had several ready concerning Carol Heuchan, Claire Hayes, Waler horses, etc. I’ll try to add them in the future!)

One thing that my host M. truly understood was the “Exchange” part of Help Exchange. At every turn, I was brought along to visit friends, to attend functions, even to suggest events which I’d like to attend. In fact, when I got there, she already had an extra ticket to Bush Poetry Night with Carol Heuchan, and musical guest Claire Hayes. (By the way, this wasn’t purchased for me, per se – it was purchased for the current WWOOF-er or HelpEx-er.) Soup and damper (that’s a sort of bread roll) were served, as well as desserts, so attendees were instructed to bring their own beverages and nibbles.
The event was held Baerami Memorial School of Arts Hall, a country hall that stood at a crossroads a few kilometers from the stud. We had driven by it before – a white clapboard-sided building in a large, grassy lot. I grew up in Minnesota with this sort of gathering place. In the 1880s, when the Red River Valley was settled, gathering halls and one-room schoolhouses sprung up in every township. By the time I was growing up, many of them had fallen apart and been torn down, or abandoned. A few still existed though: big and square, concrete steps at the front door, wooden floors. Generally, they smelled rather musty and mousey. Usually there was a stage, and somewhere in a place of prominence a roll call of those who served in the military in World War I – sometimes both WWI and WWII, but most often WWI, because that, after all, was the war to end all wars.
This hall was similar enough to make me wonder why all of these people were speaking with a funny accent. Although it was only a single story and more rectangular than square, this hall possessed the requisite war honor roll on the back wall of the stage. Long tables stretched the length of the room, the smell of soup pervasive. We found our reserved seats – right up front – and unloaded the nosh. I was introduced to a woman sitting across from me, who was quite gregarious (read: loud) who asked me what I thought of Australia.
In Paul Theroux’s book, The Happy Isles of Oceania – Paddling the Pacific, he comments on Australians’ propensity to ask, “So what do you think of Australia?” Experience has taught me to regard this question with caution, largely because I find that I will have to justify my answer either way, most often when I respond positively. Although I hate to generalize, it seems that the Australian psyche has a chip on its shoulder. Humility in demeanor is highly prized. In fact, there is an Australian phenomenon called Tall Poppy Syndrome which describes how Austrlians who succeed on a global scale – and have extraordinary talent – are attacked or cut down with the blade of “who do they think they are?” because their achievements distinguish them from their countrymen.
When asked the inevitable question of my opinion of Oz, I encountered the contrary nature of the Aussie. If I responded positively, I very often got a criticism in return. “Oh, but look, it’s nothing like your country’s (fill in the blank).” This was often offered in a mournful way, maybe with an accusatory glance. If I responded negatively (i.e., “Everything here is at least twice as expensive as in the U.S. and your Internet services suck.”) I would get an agreement. Heaven help me if I ever say anything about relocating. Occasionally, I get a defensive posture, which usually includes something about how Australia is getting more like the U.S., a response which is not offered as a compliment, in which case I started getting a bit defensive, because I can make fun of my family, but you better not. At any rate, since the response has not been consistent, I’ve had to develop vague answers such as, “This country – so vast!” Sort of like when you haven’t read a book and answer, “The words. The words!”
This woman was not prepared to accept a vague answer, though, as much as I tried to respond in neutrally.
She: Where are you from?
Me: I live in America.
She: Well I know that! Where in America?
Me: I live in southern California right now.
She: Why would you want to move here? It’s beautiful there!
Me: Oh – have you been there? It’s beautiful when it’s not 118 degrees.
(Digression alert: That’s another thing I have found – when I tell Australians that I’ve been living in southern California, they can’t understand why I want to leave. I believe that it’s because their image of SoCal is formed by television programs that show glitz and beach, that’s the immediate image that comes to their minds. I’ve only met a couple people here who know that Palm Springs is sort of like living on the surface of the moon, with lots of golf courses.)
Blank look. They use centigrade.
Me: That’s 40 – 45.
She: Oh, well, it gets that way here, too. It’s really hot here in the summer. And flies are terrible. It’s awful. Where have you been so far?
Me: I’ve spent time in Sydney and Melbourne, and traveled a bit in the country.
