The payoff of going through the transition from the House of the Tribe to the House of Humanity is very large. If we can make it across the painful threshold from our small but formerly comfortable dwelling space into this new and grander place, we gain an entire fascinating WORLD of people.
People to learn from, to visit, to photograph, to love, to sing to, to listen to, to argue with, to trade with, even to combine talents and efforts with, so as to accomplish great and noble tasks. The United Nations, the International Space Station and the Olympics are all House of Humanity works – absolutely impossible to accomplish in any smaller House.
Part of stepping across these metaphorical thresholds is the simple fact of outgrowing our present abode. We grow through all the available rooms of our self-absorbed childhood house until we are forced by the limited space to look for something better.
Another factor, though, is the supply of friendly guides who are already there, who convince us of the benefits and serve as role models or mentors.
Still another part of it, though, can be exterior forces that push us through. This type of transition can be decidedly un-smooth. In all too many places on our planet, we engage in dreadful activities – wars and genocide – which, because of their universality, appear to be House of Humanity works. Instead, they are the expressions of a determination not to step through a door into the next larger House. Think of a war as a defensive attempt to stay in your own tribal House. To do it by subjugating others to your way of life if you have the strength or, if you don’t, to convince them to leave you alone.
Moving out into the House of Family, we look back and discover that the House of Self is a tiny dollhouse. The House of the Tribe sheds the same sort of light on the House of Family. As we continue to grow, taking each transition in turn through these one-way doors, we look back and always find another dollhouse – a place too small for us to live in anymore.
Once we get to the House of Humanity, though, it’s hard to imagine it as a just another dollhouse. Learning to live in it is the job of lifetimes. The place is simply too big, too changeable, for us to ever really absorb it all. Surely this House must be the final one, the ultimate possibility we were born to experience. How could there be anything beyond a bustling, turbulent, creative seven-billion-member brotherhood?
I have reason to believe there is at least one more door, though.
There’s a great deal missing, even in this grandest of Houses. Having lived for all my adult years with the enormous mass of mankind around me, I’ve come to see that we in the House of Humanity are just as self-involved and self-absorbed as any of the occupants of those smaller houses. We are inward-looking and largely ignorant of what might lie outside.
More than that, nothing in the House of Humanity can account for the connection that clicked into place with Molly.
Molly was my key to this next door, but it took me more than a decade to figure out how to step through it. Even with plenty of people gone before me – through portals of compassion or ecological concern – making the transition was no small chore.
In the midst of all the wonderful things I’m discovering here in this new House, I look back and see, to my dismay, that the apparently boundless dwelling place of most of the people on the planet really is just another dollhouse. Busily engaged in the inbred affairs of the House of Humanity, most of us are unaware there is a larger space in which to adventure and learn, a place wider and more interesting than anything we’ve had – a place that will welcome us as the larger selves we could become, a place that has a real need for our human talents.
This is a House that can’t be complete without us, but that needs an “us” as we’ve never been.
The discomforts of this particular transition are stronger than any before, and the main one, as ever, is leaving behind the old. Old toys, old culture, old ways of thought. But as we take our place AMONG the other creatures of Earth rather than over them or apart from them, one of the many payoffs is a kinship, a sense of belonging, off the scale of anything we’ve ever known.
Someday I WILL write that book I spoke of earlier. I’ll tell what I’ve learned about the Big Picture, and lay out clear directions for how to get to this bigger place beyond that final door.
It will be a collection of conceptual highlights, the way-points and directional signs that facilitated my own escape from the last dollhouse, and out into the House of Earth.
As you’ve probably already figured out, there are other steps in this bigger-house progression. At some point we discover the door to yet another Outside, and find that our original family home is only a small part of a bigger place – our neighborhood or culture. For want of a better name, call this dwelling place the House of the Tribe.
Again, there’s an uncomfortable period of adaptation in settling-in to this larger space. To become a full member of our tribe, we have to learn to say the right things at the right times, to sing the right songs and make the right pledges. We have to wear the right clothes – the right boots, pants, shirts, hats and belt buckles. We have to learn the right secret handshake – and so many more things. We may even have to have the right parts of our bodies ritually scarred, or tattooed, or cut off.
Historically speaking, this is about as far as most of us get. Throughout history, this tribal house, the house of our people, was almost always plenty big enough, providing us with friends, family, jobs, pleasant recreations (such as badminton, or hunting the heads of the tribesmen in the next valley) and challenges (all the Scouting merit badges, a Phi Beta Kappa pin, a lion skin of our very own), and a ceiling high enough to fulfill all our aspirations.
Every transition out of our currently-familiar place is attended by severe discomfort. That next door always opens out into a much, much larger place, and we have to learn a bunch of new things – the serious and difficult and sometimes frightening work of which can be forced on us long before the advantages become obvious. And again, we have to unlearn some things – we have to go against some of our earlier training.
