Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Becoming a Teamster

"And so we plough along, as the fly said to the ox."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is strange the turns life sometimes takes. One year ago, I never would have imagined that I would become an apprentice teamster in the original sense of the word -- an ox team driver. And yet here I am learning how to work with a fine team of Jerseys who go by the names of August and Henri.

When I first got to D Acres a little more than six months ago I was completely intimidated by the oxen. As a city boy I have always been more comfortable riding the New York subway at 3 AM than being close to large animals. Horses made me nervous, let alone oxen. And these two large Jersey oxen who stood there silently watching me with their enormous brown eyes and long curved horns as I walked from my cabin in the woods past their house to the community building every day, well they just freaked me out. When I was first offered the chance to participate in the mysterious chore of "mucking out," I wasn't sure I could handle it. Katie, Matt and Dustin were the only interns properly trained to do the chore of daily morning and evening ox care and Dustin was going to be leaving, so a backup person was needed. I reluctantly agreed. I had already done some work with the oxen in the field over the summer, running chains during logging operations, and that had gone surprisingly well. They didn't stomp on my feet, gore me with their horns or even squash me in between the two of them as I retrieved the chain hanging from the big steel ring in the middle of their yoke and connected it up to another chain that I had looped around a log to be dragged out of the woods. Slowly I got comfortable enough with them to brush the flies off of their flanks that they couldn't reach with their long tails. I got the sense that they respected my efforts as I worked alongside of them dragging the heavy chains into the new pig pasture we were logging, as I struggled to heave the logs onto the wood pile we were building and as I freed logs that got stuck on stumps or roots. The strange set of commands that Beth issued as she drove them were mystifying and enchanting. Little did I know that I'd start to learn what "ha Henri!" and "gee August!" really meant and how to use them to communicate with these powerful but still gentle beasts. I am getting ahead of the story though.

The ox chore, the mysterious "mucking out" is really not that difficult as it turns out. The oxen spend nights in a small barn called the Ox Hovel and every morning someone leads them out to their pasture, shovels out their poop and soiled bedding and tosses it up onto the compost heap outside, piles the dry bedding that remains on the side to allow the floor to dry and walks around their pasture collecting the previous day's turds with a pitchfork. Then in the evening their bedding is spread back out on the floor, new woodchips are added to the rear of their stall to supplement the hay that makes up the bulk of their bedding, a new bale of hay is opened and arranged in the front of the stall with a cup of grain added for a snack along with whatever apples onions and squash we have collected from the supermarket's out of date food on the town run, their water bucket is emptied, cleaned and replenished with fresh water, they are let back in and they are clipped in to leads running from the front of the stall to their collars. It all sounds fairly straightforward, except for the fact that you need to be right next to them to lead them out in the morning and then clip them in at night, in a very confined space, not to mention the fact that they weigh more than half a ton, have large sharp horns and don't always want to do what you want them to do. A little deep breathing and a sense of humor is required. In spite of my initial hesitation though, I soon got more comfortable being up close to them, until, that is, August took to swiping at me with his large curled horns rather than let me lead him out of the barn one morning. It turns out that he wasn't really trying to hurt me, it's just that he didn't want to be rushed since he prefers to scratch his neck on the door frame on the way out. Now, I realize that if I grab a long skinny stick and tap him on the flank, he moves out of the barn a bit quicker. I tend not to rush him though, but instead scratch his neck on the other side.

Before I get to the next phase of my training, I should say a few words about what exactly an ox is, especially since I had no real idea until recently and some of my readers may be similarly clueless. Well an ox is just a (usually) castrated bull trained to work, most often in a team of two. And any breed of cow can be used for work from the Texas Longhorn to the huge Italian Chianina to familiar Holsteins and Jerseys to the feisty Devons and diminutive Dexters. They are amazingly smart and agile, something I had not known about cattle -- not surprising given the reputation of cows as dumb, herd-oriented animals incapable of thinking for themselves. Oxen were traditionally used in New England as draft animals since they can handle the harsh winters here far better than horses and are less picky eaters. They move fairly slowly, but are more powerful than horses so they are well suited for plowing heavy soils, and for pulling logs out of the woods. We use them here for the latter chore since we are trying to avoid the use of fossil fuel powered machinery as much as possible even though we need wood for fuel and building and we need land cleared for farming. They also do a great job converting hay into the compost we use to rebuild our impaired soils.

A few weeks ago when Beth asked me if I wanted to learn how to walk the oxen, once again, with some trepidation, I said, "Sure," although the idea of it made me quite nervous. Walking the oxen requires fitting each with a simple halter and leading them out of their barn into the wide world one at a time where they are tied to a fifty five gallon drum filled with concrete and then fitted with a heavy wooden yoke after which they are walked around the farm in tandem in search of fresh grass. There are far more things that can go wrong. The first part of my training was a test walk with Beth, who showed Matt and I what to do and gave us each a go at driving. Except for the fact that August, who is the lefthand ox of the team, the one the teamster walks next to and whose halter he or she holds on to, insisted on running me into boulders, bushes and apple trees as I attempted to tell the two of them where I wanted them to go, everything went pretty well. They sort of listened, but also made it clear that negotiations would be needed if we were going to be working together. I survived that and another training walk and then was assured that I was ready for a solo walk and it was duly scheduled in.

Due to an early season snowfall, my first solo walk with them was delayed by a week or so, but eventually I got to take them out. Even though Henri almost ran away as I led him out of the barn it went surprisingly well. I have continued to walk them on a regular basis and am feeling less and less nervous about walking them as I start to get a sense of the range of their various moods and learn their quirks and how to avoid having them run me through brambles, fences or rocks. It's been slow but steady progress for me as I work on building trust with them and learn how to guide them around to the best bits of grass left over from a productive growing season. It takes about an hour or so of walking them around until they are full of grass, clover and the few remaining apple drops and ready to head back home. During this time I have to remain alert and ready to get out of their way to avoid getting stepped on, or in their way to prevent them from ransacking the remaining vegetation in our gardens. But I also get plenty of time to watch them eat -- they are quite efficient at mowing the grass with their long tongues flicking out of their mouths and drawing bunches of grass in to their waiting teeth -- and ruminate myself on how they perceive the world, what they think of me, and the relations between me as a human and the animals us humans domesticated millenia ago. That topic is a huge one -- wildness and domestication in humans and other animals -- which I am still mulling over so it will have to wait for another time. But it is much on my mind every time August or Henri or both of them together lift their powerful heads up and lurch into action dragging me along as they seek out a tasty apple or sniff the wind for the smell of sweet grass. For now I assuage whatever guilt feelings I have about my occupying a position of dominance, whacking them across the nose with a stick to get them to back up (this doesn't really hurt them I am told since they are far tougher beasts than we), and leading them around by reminding myself what a good life they have here. Most of their days are spent hanging out and eating or snoozing under a tree, and they are well fed and cared for and seem not to mind the work we have them do. Like good card-carrying union members they are also familiar with the tactic of the sit-down strike, as in, when they are done working, they just stop and no amount of goading will make them do more. We relent and let them rest or lead them back home to their pasture.

Soon the snows will set in and their diet will shift entirely to hay and so they won't be walked as often. I'll continue to work with them as our logging operations move into a new area being cleared for more garden space, but I'll be back to running chains, rather than driving them in the more complex pulling operations required. I am looking forward to being out in the snow covered woods squeezing in between them to hook up loads and scratching their noses occasionally, appreciative of the hard work they do for us and their putting up with our demands.

~George Matthews

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