Let me make this perfectly clear. I am not a farmer.
Sure, I had a Fisher Price Little People Farm Set, complete with plastic cow and sheep. Unfortunately, I forgot to feed them and they were sent to live on a real farm at a day care center somewhere nearby. I also forgot to tend the crops, and the neighbor kid turned the plastic field into a skateboard ramp.
Needless to say, when someone chooses to spend their days toiling in the Earth, herding cattle, or milking goats, I just don’t get it. They are self-selecting hard work. And it’s hard work you have almost no control over. You could plant the best crop in the world, and it could get washed away by a terrible storm. You could provide top-notch feed for your cattle, and they could still catch Mad Cow disease and die. Or worse yet, they could actually survive, maybe with just a mild case of Slightly Irritated Cow disease, and you would be forced to do more arduous labor, butchering them and turning them to burger.
Yes, I’m lazy. This typing is hard work for me. I think I’m getting a wrist cramp.
But farming? That’s real hard work, with no guarantees. That’s what makes my brother-in-law Owen such a curious specimen to me.
About seven years ago, he and my sister-in-law moved their family from suburban Houston to a farm outside of Columbus, Ohio. They went from mowing a postage stamp yard, to owning a 10-acre farm. Gone were the neighborhood pool and bike riding on the sidewalk. They were replaced with a creek-fed pond and horseback riding.
The land is absolutely gorgeous, especially now in fall. The weather cools and the trees look like exploding tubes of paint, every shade of red, orange and yellow. Behind the house, the ground has a gentle roll, fading into forest along the creek. Next door is a field of soybeans. Across the street are stalks of dried corn as thick as the hair on Alec Baldwin’s noggin.
But even Owen will admit that the idea of the farm was quite different from the reality of the farm. When they first moved, they casually named the place “Harmony Hills Acres” or something like that. Several months later, we arrived for a visit. He joked with me that they should change the name to “Chaos Reigns Ranch.”
Runoff from the nearby animal farm was causing thick algae to form in his pond, making it challenging to keep it in use as a swimming hole. Some of the roosters were sexually harassing the hens. Turkeys would get out of their fenced-in area. They had to buy an Epi pen due to a series of bee stings suffered from a honey harvest gone bad. The goats found their way into a storage area and ate the vast majority of their cardboard boxes. Not the contents, mind you, just the boxes. All that remained were random semi-stacked cubes of stuff, spilling out onto the floor. Apparently, goats can be finicky.
And then there’s Bear-Bear.
Bear-Bear is a three-year-old Australian Shepherd. He’s the kind of dog that makes vets want to prescribe Prozac.
From the moment Bear-Bear stepped on the farm, he was trouble. He would bark incessantly during the night, for no apparent reason. He would chase cars. True to stereotype, he also chases the mailman. Last winter after an ice storm, he ran out in front of the garbage truck as it came barreling down the road. The driver, not wanting to kill a family dog, slammed on his brakes and nearly skidded into a ditch. All the while, Bear-Bear stood his ground like a protest student in Tienamen Square.
Random animals were turning up dead, like a bad horror movie. Baby chicks. Roosters. Turkeys. Rabbits. Nothing was safe. It turns out that nearly all of the murders were committed by Bear-Bear, doing a Freddy Kreuger impersonation. A darn good one.
Since no one wants to eat a chicken that already has dog bite marks in it, the victims of Bear-Bear’s killing spree ended up buried in a place on the property that the kids referred to as “Death Alley.” It became quite a cemetery. Lots of plots. No headstones.
Had Bear-Bear been mine, I would have sent him to “live on a farm,” as they say. The problem is, he was already on a farm. Even Owen was inches away from putting the pooch on Craigslist, but for some reason, he never pulled the trigger.
And I’m speaking figuratively, of course. Please don’t call the PETA on me.
Several months ago, we went to the farm for a visit. When we arrived, Bear-Bear barked at us from behind the fence, temporarily constrained from chasing cars or chickens. In the latest attempt to rehabilitate this devil dog, Owen had tried an old farmer’s trick, tying Bear-Bear’s latest kill, a duckling, around the dog’s neck in hopes that the ever-present smell would drive him nuts, and he’d never want to do it again.
It didn’t seem to be working. Bear-Bear eyed my children like an NFL lineman stares down the #4 Value Meal at Mickey D’s. Probably due to the fact that we pull out every trick (and treat) in the book to keep them quiet on a seven-hour road trip, so they were sweating pure high fructose corn syrup from their pores.
