Sunday, February 08, 2015

Pablo's Gift

"What is vegan?", he asked after a long pause.
He was calling the sanctuary hoping to find a home for the chickens he had been ordered to dump in the woods. The birds were deemed "too old for the pot", too "stupid" to keep as pets, and too "ugly" to use as yard decoration, so the ranch owner decided to use them as coyote bait instead. 

It was not something Pablo wanted to do but he feared that openly refusing to harm the chickens would not only jeopardize his already tenuous job as a handyman at the ranch where he worked in exchange for a room to crash in and a meager pay to live on, but it would also prevent him from finding a way to protect the birds. So he kept putting off the grim task, using every excuse he could think of to buy time for the condemned chickens, while he secretly searched for a safe home for them.  

But time was running out and, with no internet access, no family or friends to call on for help, and under explicit threat of being fired, he found himself forced to appease his increasingly irate boss with a show of partial compliance: he resolved to take only one chicken into the woods that night, promising he would return in the morning to catch and dispatch the others.  

And that's how it all began, one frigid winter night when Pablo was forced to decide which of the six innocents would die. Under his boss' watchful eyes, he took the one bird who was easiest to catch -- the black rooster who was the least afraid, the one who was the most confident and talkative of the six, the one who was always patrolling the edge of the huddle that his family, frightened and suspicious of humans, often clustered in for protection. The bird who had taken a special interest in Pablo, keeping him company when he worked around the coop, allowing him closer to his family than anyone else, and offering a constant stream of comments and observations in sounds whose meaning the man  did not understand but whose substance he recognized as trust.   

The rooster did not move when Pablo entered the yard. He just stood there, as if waiting for a friend, and he didn't protest when the man picked him up, held him, tucked him in his jacket and carried him away. He was not afraid, this fragile bird, he trusted the gentle human whose proximity he had welcomed in the past, and whom he always greeted with a high pitched purr, a unique sound reserved just for Pablo: his "name" for this man.  

The walk from the coop to the truck was the longest 30 yards of Pablo's life. He didn't want to think of what he was about to do, he didn't want to feel his own sadness, or imagine the despair that would soon engulf the doomed rooster, he just wanted to get the dreaded task over with as quickly as possible, hoping that the pain of harming this defenseless soul would be brief, that the memory of his dark deed would fade soon after the job was done, and that the "sacrifice" of one bird would buy him time to save the others. 


He drove the rooster far into the woods, set him on frozen ground and left him there. He didn't linger as night fell, didn't look back, didn't want to think of the next hours, or perhaps days, in the hapless bird's life. He just hurried back to his truck and sped back to the ranch as if fleeing a nightmare.   

But the nightmare followed him home. Back in his room, Pablo couldn't stop thinking about the rooster. He was worried, he was sad, he was ashamed. The bird's eyes haunted him, what he had done to this fellow being haunted him. He imagined the bird shivering in the bitter cold, frozen in fear, blind and helpless in the utter darkness, screaming in terror as powerful jaws crushed his bones, as he flapped his broken wings in a last, desperate effort to fly away, as his bloody feathers covered the ground like the leaves of a strange tree.   

Everything Pablo had refused to see and feel as he took the rooster to his death earlier that evening, was now rushing back into his mind with haunting, unrelenting precision. He remembered every detail of the rooster's being. The warmth of the bird's chest against his, the living current of his breath as he huddled inside his jacket, the brave drum of his heart, the deep pools of his eyes, the unbearable gift of his trust. By midnight, Pablo jumped out of bed, grabbed a warm jacket and a flashlight, and drove back to the woods. Even if the bird was going to be killed at the ranch, Pablo could not, would not, be the agent of his death.


He searched everywhere, looked up and around every tree, reached under the thorny crown of every bush and shrub in the area where he had abandoned the bird, called out in soft whistles and gentle words, and then waited silently for the faintest stir, the faintest sign of life. But there was no response. At dawn, Pablo abandoned the search and drove back to the work site claiming he was there to "finish the job" but in reality planning to gather the remaining chickens and hide them somewhere until he could find a refuge for them (where? for how long? He did not know, but he knew he could not abandon them).   

Bleary-eyed, ragged, exhausted, Pablo thought he was dreaming when he saw the black rooster standing in front of the coop. And when he heard that high pitched purr, that sweet trill that was the rooster's name for him, it brought him to his knees, not because the call was uttered in anger or recrimination but because -- unbearably -- it was voiced in joy, in friendship, in forgiveness, and in trust. There he was, this brave bird, standing in front of him like a small earthly miracle, like a prophet of life.   

It was at that very moment that a ranch visitor Pablo had never seen before stopped by to chat and, in the course of their casual conversation, she mentioned Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary.   

Pablo called the sanctuary right away and left a long message explaining the situation in tones of great urgency. When we finally connected, we agreed to take the birds and bring them to safety. We talked at length. He lives from paycheck to paycheck (when and if he can find work), his bright mind was never given the academic stimulation it craved, he didn't have a home to call his own, he scraped a living working at remote sites that offered a room to crash in and a menial pay. He is a genuinely kind, strong, and fair-minded person.  

When the details of rescuing and transporting the chickens were finally in place, he had only one question: "What is vegan?" He explained that he had first heard the word on our answering machine and was wondering what it meant. In conversation, we conveyed that being vegan means living one's life without depriving others of theirs. It means not only having the understanding that harming others is wrong, but acting on that understanding by refusing to harm ALL animals, not just the ones we meet face to face, but the ones we never get to see, the invisible ones who are bred and butchered for products none of us needs.

He listened with an open mind, free of prejudice and defensiveness. We offered abundant information, resources, immediate help and support as well as the assurance of future help and support during his transition to veganism. Before he hung up, he added in a soft voice, as if talking to himself: "I think I've always been a vegan at heart, but now I will be vegan in real life. I've always loved animals but I never knew I could live without hurting them for food and other things. Now I know. Thank you."   

Pablo has since expressed a desire to rescue as many of the animals captive at the ranch as possible. He has read all of the literature we provided and is hungry for more. He said that the day he saw the rooster -- now named Pablo in honor of the man who saved his life and who, in the process, dared to reclaim his own -- when he saw Pablo standing in front of the coop after having miraculously survived the freezing cold and the all-engulfing darkness, it was like seeing a road sign that pointed the way out of the woods, out of the cold, out of the darkness. THIS WAY, it said. And he followed.  

The six chickens are now safe, loved, and free to fulfill their lives at Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary. They still huddle in their little family clutch, and they still keep to themselves in the corner of the yard they claimed as their own. And Pablo rooster is still protecting them from everyone -- from visiting sparrows and fellow chickens, to wondering sheep, goats, pigs, cows, and llamas. But they are a very happy family, a very harmonious group, these three "broiler" hens and their three "laying breed" roosters. They are gentle, and patient with one another, and the hens struggle to nurture everyone in their family despite the burden of living in bodies that are killing them.*  

Pablo, the man, is free now, too. Free from prejudice and denial, free from the soul-killing practice of violence. Free to heal his own heart, to act on his own deeply held values of justice and compassion, free to follow the road back to his own true humanity, a road that started with one simple act of conscience. A conscience is all it takes to be vegan, after all. Doing the right thing takes no special skills, no special resources, no special privileges or support. Just a conscience and the will to act on it. 

