The Effort of Being Alive
“Wow, he’s a big baby! You’re not breastfeeding him anymore, obviously?” questioned the doctor.
“Yes, he’s breastfed” comes the response from Gina.
“Oh, ok, so you’re supplementing with formula.”
“No, he’s just breastfed. And he eats some pears and applesauce. But that’s it.”
That’s the exchange I’ve observed over and over as I lean awkwardly on a gigantic green dinosaur table situated in an examination room at the baby doctor. Our son Henry just turned seven months old and he’s been subjected to all the poking and prodding and checkups and whatnot that is deemed necessary for survival in this age of assisted living. I don’t in any way claim to be a medical expert or to know a whole lot about human growth patterns, but it continues to stun me that doctors and nurses trained by the very best to understand human existence cannot fathom that a baby can grow up without supplements. Indeed, every conversation with a doctor since conception has been laced with an undertone suggesting we’re doomed to endure traumatic loss if we leave any occurrence up to what can be considered nature (if any such concept even exists in a person’s life anymore.)
Similarly, I’ve become acutely fascinated with the rearing of 100% grassfed cattle and a great deal of my energy has been spent learning and implementing a production regime that largely eliminates human intervention (interesting, isn’t it, that we’ve become so infatuated with our own brilliance that removing a technological touch from an otherwise natural process – the grazing, reproduction, and eventual consumption of herbivores - is extraordinarily difficult.) I was speaking with a cattle feeding enthusiast recently about my slowly expanding herd of solar converters and he commented on how good the young females look.
“What are you feeding them right now?”
“Hay” I responded.
“Well, yeah, but what else?”
“Nothing. Just hay and whatever grass they can graze when the snow melts enough.”
I laughed out loud at the response because the whole exchange sounded so similar to my wife’s experience with our baby. This guy’s whole cattle paradigm revolves around the idea that an animal cannot survive without massive human infrastructure and intervention, yet, there he was, standing and staring at a young cow that’s in good shape all by herself. He nearly fainted when I told him she’s still nursing her calf (almost completely unheard of in the world of ‘real’ cattle producers, who believe if the young calf isn’t ripped away from momma in early fall to be placed on a specially formulated ration the result will be a loss of both animals) and I’ve never vaccinated or supplemented any of the herd with anything other than water, salt, and minerals.
Admittedly, I grew up a firm advocate in the high cost of living mentality that permeates modern livestock rearing. It’s a natural response – most of our beliefs come from the communities we grow up in and the experiences we’re around as youngsters. Eventually, due largely to market fluctuations that nearly wiped our business off the map (another story for another day), I began to step back and look around: people feel the need to put our fingers into everything. The more we intervene and streamline and specialize and dominate, the more expensive everything gets and the higher the financial risks become, exemplified today when a blip in cattle prices sends most producers over the cliff when they suddenly can’t make payments on all the expensive stuff they ‘need’ to keep animals alive. I started studying alternative mindsets extensively and have been completing a painful and grinding about-face in my entire approach to living since then. The ordeal separates modern me from past me and has left a lot of people, including my family, wondering what the heck happened. In short, I realized that sometimes the way we’ve always done things isn’t always the best way, even though it’s comfortable. For a very insightful look at this topic, I highly recommend the book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. She’s a good writer and, in addition to being ridiculously interesting, it’s a hoot to read.
So I’m here with this small (but growing) herd of herbivores that cruise around our landscape doing their own thing, guided by me to prevent their isolated and independent existence from interfacing with the modern world (houses and interstate traffic, for example), and most of the people I talk to think I’m mildly insane and I’m flirting with inevitable disaster. To be sure, there is a trade-off for my deliberately un-technological approach: effort. And risk, I suppose. The steel, fuel, and drugs that sustain cattle fed in a barn like those belonging to my shocked friend are replaced in my world by human effort, sweat, and thought. Certainly it is less convenient for me to plan a grazing rotation and a wintering area and water delivery to a continually moving group of animals than it is to pen them up and simply dump feed in the trough. Certainly it seems riskier to replace a vaccination program with day-to-day and minute-to-minute management that allows natural systems to balance themselves and, as a result, sidestep a need for scientific crutches.
But, then, isn’t the whole point of living to participate in meaningful work? Additionally, is it really that weird, when you think about it, to believe that an animal will remain alive and productive if its fundamental needs are met by what the landscape provides? Or is it more successful to just to make tractor payments and purchase vaccination programs so I don’t have to walk and think as much? Most in the domain of beef production have come to believe the answer is the latter. Shoot, most in the domain of anything would choose the latter, proven by the doctors who can’t believe our baby is growing without supplementation. To them, the thought that my wife, though petite and pretty, is a beast who has thrown every bit of effort into the rearing of her offspring, without taking convenient off-the-shelf shortcuts, simply doesn’t cross their minds. It’s just ‘This baby appears healthy. That must be a result of science.’ Nope. ‘Those cattle appear healthy. That must be a result of science.’ Nope. In both cases, the well being is a result of extraordinary, unrefined, meaningful effort.
Maybe the world could use a little less scientific convenience and a little more meaningful work. If nothing else, such a reality would greatly eliminate the free time used to complain about the news.