Anytime I went in the back yard, Bear-Bear would accost me and try to push his way through the gate, so he could chase God-knows-what or dig through a garbage can. I would use my size 11 to not-so-gingerly move him out of the way. I considered taking him for a long nap back in Death Alley.
Perhaps the worst thing about Bear-Bear had nothing to do with him at all. He was now the only dog left on the farm. Owen used to have another dog. Another Aussie named Paco. With sincerest apologies to my own current and childhood pets, Paco was perhaps the best dog in the world. A loveable, huggable, loyal companion that seemed to anticipate everyone’s needs for thirteen years. He was like Radar O’Reilly from M.A.S.H., only with a cold, wet nose.
Unfortunately, on that summer trip, Paco had to be put down. He developed a kidney infection that couldn’t be cured, even though Owen would have spent a mint to save him.
And now, Bear-Bear is all that’s left.
When we pulled out of the driveway after that trip, I knew that was also the last time we would see Bear-Bear. There is such a thing as too much hard work, even for a farmer. And Owen had tried every trick in the book.
Fast forward three months.
This past weekend, we went to Ohio once again, to enjoy fall color on the farm. When we pulled into the drive, we were greeted warmly by the family. The whole family. Even Bear-Bear. I half expected he would have been shipped off to Timbuktu. But here he was. But he wasn’t jumping. He wasn't barking. Just an excited greeting, and licks on Audrey’s face.
Was this the same dog?
We took our bags inside and enjoyed some laughs and good conversation. Bear-Bear came into the house with us. Granted, his paws were a little muddy, but he behaved himself for the most part. I still held a grudge, though, like the guy at the 20-year reunion who meets up with the bully who used his Fisher Price Farm Set as a skateboard ramp.
The next morning after breakfast, we walked outside, and there was Bear-Bear again. I half expected him to jump on me and knock me over like a bowling pin. Instead, he licked Audrey’s face for a small taste of her breakfast, and then left her alone. Then Owen noticed something and began calling to him in a low tone, “Os, Os, Os…” (Oso is “bear” in Spanish)
Bear-Bear sprung to action. The goats had miraculously gotten out of their pen. They had gritted their teeth and powered through the electric fence. All to eat the same variety of grass that was in their pen to begin with. But they were sure to spread more destruction. No boxes are safe with them around.
And then, quick as a yellow light, Bear-Bear jumped in front of them, herding them back into the barn as they baaahed in disapproval.
When Bear-Bear was done with his chore, he came bounding back toward us, happily. Then Owen chimed in.
“Yeah. Who woulda’ thought? After all that I’ve been through with this stinkin’ dog, chasing cars, killing chickens, nearly causing a garbage truck to drive off the road in an ice storm. All I had to do to break him was to pull another old farmer’s trick. Hold him in my arms, lay him on his back, and carry him around like that for a while. Now he listens to everything. He’s an awesome herding dog. He can’t stand for those goats to be anywhere besides where they are supposed to be, and he pretty much leaves the chickens and ducks alone. He’s not perfect, but he’s learning.”
I joked how that was the exact technique that Gabby used to get me to do what she wanted around the house.
Then I looked down at Bear-Bear. He was sitting patiently, looking up at Owen, waiting for his next call to spring to action.
“Yeah. Glad I didn’t give up on him,” Owen finished.
And that’s why I’m not a farmer.
It takes commitment. There is no giving up. Me? I have a closet full of excuses, and a rented storage unit packed with “should have’s.” Those are tools that have no use on a farm.
Because here was a dog that spent his life chasing rabbits down random trails. Making a mess of things. Irritating neighbors, mailmen and bus drivers. Destroying lives and property. Apparently doing all of those things because he didn’t understand who was in charge, and didn’t really know who to listen to, so he just listened to his own tiny brain. Didn’t do him a lot of good.
Then, the farmer picks him up and holds him. Day after day. Legs splayed in the air. Totally vulnerable. Totally unable to move, lest he fall to the ground.
Then one morning, he gives up the fight and gives in to the idea that he’s not in control. It took all that effort for that Australian Shepherd to realize that he wasn’t built for self-serving behavior. Nope. He was built for service. Even his name says so.
And that’s my prayer today. To let go. Give up control, and just serve without question. Till then, I’ll be here in the farmer’s arms, laying on my back, still flailing madly, praying to God he doesn’t give up on me. ‘Cause I know I’ve got some more to give.
And a lot more to learn.