Green String Farm in Petaluma, CA taken circa 2010? I think Jeff is the ghosted image, set up the camera for a long exposure and didn't tell him.
photograph by Chris Castro
Carnage was a classic wolf. That much is obvious. Death or life was for her a matter of quiet and violence, no more worthy of philosophic rhapsodies than rain or snow.
Deliberation was another issue, there was a well of patience and caution in her that belied scientific evidence proving correlation between inbreeding and intelligence hindering disabilities. However, this patience was never altruistic, showing itself when she was, say, stalking a killer who quietly hovered beyond sight in the evenings or if one of her kind, of no particular threat to her, playfully nipped in. Never when her authority was questioned though.
Of course, before the joke wears thin, Carnage was actually a dog.
“Carni” was snow white, easily spotted in the dark or driving rain from an ATV. The coloration also proved an effective ruse to lure desperate adolescent or sick predators into launching single or double attacks that were effectively dealt with by Carni, with so many other animals around the attacker would rarely get a scent of her. Instead of turning to flee with a terrified “BAA!”, Carni would run towards the threat, typically snapping the creatures neck if she managed to nab it between her jaws as they sped toward each other.
There were few instances where she was amongst other dogs of her own kind, there would be smaller dogs bred for sheep herding, border collies or heelers, that she saw and sniffed every day, but from her massive kin there was little in the way of interaction. So it was rarely even a benevolent patience, but one born from a drive and requirement to kill.
Which isn’t bad, I mean, the sheep were as defenseless as they come, no rams in amongst them and babies not two months old. If a decent enough pack, say 6 to 8 coyotes or wild dogs got themselves organized it would be a bloody and long stand off. There aren’t any prizes in the animal world for second place, so it makes sense that notions of decency are also absent.
Carni didn’t even particularly like sheep, their existence was merely a prod with which to stimulate the dance she was so used to into being.
At least that was the case when she was young, later as she learned the travails that winter would bring with the whole operation; sheep, Peruvian sheep herders, and dogs all transported en masse a hundred and fifty miles north, onto real rural land where the sheep were kept close together and the men often took rifles with them to round them up. Once she had learned of the difference between summer and winter, she welcomed the contented but still annoying bleating of the sheep and the sometimes miserable heat that doubled in ferocity just before the season faded. It meant boredom but the cold meant aches and danger.
Were it another creature, another type of canine, there would be the question; which was preferable? Was the boredom and dulling by heat of senses sharpened out of necessity better than the freezing rain and sudden need for violence that winter brought? Another animal might have an answer, however, a dog bred only for work has little desire to exercise the part of the brain required for specious comparisons, it is an expenditure of energy with no tangible benefit, a trait long excised by evolution. And if it wasn’t something ingrained in Carni, why would anyone teach her that?
To be sure, nobody took much time to teach anything to a working dog, it was just assumed it was something that was innate, or, on the other hand, unlearnable.
On the other hand, Frankie, short for Frankrietta (I don’t know why Francine wasn’t brought up as a possible name for a female dog someone had already dubbed ‘Frankie’) was the sort of dog for whom it was impossible to stop thinking. She was a small black and white border collie that, once we were introduced, I realized immediately, did not want to be a work dog. She would kidney bean at the slightest hint of affection, which her Peruvian owners rarely if ever gave (it would be like a blacksmith hugging his anvil, or, more accurately, if they decided to start petting their ATV’s) and if you persisted in giving her attention, she’d squirm around in circles, half standing, seeming like she’d had a stroke.
She probably had fleas, but once she knew we were right around the corner during the two or three hours between when she was done working and when she got fed and went to sleep, she’d come over and get some attention and after a few times, pretty much everyone was singing the same tune,
“Aww, let Frankie come in and hang out.”
I was onboard from the word go, but I was glad Lauren had said it, somebody to rib about getting fleabitten if I fell asleep on the couch. Frankie wandered about smelling things but with the sort of manners you’d expect at a Connecticut finishing school. Fifteen minutes later, we’d nearly forgotten she was there until she wandered back over to the door she was let in through, raised a paw and clearly went
not loud but enough to look over and go,
“Oh, Frankie wants out”
So I walked over and let her out, only after I had closed the door marvelling at how she seemed human in her ability to comprehend exactly what the appropriate amount of noise to make was and how she ought to behave indoors, actually I thought to myself that I knew people whom I’d less prefer in my house than her, even if she did have fleas.