She: Oh, I bet that’s been pretty different for you!
Me: Actually, I grew up in the country.
She: Nothing like this country, I bet. This is the real boonies!
Me: You think so?
She: Don’t you?
Me: It sounds like you do.
She: Well, what do you think?
Me: I think this country is vast – so vast!
And then the music started, so I turned towards the stage and didn’t look back.
The musician, Claire Hayes, had her CDs on display on the piano (a wooden, upright piano – required for country halls of this vintage). She was 40-50-ish and slender and wore high black boots with skinny jeans tucked in, immaculate short precision cut hair. Her vest featured the Australian flag in pieces on the front yokes so that if you buttoned it up, the flag would be whole. A rhythm/sample machine provided drum and strings and other accompaniment. Reminded me a bit of what I might see at a county fair state in the U.S. – Texas panhandle, Oklahoma. She sang an assortment of songs, most of which I didn’t know but the audience did and sang along at some points. Wait – I did know a couple of them: “Throw Another Log on the Fire” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down.” Seriously. Every single person in that hall was singing it. And here I thought that was just a goofy stereotype about Australia. Maybe it’s sort of like Americans singing “Oh, Susanna.”
Carol Heuchan is an award winning poet who writes poetry that rhymes, something that snotty MFA professors and students would ridicule. But here, it works. It not only works, but is celebrated. I can’t help but wonder what has she won – and from here? U.S.? Australia? She’s quite horsey, and has a long-time relationship with showing circles. She rides, teaches and even has been a judge. I had to give myself over to the experience, though, and understand that this is the entertainment. If I want Bell Shakespeare, then I have to go to Sydney or Melbourne – or even Bendigo. But this is what is available out here.
Carol is a 50-60-something woman slightly portly, strutting and mugging on stage, and playing the spoons along with Claire as she sang. Her books of poetry were displayed on the piano along with Ms. Hayes’ recordings; she had a couple of her own CDs on offer, too. The poetry was quite droll, except for the piece about the chestnut mare that was given to a soldier to fight in World War I. This poem referred to the 3rd Battle of Giza, when the Australian Mounted Division’s 4th Light Horse Brigade made what is sometimes called the last successful cavalry charge in history. Two regiments successfully overran Turkish trenches, galloping 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) into machine gun fire, equipped only with rifles and bayonets. Some of the front ranks fell, but most of the brigade broke through, their horses jumping the trenches into the enemy camp. The town of Beersheba and its vital water supplies were captured.
(Digression Alert: The Australians primarily rode Waler horses. The English cavalry officer, Lieutenant Colonel RMP Preston DSO, summed up the animals’ performance in his book, The Desert Mounted Corps: … (November 16th, 1917) The operations had now continued for 17 days practically without cessation, and a rest was absolutely necessary especially for the horses. Cavalry Division had covered nearly 170 miles … and their horses had been watered on an average of once in every 36 hours … The heat, too, had been intense and the short rations, 9 1⁄2 lb of grain per day without bulk food, had weakened them greatly. Indeed, the hardship endured by some horses was almost incredible. One of the batteries of the Australian Mounted Division had only been able to water its horses three times in the last nine days—the actual intervals being 68, 72 and 76 hours respectively. Yet this battery on its arrival had lost only eight horses from exhaustion, not counting those killed in action or evacuated wounded … The majority of horses in the Corps were Walers and there is no doubt that these hardy Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world …)
Because of Australia’s strict quarantine policies, returning the horses after the war was impossible. As a result, animals over the age of 12 or those in ill health were destroyed. About two-third of the rest were moved to other Imperial units. And most of the rest were destroyed by troops who could not bear to have their fellow soldier and faithful companion taken by the enemy. The poem tells the story of one soldier who chose to do that after the battle. I still get a big lump in my throat thinking about it. I think there were grown men weeping that night.
Ms. Heuchan finished up with a rap about cockroaches. When an Australian bush poet writes and performs a rap about cockroaches, it means that rap has either cemented itself in world consciousness as an art form, or become completely irrelevant. Clearly, she knows the show biz axiom of leave ’em laughing and wanting more.