Joanna Lucas
© 2015 Joanna Lucas


* "Broiler" chickens are bred to grow morbidly large, morbidly fast in order to reach "slaughter weight" by the age of 6 weeks. As a result, they are doomed to suffer crippling diseases of the heart, lungs, and bones.
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.   

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Dreams of the Heart

She knew he was there, waiting in the dark outside her barn. She could smell the prairie on his skin, and all the tantalizing grasses of distant fields clinging to his hooves. At first light, when the earth turned its dark face toward the sun, he was still standing there, waiting for her—a prodigal presence, teeming with all the strength and splendor of summer. She scrambled to her feet and teetered out of the barn with an almost spring in her rusty step, as if she had never needed our help just to get up, just to stand, just to put foot before foot, and she rushed—as much as an elderly, arthritic ewe can rush—to greet her estranged boy. Frank. 
When he was rescued from a neighboring "family farm" the year before—a skinny, scared, motherless calf—he was almost catatonic. No one could touch him, no one could reach him. He avoided contact with everyone, of any species, acting as though he was, or wanted to be, invisible. And it was poignant that the only being he trusted and bonded with at first was someone who could not see him—Pierre, the blind calf, Pierre the outsider, Pierre the oddball to everyone except elderly Louise, Louise who embraced him, the way she had embraced every other orphaned soul—without hesitation, like the good mother she knew the child needed, and who, later, opened her heart and her barn to Pierre's new friend, Frank.

But, if Pierre was still her adult child who adored her with all the passion of a vulnerable, lonely heart, and if, a year later, he was still leaving his cattle tribe every night to sleep next to his adoptive mother in the sheep barn, Frank had grown into an independent and confident young steer who loved to wander and whom Louise hardly saw any more. He stopped by her barn only long enough to collect Pierre and lead him on their daily treks, but she was too old and arthritic to follow them or to venture out of the yard at all any more. In the past few weeks, she was barely able to walk unsupported and, even with our support, and even with the best treatment received around the clock, she still wobbled and shuddered with every step, her feeble frame trembling with the effort, her arthritic joints aching in protest.

But today she almost strutted out of the barn. She walked into the yard with a bounce in her step, and a twinkle in her eye, and a flutter in her being: Her boy Frank was there, waiting for her, walking next to her, syncing his sturdy steps to her brittle ones, breathing the solace of his presence into her pores, licking the pain away from her sore shoulders, and carrying the promise of something wonderful in gaze, voice, touch, and being.
At first we worried that, in his heft and his youth, he might accidentally hurt her with one playful swing of his head. But he was so careful, so restrained, so clearly aware of her vulnerability, so deliberately gentle, and so precise in the way he ministered his tenderness, that we trusted she'd be safe with him. And Louise was so happy, almost giddy, that we wouldn't have had the heart to separate them anyway.

Frank's company enlivened her, it emboldened her to venture out of her yard for the first time in months, and they soon set off together, a frail old ewe, bent to the earth by time and illness, and a hulking young steer crackling with the endless summer of his youth. They were a site to behold, Louise, with her spindly legs and reed-thin neck and rheumy eyes, walking in slow, creaky motion, next to her giant adopted boy. She wheezed, stuttered and shuddered with every step, lifting her legs with exaggerated care, as if stepping over invisible obstacles, setting each foot down with a thud that sent a quiver in her fragile frame, but she kept walking, leaning against Frank's ample side and trusting that he would get her to her destination. Because, we soon realized, she wasn't just out strolling with her prodigal boy on a lush summer day, she had a specific destination in mind. Or several.

Her first port of call was Simon, her oldest friend, the gander she knew from the bad old days on the farm when he sought solace in her company after his life partner was butchered, when he crawled to her side, mute with grief, and she cradled him in the crook of her neck as if he was the child she had just lost in the name of "lamb roast". They stuck together all those years of being used as "breeding stock", and they helped each other bear the anguish and the despair of losing love, in the only way hopeless creatures can: not by hoping for an impossible release, but by helping each other endure.

Yet that impossible dream of a release did come true and, when, against their wildest hopes, they did find Sanctuary and, with it, the freedom to become, they evolved in ways that set them on separate paths. Louise, whose mobility was already restricted by complications following multiple pregnancies, births and bereavements, kept mostly to the sheep yard where she found joy and purpose in caring for a seemingly endless procession of orphans and outcasts and where, in the past year, she had been anchored not only by old age and arthritis but also by her love for a grown orphan who still needed the sustenance of mother love: Pierre, the blind calf. And, for his part, Simon had build his new life around his partners, Cheryl and Carol, whom he cherished and whose gifts and demands pulled him away from everyone and everything that was not them. He lived in his loves' gravitational pull and could not bear to lose sight of them, much less be physically separated from them.

Today, Louise made it only halfway to Simon's pad before her weary bones demanded a break. Exhausted, she lied down next to Frank and waited for her breath to settle and her step to steady before continuing on. At a seemingly impossible distance, her friend and his partners were enjoying their midmorning swim, splashing and thrashing with wild abandon. It might have taken Louise hours to get there but Simon caught sight of her and did something unprecedented in his life at the Sanctuary: he left his loves unattended and walked over to visit his old friend. Their new life paths may have diverged but their old bond, and its treasure of soul, had remained intact. Simon waddled over to the spot where Louise was resting, approaching in his usual way: honking, hooting and hollering, puffing his chest and craning his neck in a gesture of supreme self-confidence. And Louise welcomed him in her usual way, too: smiling with her whole body, her chocolate curls brightening to amber, the rasp in her voice softening to silk. Simon swayed silently for a while, stepping in place as if waiting for a marching order, then he lowered his head and waved the wand of his neck along Louise's spine, as if dowsing for water—the deep waters of her being, the deep river of her life that was now nearing the ocean. There was immense tenderness in his caress, there was also sadness, and worry, and something else, too, a reverence, a salute, a valediction.

When he left, summoned by his loves, called back to the fullness of his life and its seemingly endless future, he was uncharacteristically quiet. This gander whose every appearance was a pageant, whose every stroll was a parade, whose every utterance was an aria, walked away with small, quiet steps, a silent syrinx, a listening heart, and the glow of a new knowledge in his being.
At midday, when Louise acted eager to move on, we helped her to her feet and supported her as she teetered over to her next destination: Sven, the recluse gander who chased away everyone except Louise, the gander whose solitary fortress was closed to everyone but her. It was a lot quieter there, in Sven's country, and a lot more secluded. No one was splashing in a nearby pool, no one was squabbling over treats in a nearby barn, no one was wrestling empty wheelbarrows for the sheer merriment of it. It was just Sven and Louise, with Frank at a respectful distance, sharing the gift of a late summer afternoon. Louise, resting in the grass, and Sven waddling slowly around her, preening the galaxies of alfalfa bits off her face and forehead, lingering on the tender spots around her eyes and ears, showering her with the balm of his goose kisses, the way he had done so many times before. And Louise closed her eyes with such blissful abandon, and entrusted her vulnerable being to him so completely, as if his offering was not a mere preening but a benediction. She stayed there until supper, resting with Sven in the middle of the ecstatically surrendering summer day, surrounded by the rapturous chirping of crickets and the symphonic rustling of grasses, absorbing the prodigal dreams of seeds waiting to become trees, and the stillness of roots dreaming in their underground shrouds of coming to bloom on the other side.

