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A Boy and His Calf

Friday, October 5, 2018

This one lucky shot has had me watching the skies at dawn, sent me back on a four-mile jog again and again, trying to replicate it. I have so far failed. One of the funny things about this photo is that while I was composing it, the Great Pyrenees who guards this farm spotted me, and began to bark. I get barked at a lot, since you very rarely see a person out walking or running on these roads, and as a result I am an object of much discourse among the dogs. Being barked at makes me nervous, so I began counting her thunderous borfs. One hundred forty-seven, until I was out of earshot. 

This visit was in the afternoon, and the light was completely different. I took another shot, and saw Rusty and his son Riley out and about. Luckily, Stella hadn't spotted me.

As I rounded the curve I grinned to see the UPS truck pull up. I began humming, "Wells Fargo Wagon" from The Music Man. The driver backed into the driveway, hopped out and instead of delivering a box, he popped the hood of the truck and asked Rusty to take a look at it. It was such a homey scene. Rusty's mighty handy with engines.

The driver had pulled away by the time I got there, and Rusty told me they'd gone to high school together. We got to talking. His boy Riley shyly asked me if I'd like to meet his fair calf, Tucker. "I would LOVE to meet Tucker! I thought you'd never ask!" I answered. Rusty and Missy laughed and off Riley and I went to the barn. First though, I asked if I might meet Stella, the Great Pyrenees I'd admired from afar. I thought maybe if she knew my voice I could calm her jets going forward.

She wasn't so sure about me. I looked a little sketchy in her opinion. GP's are superb guard dogs, always on alert and very barky.


She took a big whiff of my scent and checked me out thoroughly with startlingly beautiful bright nut-brown eyes.


I must've checked out all right, because her trepidation turned to unbridled joy. Wow! What an unexpected boost, to have a gigantic guard dog make a snap decision that you're not just OK, but fabulous!!

You haven't been smiled at until you've been smiled at by Stella.
 What a doll! What a good girl! I wanted to roll around on the ground with her, but there was a calf to meet.

 Riley slipped a rope halter over Tucker's head and led him up to the gate. It was best I stay behind it.

He put his little manatee snoot through the wire to check me out.


It was clear this little steer had been very well treated.
No fear there.

I began asking Riley questions about what it takes to prepare a calf for the county fair competition, and was so captivated by his pride in the little beef that I knew I had to make a video.

We were in the barn so long that Rusty came out to see what might be going on. Just talking cattle, that's all, happy as clams.

Riley and I talked about the elephant in the barn: the fact that, this coming Saturday, he would show Tucker at the Barlow Fair, and that would surely result in his sale.  In the video, Riley says he hopes someone will buy him so they can show him next year. But he knows deep down that's unlikely.

I like to get the whole story, and that takes time: that's why I cook these blogposts for so long. I would have been at the Barlow Fair with bells on, watching and shooting as Riley showed this beautiful onyx block of a calf, but Parents' Weekend at WVU beckoned, and I had to go see my boy. I came back refreshed and happy from spending a couple of days with sweet Liam, and I wondered how Riley and Tucker had fared in Barlow.

There were a few ways to find out, but I lucked into the best. I trotted back out the ridge the next time we had a sunrise, and lo and behold if I didn't find Riley's grampa Dale out sweeping his driveway. I'd never really had a conversation with him; just waved at him and his lovely wife as the kids and I would ride by on our bikes, grinning like fools and deliriously happy that we'd finally made it up Campbell Run's grueling hill to the ridgetop where Riley's grandparents live, just a half-mile from the beautiful farm.

We talked about many, many things. Cattle and weather and life on the ridge; responsibility and crime and fidelity and marriage and changing times. It was really cool. My favorite thing Dale said was when he talked about Riley and his big sister McKenzie. "They're my lights, my bright spots. They really are."

I felt so lucky to hear that, so lucky to have heard Riley talk about raising his calf.  Lucky to be able to share it with you.

 This is my Fitbit's hi-tech witnessing of the run I did that day. There's a green spike, which means a lot of footsteps, and then some red and yellow lines.  Green: Fitbit approves. Red and yellow: Caution. You're not getting enough steps in! Well, pooh. Those red and yellow lines are me taking photos of mushrooms in people's yards. Ha ha!!

 Now:  See that hour and twenty-minute hole in the middle of all the green activity? That's me, finding out how Riley did at the Barlow Fair. Ha ha ha!! I like the way I fidget a bit at the start  (tiny red lines); settle in for the long yak (flatlining); and then fidget a lot (more red lines) before I take off for home. Dale kept apologizing for "taking a bite out of my day." Perish the thought!

 I loved every minute of our chat, which became a conversation, which became another treasured connection. Long story short: Tucker brought the third-highest price of any calf sold: $2100. Now, that has to be amortized for the feed and equipment that is purchased for readying such a calf for show. And that's darned expensive. But still. I wouldn't have known what a check for $2100 looks like at Riley's age.  That's a powerful lesson in work, preparation and reward right there.

Dale said that Tucker acted up quite a bit on the way out of the ring, and it was clear to me that the calf was right at the point where he was getting too big and strong and opinionated for Riley to handle. A fractious 600-pound Angus calf tossing his head around is a battering ram with a big bony sledgehammer at one end. I pushed away thoughts about why Tucker might have acted up, and thought of Riley, saying goodbye to a calf he'd cared for every day for the last six months.