What to Expect When Your (Horse is) Expecting

When I was a much younger person, I read all the James Heriott, the “All Creatures Great and Small” series. The books were non-fiction, true accounts of Herriott’s experiences as a veterinarian in Yorkshire in the early 20th century. His adventures slogging through mud, birthing foals and calves, sewing up sheep, dealing with an eccentric Lhasa Apso owner  and eating bacon consisting of nothing but fat (odd memory, I know) fascinated me and made me want to be a vet for whole days after I read each book.

But in the years that I was around horses (not that many) I never had anything to do with a birth.  That’s not to say that there weren’t any – in fact, my very first pony, Daisy May (my Grandpa named her) was born out of Molly Brown (who I actually remember being a bay, but I could be wrong) on our farm. I missed the whole thing, but remember seeing the afterbirth and the pony when she was brand new, all knock-kneed like a giraffe and pretty curious about things in general.  I think that Molly Brown was a quiet and steady mother, and I never felt like I was going to be trampled, although I was sort of cautious around horses then. I was never as horse-crazy as my sister who had all the Misty books, and “My Friend Flicka,” and “Black Beauty” (a personal favorite that I have on my bookshelf even today). She also had horse figurine collection. Morgan and Tennessee Walking Horses fascinated me, and I actually had a patch on my jean jacket that featured a Tennessee Walker. Later, I learned how those horses are taught their distinctive gate and reconsidered bugging my dad for one. I held out great hope for a Morgan, but ended up with a Pony of America, but more about that later.

The point here is that I never was present for a foal’s birth, even though there were a couple that took place on our farm.  Being on a brood mare agistment facility was going to change all that, I was sure, even though none of the fat ladies (as my host called them) was due until mid-August. I decided I was going to stay until at least one mare foaled, even if I had to contend with the feeling that I was always doing something wrong.

A funny thing about Thoroughbred’s birthdays.  All northern hemisphere thoroughbred horses have their birthday on January 1st. All southern hemisphere thoroughbred horses have their birthday on August 1st. This is regardless of their actual birthday, and is done to standardize age.

Consequently, the breeding season in Australia is scheduled so that mares are foaling as soon after Aug 1 as they can. Most are born in September as that generally takes care of any poor planning or mares not holding for the full term. As a result, August 1 is considered every Thoroughbred’s birthday, and those greetings are posted in the newspaper. The policy relates to being able to measure age accurately and tell if a yearling is really a yearling. In general, the foaling season in Australia is between August 1 and the end of October. A horse’s pregnancy is about 11 months, so you do the math about how soon mares go to stud again. In some cases, mares are bred weeks after. Talk about being barefoot and pregnant.

Breeding horses is a whole other thing to me. I had no idea about the procedures and vetting necessary to get a mare to delivery and get a healthy foal out of the deal. Sometimes, you just can’t. M. has had her losses along the way. Mares can get protective of their baby and accidently trample it when a vet or owner is trying to get to the foal. Some are breech, just like people, and don’t survive the delivery. Some die for no apparent reason shortly afterward.

(By the way, if you’re queasy about medical procedures, stop reading right now.)

And mares are submitted to any number of indignities along the way. A Caslick procedure is when a mare’s vulva is sewn together. This is done because sometimes fecal matter will get into the vagina and cause infection, which can cause either temporary or permanent infertility. The procedure, formally known as “Caslick’s repair” (since it was developed by a vet of the same name) is done for mares who have foaled a lot and have maybe stretched – or sometimes for mares that are large in the first place and suck air into the vagina when they trot or gallop, a thing known as “wind sucking.” Of course, once a small edge of the vulva has been cut away and sewn up, it heals over completely, which is good while they’re pregnant. But at some point the thing must be undone, otherwise the mare could foal and tear, which is not good. Sort of like getting an episiotomy for women. I’ve heard cases for and against each way. But with brood mares, that’s how it’s done.

Undoing the Caslick is a bit bloody. This is not a matter of taking out stitches, which I thought at first. Since the tissue is incised before its sewn, its completely healed over and must be cut. So undoing is sort of a misnomer, or an imprecise way of explaining what’s done. In reality, the vulva are cut apart again to open the vagina. It heals quickly, I guess, but there’s blood. The vet literally takes a scalpel and runs it down the vulva and separates them again. Of course, they look nothing like vulva anymore. It’s just tissue. It’s a little bit creepy and made me want to cross my legs.

(If you stopped up there, you can start here.)