It was almost dusk when she signaled that she was ready to go home. We helped her get up and supported her all the way back, stopping every so often to let her catch her breath. Back in her yard, Louise drank deeply and ate heartily before savoring her nightly "dessert" of treat-wrapped medicines. Then she headed back to her barn where Pierre was already waiting for her. The light was dimming, the earth was slowly turning its face away from the sun. She was tired to the core, but she was glowing. She had seen all of her boys that day: Simon, once a sobbing mess who sought solace in her presence, was now passionately involved in the work of living and loving. Sven, lovely Sven, who understood loneliness (and loveliness) better than anyone else, who opened his home and his heart only to her, and who changed in her presence "the way a house that a guest has entered changes". Frank, her beautiful boy, her prodigal boy, who grew so robustly independent, changing from the frightened young calf who clung to her and refused to leave the sheep yard because she could not, to the vibrant youngster who advanced so boldly toward his future. And Pierre, vulnerable Pierre, who needed her still, who left his tribe every night to sleep next to her, to absorb the sustenance of her love, and to wake up every morning to the reassurance that he still had a mother. Pierre was the reason she was still around despite her growing burdens of age and illness. Pierre, who was now waiting for her to join him before he could sleep. He was her heart and her worry. 

She teetered into the barn and cuddled him as she had done so many nights before, drawing the substance of his fears into her being, and exhaling the substance of her hope into his. She kissed his sleepy eyes, rested her chin on his head, slowed her breath to steady his, stilled her heart to quiet his, and breathed all her love into his worried soul: that it may make him stronger, that it may sustain him on his long, lonely journey ahead, that it may turn the dark heart of the world toward the sun. And then she closed her eyes to dream with him one last time.

Joanna Lucas
© 2013 Joanna Lucas
Louise died in her sleep that night. We miss her desperately but we are comforted by the knowledge that she died in peace and in love, and that she went entirely on her own terms, not ours.
Please help Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary continue to help individuals like Louise. Make a tax-deductible donation to our life saving work.

If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.  

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Seeing for Two

If his mother could see him now—her beloved boy, alive and well, and cherished, in a land of love and plenty. If she could see the way he sauntered out of the rescue trailer, swift and surefooted as a deer, the way he glided into this welcoming world as if he recognized it, as if he remembered its essence of love and fairness. If she could see the way the new world embraced her son, with such warmth and benevolence, the way it opened its arms to him and promised everything she had fought so desperately—and failed so bitterly—to secure for him: the peace to live, the freedom to flourish.

Last time she saw him, it was the dead of December. He was two days old—a thumb of a child wobbling around on impossibly long legs, casting the light of his enormous eyes on the dark world that had replaced the perfect promise of the womb, and suckling her with such avid hunger, such astonished gulps, such joyous urgency, as if drinking not the mere milk of a mortal mother, but life itself.

He was sleeping and hiccuping in his full-bellied dreams when the men came to take him away. She charged them even before they walked into her pen. She stomped, she kicked, she bellowed her terrible threats and terrors, her mighty fears and furies, her pitiful pleas and supplications, all in one anguished breath, she put her battered body between her infant and his attackers, she struggled frantically to protect him, to keep him out of harm's way, to simply keep him, and give him the love, the peace, the goodness she had never known. They took him anyway.

One man sidled in the back of the stall while the other tormented her with an electric prod and, a moment later, her baby was gone, and she was alone again with the wound of a mother's worst loss, and the unbearable experience of being forced to fail, once again, in the only way that mattered to her: to protect her child.

Six months later, she is still making sweet milk for her lost boy, and every drop of it is still being plundered by humans. She is pregnant again, with another rape child who will be torn from her shortly after birth—to be killed, if he's a boy, or forced into a life of misery, if she's a girl. She will never get to nurse, nurture, and watch any of them grow. But one found his way to freedom.

If she could see him now, with Spring on his breath, and endless plains opening underfoot, and a community of free beings to belong to, and a whole life to live, love, and flourish. He is exactly where his mother desperately wished him to be, in a peaceful world that, even though she has never seen with her own eyes, she saw, even more clearly and powerfully, with her heart when her son was born, she felt it in the way any mother would—as the burning certainty that peace was necessary and essential for her baby's survival—and, for a day, the glow of that heart's vision was more real to her, and more solid, than the bone-crushing burden of her bitter existence.

She, who had known nothing but anguish, abuse and deprivation, felt with the clarity of love, that another world was not only possible, it was as real as her baby's life, indeed, it was necessary for her baby to live. She felt this other world in her own fervent determination that her son be safe, be free, be loved. And that fierce imperative to protect and provide for her baby, to create—by the power of her own body and soul—the haven where her child would be safe and loved, was the closest she ever got to the vegan world, the sanctuary, that her only surviving son was entering now, on Mother's Day, a day when her tormentors celebrate motherhood.

If she could see him now—her nub of a child, grown into a tall, lanky boy: Clifford!— strutting around on impossibly long legs, casting the light of his enormous eyes on the radiant world that has replaced the dark betrayal of the dairy farm, and drinking in its perfect promise with such avid hunger, such astonished gulps, such joyous urgency, as if living—and seeing—for two. 

Click for more pictures of Clifford

Joanna Lucas
© 2013 Joanna Lucas
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.  

Friday, March 15, 2013

Prairie Potpourri

If They Dream It, It Will Come  March 15, 2013
It's Sunday morning and the entire Sanctuary is abuzz with silent expectation. The produce truck is due to arrive, and that electrifying moment when it drives through the Sanctuary gates, parks in the open filed, and begins to spill its edible delights in a tumbling riot of scents, textures, colors and tastes, is anticipated with barely contained enthusiasm.

If, at all other times, the residents' focus, attention and activity is divided by interests, groups, friendships, rivalries, etc, on Sunday morning, everyone comes together in the work of waiting, wishing, wanting, and almost tasting the luscious treat to come, as if the sheer force of their collective yearning could summon it into existence. The goats pace up and down the fence that runs along the road, craning their necks, listening to faraway sounds, gazing intently into the distance, the cows gather in silent vigil at the end of the driveway, and the younger pigs and sheep camp out in the middle of the "feast" area (known as "dirt" on any other day of the week, and treated as such), while the elderly pigs and sheep keep an eager eye on the road from the comfort of their barns. The geese and ducks steer their families to the feast area, advancing as families do, in spurts and sputters, starts and stops, delays and detours, allowing ample time for the speed and quirks or each member. The chickens alternate between wistfully scanning the horizon and vigorously pecking the ground where the treats will soon be spilled, as if calling them forth from dry dirt, while the turkeys circle the area like giant terrestrial hawks, alert to every sound, and already giving visual expression to the festive occasion with their dazzling celebration gear. The llamas huddle in a tight hug at the far end of the driveway, leaning their collective person against the gate—23 hearts and minds feeling and thinking as one, 46 ears swiveling in perfect sync, 92 feet tapping in perfect unison—looking so wraith-like on the stilts of their legs, yet so solidly grounded in that spot by the shared anticipation, and yearning, and dreaming of the good thing to come.

