At Farm Camp, we talk a lot about the cycle of life and death. This past week, our campers experienced it up close and personal.
The week began with our Boer goat Whitey Grace giving birth to two male kids. Our budding farmers helped the newborns nurse, made sure the mother had feed and water, and delighted at showing their parents the farm’s newest addition — “Brownie” and “Blackie” (campers changed these names daily).
Camp ended Friday with Brownie’s sudden and mysterious death. The cycle had been cut painfully short. Our two-legged kids struggled to understand how and why.
Earlier that morning, Farmer Skip had returned from our River Farm to find everyone – 21 campers, four mothers, three counselors, two volunteers, and Farmer Erin – gathered in the goat pen. Limp but alive, Brownie was comforted by small outstretched hands while the adults eased Whitey’s warm milk into a bottle. The campers held out hope as Brownie swallowed a few mouthfuls and cried for its mother. Then, for the next hour, they sat with her under the shade of an old oak tree, stroking, pleading, waiting, and searching for answers.
Two days earlier, they had witnessed the harvest of an old rooster – catching and hanging it upside down from a tree limb. They were both fascinated and repulsed at the sight of blood spilling from the farmer’s knife, at the smell of feathers dunked in boiling water, at the feel of warm liver separated from the rooster’s insides. It was a harvest they would always remember.
A baby goat is very different from an old rooster. The rooster, we explained, enjoyed a long life on the farm. His time had come; we fed him and now he would feed us. But a soft four-legged newborn — the hand that took its life we could neither see nor grasp. Any answers had to come from ourselves, and so the morning slipped away as the routine of camp surrendering to the sweaty drama of death on a farm in summer.
“Is it dead yet?” the campers kept asking as Brownie lay flat and still at their feet. “No, not yet.”
We carried Brownie back to the pen. All her mother’s nudging and bleating could not make him move. Only now did we fully understood the doubleness of this loss and what began next was a debate over who we should be saddest for – the baby or the mother.
Neither time nor wisdom intervened on our behalf. But flies did. They have a way of cutting things short. As does rigor mortis and cooling flesh.
Out of habit, the farmer’s attention turned to disposal, to the fast and efficient way of the compost pile. The children’s tender mercies, however, gave him pause. He was so used to the farm’s cycle of life and death he nearly forgot that once upon a time it was up close and personal for him, too. These kids – all of them – deserved better. A meaningful and deliberate burial was demanded.
Before lunch we gathered for a meeting in the children’s garden. Sunflowers were cut and passed around. We talked and shared and explained how the farm gives and the farm takes away, how the dead also feed the living by nourishing the soil.
The farmer dug a hole in the steaming compost pile. Tender hands touched its steaming contents, awed by heat even hotter than the beating sun. A procession worthy of an Easter service followed the goat to his microbial grave. One by one, the flowers were laid on the straw. Farewells were made.
“Long live the soil,” a camper sang out.
Such is how the soil lives.