There is a certain amount of a dispassionate response around here. I have to remember that this is animal husbandry. Horse breeding is a business. We had horses for pleasure  and showed them a bit, my brother and sister more than I. But this behavior of treating a living thing like a commodity was disturbing. Owning and breeding horses cannot be viewed romantically.

As the mares got closer to due dates, M. and I got out the monitor. This is a device much like a nursery monitor, only there’s a box that is attached to the horse’s halter (Sorry. Head collar.) that sends a signal if it is placed in a horizontal position.  If the mare lies down, presumably to give birth, the receiver monitor inside sounds with a tone that is impossible to sleep through, although M. told me that sometimes she ends up sleeping out in the living room where the receiver sits.  We tested each one by me walking to the far end of the paddock while M. used very confusing hand signals to indicate when I should turn the little box to a horizontal position and whether the monitor had sounded inside.  After much waving of arms and gnashing of teeth, she was satisfied that all but one worked, and we then attached them to the head collars and were on our way.

The only problem with this system is that sometimes horses lay down to go to sleep. Or roll around on the ground to scratch an itch, or just because they feel like it. Or rub their chins against the fence. So sometimes the monitor sounds and nothing is up. The procedure then is to turn the thing off, count to ten, and turn it on again. If starts beeping again, go out and check.

Finally, the evening came when the monitor went off and it was the real thing. Happily, it wasn’t 3 a.m., either, but the quite human hour of 6:30 p.m. M. went out to check, and shouted that the mare was in labor, so I went out to help. Watch, really. Once I was out there, M. raced back in to get her kit which consists of antiseptic spray (for the umbilical cord) and other stuff for birth-y events.

This is the part that makes all the other indignities and struggles worth it. And yes, just like in the “All Creatures” books, there are two tiny hooves and a little nose that can be seen through the sack and come out first. This little one had a white nose. While the mare strained, M. held on to the little one’s legs to keep it from slipping back in. And after a big push, there was a foal.

In the grand scale of things, it’s amazing that humans are still around at all. Despite the claim of greater intelligence (a fact which is debatable considering the current state of the world, but that’s another entry) humans take a long time to do things that animals do within minutes of being born. Once the foal had poked its nose out, it was immediately trying to figure out just how those long appendages worked. Mum was nickering at her baby (a girl – a filly) to get up and nurse. We stayed out there to make sure the foal was up, nursing, and had a poo. Of course, mum had to be attended to, as well, and moved to another paddock next door.

During the labor and birth there was another mare in the paddock trying to steal the foal. M. told me that the mare had lost her baby last year.  She didn’t understand that she would have her own in just a few weeks, poor thing. My job was to keep that one away from the mum and bub that were moving, however slowly, toward the gate and their private room.

Consider the fact that M. is doing this alone. A typical day during foaling season might look like this:

Midnight: monitor goes off. Get out of bed, get dressed, go out the paddock. False alarm.

1 a.m. – Monitor goes off again. Mare is now in labor.

2 a.m. – A foal is born, is up within half an hour, nursing, etc. Everything has gone right.

4 a.m. – After getting the umbilical cord cut, the after birth delivered, cleaning up the foal, making sure its nursing and that mum has accepted it and has had her drenching or injection of whatever she needs, you can walk in for a cup of tea because, since it’s late Winter/early Spring, you’re freezing your ass off and your hands are numb.

5 a.m. – Warmed up again, you clean up a bit and crawl into bed for a couple hours of sleep.

7 a.m. – Time to check on the mare and foal.

8 a.m. – It’s time to feed the whiny dogs, the squawking chickens, and pawing horses.

9:30 a.m – Time for breakfast.

10 a.m. – Start the work of the day, which might include a visit from the vet to undo Caslicks, or a delivery of another pregnant mare, or a visit from the equine dentist, or cleaning up a cut or hoof abscess or all of the above.

1 p.m. – Lunch.

2 p.m.  – After lunch, catch an hour or two of sleep.

4:30 p.m. – The monitor goes off. You turn it off for 10 seconds. It goes off again.

4:40 p.m. – You walk out to the paddock to check if there’s really a delivery in progress. There’s not. One of the mares is rolling.

And so on. And foaling season lasts for a couple months. And you are one person who has a part-time hired hand. And depend upon people who are either WWOOF-ers or HelpEx-ers and might know horses or might not and if they don’t they might not stay very long after they learn just enough to be helpful.

But she says it’s a good life.