One of the stumbling blocks to growth beyond the House of the Tribe is the nature of culture itself. Your culture buoys you up in many ways, providing the comfortable support of predictability. On the other hand, it also chops off your wild flights of fancy and drags you back from uncommon insights. Cultures endure because they actively oppose their members growing beyond them, from coming up with anything new. I remember showing up at a friend’s spread in Texas one time, wearing some loose comfortable shoes instead of the cowboy boots we all usually wore. In less than ten seconds, he’d fixed me with an incredulous eye and asked “Where’d yew git them pimpy shoes?”
Our culture also actively discourages the “us” from mixing in any way with the “them.” To move beyond our Tribal House, we have to unlearn the “us-them” lesson. We have to learn that other people, the ones who have before now been the not-Us, are somehow related to us and worthy of equal treatment.
Talk about culture shock! They speak the wrong language, they eat weird, smelly foods, they’re different colors … and as far as we can tell, they don’t know a darned thing about the appropriate way to act. Even worse, they act as if they have a RIGHT to be all different. They don’t seem to have any desire to learn the correct ways to act and talk and eat. They sometimes even treat us as if WE are supposed to learn THEIR ways.
They have no idea that their women should be covered head to toe, or that there is a specific little hat to wear on Saturday, or that you eat hot dogs and beer (and not noodles, for chrissake!) at baseball games, or that you have to read this book and not that one, and you have to believe in this mystical superbeing – the real one – and not all those silly others.
The process holds an uncomfortable mirror up to our own lives. It can never be easy to learn, in stepping out into this next larger house, that our clothes are no better than theirs. To discover that our secret handshake, which gave us the intense inner feeling of belonging, is no better or worse than any other secret handshake; it is simply ours. The cosmetic and surgical alterations that we so laboriously prepared for and painfully endured – the nose-bone, the ivory ear plugs, the giant stainless steel earrings, the circumcision, the Harley tattoos, the nipple-rings – are (at best) simple curiosities or (at worst) objects of disgusted fascination to most of those other people. Worst of all, the universe seems to falter in its course as we learn that the God of Everything is only a garden-variety myth, one among many, and completely unknown just over the hill.
If we’re lucky enough, though, and persistent enough, and perhaps if we live in a society where enough adventurous rogues have found the next door and learned the advantages of stepping through it, we can move out into what has to be the biggest house of all – the House of Humanity.
Picture a house. Not a real house, but a kind of metaphor-house, the place where your inner life takes place. The rooms inside are furnished with your everyday thoughts, feelings and understandings.
In this particular house, there are secret doors. People can tell you that they’re there, but you never believe them, because you can’t see the doors, or any hint of them. Picture every little boy who has stoutly declared that he would never, ever want to eww, yuck, kiss a little girl. But then one day, maybe you step on certain metaphorical boards in just the right combination, or you lean against a place you never leaned against before — or maybe you just get old enough to finally see it — and a door pops open in a wall that you darned well never suspected of having a door.
Through that door is something new – a spacious and surprising new place. Suddenly there’s more to your life than you ever thought there could be.
My cowboy friend Jay, who invited me to this branding, related one of his own surprise door-openings, triggered by the birth of his son. This tough western fellow, who spent his long, long days riding horses, working cattle, fixing fence, hauling hay, moving sluice gates to and fro in grazing pasture irrigation ditches, and the ten thousand other body-wearying chores that real cowboying entails, woke up on just another morning as one person, but went to bed that night as somebody very different. On this day, a delivery-room nurse handed him his new son… and one of those doors popped open.
An actress in a soapy chick-flick would’ve had better dialogue for describing the tenderness, the protectiveness, the expanded sense of responsibility, the completely new kind of love that my friend told me blossomed within him, but the meaning was the same, and as clearly understood, in the words that he did manage.
How far back must these surprise door-openings go? What do you find if you travel back to the earliest part of your life? Somewhere back there is the little place where lived the original you, the newborn which was your start. Self-interested, self-absorbed, that first-of-all you existed within an abode which contained nothing but you and the things that served your needs and desires.
Born with an all-encompassing selfishness, this original You could have imagined nothing else but the importance of MY dry diaper, MY hunger, MY toys, MY party.
Call this origin-place the House of Self.
Some manage to get through life without growing very far beyond it. For most of us, though, the growing-beyond is one of our first major life steps. We come to see the totally self-absorbed people, the ones who don’t make it out, as tragically arrested, cut off from many of life’s joys.
For most of us, though, there comes a time when living entirely within the confines of that one house, however many rooms we have found in it, no longer fills our needs. The door we one day find opens not to a new room, but out of the house entirely. We step outside and discover that our former dwelling place is, rather than the center of everything, a mere dollhouse resting within a much bigger structure. In this bigger house are other people – our mother and father, brothers and sisters – and some of the stuff here is theirs.
We have to take notice of their rooms – THEIR possessions, THEIR needs, THEIR schedules – and it can be a costly and dismaying experience. In this new, bigger house we have to learn many new things – and unlearn many others. The payoff, though, is the gaining of mutual closeness and interconnected caring that greatly enlarges our lives. And a much more interesting world to live in.