Where we were living seemed like a paradise and in many ways it was, but after about four months it started being shot through with moments of almost haunted-carnival trite moments of indignity, neglect, stupidity or pig-headedness.
Part of that is a pun, herding a pig can sometimes only be accomplished by tying an extension cord around one and having three grown men set themselves against him. No one can tell you after the first one being led down the chute that they don’t recognize what is coming.
That was later, when I was about as deep as felt comfortable in the quasi-cult farm culture that always adheres to operations like this.
Earlier days, when it did happen that I stumbled onto where the herders had been dumping the bodies of sheep and goats that happened to die during the winter I was taken aback, but it was an expected deflation. Almost like someone who suspected they were dreaming because of the constant supply of goodwill and generosity around them. The carelessness regarding location was that they were doing this in a creek bed that ran year round, feeding a reservoir that provided water for the vineyards and vegetable crops (strictly in that order). It was unlikely anyone would be drinking this water, but it was difficult to imagine a less desirable place to have rotting animal carcasses with the resident bacteria and microbes than near a source of irrigation water.
The impression that I gathered from the initial six months at the farm was that there was little involved in the “theory” of all of this, and months later, a genuine genius in the field of soil science and agronomy changed this impression somewhat, however, I continued (and continue) to see farming, cultivation, animal husbandry and the like as extensions of an ancestral largesse, so much more than other, more “modern” jobs or careers, it seemed like drawing from a well that was at the most basic level, available to everyone. Stopping to consider that around the world, in sometimes extremely adverse conditions, farming was possible was reassuring, but as in everything else, repetition either deterred dilettantes or transformed them into more saavy practitioners.
And personally, as a dilettante, most days I felt like a mouse on a velodrome.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t countless moments of introspection. For instance, February, two months later, the house emptied and rain pouring down as I smoked weed in the upstairs bathroom, a sliver of arboreal life poking it’s branch in the window, seemingly enticed by the resiny smoke.
It was simply that the part of my mind shaped most effectively by fatherly admonishments to be a useful contributing member of society didn’t allow me to simply sit back and wait for the responsibilities to come to me, the work to be presented along with instructions on how best to achieve said goals.
I wept during the first week we were at the farm, everyone knew how to do their tasks, I couldn’t help and it got to the core of me, I felt useless.
One evening I took a bottle of complimentary wine into the bathroom where I had drawn a bath, half sitting and half reclining in the too small tub and reading something that reassured me that my place in the world was little else but temporary, I realized only too late that I’d drained the entire bottle. I emerged carefully from the now lukewarm water twenty minutes later and walked through the door into our downstairs bedroom. Lauren asked how I was and it all came tumbling out, I admitted I’d downed the bottle and she chided me, I’d reacted childishly, I knew, but admonishments were the opposite of what I needed.
I fell asleep early, remembering the tactic from times in the past when I’d been unabashedly depressed.
This, however, meant that I woke up at 3 am feeling ready to start the day. Although days on a farm do start fairly early, there was nothing at all to do but sit on the big sagging couch in the living room, pondering the sort of things that seem to only present themselves while awake in the middle of the night.
Thankfully, a bookshelf full of books I had not read, or read very few of, sat in the corner. I’ve always considered it a wonderful diversionary tactic: give me scant information about a person but let me loose in their home to appraise their book collection, I will know real fast who they are (or who they think they are). In this case, the books were conglomerated seemingly randomly from those involved in education at the farm and so there was little voyeuristic thrill in discovering say, an indulgence in trashy romance novels (there weren’t any), or bombastic political hardcovers ranting about it being somebody else’s fault (also none). But there was genuine interest, this was a entire field which I’d purposely avoided my entire life, I relented once it was clear that self imposed ignorance was the worst sort and came, penitent to the bookshelf full of Ag books I’d never thought interesting enough to read.
This is also how I discovered that the big saggy couch in the living room was extremely easy to sleep on, and that Frankie did, in fact, have fleas.
Posted by Chris Castro on Oct. 1, 2020, 2:08 a.m. from Oakland, CA