St. Helena Farm, The Upper Hunter Valley, and Thoroughbred Studs

 

I’ve put off writing about the Hunter Valley because there’s so very much to relate. Not only did I stay on a Thoroughbred stud farm, but I learned about a part of Australia that has altered my perspective on the country. No place is perfect. This is why it’s important to visit more than once – to get beyond the idealized version of a place and have more perspective on what’s on offer.

Although I had traveled using the HelpExchange web site last time I was here, when I decided to return to Australia, my intention was to travel through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers On Organic Farms). WWOOF issues a print directory that lists all the farms in Australia looking for workers and a description of what they do and/or grow. Unfortunately, I’ve had difficulty getting in touch with these farmers and pinning down dates to visit.  It seems that WWOOF hosts don’t respond as quickly, nor are as easily selected. WWOOF does not have a user friendly web site, either.

Starting in June while I was still in Melbourne, I was in contact with the people on one particular farm in northern New South Wales in the area of Byron Bay. The description in the WWOOF directory read, in part:

“… Work includes all aspects of gardening, composting, landscaping, building projects, property maintenance, art projects. This is a new chapter in a 127 year old Australian farming family story. Be part of it! …”

Of course this attracted me because the land of my own family farm is now 129 years old, and I thought it would be great to compare experiences. A Mr. Martin McGettigan  was listed as the contact person at St. Helena farm in McLeod’s Shoot, NSW. I sent an email, and when I didn’t hear anything in a few days, I followed up with a phone call and left a voice mail. A day later, I received this text:

“Hi there! Howz going!?!? It’s Martin, I’d like to call u … when is good time?”

Exuberance is good.

I returned the text, and received a phone call in the next few hours.

“Kimbel! This iz Mahten! From Saint Heleena fahmstay heeah by Byron Baaay!”

Funny. This guy didn’t sound like a McGettigan. He sounded like Ahnohd Schwartzenegger.

Soon, I learned that Martin was not Martin McGettigan at all, but a farm manager who just happened to have the same first name and had been working for “the excellent Mahtin Mageddagan” for a couple years. Believe it or not, this Martin was from Germany, but T.E.M.M. had helped him with his English.

It was hard to nail down any details besides what was already printed in the WWOOF directory pertaining to general farm work and the need for a good work ethic, a mature attitude and a good sense of humor. I was ready to move along up the coast right after leaving Melbourne in June (something that didn’t quite happen) and Byron Bay is supposed to be a lovely location. And T.E.M.M. was currently out of the country, expected back the first week of July, but would need to get over his jet lag, before they could discuss their needs. So probably nothing available until the end of July. But we’d be in touch.

When I got to Armidale, I followed up with Mahtin, and got this text:

“Yep great ! Talk 2 u soon …”

A couple days later, I got a phone call.

“Kimbel! Mahtin at Saint Heleena! How ah you!?”

Me: Great Martin! Good to hear from you. Are you ready for a helper?

Martin: Oh, well, Mr. Maahtin Mageddagan is just back from overseas in America tomorrow and will be tired. We will talk in a week to discover how you might come to us.

Me: Okay. Do you think it will be the end of July?
Martin: Yep. Yep. End of July. Definitely.

Me: Should we set a date for me to come up?

Martin: Yep. End of July. Once Mr. Mahtin Mageddagan returns we will talk about you. I spoke with him on the phone and he was interested in you.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that one, but whatever.

Me: Great. That’s great. Where would I get off the train or bus? What’s the best way to get to you?
Martin: Yep. Yep. Oh, not the train. The bus.

Me: In Byron Bay?

Martin: Oh, no. Not Byron Bay. Maybe Casino. No, Byron Bay. You can stay in Byron Bay and come out to visit us.

Me: You don’t a place for helpers to stay? Do I need to stay in Byron Bay?

Martin: Oh, yes. We need to plant a vegetable garden.

Me: Shall we set a date for me to come up?

Martin: Yes, Martin Mageddagan will be excited to see you.

Me: Okay. How about the 20th? The 25th?

Martin: Oh, no, Mahtin Mageddagan will not be back until the 10th and then must rest. Then we’ll talk about you.

Mahtin and I had a couple more conversations along those lines and then I gave up.

