As I was talking on the phone (about social dynamics!), I observed one of the ranch hands walk across the base-yard and put something into the new chicken run that my brother had made for his motley flock of egg-layer breed roosters the day before. My brother is indulging a long-suppressed passion for chickens. I really do not know what he was thinking buying one hundred and fifty rooster chicks even if they were only a dollar a chick. We sold some but he still has about seventy little roosters left. It turned out that what the ranch-hand threw into the baby rooster mosh-pit was a juvenile gamecock. Which is about like throwing a velociraptor in with some triceratops toddlers. Or a gladiator in with the peasants. The little layer roosters were running from one end of the chicken run to the other as the gamecock stalked back and forth, neck-feathers frilled open, pecking at them. Just then my brother came along with his son to put up some roosts in the rooster pen. I pointed out the new rooster and the deleterious effects he was having on the social order. My brother is fascinated by animals but is not terribly sensitive to their emotional needs, so strong pointing-out is often required. His son joined me in advocating for the removal of the fighting rooster. My brother caught him and I put him in a box, meaning to take him home where I have a pen with a couple of Muscovy drakes and a Boer goat – none of whom would be terrorized by a fighting chicken. I set the box in the bed of my truck. The rooster was making soft clucking noises. I remembered that I needed to scan a couple of documents and stepped back inside the office, in which time, less than a minute, my Catahoula hound – a very good, dutiful dog, if allowances are made for his ragin’ Cajun pedigree – jumped into the bed of the truck, broke into the box and bit the rooster. Fatally, mortally. Dead rooster.
I scolded the dog severely but I don’t blame him. He was just being a dog. Chickens and bunnies, and things like that are irresistible to even the most attenuated sort of canine, much less A Red-blooded Catahoula Hound. It was my fault for getting distracted and not fore-seeing the potential for disaster.
It seems emblematic of the kind of life I’ve chosen, this little nothing micro-drama amongst animals, all of us trying to live, defend or attack, express ourselves with all of our instincts, drives, natural endowments of fur, feather, fang, opposable thumb and neo-cortex. My life, and livelihood as a rancher, is situated directly in the trophic cascade – the flow of predator and prey, eater and eaten – energy and matter, life and death in transformation through soil, water, micro-organisms, plants, and animals. I try to manage the tangle of lives. It is a deeply unfashionable and mis-understood endeavor right smack in the middle of everything that makes our civilization works but somehow considered quaint and backwards. Our agricultural systems are an inherited but evolving knowledge of how to build structures, organize people, and shape landscapes in order to feed our ever-more complex and resource-hungry civilization. It is a tradition of design and practice and re-design, a four-dimensional art-form and science in which life is the medium and the material. It is, unfortunately, an art-form that is too much taken for granted and viewed as a mere utility. It is an art-form that has been de-graded, especially in the last hundred years, into an exercise in maximizing natural resource extraction, and over-run by a productionist ideology that discourages consideration of environmental consequences. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be a way of creating beauty and nurturing life; it is a way that requires a Zen concentration, a warrior’s courage and endurance, and a vigilant compassion. It is a way in which one must pick oneself up from failure all the time – the failure of a dead rooster in one’s hand – and keep on trying.
We are all living in strange times – a black swan (rooster?) pandemic has thrown our civilization into disarray, but this disruption is happening within the context of critical environmental degradation, of which climate change is just one symptom, brought about by a short-term-focused, extractivist economic system. We are at an inflection point and are faced with a choice between doubling down on extraction in hope of Hail Mary technological break-throughs that free us from planetary limits (some combination of nuclear fusion, geo-engineering, and space colonization?), or the equally difficult project of finding new ways to live that do not depend on ever-increasing extraction, environmental degradation and pollution. Will we turn to nurturing life rather than maximizing extraction; learning to live gracefully within the limits of a living world rather than ignoring or trying to overcome those planetary limits? It is hard to see how any one person can make a difference in making that turn, but engaging with life at whatever scale – a houseplant, a pet, a back-yard garden, a farm or a ranch, a conservation project, a green-space – is essential practice for making that turn to another way of living on this earth. It is a demanding and difficult path, fraught with unforeseeable failures of design and outcome, but it also the more responsible, more joyful, more equitable, and, not least, the more rational choice.