Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cattle Farm Ruminations (pun intended)

Late last night I received a text from a neighbor indicating that a mountain lion may have been spotted in our back pasture yesterday afternoon, chasing a deer. (No, mountain lions are not spotted-- let’s more clearly state that it may have been seen.) Other neighbors voiced skepticism, noting that they have lived here for thirty years and never seen a cougar down this low into the farmland, though they have seen cougars while riding horses in the hills not far from here. (Again, to be clear, it was the people, not the cougars, riding the horses. All kinds of fun misunderstandings you can create with this English language, aren’t there?) At any rate, whether there actually was a cougar in our pasture yesterday or not, the very thought brings up an interesting question: Would you want to live in a place where the sighting of a cougar… or a coyote, skunk, or porcupine… is not an impossible occurrence? Are you willing to risk the loss of a pet cat or goat, some ill smells, or occasional quills in your dog’s nose? You can probably guess my answer-- after all, just such a place is where I am choosing to live. And, quite frankly, the howl of the coyotes at night thrills me to the core.

I am reminded of a conversation I had as a graduate student with a ranch owner, as I stood at her front door asking permission to look at the ground squirrel population on her property. She could not understand why in the world I would be concerned about those little varmints in her pasture that created holes that could break the leg of a calf. (Meaning, of course, not the calf part of a leg, but the legs of baby cattle.) I truly did sympathize with the personal and financial loss broken calf legs would mean for her and her family. She had to make sure she could make ends meet each year, and a reduction in the number of calves could have devastating financial consequences. I sympathize with her situation even more now that my family is raising calves on our small farm, hoping they will stay healthy and grow large. (Although, I personally wouldn’t mind a reduction in the size of my calves of the non-cattle variety, if you know what I mean.)

Because my grandfathers were farmers, I know that farmers and ranchers are usually people who care about their animals and who love the land and being close to it. Many of them have a deep, even spiritual, connection with the land and a down-to-earth (of course) understanding of where their blessings come from. My own love for the land and its Creator stems from my farming heritage. Similarly, as I stood on the front step and spoke with the rancher that day, it was clear that she was a kind and good person, and I understood her concerns for her animals and her way of life. However, I tried, with very little success, to expand her vision a little bit to future generations by explaining the role those “varmints” play on her ranch. I explained that ground-dwelling rodents are very important in soil aeration, water infiltration, and bringing nutrients under the soil, resulting in increased plant productivity. Studies have shown that when rodents are removed from grazed lands, the soil becomes more compacted and less productive over time, and weedier, less-nutritious plants, like cheat grass, are more likely to take over. Rodents also provide a food base for larger animals, such as badgers, snakes, weasels, owls and hawks. “And who wants those?” some would ask. So we are back to the same question we asked about the cougar: Do you want to live in a world with a diversity of species, or do you want a “safe” world of cheat grass, cattle, and starlings? The catch is that such a simplified world would not be safe at all: without biological diversity, a natural system is not resilient to catastrophic events in the short term, nor is it sustainable in the long term. In other words, if this rancher wanted her farm to be viable and productive by the time her great-grandchildren inherit it, she would need to leave the ground squirrels right where they were and put up with one or two broken calf legs each year. But no one wants to hear that when their concern is turning a profit this year. Surely there are situations in which some (hopefully moderate) forms of pest control become necessary and appropriate for crop or animal production. It’s a very complex and sticky issue, and the answers are not always clear-cut. But in our efforts for better production in the short term, we must not leave an impoverished landscape behind us, or we will undo our own well-being in the long run.

In the end, this woman, while admitting that I seemed like a good-hearted person, indicated that I was wasting my good intentions on the wrong causes. I went away disheartened and wondering what my own farmer grandfather would think of me going from ranch to ranch asking about their ground squirrels. At another location, the farmer allowed me to study the ground squirrels in one of his fields, while across the road, he set about poisoning a different species of ground squirrel in another field. We worked within sight of each other, on opposite sides of the road, one of us to preserve and the other to eradicate. Yet the few conversations we had were pleasant and friendly, centering around our shared love of the land. Each of us starts with a different understanding, a different inheritance of experience and teaching, and there are no easy questions when it comes to how we are best going to use the beautiful creations God has given us. But each of us must at the very least be aware of the level of reverence we hold in our hearts for what we have been given, the freedom God has afforded us in using it as we will, and the ultimate accounting we surely will be asked to make for why we lived as we did.

If a cougar really does show up in our back pasture, and when we inevitably lose a cat to a coyote or a hawk, I hope I will always return thanks to the Creator for His diverse, interconnected, and magnificent creatures and the chance I have to watch His wondrous systems in action. I trust that He knows what He’s doing, and that He put each of these things here for a reason.