Instead, I’ve depended upon HelpExchange again, the program that I used last year.  The web site is easy to use, the descriptions of places are clear, and one can post reviews of hosts – and read other reviews. As a HelpEx-er, I can be reviewed, as well, so that hosts see that I’m not a complete flake.

So for the next location, I decided to please myself and found a Thoroughbred stud at Sandy Hollow, NSW in the upper Hunter Valley. Turns out that it’s difficult to get up the coast from Armidale without doing a whole lot of backtracking, sometimes all the way to Sydney again, then up north and east. So I decided to do the simple thing and head back the way I came. Unfortunately, I waited a little too long and ended up not being able to book a ticket due to a full train. As luck would have it, K. and her daughter R. were driving right through Muswellbrook where my new host could retrieve me.

Armidale is surrounded by orchards, and R. and I stopped on the way out. I loaded up on Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples, Packham and red Anjou pears, and more to bring to my new host.  We had a little delay getting underway since we had to stop at the orchard and then stop in Tamworth to get K. who had been seeing clients that day. Then, we had to make sure that P’s truck was set up at the place it would be displayed for sale. Then, we had to make sure everybody’s things fit in to the truck we were driving, since R. had a load of things for her new Sydney digs, and K. had things along for her week-long stay there, and I, of course, had my two bags as well. I made good friends with the door and steadied the pile in the back seat when we rounded sharp corners. The only mishap along the way was running out of gas in Scone, just 20 minutes out of Muswellbrook.   By the time a nice person stopped, took K. to the gas station, went home and got a gas can, then brought her back, we had been sitting for an hour, which put us late into Muswellbrook, and left my host sitting in the Hungry Jack parking lot for quite awhile.

On the road to Sandy Hollow, I saw my very first open-cut coal mine. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I thought I was perhaps a football game under bright lights, because the only other place I had seen lights that bright were at football or baseball stadiums.  My host said it looked like Mordor. I agreed. That I could only catch glimpses of what was on the other side of the strategically planted trees added to the creep factor. There were lights. And there was machinery moving around – very large machinery – and there was a pit. A deep, deep pit. A shockingly deep pit that absorbed all the high wattage lighting. M. remarked that the mines run 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, 366 days a year. Don’t even close on Christmas Day.

Her property is about half an hour from the mine. She pointed out that it had been larger until a flood took a bridge out and a new road was built and bisected it. Periodically, the river sneaks up and bites off a bit, as well, so a couple paddocks have shrunk. But in all, it’s about 135 acres that contains a house, stable, hay shed, various pens, yard and paddocks, as well as a loading and vetting area. M. owns seven mares, has about a dozen yearlings (the kids) and there are various pregnant or dry mares that come and go depending upon the owners’ needs. The facility is referred to as a stud farm, which is a little misleading since she hasn’t had stallions on the property for years. (But she once had three serving mares.) But a “stud” is a general term that refers to not only the facilities that have stallions standing, but also those who offer broodmare agistment.   Besides the horses, there were also two cows, Pippi Longstocking and Mrs. Grey, who were also pregnant. I couldn’t help but wonder as we pulled in the drive if horses get all hormonal and emotional when they’re pregnant, just like humans. Do their boobs hurt? Do they feel like crying a lot? Tired all the time? Just wondered. I never did ask the questions.

It’s funny, because M. says that she is not maternal at all – with the exception of her own children. I pointed out that she is now a mid-wife of sorts, and that her nursing experience serves her well. She didn’t disagree. But didn’t agree, either.

I grew up with horses, and the main reason I accepted P. and K.’s invitation to come up to Armidale and pursued M.’s place in Sandy Hollow was just to be around them, and possibly ride them. As it turned out, the weather didn’t cooperate when I was in Armidale, so we didn’t get to ride. And at River Ridge, there weren’t any horses that I could ride, anyway, something that M. made clear before I went. That was fine.

What I didn’t anticipate was the re-learning. I don’t know what I thought – it just didn’t occur to me that I might not be confident around horses any longer. And these horses – Thoroughbreds – aren’t like the steady American Quarter Horses that I grew up around. Quarter Horses were bred to be fast (quarter mile racing), they also were developed to work cattle. Thoroughbreds are bred to run. Run fast. For longer distances. And while we had some big horses come and go through the family farm, these ponies are long-legged and long-bodied. Again, they are supposed to run fast. Really fast.  And they do. Even when they’re pregnant. Don’t think for a minute that that slows them down a whole lot.