And then it happens! The moment they've all been waiting for. The produce truck comes barreling down the road, the Sanctuary gates open, the truck drives through, and the animals stampede towards it, swarming and greeting it with such enthusiasm that you can almost hear them cheer. They flock around the back of the truck, pacing in place, sniffing the air, closing their eyes the better to savor the intoxicating scents, and voicing their joy in every language spoken at the sanctuary—from chicken, duck, goose, turkey, peahen, cow, pig, goat, sheep, and llama, to the occasional phrase of cat, human, mouse and sparrow—chanting their anticipation and their hunger for the good thing that the Sunday feast promises, delivers and represents in their lives.

When the feast finally begins in earnest, a dense silence descends on the sanctuary. For the first few minutes, all you hear is the steady rhythm of chewing and swallowing punctuated by the occasional grunt of appreciation or foot-tap of delight. There's so much to enjoy, so many pleasures and treasures to relish, so many new tastes to sample, and so many familiar tastes to greet, so many new combinations of old and new delights to savor, that five senses aren't enough to take all this bounty in. Sometimes it becomes necessary to touch the taste of strawberries with your entire body, rolling in them like Lucas, or to hear the taste of bananas, like Pierre, who relishes the popping sound of their skins cracking open.

But, as intense as the pleasure of eating is, it isn't what makes the Sunday feast so unique or so eagerly anticipated. Delicious food is available in constant supply at the Sanctuary, and savory treats are freely dispensed every day. What brings the refugees together with such urgency is more than the pleasure of eating, considerable though it may be. The Sunday feast satisfies more than a taste, it seems to fulfill a craving for a certain feeling, a hunger for a shared experience that transcends sensory gratification.

There's the enormous joy that fills everyone at that moment, and there's the amazing way in which joy can temporarily erase the myriad discords and frustrations of daily life, the way it can hush all the sad memories, losses, and traumas of their wounded past, the way it can obscure everything except joy itself. But, as exquisite as the joy that fills everyone at that moment is, it probably isn't the sole motivator either.

What's unique about the Sunday feast is the irreplaceable fact of sharing this joy with the entire community, the radiant fact of amplifying this joy by feeling it together and, perhaps, most of all, the astonishing sense that they can create this joy together by the power of their collective will. And that is perhaps the greatest gift of all. When they all get together in anticipation of the feast, when they all focus on the road (and its future gift), when they all wish for the exact same thing at the exact same time, they are no longer the mere recipients of goodness, they are the active makers of it. And what more powerful antidote is there to the profound disempowerment, the deep psychological fracturing and social fragmentation that they all suffered as objects of human consumption, than this massive coming together in the making and sharing of a communal joy so powerful that, for a moment, it seems to weave the broken threads of their lives back into a single cloth? 

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After the Storm  February  27, 2013
The recent blizzard swept through the plains with winds of such force and constancy that icicles* froze sideways, suspended from the eves at such improbable angles that they seemed about to take flight. For the better part of the storm, the animals hunkered down in their barns, huddling together, hugging, comforting and shielding one another against the invisible forces that rattled the walls of their home and pummeled the roof of the only shelter they knew in the world. But, by the third day, as the sun came out and the winds died down, everyone was desperate to get out.

After every blizzard, this happens. When the animals emerge from their barns and step into a now snow covered world, they almost always act a bit off kilter. Partly because the effort of weathering the storm leaves them physically and emotionally exhausted, but mainly because the world they find after the storm is so different from the world they knew before. The deep snow erases their "map" of the world, it covers all of their usual pathways and territorial markings (and the rivalries, compliances, submissions, discords, and expectations contained within), and leaves them hanging at an odd angle to their now map-less world.

Freed from the gravitational pull of established boundaries, borders, beaten paths and other restraints to pull them back into their old grooves and ruts, they move differently after a snow storm, they act differently, and they *are* different for a few short hours, because they are informed by different perceptions of their environment, different perceptions of one another, and different perceptions of their own selves in this clean slate of a world.

They are nervous, they are excited by all the questions and possibilities, they are unnerved, too, to be so free from the daily anchors of rote and routine that they can seemingly defy every old constraint, every old limitation, every old expectation, including their own. They walk around with a light bounce in their step, an almost hop, they stretch their necks as far as they can go, they lift their chins to the sky, the better to catch the high flying scents, and they lean heavily into the breeze, extending visible or invisible wings, as if they're about take off. Sideways.
*The icicles were knocked off immediately after the pictures were taken, so that nobody would get hurt.

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Brave Birds  February  23, 2013
 All 100 newly rescued hens are growing stronger, healthier and more vibrant with each new day. While *we* are still in the process of naming each and every one of them, *they* have already assigned a "name" to each fellow refuge and each member of the sanctuary community--a unique and distinctive sound that identifies that individual from all the others. During their first few weeks of freedom they focused on mapping, understanding and finding their place in their new world, learning its rules, rewards and expectations and, in turn, bringing their own experience and wisdom to the sanctuary flock. But, if in the beginning, they were shy to join group activities, especially riotous ones like the egg hunts and egg feasts, they have now become full participants in the daily life of the bird community, and are especially enthusiastic about the ritual of finding, collecting and eating the eggs that rightly belong to them.
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This is Sven  February  21, 2013
 This is Sven in his chosen "fortress", a small, arid area between the car and the kiddie pool, where he secluded himself shortly after arriving at the sanctuary, and where he spends his days in self imposed exile, patrolling the imaginary borders of his cloistered world and preemptively honking and hissing at everyone who walks by. He is a recluse, a hermit, a loner but, if he avoids all social contact, it may not be because he is emotionally absent or detached. It may very well be because he is too present and too open to the woes and fears and tears of others. Whatever the reason for his solitude, Sven feels compelled to nurture those he perceives as lost, afraid, or vulnerable, even if the cost is his personal comfort.

Once, he left the safety of his fiercely cloistered world and walked all the way into the middle of an open field that terrified him, only to escort Bluto to his favorite spot in the sun, and to watch over the old, frail, terminally ill dog in his final days. He did this every day until the end.

And when Louise ewe, who is crippled and enfeebled by old age and severe arthritis, hobbles by his "fort" on her painful joints, Sven not only refrains from shooing her away, he offers her the balm of long, gentle preening sessions that comfort and soothe her more than any medicine. And she stands there in a blissful trance as he gently picks tiny bits of alfalfa leaves off her face, carefully pecks at stray specks of straw around her eyes, and softly nibbles at her temples as he chatters up a storm of sweet, guttural reassurances straight into her ears.

And, if an intruder (like, say, the photographer) should startle Louise and disrupt their healing communion, Sven will shield his friend with his own body, putting himself between her and danger. Not because *he* might perceive the intruder as dangerous, but because he understands that Louise does. This is Sven. Uncertain of everything in his life except, perhaps, the simple fact that others are as full of mind and feeling as he is.

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Desiree's Delights  February  19, 2013 
If Desiree can find joy and wonder in a muddy stick, a slush puddle, or a dirt covered stone, it's not because her mind is so "simple" that any dull thing amuses her—it's because her mind is so sharp that she can see the pearls of play, pleasure and purpose where most of us see nothing but dirt.
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Fellow Travelers  February  13, 2013 
Stan the turkey spent the first twelve weeks of his life locked in a greenhouse where his only contact was with the human who fed him once a day, and the elderly dog who occasionally sneaked in to stretch his aching joints in the sun.