Over time, we learn to live in this, the House of Family.
This kind of thought wasn’t completely new for me – I confess I’d dwelt many times on the fortunes of other men, wistful and envious of the assets they enjoyed.
“What would it be like to be him?” I had asked myself, him way up there with all that money, with a daddy who provides private airplanes and the family’s own airport, with new trucks and horses and jet skis and scuba diving lessons there for the asking.
“What would it be like to be him?” … riding high, the life of the party, the totally unselfconscious, self-assured fellow who plays pool like a master, drives cars like a professional racer, rides horses and ropes calves like a rodeo champion.
“What would it be like to be him?” … towering above toads like me, with that tall muscular body, with such good looks and so many women hot after him that he callously brushes the discards out of his life every few months.
This, though, was the first time the question had ever been aimed in the other direction, asking “What would it be like to be her?” … not UP there above me, but DOWN there, below me. Down there with all that loneliness.
I shifted in that illuminated second from my one-down perspective, that blunt yearning known so well by the poor, the uncool, the disadvantaged, to a one-up view, the sudden knowledge that I had unintended power over this small creature. It was the same type of thought, but painted now in the colors of sympathy rather than those of envy.
I stood and considered the consequences of this new idea. How would it feel, I wondered from this new perspective, to care about what her life was like? How would it feel to do something about it?
I called her back over, and she came, very reluctantly. Suspiciously. Worriedly.
I stroked her head and neck tentatively and she cringed under my hand. I petted her some more, telling her what a good dog she was. She relaxed a fraction. I scratched behind her ears, and stroked along the length of her back. She leaned against me, snuggling up close. I dug my fingers gently into her fur, roughing it up and scratching down her side. She flopped down in the grass. I slapped her shoulder a couple of times, stroked the side of her face. She rolled over onto her back. I patted her chest and scratched her belly. She closed her eyes and sighed blissfully.
As I rested there on my knees gently stroking the fur under her chin, reflecting on how little this cost me and yet how it had never occurred to me to do it, she lay there absorbing the touch as if she was a sponge as big as a house, a desert a thousand miles square, and I was the first drop of water she’d felt in a year.
Yet rather than happy I had made the discovery of this new way to look at Molly, I was deeply bothered that I had only now noticed.
I was doubly bothered that this lesson was not in any of my schoolbooks, not in anything my parents had ever told me, not in anything I learned from my friends. In fact, it was just about 180 degrees opposite of anything I got from any of those sources.
To us, animals could be disposable entertainment devices or rare meat walking around on four legs, but they were never anything more. I myself had treated animals as targets, and even found pleasure in it.
I was a hunter once, sort of. My Wicked Stepfather took me up into deer blinds for East Texas’ frigid fall deer season in my teens. I grew up with coon-hunting friends and a peer group of friendly killers to whom hunting of any sort was a threshold of manhood. Later there was an adopted Dad in California who took me out on pack trips into the wilderness and infused me with his deep love of the mountains, and who regaled me with great stories from a lifetime of hunting exploits – of bringing down bear and deer and other difficult and worthwhile game. I had a Ruger .30-06 rifle that I was so proud of – though I no longer own it, I can still picture the matte beauty of its walnut stock, and the shiny perfection of its barrel.
It only happened to me once, but I can tell you what’s it like to see a big muley buck on a hillside across a canyon, and to raise such a rifle to a position firm against your shoulder and cool against your cheek. I can tell you that there is a feral joy in getting that animal in your sights, and I can describe the leap that a hunter’s heart makes at the thought of having that deer. Of owning its life, bringing it down with a shot through the chest. I can tell you what it’s like to visualize bringing it home bloody and gutted, hunter triumphant, full grown Man.
We humans really do have such things in us. A cat readying to pounce on a mouse, all feral intent, teeth and claws ready for the kill, could feel nothing more intense.
But fortunately or unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s like to actually do those things, because I missed the shot. I never got my deer. I never got my bear. Instead, in this luminous moment with Molly, I found this doorway…
For eight years in my 20s and 30s, I was a draft horse teamster at a resort-town ranch, driving a two-up hitch of massive blond Belgians or coal-black Percherons, on a huge hay wagon for mid-summer meadow rides, or on big sleighs that would glide over the high-mountain snow on moonlit winter nights.
Molly was one of the ranch dogs. She was no particular color – a little black, a little brown, a little gray, all mixed up in a dark grizzle. Like most cowdog breeds, she was a sturdy little thing, weighing forty pounds at most and standing about 18 inches high.
She was no great spark in the personality field. Poor Molly was a bit of a slinker – one of those quiet, careful dogs who skirts around the edges of action, waiting to see if it’s safe to be noticed.
And it seemed that “notice,” for Molly, frequently came in the negative form.
Let me say right here that the people who owned the place took very good care of their animals. They were about as good as they could be to their livestock without actually inviting them into the house. Even that rule was suspended for their numerous bobcat-sized Siamese and Manx cats, and a succession of lucky dogs.