Many of you have heard of the Horse Whisperer – at least, you have heard about the book and the movie. There really is a horse whisperer, and his name is Buck Branaman. He presents clinics and classes, training people how to train horses.  Watching a documentary about him called “Buck,” I finally heard the explanation that made me understand horses and their horsey behavior.  Horses are herd animals, so they function as a group. But more importantly, they are prey animals. The first thing that humans do to horses is present leather things (that smell like an animal) to put on them, and put a large, heavy thing on their back (a saddle, also made out of animal skin) exactly where a predator would leap on them. And then, we get on top of them. Just like a predator would. And we hold their heads so that they can’t run, and running is their best defense against predators. Watching these animals at River Ridge illustrated everything that Branaman said.

Brood mares are different than your average pleasure horse. Besides the fact that the Thoroughbred is a singular breed, many brood mares are never saddle broke. In general, they have to be halter broken, if for no other reason than to lead them up to sale. But in many cases, these females never race. They might have conformation flaws, or have good conformation but are slow. Or maybe they haven’t been handled a lot and never taught good manners, so of course it’s a great idea to get them bred, which means that they’ll be poked with needles and have their privates prodded by vets a lot, and that’s sure to improve a gal’s temperament.

The first thing you do with a horse in the morning is feed it. I was relieved that mornings there didn’t start as early as they did when I was growing up. B., the part-time hired man arrived around 7:30. He and M. would have a cuppa (as they say here) and plan out the day. M. had warned me that Plan A might become Plan B and Plan Z (or rather, zed) by the end of the day, so this daily con-fab was important.  Moving horses to different paddocks, moving the cows to different paddocks, planning for a vet’s visit, or the ferriers visit, or the dentist’s visit, or going to pick up some mares a few hours away, or sorting out rugs (that’s a big horse blanket) or scooping poo out of pens or yards or cleaning up the vet area or untangling manes (did you know that vegetable oil spray works great for that?) or any number of things. B. was in charge of the big stuff, like filling feed bins, hauling hay, repairing water lines, preparing irrigation pipes, all that. I generally followed along and did as I was told. Or tried to do as I was told. Or did what I thought I had just been told. At times, the language barrier got in the way (pronunciation, vowel sounds, terminology – i.e., go get a head collar – what’s a head collar? – this! – oh … a halter – no, this is a halter – wait, aren’t those the same thing? – No.  – Um… okay.)

A couple days after I arrived, M. had to go to Sydney and I was left in charge. Right. Essentially, being in charge for meant that I fed the horses and kept an eye on them, and had key telephone numbers available just in case anything looked fishy.  Or horsey. Or something. True to form, the morning that M. left, I walked out to feed a mare who, the day before, had started to trash her rug. Well, she had finished the job – the thing was torn and hanging on her in pieces. She was oddly still, and I thought she looked like she was standing funny (peculiar) and sure as shit, she had a lovely laceration on her hind leg, crusty and bloody complete with a ribbon of flesh peeled back. My first thought: “Oh, I can get that rug off of her. I’ll just …” and the second thought : “Oh, I’m going to run like hell toward the house and pray that M. hasn’t left yet so that she can deal with this.”

The second choice was the right one, because I came to find out that this particular mare did not like to be caught, and didn’t much like wearing a rug, and was generally a little bit onnrey, as we said in Missouri. M. was able to get the rug off of her, and slap a little goo on the wound, which I was to check and re-goo in the evening.

I am constantly amazed by the people who are HelpX and WWOOF hosts, and the faith that they place in people who are complete strangers. M. had known me what – 3 days? – before she left me on the farm by myself with a couple dozen horses. Granted, I had the vet’s telephone number (which I ended up using – another mare presented herself with a hoof abscess) and B.’s number, and the number of the couple who ran the art gallery/coffee shop up the road, and, and, and. Still. I guess this goes back to what J. and M. in Bendigo and I talked about – 99 percent of people are exactly what they appear to be. M. is less optimistic and dropped that percentage to 90, but I still say 99.

M. returned from Sydney, and all was relatively well at the farm. One mare with a gooey hind leg, one mare with a bandaged abscess, the rest just fine and dandy and another one nearly ready to pop.

More about that to come.