So, when he first arrived at PPS—a thin, fuzzy ragamuffin of a poult, covered in scraggly down and unruly spikes that hadn't yet fully unfurled into feathers—his first and most forcefully expressed desire was not to join the community of sanctuary birds, or to connect with the other turkeys, but to break free: first from the crate he had arrived in—whose walls he attacked with all the rage in his caged bird body—then from the confines of the bird barn, then from the distant boundaries of the main yard, then farther still, aiming at and beyond the sanctuary borders, if allowed (which, for his own protection, he was not).

A month later, he continues to reject any enclosures no matter how large, always finding ways to escape from any yard into the wide open fields. If this is a reaction to his early confinement, it's also, in equal measure, an expression of his personality. Stan is outgoing, curious, athletic, self-reliant and, most of all, filled with what can only be described as wanderlust. To him, it seems, the best place in the world is the place just beyond his reach, the place beckoning in the distance.

And, while he remains uncertain of his place and role in the turkey tribe, or the larger bird community, he is perfectly at home with Marley the sheep. Not because, as it's tempting to assume, Marley reminds him of the dog in the greenhouse, but because with Marley, Stan can be perpetually en route to that distant place, forever defying fences, barriers and borders of all kinds. And, most importantly, he can do so with a fellow whose mood, like his own, is to travel. 

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Joanna Lucas
© 2013 Joanna Lucas

Photos: Karen Stewart (1),  Michele Alley-Grubb (2, 4, 5, 6), Vanessa Gochnour (3)
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Warmth of Other Suns

 Clarence stepped out of the rescue car incredulously, tentatively putting step before step, standing on one foot almost too long before setting the other one down carefully, gently, touching the dirt floor, with an almost apologetic air in his pale person, as if treading not on solid ground, but on the body of an exquisitely alive creature, a whale of a sleeping earth that could awaken at any moment.

He advanced slowly, haltingly. After a few small steps, he stopped and stood there, suspended on the pole of one long, pink leg, like a flamingo—a feather cloud balancing its whole, white, downy weight on one lanky limb—keeping the lean length of his other leg neatly folded against his chest, tucked away as in a marsupium, the better to nurture it for the journey ahead, curling his mutilated toes as in a question mark, furling them around the soft sole of a foot unaccustomed to walking. Or at least walking forward.

He craned his neck, scanned the vast fields, the open sky, the yards, the barns, the pond, the bewildering richness of life that inhabited every inch of this improbable space, looking around briny-eyed, slack-jawed, before extending his folded leg and taking, as he had to, another small, slow, halting, tender-soled step forward.

He was barely four months old, an adolescent turkey rescued from a small, "free-range" farm where the whole world, in its infinite richness and variety, was reduced to one warehouse filled to capacity with only one species—10,000 orphans of exactly the same age, size and color as himself. Nothing in his young, captive life had prepared him for this astonishing bounty of sights, sounds, and synergies. He had no sound, no image, no dance, no instruction for the brilliant beings who were now breathing, bristling, brimming with life all around him.

What was he to make of this astonishing new world? This world that, as far as his eyes could see, and his tender feet could carry him, was teeming with strange and wondrous creatures the likes of whom he had never seen before—hawks, quails, prairie dogs, foxes, snakes, lizards, mice, dung beetles and, closer still, gatherings of chickens, geese, ducks, goats, sheep, cows, pigs, dogs, cats, and, on the glaucous surface of the pond, the radiant vision of a swan! What was he to make of such a dazzling diversity of species, languages, individuals and histories? Or of the wealth of social interactions and relationships—friendships, love affairs, lifelong partnerships, lifelong rivalries? Or of the way the native residents inhabited their lives—freely, actively, creatively, passionately involved in their world, influencing it, creating it, changing it and, in the process, being changed by it, adding to the world's mind, substance, experience, knowledge and history with their own lives, making sweet or bitter sense out of the nectar and gall, grit and grain of their daily existence?

Nothing in the unhistoried scabland Clarence had been rescued from provided a single clue how to be in the world, much less how to live in this world, how to inhabit its free, vast, open spaces, or how to interact with individuals of a different species or age. He had no knowledge of any of the most fundamental sentient experiences: the nurture of a mother, the sense and certainty of belonging to a family, a community, a place. To him and his fellow captives, Home, was only an intense and inchoate yearning, not even a memory, only a massive lack, a gaping absence, a "constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing".

That day and for many days to follow, Clarence walked around in a sort of languid daze, not so much exploring this fantastic new world, as introducing himself to it, one slow, small, careful, step at a time—each new step a signature of sorts, a salutation, a benediction on the living earth it kissed, a new line in the living, happening poem of his life. He moved around in a steady, tempered rhythm, an adagio of sorts, advancing with a quizzical air, as if looking for someone or something in everyone he met, and resuming his quest day after day with the same optimistic rose in his wattle, pacing the yards with something resembling devotion, like someone waiting, roses in hand, for a long lost lover in a train station.

In those first few days, he ambled from barn to barn, from yard to yard, from roost to roost, with a dreamy air in his lanky person, moving with such deference, such restraint such politesse, gently, carefully treading among birds who barely came up to his knees, unfolding one long, lanky leg at a time, craning his neck, pausing to ponder his next step before taking it with infinite caution, each step forward, not so much an affirmation of self as a confirmation of his awareness of others, courteously, graciously ceding the way to the smallest, weakest birds, even when ungraciously asked to do so, and limning his astonishing, "listening" gaze on everyone he met.

And yet, in the seemingly endless diversity of inhabitants, in the seemingly boundless expanse of land, under the limitless sky, there was no one else like him*. Not a single, solitary soul who looked like him, acted like him, or sounded like him. Not a single being who uttered his language, or seem to understand it, no one who shared the physical and psychological grammar of his species. No one who could guide him through this astounding land, at least not in ways that he understood as guidance, and no one who could wonder with him at its brilliance, at least not in ways that he understood as wonder. He was the only being of his kind in the new world. And, for four long weeks, a lifetime in the slow-motion time perception of youth, he was the only member of his species at the sanctuary, which is to say the whole world.


And then, on a crisp October morning, there they were! In the blue blink of an eye! Two tall, slender, stately birds like himself stepped out of the rescue van, and emerged into the new world in a halo of white feathers.

One walked forward with chutzpah and panache, as if he already knew every inch of this miraculous place that no soul of his doomed nation had ever seen or imagined, and was already qualified to guide everyone through it. There was no hint of hesitation in his person as he took possession of his new life. Not a whiff of fear. Not a trace of shyness. He strutted into the new world as onto a stage, with a diva's assumption of universal adoration. Walter! Walter did not take steps, he gave steps, he issued steps, he expressed steps, each step, a bold statement, an exclamation, an exuberant expression of self, a performance of sorts—the first performance of his new life, the first of many to come.