If 4H teaches a child anything, it's that he* must let go.  He must push away thoughts. He must put all that love and care into an animal and then, when the time comes, walk away. It's a relationship he enters willingly, knowing all along that it's going to end. Knowing that this calf who loves treats and eats shirts and likes to have his soft brisket rubbed is destined, in a few too-short months, for the human food chain. He's not a dog, not a horse. He's a steer. And steers don't get to hang around. A few lucky bulls do (witness Buck the Bull), but it takes only one bull to service a herd. So all the males get cut and sold for beef. A lucky few of those get the deluxe treatment, the relationship with a human that enriches both their lives. In cattle terms, Tucker was a lucky steer, if a steer can be lucky.

*of course girls participate in 4H; I just don't want to clutter up the wording with (s)he. 

The rest of the herd (in part). Lone bull to upper left. Big cow getting up. I felt bad about that. I try not to make them get up.

I never talk with a 4H-er without picturing myself in their boots. I chuckle just thinking about it. I, who as a kid wept torrents and held funerals for every fishie that went belly-up in my 5-gallon aquarium.  I, who, grown up but no better at letting go, stared fixedly out the window for seven months while I recorded every move a hand-raised blue jay made. Who still watches for her, every day.  If there is anything I am horrible at, it's letting go when I should.

And yet as I look back on 2017, the lesson the Universe kept hurling at me was: Let Go or Be Dragged. From my beautiful kids, who were bound to leave and make their own way no matter how good the food, loving the mama, or soft the bed; to my sweet Chet Baker, who had to leave too soon; to Jemima, who went when she got the call; to my husband, who finally made the long-awaited move away just over a year ago. 2017 was all about letting them go. All of them. And I have come out of it, and I'm looking back on it all now, and I never thought I'd be able to say that. And not only am I still alive, but I'm actually feeling happy again. I knew that I would be, eventually, but it's still such a nice surprise to be level. I get out of bed in the pitch-dark morning thinking, "Well, what am I going to paint today? Where will I run? Will there be a sunrise?"


And the answer is: Sometimes. Get dressed and be ready for it. Get out and savor it when it happens.


After the enduring connection with my family and friends, it's the savoring, the land and the sky, the flowers and the birds and the insects and animals and clouds that keep me going. 


That, and the light.

The lights.

Riley's going to raise a heifer next year. That way, when he falls in love with her, he gets to keep her, watch her raise her own calves.

For more on cattle:

Buck the Bull

My NPR commentary on Buck's greatest moment


Wow! Thanks!

Incredibly moving post, thank you.

Dear One, You really took on a momentous commentary in this "bit" of writing. I suppose I should have been triggered by the Great Pyraneese, which is only one of the mountains you have climbed this year. Your writing is powerful. Your words grab my heart, even while writing on the other side of the gate.

Oh Julie! (Torrential in FL).

Thanks for sharing your life & thoughts inspiring as always. I’ve often marveled @ 4Hers ability to “ lose” a “ pet”. Loved the pics of Stella ( great name). I’ve rolled w/ several GPs. Such gentle giants. Prayers!!

Wow; that's a whole lotta territory covered in one post. Now you've got me all choked up. Tomorrow evening I'm sharing my "testimony" at church and there are some common themes – for me, "Letting go of fear." Not that it doesn't still visit, or even hang around awhile...but I've learned I CAN survive it, with trust....

A well-lived life means letting go; grief and loss are the price of love. I love you, Julie, now don't make me sad!

I loved every word of this post...but, damn it, I didn't expect to end up crying. But I did--oh well, let go.

what a beautiful post julie.

Wonderful and inspiring post. Beautiful photographs and moving words put together so very well.

As everyone else has said: Wow. Just wow. Thanks so much for sharing it, all of it. I'm in a different sort of letting-go period just now (DH with early-stage dementia and a whole way of life having to be reshaped), but you have set me a wonderful example--as always.

Beautiful post, Julie! No tears here. Opposite, in fact. I had a broad smile growing throughout the post and a deep feeling of calm and well being about where you are now emotionally and artistically. You are a beacon of hope and love in a world increasingly filled with hate and fear. Thank you so much!!

Some people are writers,some people are wordsmiths, but I am pleased to read the work of such an artist with words, You My Lady, are a Rembrandt with words, the story you painted, is as beautiful as any painting hanging in any Gallery. I am familiar with the Farm you speak of, and have visited there many times. You are truly an artist with words. Well done.

I sure am happy I found you and even happier I got to know you- you have many special gifts and your blog is like a bible to me since i last go off that churchy stuff decades ago. You are just slightly ahead of me on the age and parenting curve and am so grateful for your precious insight and the amazing grace that you share it with. xo

I grew up in central Indiana where 4H was a way of life for country kids. I knew several kids who went through this process of caring for and then selling the steers they raised. I wasn't a farmer's kid so I only watched it from a distance, but didn't envy them a bit. I'm glad you're in a brighter spot in your journey, having dwelt in that lesson of letting go last year. It's a lesson that renews itself many times over our lives. Peace to you on those southeastern Ohio hills.

Lovely post. Makes me a bit hopeful in spite of the news of the day that has the opposite effect.
I was a 4-H'r but in a residential area, no room for animals and I was sad about that.
We sewed and cooked.

I saw this video today and couldn't help but think of your blog post about your neighbor 4H-er. I thought you might enjoy this. Love the butter sculptures!!

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