But businesses mean employees, and they were not always as enlightened. Molly probably heard “Molly, get out!” and “Molly, get away!” a thousand times. There may even have been a clod of dirt pegged her way at times.
I didn’t have a lot of patience for her myself. She’d seldom come out to meet me in the morning. Never wanted to go along on an adventure. Never wanted to come play, like some of the other dogs. Molly just wasn’t much fun.
But late one day, as I was coming up to the main ranch house from the bunkhouse, Molly somehow connected with me.
She happened to be lying across the trail as I came down it. She nervously thumped her tail on the ground at my approach, but I was in too much of a hurry to bother with her and I said “Look out, dog!” She instantly jumped up and skittered off to the side.
I glanced back at her, though, and saw her trudging slowly away with her whole body a message of dejection. I stopped, suddenly struck by the thought, “What must it be like for her?”
Left out. Never played with. Seldom petted.
Mixed in with all the random moments of your life that pass unremarked and unremembered, there are those sometimes-surprising few that stick with you for a long, long time. Through accident of time and life and human nature, these moments of happiness, or tragedy, or sudden understanding, become the axles around which the rest of your life turns.
Perspectives shift. Things change. Doors open.
Though I had a close friendship with my own canine buddy, Ranger, I was completely unimpressed with Molly. If I had ever cared to think about it, I might have known that there was something missing in her life. I might have said well, from her point of view, if there was such a thing, it would seem that she gets only occasional crumbs of affection. Tiny tag ends of attention, second thoughts, unconscious pats. Half-loves.
But I didn’t care enough to think of that. She was just another… well, dog.
Now, though, slow-motion flashbulbs went off in my head and freeze-framed me where I stood. For the first time ever, I wondered “What would it be like to be Molly?”
After seasons of proving myself at many of the other chores of branding, on this day, I’m in charge of castrations. After the calf slides to a stop and both the heel rope and the top man are firmly in place, I step forward and kneel down by the calf’s belly. I stretch out the scrotum and slice across the lower third of it with a sharp knife. The testicles usually pop out on their own, but sometimes you have to fish around, pressing here and there, to get them to come free. Pulled out several inches, they’re still connected by silvery-blue cords that have to be either carefully scraped through with a knife or cut through with a pliers-like tool that simultaneously severs and crushes them. Skill comes into play here to prevent excessive bleeding. The scraping technique causes the arteries to spasm and close down and takes considerable care to do right; on the other hand the cutting-crushing tool, an emasculatome, is more foolproof, sealing the arteries by intense pressure, and can be used in full confidence by just about anyone with a bit of grip strength.
The bags are sometimes tossed into a pile for counting, sometimes simply thrown away. The testicles go into a separate bucket of water. Depending on whether somebody wants to go the trouble, they’ll be cleaned and frozen later – and yep, people really do eat them.
Needless to say, your hands get bloody right off in this kind of work. The blood dries and sticks to your hands, coats your pantlegs. The testicles are sticky, sometimes adhering to your fingers so that you have to sling your hand vigorously to get them to drop into the collection bucket. Keeping the knife sharp is a constant battle, but as about half the calves are heifers, there’s usually time to keep up with it.
Castration and ear marking is skilled work for two reasons. One is that you want to do the work accurately, and get the calf through it with a minimum of blood and stress. Second is that you are holding a naked razor-sharp blade and a lot of people with other matters taking their full attention want someone they can trust.
The hot hours pass. A dozen or so at a time, we work our way through half the calves.
We break for lunch, shutting down the noisy blast of the propane branding iron furnace, and trooping out to sit on a grassy spot next to a loading chute. Roping horses have their girths loosened, and stand hipshot in the shade of a long trailer. Ranch dogs show up and beg for pieces of our sandwiches, or prospect for edible bits out in the branding corral. We talk horses and heifers (the two-legged kind), old friends and old dogs.
Finally we pry ourselves up from our resting places and go back to the corral, where we rope, drag, tussle, stick, slice, burn. The calves match us move for move with panicked determination – they struggle, buck, squirm, kick, quiver and bawl. We respond by overcoming, enduring or ignoring them.
At the end of the day, all of them are turned out to their still-waiting mothers, and the lot of them are herded off to a distant pasture to rest, graze and recuperate. The rest of us mosey up to the ranch house where dinner’s ready.
I sit down with my plate in a low, loose chair, and am so bone-deep tired that when I discover I don’t have a fork, it’s a good five minutes before I manage to muster the energy to heave myself up and get one.
As I break bread with my friends, again the feeling of kinship – of shared work, of difficult tasks done well, of eating and talking and joking together – washes over me. After a childhood of divorce and moving, a series of different schools and strange new faces, and an eternity with the Stepfather from Hell, here I am in the company of the people who took me in, who allowed me to prove myself. These are people who like and respect me, who value me for my contributions and my company, and who put up with my peccadilloes. Surely no Bar Mitzvah, no tribal rite of manhood in New Guinea or Africa or South America, could do any better job of making a boy feel accepted, validated, even loved.