The other bird, smaller, weaker, shyer, teetered behind him, taking two steps forward, one step back, moving in a pattern of hesitancy, self-correction, self-doubt, self-erasure, second guessing, and missed beginnings, that would become his signature "indecision dance", each step, a worry, a doubt, a premonition that left him perpetually torn between the desire to move forward and the need to stay put, between the summons to grow and the urge to stay safe. It was the first act of indecision of Ian's new life, the first of many to come.

Clarence ran towards them, his usual adagio rhythm quickened to an allegro, and welcomed them with a happy dance, fluttering his wings, tapping his feet, shaking his head and gurgling a joyful assortment of trills, gobbles, purrs and putt-putts. It was the first happy dance of his new life. The first of many to come.

As Walter and Ian stood in the field outside the bird yard, trying to orient themselves in the new territory, Clarence started guiding them with his gaze, his body, his voice, eager to help them navigate their new home. They met his guidance with the kind of action that would become the group's signature response: Ian froze in place, as if expecting an ambush, and Walter jumped and dodged as if answering an invitation to play. It was the flock's first act of discord. The first of many to come.
The longer you knew them, the clearer it became that Clarence, Ian and Walter were not just different, they were incompatible. So much so that, in the context of their flock, and the culture generated within its dynamic boundaries, their deepest needs were impossible to fulfill. Ian, a reserved, retiring, sensitive fellow, could never get the nurture, the connection and the patience he needed from either of his brothers; Walter, a rowdy fellow who turned everything into a martial drama, or a riotous game, could never get his brothers to engage in the kind of swagger and pageantry that affirmed (and confirmed) his identity; and Clarence, the obvious and uncontested leader of the flock, the largest, strongest, most confident, and empathetic of the three, could not, in fact, exercise his authority because neither of his "subjects" heeded his signals: Walter was too independent to take directions, and Ian was too indecisive to follow.

It was hard to understand what kept them connected at all, why they insisted on sticking together through the myriad daily frustrations of living in a group that often thwarted their needs more than it fulfilled them, and whose demands divided them more often than it united them. Beyond the superficial similarities of species, gender and age, Clarence, Walter and Ian had nothing in common and, with the exception of greeting visitors—when they paraded in dazzling unison, like great birds of peace—almost everything else they attempted as a group was doomed to scatter in three separate directions, and each call to action was bound to result in three different actions, reactions, and outcomes. Each turkey was driven by such unique needs, fears and pleasures, and each perceived and responded to similar situations in such dissimilar ways, that getting all three to act together, as Clarence kept trying to do, was nearly impossible: Ian would freeze in place, torn between the urge to join, and the need to hide, and Walter would turn every instruction, every assembly signal, every alarm call into a uproarious game, play-jumping, leap-frogging, ducking and dodging, and making imaginary fighting gestures.

Yet they stuck together, Clarence, Ian and Walter, not as a family, or a team, much less a partnership, but as a sort of roaming, restless, rusty, creaky, bickering, disjointed Home on Six Legs—not easy, not comfortable, not harmonious, but a home nonetheless, and the only home that beings like them can ever hope to find in this human-dominated world where they are bred for death and where, even if they are fortunate enough to be rescued, they live and die as perpetual exiles, forever severed from the ancestral land that formed their being, and forever torn from the communities whose culture and history anchored them in the world with a profound sense of meaning and purpose. They stuck together, bound on the surface by what was there—species, gender, age, and perhaps the common memory of abuse and deprivation—but bound, at a deeper level, by a sense of what was sorely missing, a sense of struggling always against the wrong shape of things, a sense of irretrievable, incommunicable loss.

Yet, ultimately, if their connection was tenuous, it wasn't because they were so different, but because they were too fundamentally alike: souls without a place and a prayer in the world. Still, they had managed to establish a balance of sorts, a precarious balance, but a balance nonetheless. A union of sorts, an uneasy union, but a union nonetheless.

Then Roscoe fell out of the dark sky of a frozen January morning and changed their lives forever. Roscoe, that black sun. He burst into their lives in the blink of an eye, in the snap of a heartbreak, and changed their course forever.

It was just before noon when, amid the usual Sunday hustle and bustle of tours, visitors, volunteers, barn cleaning, and all manner of other friendly commotion, Clarence saw a long, lean, leggy black bird follow Chris into the sheep yard—an adolescent wild turkey, no more than four or five months old, who was now eating out of Chris' hand, was climbing in Chris' lap, was softening to slumber under Chris' touch.

Earlier that morning, Roscoe's flock had been scattered and killed by hunters and, when Chris found the young bird, he was still guarding the bloody remains of his last brother. No one was allowed to touch the lifeless body, and nothing could get the embattled survivor to move away from it: he rejected food offerings, spurned friendly overtures, charged anyone who came near and, when, in a gesture of peace and submission, Chris sat on the ground, quietly hugging his knees, Roscoe pecked, pummeled and punched him with his bill and talons until he poured out his rage and sorrow to the last bitter drop. When he finally stopped, the back of Chris' jacket was nearly shredded, and the young wild turkey was exhausted. He stood there tall and still, yelping softly. Then he took a few weary steps around Chris, and positioned his body squarely in front of him, making intense and inquisitive eye contact. What he gathered from the silent exchange seemed to reassure Roscoe because, a few minutes later, he calmly and deliberately followed Chris past the sanctuary gate, all the way to the sheep yard. He was about the same age as Clarence had been when he began his life at the Sanctuary, but this young turkey was infinitely more confident, savvy, and at home in the world, either world—that of the Sanctuary, or that of the wild prairie—than Clarence and his brothers had ever been, or would ever have a chance of becoming. Roscoe moved fluently, effortlessly, between the two worlds and, if he followed Chris into the yard, if he ate ravenously from his hand, if he trusted him enough to sleep in his lap, and if, later, he roosted in the high rafters of the bird barn, he did so with complete personal agency: Roscoe, and, no one else, (much less someone of another species), was in charge of Roscoe's life; Roscoe, and no one else, made the important decisions in Roscoe's life. And, whether he would choose to stay at the Sanctuary, or return to his wild country, that would be entirely his choice, and his decision, too.
But, on that bitter cold January day, he was here, a stranger in Clarence's home, and, for the first time in his life, Clarence did not act with his usual courtesy, deference, and equanimity. He did not limn his sweet, listening gaze on this fine, free, rapturous creature. He did not introduce himself to Roscoe with his signature politesse, his elaborate ritual of overtures and self-effacements. He rejected Roscoe with shocking force and fury. His eyes blazed, his breath quickened, his chest swelled and heaved with red-clawed rage, his throat throbbed with a torrent of rabid invectives. And, for the first time in their lives together, his brothers followed his lead. They telescoped their necks to impossible lengths, they lifted on almost tiptoes as they paced up and down the fence, they issued urgent assembly calls, that become alarm calls, that became attack calls, and their soft feather halos become armors, and their wings become hatchets, and their bodies became weapons. They reddened their wattles, puffed their chests, spiked their feathers, steeled their wings to daggers, and dragged them on the ground as if carving blood boundaries, they stiffened their legs, and strutted with the rigid gait of armored knights (and just as unsteady). They made themselves look bigger, tougher, stronger, invincible. Awesomer.

