It was a dreadful Easter Sunday. Water shattered against the windows of our cabin while we stirred underneath the covers debating whether or not we should get up. Pondering, should we just stay home?
Matt scrolled through his iPhone, reading about churches which had congregated at drive-in theaters and were subsequently slapped with fines for not social distancing.
“Why can I go to Sonic in my car, but not to church?” he said.
I agreed with his point, and so although neither of us had been to church in ages, we decided to dispatch from the comfort of our bed and get dressed for Sunday service at the Pink Cadillac Drive-In.
Half an hour later Matt emerged from the bathroom wearing the only suit jacket he owned. The last time he wore it he was taking a different stand—evicting tenants from the trailer he bought and they destroyed.
He was Johnny Cash if Johnny Cash had the circumference of a twig. I imagined they were alike in their mannerisms. All intention, no fluff.
As I unraveled the pantyhose up my leg a pot of water boiled on the stove with a vengeance, like it had an axe to grind with the pot. I poured its contents into the French press and we waited a few minutes for the coffee grinds to steep.
“I’ll grab a Bible if you grab the coffee.” Matt ran out the door and tried to evade the pelting precipitation bursting from the sky.
We met each other in the car.
When we arrived at the drive-in the gates were still closed. Some cars idled, but the people inside avoided eye contact. If we didn’t look at each other, were we really near each other? Were we really refusing to follow the recommendations?
A forest green Subaru pulled in and a brunette woman in a floral dress fumbled with a set of keys until she found the one to unlock the gate. After retreating from the rain back into her driver’s seat, she led the line of cars through the entrance and into an open field.
The sign at the drive-in entrance had the names of the last movies that had been shown there--The Incredibles and Up, both animated films for children. Paint was chipping around the edges of the wooden frame and the title Up looked wonky. What was supposed to be a magnetized “p” was an upside down “d.”
We pulled into the first row next to an elderly gentleman in a white truck. He was smoking a cigarette, the window cracked half a centimeter to release a stream of smoke.
The lady with the keys retrieved a music stand from her trunk and laid a couple sheets of songs on it. A man, the preacher, joined her and they fished microphone cords around their bodies; his to the lapel of his plaid button-up and hers to the collar of a raincoat.
If times were normal, I’d be sitting in the second to last pew of the First Christian Church my parents attend in Indiana. My youth group leaders from high school would beam like it was graduation day again. I’d listen to platitudes like “you look so grown up” and satisfy curiosities about my new life in Nashville before our family get-together in an outbuilding at the county fairgrounds.
But times aren’t normal, and I’m here with Matt listening to a preacher I don’t know talk about a story I’ve heard at least 27 times. The story about the arrest, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
“It was a terrible Saturday,” the preacher proclaimed. “It was a dark and desperate Saturday that made way for a bright and hopeful Sunday.”
Matt spent one hour collecting wood from various spots around the property.
He found three A-frames in the shed which sat at the cusp of the forested holler (hollow, for the northerners). A stack of 2x4s, salvaged from a mobile home that burnt down years before he bought the land, were stashed underneath the deck that was falling apart.
We would fix it if we had the money. But we didn’t, which is why we chose the DIY route for this project in the first place.
He piled the materials onto the deck where we planned to construct the chicken run and coop.
After two hours of cutting wood into appropriate sizes, it took him the rest of the afternoon to assemble the frame and wrap it once around in chicken wire.
“I’m not going to get this done in time,” he said. His t-shirt was off, exposing his sinewy back. Sweat trickled like a stream between the jagged crevices of his shoulder blades.
He looked disheveled, defeated, desperate from the deadends that had been disguised as shortcuts.
We were preparing to pick up a New Zealand rabbit in Clarksville and three hens in Lebanon. It was 3 in the afternoon and we needed to leave by 4 so we could beat rush hour—if that even still existed.
It had been three weeks since Matt lost his Broadway gigs, since my living room became my office and my couch my desk.
The pandemic had changed our routines and it looked like we might be home more often for a while. What better time to start a small farm?
I wasn’t raised on a farm, but I’ve always been attracted to the farm lifestyle.
From a second-story bedroom in my parents’ suburban home, I had dreamed of roosters crowing and pigs sloshing through the mud.
But that was too messy, too chaotic for my street, which consisted of crisp-cut lawns and roofs with frequently-replaced shingles. You would never see Christmas lights up past New Year’s in that neighborhood.
Here, refrigerators parked on front porches and laundry baskets littered lawns. This place, which is somewhere between “Little House on the Prairie” and “Shameless”, doesn’t ask for your acknowledgement. It doesn’t care if you notice it. Move in or move on.
“The coop is fine for now,” I said to Matt. “We’ll keep the chickens in my dog crate and you can finish it in the morning.”
He doesn’t like to leave projects half-finished. It reminds him of his limitations, of his powerlessness to time and space.