I am exhausted, but it doesn’t matter. I rest in the comfort of knowing that these are my People, and this is where I belong.
I have wrestled with more than calves today.
Something has nagged at me off and on for many hours. Time after time throughout the waning day, the picture of a little dog named Molly has come into my mind. I’ve drifted back, over and over, to something I learned from her recently, and I’m no longer sure I can justify enjoying the things I’ve done today.
Thanks to Molly, I’m seeing today in a different light. Something has changed in me, some new channel has opened up, and in through it are trickling new thoughts, things I never knew I never knew.
The early end of the beef industry involves a lot of labor at identifying and altering young bovines from their original, mint-condition wholeness to something more in line with human designs, as they make their first transition from free beasties to hamburger-on-the-hoof. The work can be done in sheer industrial efficiency, with metal chutes and shock prods and unconcerned hourly workers, or it can be done by working cowboys, in tune with a romantic but very real vision of the American West.
On this day, with this herd of calves, I’m one of those cowboys. And though I don’t know it quite yet, I myself am undergoing a transition: I’m on the threshold of a new and grander phase of my life. My hand is on the doorknob and here and now is the moment in which I begin to turn it.
As I start the day, I feel deep western pride on the one hand, the heartfelt assertion that the people around me – the men and women in cowboy hats and spurs and chaps, working shoulder to shoulder with me and joking with each other in the solid, friendly voices of the west – are my people, and the things we do are a part of my native culture, a culture of Texas and points west.
The men and women I work with are close friends, and we’re teamed up in a difficult, dirty and physically demanding job. We work side by side in blood and the smell of burning hair, and every hour of such work under the beating western sun is a rite of passage, a bringing-together as profound as any formal ceremony of brotherhood. This is a job, yes, but it is also a way to become one with each other.
Along with that pride, though, is another feeling, something darker. I have yet to identify it, but it ebbs and flows within me throughout the day, the beginning of a quiet guilt, a murky disturbance at doing what I’m doing.
The cattle, by contrast with the many-become-one social consolidation we humans experience on this day, journey in the opposite direction – from oneness to separation. Forcibly parted from the safety and comfort of their herd, a couple of hundred calves are trapped at one end of a large wire holding pen. With their four-legged moms just outside the corral making continuous loud protests, they mill around in confusion.
A cowboy on a horse cuts small groups of them out, to drive a dozen or so at a time into the main corral. Separated now at two removes from the main herd, this small group huddles together even more closely.
Two ropers on horseback work the branding corral. They take turns tossing ropes at calf heels, hopefully snagging both back feet of one specific calf, then instantly dallying up and spurring away to trip the calf onto its side and drag it through the soft arena dirt to the branding fire. There one cowboy jumps on top to hold it down, while several others come forward with syringes, knives and branding iron to inject, inoculate, earmark, de-horn, castrate and brand the little beast.
Every pen of calves has a different pair of ropers working it. Horses and cowboys tire and have to rotate out, to have their places taken by a new team.
It’s not the epitome of efficiency, operating this way. Not every cowpoke on horseback is at the peak of western form. For most of them, this is practice as much as it is work. They only get to do it a couple of times a year, some of them, and it takes a while to work through each pen of calves. The ground helpers spend a certain amount of their time just standing around, waiting patiently as the ropers miss repeatedly. Still, there’s a quiet recognition that everybody has to learn sometime, and a certain amount of friendly joshing helps to pass the time.
Here are the various jobs that must be done and the qualifications it takes to be accepted to do them:
Roping is the most demanding. You’re usually expected to have at least some experience in the sport. Since the object of all this is to get the calves processed with the least stress on them and the least strain on the crew, the quicker the better is the plan. The ideal is a quick toss just in front of a moving calf’s hind legs, so the little critter more or less steps into the open loop himself, then a snapping tug that snugs the rope around both ankles, with a simultaneous dally around the saddlehorn so the roper can spur his horse away with a captured calf dragging at the end of the rope.
Ropers can be older hands who are experts, second- or third-generation youngsters who grew up in the culture but are just learning the craft, western wives or girlfriends who want to try their hand, or rodeo-cowboy friends there to keep in touch with the roots of their arena skills. On days short of manpower it can be friendly neighbors who are drawn by the camaraderie, romance and dust.
Wrasslin’ and pokin’
Wrestling calves is the least demanding of skill, the most demanding of muscle, and kids and neighbors and wanna-bes all get their turn at this. It’s a kind of unspoken testing ground for the newcomers. This is where I got my own start, “throwing” roping calves in practice pens with cowboy buddies back in Texas.
If a dragged calf comes right to you already on its side, all you really have to do is put one knee on its neck, grab the uppermost foreleg and pull it back and up, and hope that the heel rope holds so that flailing back hooves don’t come slashing up at you. A bit of weight helps here, but if you have the technique down, a lightweight like me can do just fine.