From a distance, their display could be mistaken for one of their extravagant greeting rituals that were reserved for guests, visitors, and favorite volunteers. But Roscoe was no guest, their formidable parade was no greeting, and their loud staccato putts, and coarse yelps were not a song of welcome. They confronted Roscoe in an amazing show of strength, stamina and solidarity—moving in perfect physical, emotional and spiritual sync, connected as in a war dance to an ancient inner music, acting in perfect unity of purpose and desire—not just to repel, but to frighten, for they knew being frightened, not just to impress, but to awe, for they knew being awed, not just to smite, but to shatter, for they knew being shattered, and they wanted more than anything, not just to protect their Home, but to affirm its existence, because they knew better than anyone, what it's like to have no home in the world, only the illusion of it created in the rickety space stitched together by the proximity of three incompatible individuals, and held together by the straws of necessity, not nature, desperation, not design.
That day, and for many days to come, they went out of their way trying to not only expel the trespasser, but to break, bend, burn, wreck, scorch, smash, smite and shatter even the memory of him. They went at him like missiles, fought him through the fence, threatened him, insulted him, and rejected him with all the devastating fury of a hidden and obscure anguish. He was everything they had lost. He was everything they might have been. He was the embodiment of the world they were forever excluded from, the world that, prior to his arrival, they knew only as a dim yearning, a deep and distant hum, and that they now felt acutely, as something resembling pain, grief, fear, and rage—a terrifying thing, a ravaging thing, a brilliant thing—no longer a vague longing, no longer a diffuse ache, but a living, writhing, desperate thing. A livid, rabid lament.

No wonder Roscoe's presence enraged and terrified them, no wonder they fought and rejected him so furiously, no wonder they fell in love with him, no wonder he broke their hearts.

If their rescue had been an expansion, an escape into an amazing world of peace, plenty and seemingly endless possibility, their encounter with Roscoe was the coming up against the hard place where that world ended and mystery began. If their arrival at the sanctuary was their encounter with the best that this human-dominated world can offer its handful of rescued captives—a life of care, respect and relative freedom in the confines of a controlled environment—Roscoe's arrival, his literal landing from the dark sky, his descent into their calm, comfortable, chaperoned lives, was their encounter, not with what our world has to offer cripples like them (the consolation, the bandages, the crutches, the special care, the reparations we owe those we've victimized), but with what we have plundered from them.

Days and weeks went by before their rage abated but, when it did, it died down as quickly as it had flared up. Clarence was the first to relent. Ian followed suit with great relief, and, if Walter continued with the daily displays of martial prowess a little while longer, he did so for the sheer pageantry of it. His anger, too, had vanished into thin air.

It's unclear what changed their minds. Maybe it was "battle fatigue", or maybe the intruder's wild presence had become more intriguing than threatening, or perhaps they heard, in the furious music in Roscoe's throat, something they had been trying to utter all of their lives, but had never found the sounds for, or perhaps they simply felt, and obeyed, an inner imperative to outgrow existing boundaries and to bloom, to become what they may have been. Whatever the reason, one day, when Roscoe flew over the fence and landed teasingly in their yard, as he had done every day since his arrival, they did not chase him off as before. They merely strutted, and postured, and glared their silent threats, but they did not charge him. And, when he flew over the next day, bringing the gift of a found flight feather, they rushed to examine it with genuine curiosity and delight and, when he dropped it on the ground, they took turns carrying it in their bills, and examining it with intense absorption, as if trying to reconstruct the whole angel from one lost feather. And, when Roscoe landed in their yard yet again the next day, they almost greeted him. It wasn't long before Clarence, and then Walter, began to join Roscoe on his daily foraging expeditions, while Ian watched them from the safety of his yard. And, by mid March, when the great big thaw was more than a yearning in their winter-weary bones, and their lungs filled with the breath of awakening roots, you could see them setting off into the wild country every morning, syncing their posture, their gait, their pace, their cadence, their direction, their gaze, their attention and intention like a school of fish.

Those were the happiest days of Clarence's life, those two years before genetics crippled his body, those eight glorious seasons when he could roam the living fields with Roscoe, and experience the unparalleled, incomparable feeling of being in precise, perfect and profound harmony with his ancestral world. Through Roscoe, he felt what it meant to be in physical, physiological and spiritual sync with the body and soul of the land. To fit. To belong to a historied place where countless generations of his kin had lived, learned, and passed along the wisdom of their community, culture and species over millennia, stretching the 20 million year old flame of their being straight into Clarence's soul. Roscoe's vision allowed him access to a world that was closed to him at all other times and, in that realm, Clarence bloomed like a cherry orchard, every cell in his being opening its secret joys and sorrows to the warmth of this new sun.

And something stirred in him, something that had been dormant, domesticated into perpetual hibernation, something that was not supposed to awaken. Roscoe's presence released in him the ghost of an ancient knowledge, it knocked loose the ancient air bubble trapped in ice, and its millennia-old scent devastated him. It devastated his world. If there was no going back to this time-old realm that came rushing into his soul, now, that had tasted its nectar, there was nowhere else in the world he could be either. Roscoe had made him alive to feelings and desires that had no fulfillment in the world he inhabited.

Eventually, Clarence's genetically induced breakdown** ended his treks. At first, he tried to keep up, he bruised himself trying to keep up. But, soon, his brittle bones, his swollen joints, his weakened heart and laboring lungs forced him to stay behind. The day he could no longer join Roscoe on his foraging walks was the day an essential substance was drawn from him. They set off together in the usual way, Roscoe sprinting ahead, half running half flying, Clarence lumbering behind but, only a short distance into the walk, he stopped and went no further. Roscoe called for him to follow, his assembly calls becoming more and more urgent, more and more insistent, but also more and more distant as the open land stretched its silence between them.

Clarence listened intently, craning his neck, scanning the endless fields, but he did not follow. He just stood there, in the beaten yard, folding one crippled leg in the marsupium of his breast-feathers, as if preparing to take the next step. But he did not move. He issued one lost call, one single, solitary lost call, an expression of being more than a request for help, a call sent to no one in particular, and expecting no response. And then he was silent.

You could hear only the sound of his labored breath, the hiss of air being drawn in with difficulty, filling burdened lungs, stopping with a hitch at the fullest point, like an astonished gasp, and then finally exiting with a long, deep release. Clarence stood tall and silent in the cold morning air, one leg still folded against his chest, its digits furled in the same question mark that had started his journey, the vapor of his breath swirling and billowing around him like clouds, mixing with the morning mist, adding its substance and silence to the mist, becoming the mist.

Joanna Lucas
© 2012 Joanna Lucas

The title of this story is based on a line from a poem by Richard Wright

"I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom."

* Clarence was rescued shortly after Melvin, the last of the sanctuary turkeys, had died of old age. So, in the weeks before his brothers arrived, Clarence was the only turkey at the sanctuary.

** Domesticated turkeys have been selectively bred to grow morbidly large, abnormally fast in order to reach "market weight" by the tender age of 4 months when they are slaughtered for human consumption. The excessive body weight leads to heart problems and painful leg issues which eventually cripple the turkeys.
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Memory of Light

The day when his life capsized started like any other. He greeted the small world of the pen where he had spent most of his 120 days on earth, in the usual way, carefully walking around the yard's perimeter, feeling the familiar lines, curves and corners of its borders, brushing his shoulders against the hard wire fence, mapping the cracks, bumps and grooves underfoot with the tips of his hooves, and slowly heading towards the spot where his mother came to see him every morning. There, he stopped and waited, patiently scanning the air for the contours of her sound-face, listening for the grand tuba of her voice, or the muffled drum of her hoofbeats, and sifting the breeze for hints of her scent-face, the better to extend the pleasure of her company by anticipating her arrival.