We brought the animals home while racing against a storm. The wind started picking up as we pulled into the cul-de-sac. In the dark we stumbled up the steps to the front porch, each carrying a cardboard box--temporary housing for our new farm animals.
Before we left, we staged two cages in one of two unfinished spare bedrooms in Matt’s single-wide trailer. This would be their home for the evening.
The next morning Matt put the finishing touches on the chicken coop. Placing each bird into it felt like a separate victory.
We gave them nesting boxes, water, and food, then considered our job of starting the animal side of our farm operation a success.
Over the next few days our mornings were predictable and scheduled.
Wake up at 7. Feed the rabbits and hens. Peer eagerly like a meerkat into the coop for any oval-shaped eggs. Select a bunny from one of the crates, gripping it in the crook of our arms with the firmness of a weightlifter’s hands around his barbell.
Throughout my work days, I would shut my laptop periodically to refill water and add more grain to the hens’ tin-can food dishes.
On one such break, I opened the coop to a freshly laid egg. Matt and I celebrated by assembling a spring salad of radish greens, lettuce, various foraged greens, and the egg, hardboiled.
We spent Friday night creating a webpage for the rabbits. Matt planned to sell some soon. His financial plans were becoming more concrete. My dream of owning chickens was finally a reality.
We rested our heads on pillows and the promise of potential.
The next morning, Matt woke up early.
“Stay in bed.” He didn’t have to tell me twice!
My circadian rhythm betrayed me, so I scrolled through my phone evading coronavirus articles like a middle school nerd playing dodgeball in gym class.
Ten minutes later Matt returned. His footsteps lingered longer on the down stride than usual. I thought it was strange that he was ascending the stairs. I figured he was making me breakfast in bed.
We’ve been together long enough that surprises are usually one of a few small luxuries we afford ourselves, like 50 percent off candy after holidays and long drives with a splash of bourbon in our coffee.
He melted onto the side of the bed and his eyes were downcast.
“They’re all gone,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“A pack of wild dogs got them.”
“Got who? The chickens?”
“The chickens, the rabbits, all of them,” he replied.
In one week, we gained everything and lost everything.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your first animal, your newest animal, the animal you’ve had the longest, or the animal who gave you the most trouble. Losing a farm animal is hard.
When you get your first farm animal, you’re prepared for the slaughter. You can ensure it is dispatched quickly and without pain. You’re in control of the knife that slices through the chicken’s neck. You pull the trigger on the BB gun that ejects a pellet into the rabbit’s skull.
Nothing ever quite prepares you for losing your animals to a predator.
And typically, if you lose one, you lose several. A flock of chickens, a colony of rabbits, a herd of cattle.
It’s hard to describe the mixture of feelings that overcome you following a loss this sudden--and almost always gruesome.
First, there’s the guilt. We should have been more alert. Why didn’t we test the coop more?
Then there’s the doubt. Were we really ready to take this step? Maybe we were too naive, too big for our britches. Perhaps we just aren’t cut out for this whole homesteading thing.
Lastly, there’s the mourning. We began remembering the time we had with our animals. Although brief, Matt and I had become accustomed to the sounds of flapping wings, excited chirping, and rapid thumping when we approached our animals bearing grain and greens.
There are people in this world and in this country—people with very loud voices—who believe owning farm animals is not only bad for the environment, but also morally reprehensible. I’m willing to bet none of these people have ever actually owned and cared for a farm animal.
They haven’t rushed to finish an early morning feeding before taking a work call. They haven’t turned down the opportunity to go on vacation with their significant other because one of them must stay home to tend to the animals. They haven’t cleaned out rabbit poop and watched as it immediately provided the necessary nutrients to boost plants in a garden. And they sure as hell haven’t held a lifeless bunny in one hand and grasped a bunch of bloody feathers in the other.
To experience owning farm animals is to never advocate against it. You have to realize there are more people like you who care about animals and their well-being than there are people who will use animals simply as a means to an end.
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains their responses to this way of living clearly. The less these ultracrepidarians know about animal ownership and farming, the more competent they believe they are and the more they try to push their views on others. Unfortunately, they push their views on very influential people such as politicians and CEOs--who also know very little about subject matter—which leads to a grossly misinformed public and drastically misrepresented narratives about animal husbandry.
But I digress.
At the end of our dreadful Sunday when our meat, eggs, and manure production came to a dead stop, our neighbor walked over to see how we were doing. He heard the clatter of tools and planters as we cleaned the blood from the walls and floor of our shed that morning. He saw the garbage bags full of animal remains and bloodied paper towels. He knew we weren’t well.
He extended his arms and in his hands were three pounds of beef from the cattle farm where he worked—now only part-time due to COVID cuts. We knew his family was hurting then too. These three pounds of beef could be all they had on the table if the world didn’t return to normal soon.
But we also realized in that moment the power of loss to bring people together. Loss provides an opportunity to do right by others, to act on principle when you could otherwise relish in your comparative fortune.
It’s far easier to grieve your loss when you surround yourself with a community who understands its impact on you.