If the calf is still on its feet – maybe the rope only caught one back leg – there’s a little cowboy judo thing you can do: snatch the near foreleg below the knee as the calf passes by, whirl the leg back backward and outward, and the calf falls almost magically onto its far side, allowing you to step over its body with the leg still in hand and proceed to the same knee-on-neck posture. Otherwise, there’s a more difficult reach you have to do, more or less enveloping the calf with your arms and body from the top, then picking it up and rotating it in the air so it falls onto its side.
Once you get it on the ground and secured, inoculations come next. A spritz of biological armor goes into both the calf’s nostrils, a human-engineered defense against various respiratory ailments. The spritzer has to have a fresh plastic nozzle for every calf, to keep from inadvertently spreading bugs from one animal to another, so if two efficient ropers are working the pen, the guy doing it can be kept hopping. Still, it’s not very tough work. Getting the plastic nozzle into a struggling calf’s nose is the only tricky part, and an agile young’un can do it.
A complex of bio-active goop – several different kinds of protective and growth-enhancing antibiotics – goes into another shot, this one into muscle on the calf’s shoulder or rump. Yet another shot will contain vitamins, or trace elements missing in the range on which the calf will spend most of his growing time, to be injected under loose skin such as that between the elbow and chest.
Shots take a bit more skill, as the person wielding the needle-gun has to be careful to poke it into the calf at the correct angle and the right place, making sure the full measured dose of medicine goes in, and at the same time missing the rumps and elbows of the four or five other people busily working the calf over. The syringes also have to be kept full of the appropriate stuff. A solid cowpoke or dependable ranch wife usually takes charge of the needlework.
Burnin’ and cuttin’
Branding is another task only allowed to experts. The iron, heated either electrically or in a propane furnace, has to be the right temperature – hot enough to scorch down to the skin, not so hot it burns holes in it, exposing the flesh underneath. It has to be applied at the right angle, to get the whole brand image onto the calf, and held for the right length of time to do the job right. The brander wears heavy leather gloves, and takes care to warn everybody “Hot iron!” before stepping up to the calf. The sharp, thick odor of burning hair coats everything and everybody by the end of the day, but the first choking stench of it disappears into the background after only a short while.
Dehorning takes a tubular tool that fits down over the horn buds one at a time, providing a circular cutting edge for scooping the buds right off the calf’s skull, leaving a little pit that will heal in time into a hornless scar. Dehorning can take up to three people working together to get it done quickly and right. The cowboy on the neck of the prone calf leans out of the way while the top horn bud is popped out, then grabs under the calf’s nose and bends its head back so the dehorner can get to the bottom one. The third person is usually standing by with a spray can of disinfectant for the dehorning wounds.
The last chore, knifework, also falls only to trusted hands. There are a variety of cuts that can be made on a calf’s front end, but the ones most often used on ranches where I worked were either ear-marking, which requires a large triangular slice to be taken out of a calf’s ear, or ear-tagging, which is basically ear-piercing scaled up to cattle-size: a bright plastic tag is slotted onto an instrument that cuts a slit in the ear and inserts it, the big tag on one surface of the ear, a round plug on the other.
As for cuts on the back end, heifer calves (females) will grow up to be breeding or milking stock and need no trimming of any kind. In one of the many ouchy realities of both beef and dairy cattle commerce, however, only a tiny percentage of purebred males are saved for breeding. Since most bull calves will grow up to be meat, they do not need the essential tackle of reproduction.
Somewhere above all this, all the roiling newness of the growing atheist and progressive community, there’s an overview. I’ve tried very hard to see it.
It may be that there are plenty of people smarter than me, more educated, innately broader of understanding, who already know what it is we’re all working towards. But I have yet to read their books or hear their talks.
I look out and see … pieces. A chopped salad of efforts and understanding that forms no coherent whole.
I don’t feel TOO bad about that. I mean ‘feel bad’ in the sense that there are churchy luddites who oppose positive changes, and we have to be a lot better if we want to win this thing. Because they are chopped up even worse than we are. And though they’ve had power over us for thousands of years, it was the power of bullying and cowardice and lies, rather than some sort of coherent strategy or vision or real knowledge, and that power – in the face of real advances on our side – is waning.
I sometimes wish I had a formal grounding in philosophy, so I could have more tools in my head to deal with all this. Yet other times I’m glad I’m an uneducated doofus, philosophically speaking, because the journey I want to make is my own journey, and the tools I do manage to work out on my own … well, they seem to work better – for me, anyway – than the stuff I’ve garnered from more formal philosophy.
I get little glimpses of the Big Picture, from time to time. And it’s not just us in the frame. It’s us and … Earth. The life around us. The way we can fit into it, and cherish it and, well, live with it. I see us coming into a real sense of our own immense power, and finding ways to curb our excesses to create a truly sustainable relationship with Earth (which we do not have and have never yet had) and each other.
Atheism is very much a part of it.
There’s a book I want to someday write that will explain it all. I’ll figure out all the basic pieces, and how they fit together, and will at last understand something of what this is all about.
And yet, when I consider writing that book, I worry.
First that I might need about a hundred more years (and a hundred more IQ points!) to get it.