Pierre was born blind, consigned to live in a world where there is no perception and no memory of light, a world of pure sound, scent, touch, taste and feeling, a world which he knows, as he has to, only intimately, only by the intimations of scent, sound, touch and taste, without any of the distancing afforded by sight. A world he inhabits, as he has to, with imagination, not seeing, but envisioning that which he can never experience; with infinite attention to the meanings, messages and intentions of others; and with the courage to hope.

His mother reached above the fence that separated them and licked his face, his forehead, his neck, cleaning, instructing, scolding, loving and kissing him with every lick of her raspy tongue, while he tried, as always, to suckle, baby that he still was, and he nuzzled the fence along the vast plain of her flank, looking for her udder, puckering his lips in anticipation, trying, and failing, to reach the soft nipple through the wires, and having to contend himself with just standing there, close to his mother's heart, consuming the nourishing substance of her love by touch, scent and sound alone.

And then it happened. The gate of his pen groaned open, heavy bootsteps announced the approach of a strange man, and a scattering of gravel sprayed his knees as his mother charged into the pen, while a silent force pulled him by his halter and lead him over strange ground to the coffin of a trailer that smelled of fear, the fear of the many who had been confined there before him, in isolation from their families, and driven to auction or straight to slaughter. As the truck drove off, drowning his mother's sweet scent-face in a cloud of bitter exhaust fumes, and erasing her voice in the rattle and roar of the engine, he was gripped by dread. If he could imagine darkness, it would sound, smell, taste and feel like that moment.

And that's how his new life began, in the clutch of profound loss, fear and helplessness. It was the day he escaped the execution that inevitably awaits "unprofitable" youngsters like him, who are farmed for their flesh, milk or eggs, and who are routinely killed by the cheapest means possible*. It was the day he was brought to sanctuary.

But the bright new world he was entering now, at the end of a terrifying trailer ride, didn't feel like a bright new beginning to him, it felt like the end of everything he loved, knew and trusted, it felt like fear, sadness, absence, bewilderment and despair. He was lost and alone in a strange place, with no guide, no way home and no trace of his mother, no scent, no sound, no thought of hers anywhere. He arrived in a heap of hiccuping, silent sobs. And nothing could console him, not the soft voices, sounds and scents that rose all around him to communicate the inhabitants' peace and tranquility, not the substance of their fluid, free flowing, peaceful thoughts and feelings--that cloud of knowing that surrounded him now and informed him more precisely than sight, and deeper than knowledge--not the kind man who was now gently stroking his back; not the big, jovial steer who was welcoming him at the open gate of the trailer, voicing encouraging grunts as if waiting for the new baby to emerge into the light like a midwife poised to catch a crowning infant; not the big, boisterous cow who rushed to greet him, soothe him, and breath her benediction through the trailer window... Nothing. He was choked with the deep, suffocating fear that opened its dark umbrella in his throat, knocked the air out of his lungs, and made his knees buckle, and he wanted only one thing, young child that he was: to be with his mother, to hear her voice, to breathe her warm breath, to drink his fill of the love, nourishment and reassurance of her milk.

He remained hunkered down in the farthest corner of the trailer, hugging one of the straw bales that were put there to cushion his ride, and trembling from every inch of his tiny body. Once in a while, he let out a feeble cry, the smothered sob of a lost child. After each one, he paused and listened intently, pressing his ears forward and waiting for a sound, a whisper, the hint of a response, scanning the sound print of every stray rustle caught in the nets of his ears, listening with such focus and absorption, such exquisite discernment, that he seemed to be listening with his whole body, grasping at the straws of any sign of familiarity in the overwhelmingly new and unfamiliar world he had landed in through no choice of his own. But no response came. He waited a long, silent while and then he ventured another cry.

But this one was different. It didn't seem aimed at anyone in particular. Maybe it was only meant to release some of the turmoil roiling inside him. Maybe it was a call waiting only for its own echo, a sound-probe of sorts sent to the objects (and persons) of the new world to help him locate himself by the sound waves bouncing back at him. Maybe it was simply his way of presenting his sound-card, his sound-face, to the residents of this new world and, with it, his readiness to face them. Whatever its purpose, it was issued with great force. And, as the trumpet of his neck extended towards the sky, and his mouth opened in a soft funnel, the buds of his teeth flashed their blind light in the darkness of the trailer—eight tiny incisors spaced wide apart, small, bewildered little milk teeth erupting through the bone bed, each as fragile and unstoppable as a crocus breaking through the ice, each as deeply connected to the sensitive root nerve of its being, as to its darkness-piercing purpose.

And then he took his first step. He walked into what felt like the darkest day of his life, aglow like a firefly, illuminating his own way, guided only by the light of his heart, as if that was all the light he needed.

Joanna Lucas
© 2012 Joanna Lucas

UPDATE, September 2013
Our beloved boy, Pierre, died on Monday, September 23rd, one year and one day after his arrival at the sanctuary. Despite everyone's desperate, and protracted, efforts to save him, he succumbed to the congenital heart disease that had silently stalked him since birth. Even though he was with us such a short time, his presence changed us—and everyone who knew him—profoundly. If, without our protection, Pierre would not have survived in a world where beings like him are butchered to please depraved human appetites, without Pierre's light—without the light of beings like him—we ourselves would be neither fully alive, nor fully human.

Pierre was born blind. He had no access to and no memory of light, yet he was one of the brightest lights, he radiated light, he illuminated the world, and our lives, with his own life. Pierre, whose heart stopped 20 years too soon, restored the heart of everyone who entered his world to full, brilliant life.

Given his crippling disability, it would have been easier for him to become a recluse, to hide and avoid contact with the bewildering world of the sighted. But he didn't. He offered his love to everyone who sought his company, and trusted that it would be returned. It was. His eyes may have been blind, but his heart was gifted with exceptional vision. It allowed him to see so much more deeply, so much more accurately, so much more intelligently, and so much more compassionately than most of us. It called him to open his completely vulnerable being to the beings of all others, and, in so doing, to heal their visible and invisible wounds by the light of his heart alone.

With him, every soul—no matter how battered, no matter how crushed, no matter how defeated—got to see, and feel, just how brave and beautiful it really was. Even the charred hearts of those who crush beings like Pierre for an evening's amusement glowed in his presence with the light of their own forgotten humanity.

Good night, sweet Pierre. You honored us with your love, you humbled us, you healed us, you broke our hearts. Your light shines on in the darkness of every heart you broke open. Now and always.

Pierre's memorial photo album
Remembering Pierre's adjustment to his new life
Remembering Pierre's favorite things 
* Because his disability made him too costly to keep alive, and too unlikely to reach slaughter weight by the farmer's deadline (his 18th month of life), he was going to be shot later that day and discarded as trash. Discarding "unprofitable" animals is standard operating procedure on all farms, from family farms to factory farms. (see The Mass Killing of "Trash" Infants)

If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.