Life on the farm breeds its own disasters

A pet peeve of mine has always been when folks freak out when something goes mildly awry and proclaim, “It’s a disaster!” Like when you give their beloved German shepherd a summer haircut and it doesn’t come out quite as good as you’d hope or you accidentally mow down their Siberian iris bed. I admit, I probably have this experience of people declaring disasters around me more than most (since I’m not averse to trying my hand at the dog clippers to save some money) and so when these declarations of disaster come up, it is often personal. Eager to set the record straight, I’ve always been very quick to point out that the sky is not falling and that perhaps they need some perspective.


Betsy sits on her farm and wonders whether the sky is really falling.

Hurricane Katrina, the Joplin tornado, the Colorado wildfires, this heat wave — now those are disasters.

I was reminded of this pet peeve when I was at my desk, approving grants the Petfinder Foundation is providing to the awesome organizations responding to the Colorado wildfires. I looked out my office window and saw one of our silly Guinea hens racing back and forth along the fence, beating down a trail in the grass about 10 feet long. Since Guineas often forget to look up, forget they can fly, and never go more than about 10 feet from their loved ones, any complicated
barrier (like an ill-placed gate 15 feet this way or that, or a fence taller than eyeball height to a guinea) can present a serious challenge.

In fact, this Guinea, whose best friends were on the other side of the
fence pacing nervously on her behalf, was certain all was about to be
lost. And boy, was she letting the world know, squawking the Guinea
She reminded me of a few people I have known. Finally, I couldn’t take
it anymore. She was so pitiful. No matter my external perspective, it
was clear that from inside her bird brain she was suffering a disaster
as sure as if the earth had opened and she was cut off from her friends
by a giant chasm.

I hit “save” on the document I was working on and trudged out to
encourage her to go the five extra feet to freedom. No dice; she was
too focused on her friends. I needed to choreograph this better. First I
needed to get her friends in position further down the fence by the
gate. To the garage for some bird food I went.

Once her friends
were whistling happily over their pile of birdseed, I returned to the
backyard and opened the gate for the lonely Guinea. Now with her friends
repositioned, she had a straight and unencumbered path to them.

She disagreed; I was in her way. Guineas are only begrudgingly
domesticated and some remain wild-ish their entire lives. So, off I went
to find a board to prop the gate open so I could shoo her from behind
and through.

When I returned, I found her even more distraught
because not only was she still separated from her friends, but now they
were getting gourmet snacks without her! Finally, with the gate propped
open, success!

When I finally made it back to my desk, an hour had
elapsed. How had that taken an hour?! Now there was no way I was going
to be finished in time to make dinner for my family.
And somewhere in the back of my mind I heard a tiny, panicky
voice say, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” I was declaring
myself a state of disaster.

A week’s worth of total breakdowns in productivity (my self-worth
Achilles’ heel) collided at that one moment and somehow dinner
constituted disaster. I have a fair share of personal issues, but
short-sightedness is rarely one of them. But it was like groundwater
quietly seeping into your basement, or maybe it was like a tropical
storm that had been building but was never supposed to make landfall.

I realize now that all week I had been in disaster response mode
— triaging my life and obligations. I was surrounded by a swarm of
crises, that, when experienced all together equaled a very localized,
but very real for me, disaster zone. And I wonder if, to outside
observers, I looked as much like my poor Guinea as I felt. The week had
fallen off its track in small increments.

We have a busy farm, but we have a system that usually allows
for happy family time, animal care, and lots of business meetings. For
instance, re: pet care on a normal week, the senior horses need daily
medicines; Angus-the-sheep gets a special breakfast with his meds; Jake
expects to go to the dog park daily; and the birds need to be locked up
in the evening by seven to protect them from the coyote. It is a lot to
remember, but it’s rewarding.

But here’s what happened last week:

Angus got a new pain med (Yea!) — an injection (Boo!). Angus
doesn’t like shots and, sometimes, he has just said no, removing his
280-lb. loveable self from the ugly work of pain management. This time,
he took the syringe right along with him, dangling from his armpit
(mocking my ineptitude at shot-giving). The ensuing cautious chase, with
me cajoling, and brow-beating myself, was just par for the course for
the week to come.

Then Jake-the-dog went to his annual veterinary visit and had to
return the next day and the next because his turbocharged behavior was,
let’s say, “inconsistent” with getting a thorough exam. More moving and
adjusting meetings (and expectations).

Mid-week I got a sign that there was really bad juju in the air.
We found a Guinea hen dead in the pasture. We were in the midst of this
deadly heat wave, but she had water and shade available. Were they just
out of her myopic reach?

Then the brazen coyote switched his usual routine. He walked up
to our patio at 9:30 in the morning and took one of our oldest chicken
friends right in front of us. So now we’re going to keep the disgruntled
ladies locked up until late morning. Love going to the barn. Hate
hustling to the barn in the five minutes between phone meetings.

The next day the heat got to sweet old Macie-the-goat. It was a
no-brainer to hijack our own day with several trips to the barn to
coerce (on lead) Macie and the gang to the water spigot for a shower,
which they hate. At the sight of the hose, they erupted into goat salsa
dancing that ensured that we got much wetter than they did. Cancel
afternoon meetings. We were soaked and tired, and my toe hurt (goats
make very bad salsa partners).

Old Mort requires daily meds.

following day, Macie started coughing. More rescheduling to make space
in the day for another vet appointment (the seventh that week!), which
revealed some sort of pneumonia — scary for an oldster.

(Did I mention that my favorite little beakless red hen is broody? If you don’t know already, read here why that is a scheduling disaster, albeit a cute one.)

there I was, in disaster response mode with no real disaster and no
plan and, frankly, no one else even recognized my disaster (except maybe
my husband, by the crazy look in my eye).

On my way back through the yard after a routine barn visit last
week, I found myself feeling envious of the shelter people getting to
help out with the wildfires. They have a plan. A guidebook. They know
that the disaster will pass and, in fact, one of these days their
director or someone in their town will declare the disaster response
officially over.

But my experience on my little farm of rescued animals (and that
of most chronic foster parents or shelter workers and volunteers, or
heck, heads of households in general) has no end in sight — thankfully.
We overachievers are perched precariously on the edge of our own
personal disasters all the time. It is a lifestyle choice, but one
high-spirited dog that needs a re-appointment can tip the entire
work-week into chaos.

I never, ever lose sight that there is someone out there who has
it far worse than me. In fact, I’m so lucky. I’m surrounded by beauty
and kindness every day. But in the pits of being overwhelmed by a
landslide of sad, inconvenient, or annoying events, knowing that you are
lucky is simply not comforting. Knowing that others have it worse than
you (are suffering real disasters) cramps the style of your pity-party.

now I’m thinking that maybe the people and Guineas who are quick to say
the sky is falling are doing right by themselves. By declaring a
disaster, maybe they are giving themselves permission to enact “response
mode,” engage the plan, and ask for help. When I watch the farm animals
it is very clear that the definition of disaster is very relative to
the soul in the middle of it. Perspective is everything.

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