Second that I’m … well, just wrong. That there is not only no Big Picture, but no Big Picture is possible. Not for human intelligence to figure out, anyway. Which means we’ll never have it, and will never be able to live well on Planet Earth. And will probably wreck most of it, and kill ourselves along the way.
Third is a bit of a sidebar to the second worry. When I first thought of it, it actually scared me, because I was afraid it was a fatal hit at the heart of atheist philosophy.
Are you familiar with “follow-through”? If you’ve ever done any kind of sport, I know you are. Follow-through is the part of the swing AFTER the bat or the golf club strikes the ball. The arm and body motion AFTER the baseball leaves the pitcher’s hand or the bowling ball leaves the bowler’s.
Every Little Leaguer knows that if you swing AT the ball, you get one result, and not a very good one. But if you swing THROUGH the ball, you get both more control of where the ball goes and more power to get it there.
In baseball or golf, the ball is in your control for only a split second, and it is only in that instant that you can direct it onto a path that you deliberately choose. The thing is, you can’t see that path if you’re focused solely on the ball. You have to look beyond — aim beyond, swing beyond — your contact point with the ball, in order to properly send it onto some optimal path.
The thing that I worried about was that Christians had this larger vision for human life, a goal that passed beyond merely human concerns, and that goal supplied the follow-through for living a good human life.
If you swung for Heaven, in other words, you’d hit ordinary human life out of the park. But if you aimed only at your own selfish life, you’d fall short and end in some sort of inward-aimed and lesser life.
I actually worried about that for a good 3 years before I started to figure out why religion was the wrong follow-through, that it couldn’t work. Which is: There’s nothing there. Christians only appear to be aiming beyond their own lives. In reality, they’re aiming in no direction. Or, considering the thousands of religions or personal interpretations of religions, in a thousand different directions. Their aim, if they have one, is disconnected from anyplace in the real world that you can get to.
Besides which, there are a LOT of larger things to care about. Every one of us can find our own larger aims and follow-through to build good lives for ourselves.
What follows is a multi-part essay, a little bit about follow-through and a little bit about that Big Picture. Maybe it’s a prologue to the larger quest.
There’s a place in it – and it comes early – where you’re not going to like me very much. But bear in mind that this is about a journey, not a stopping point, and that we all have to come FROM somewhere in order to get TO somewhere. We change in our lives, hopefully for the better, and that change has to be arrived at along a human path, not a miraculous one.
In the same way you wouldn’t hold a grudge against a recovered alcoholic for getting falling-down drunk on a day 30 years past, I hope you’ll withhold judgment long enough to read to the end and see where I’m going with it.
It’s a beautiful spring morning in California’s Eastern Sierra mountains.
The sky is that impossible blue of high altitude places. The normally grayish-green high-desert valley is sprouting the rich shades of spring down toward the sparkling vastness of Crowley Lake, and an azure sea of wild iris, punctuated by dots of golden Mariposa tulips, sweeps out from the near view to vanish into the distance.
A red-tailed hawk circles overhead in the vivid air. Though I can’t see them, I know that off to the west, at the base of the rising mountains, migrating mule deer are cutting dusty tracks through the manzanita-covered foothills, browsing their way along as they trail lazily toward the passes which have yet to thaw enough to let them into the backcountry wilderness.
Fed by pure melting snow, crystal streams chuckle out of those mountains, running down in rocky leaps and bounds. Ice-cold trout lurk in their deep pools, visible from the surface as they dart about after insects and larvae and, to the joy of blissful streamside flycasters later in the season, the occasional artificial fly.
All in all, this must be the best place on earth in which to live, and the best of all possible times in which to be here.
And here I am in the glorious middle of it, covered in blood and dirt, working the spring branding at a local ranch … cutting the balls off bull calves.
Before I started A Citizen of Earth, I blogged as The Blue Collar Atheist.
The name was mostly intended to underline my lack of a college degree, or any great amount of advanced education, to make the point that giving up religion, become an agnostic or atheist, is not something you need a Ph.D. to do. You can be a complete doofus and still reason yourself free of it.
Speaking of which, even *I* can see the gaping holes in some of the stuff from this site (hat tip to commenter Chris for the link): Creation Science 4 Kids.
Clicking through it, I come across bits like this:
Dinosaurs fit into the Creationist worldview far better than they do into the Evolutionary storyline. These Creatures size, power and careful design don’t show the slow and steady increase in complexity that is the bedrock of Evolutionary thought. They do make a lot of sense in our view, especially since the Bible mentions them in a number of places!
We actually have lots of evidence that people were quite familiar with dinosaurs. We just never called them that until the mid-1800s. We called them dragons.
Apparently artistic representations of dragons from various cultures are the proof. I mean, you couldn’t have ALL those different cultures painting these things, not unless they existed! Because obviously none of those people EVER talked to each other, or told their best scary stories around shared campfires.
One of the pages is Kids Resources. A sampling of “Family Creation Camps”:
Alpha Omega Institute, CO
Apologetics Press Camp, Oakman, AL
Creation Adventures Museum, Arcadia, FL
Akron Fossils Science Center Akron, OH
Genesis Camp Lomita, CA
Camp Sunrise Fairmount, GA
Tamarack Valley, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, MI
Living Waters Bible Camp Creation Museum/Nature Center, Westby, WI
The page also lists Online Activities, Bible Stories and Videos. And damn, there is some scary shit there, and big heaping truckloads of it. Scary not because it’s sheer flat-out lies, but because the lies are mixed with true stuff, descriptions of real places, real animals, real science. If you have even less education than I have, or read less widely than most of US do — especially if you have a religiously-cultivated mistrust of “experts” and educated people — it all starts to sound plausible. Plausible enough to inspire further doubt of them SIGN-tists and all the unbelievable stuff they say.
Here’s what passes for erudition on the site, which is, remember, aimed at and for kids. Excerpt from a book review:
The first thing I noticed about Evolution Impossible is all the footnotes. I checked the whole thing and only found 11 pages out of 179 which didn’t have references. Most of those 11 pages were the half pages at the beginning or end of a chapter! Dr. Ashton expects you to search out the truth for yourself.
Then there’s the amount of math involved.
Yeah, the number of footnotes always impresses me too. Most of the books I recommend to people, I make a point of mentioning how many footnotes there are. And the math, I always talk about the math. Because it’s, you know, MATH, right?
Take a look at The Akron Fossils and Science Center. It’s like Science! Science! Science! … until you get to the creationism and climate change denialism. But no matter, it also has a Giant Slide and Zipline! There’s also a Truassic Park, a 2.5-acre outdoor park. I love the name gag, “True-assic.” It’s an “outdoor adventure park with a dinosaur theme!”
We are devoted to teaching creation science and intelligent design models on the origin and history of life (in contrast to teaching evolutionary models).
The location information is interesting too:
Our museum is located in the same building as a few other businesses. Our museum entrance is located on the Minor Rd. side of the building complex. Our upper parking lot is on the Cleveland-Massillon Rd. side of the building where we share parking space with Independence Financial Group an accounting firm and Alpha Background Investigations.
Yes, Religion now has to use Science to prop itself up. You can’t just hand around live rattlesnakes anymore, or Speak in Tongues. Well, you can, but it’s not as razzle-dazzle as a 60-foot dino skeleton unearthed and pieced together by, well, people who actually know something.
But they’ll use any tool at hand, twisting and warping it until it serves their purpose. They never stop.
How many times have you seen it? Someone convenes a panel of talking heads to discuss morals, justice, or any of the other “goodness” issues, and the speaker’s table is filled with a priest, a minister and a rabbi (and here lately, to prove our generous and inclusionary nature, an imam).
As far as the organizer is concerned, and large swaths of the audience, atheists don’t exist. Because we don’t know anything about morals, you see, or deep human convictions, or even feelings. We can’t speak with any authority.
Such an event just happened. It was last Thursday’s Interfaith Memorial Service to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Grief Beyond Belief on Facebook brought it to my attention, but the subject is all over the atheist blogosphere.
The Harvard Humanist Community was shocked Thursday when their members were, in the carefully-chosen words of New York Times best-selling author Greg M. Epstein, “blown off” and excluded from an inter-faith memorial ceremony for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
“We have friends and family who are in the hospital in critical condition, who nearly died,” he told Raw Story. “It wouldn’t have been so difficult for those who organized the vigil today to make some kind of nod to us, and that’s all we would have wanted.”
The Harvard humanist chaplain and author of “Good Without God” explained that the exclusion of non-religious Bostonians was particularly shocking because someone dear to the Harvard Humanist Community was gravely wounded in the bombings.
Celeste Corcoran, who was caught in the blast with her daughter and subsequently lost both of her legs to amputation, was a volunteer for the Harvard Humanist Community, Epstein said. She was also something of an “aunt” to Sarah Chandonnet, the group’s outreach and development manager and “second senior-most member,” he added.
This event, the bombing in Boston, is one of those bring-us-together events that helps us understand the fragility and brevity of life. The response SHOULD be a grand coming-together to make the point that … well, that we are all in this together, that the greatest safety lies in understanding the power of unity.
And for many Americans, I suppose that happened.
Unbelievers, though, were made to feel like the fat kid at the prom.
The request to be included, which WAS made, was ignored. Nope, can’t have atheists standing in front of the cameras in front of God and everybody.
Besides, this is about faith. You atheists don’t have any. Why, it’s almost like you’re not real Americans. Buzz off.
“It won’t be for lack of trying that we aren’t represented in the collective response to this tragedy,” said Zachary Bos, co-chair of the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts, and State Director for American Atheists. “We know that historically it’s been a easier to engage with people who are religiously-identifying and more likely to be organized. That is why we’ve been pro-active in calling elected officials and reaching out to religious colleagues, to find a way to be involved. If anything, the events of the past week tell us that we should be cultivating these relationships anyway, so that when tragedy does strike we are ready to respond immediately, a community of different philosophies united in common cause.”