Monday, March 22, 2010

Physical Evidence and the Ephemoral Art of Life

It is Monday again, in the seemingly never ending repetition of the days of the year, and the years of the eons, and it marks the first week post death of Atlas. This week I have been on a roller coaster of an emotional ride of deep depression and puzzlement over the how and whys, and all the other questions one asks in a death of a person, animal, or relationship.

There is one thing that stands out tho, that I have noticed more with this particular loss that I really hadn't given much thought to before in similar situations of grief. That is my intense desire this time, to have some sort of physical evidence of this colt's life with me, proof that he lived, that he was my friend, what he looked like, smelled like, sounded like, etc.

I made one huge mistake with this young horse. I assumed. I just assumed, that he would be there, healthy, and with a future that was untold and full of promise. I was so wrong and in realizing this now, I realize the mistake I made in not taking more photos of him. I have not one minute of video with me riding him. I was waiting for shedding season. I was waiting for him to get a little bit more experience under saddle. There were no end to excuses to put off recording more about him because I just assumed the impossible, that I had an infinite amount  of time ahead with him.

It has made me take notice and soak in a few things about just how ephemeral this whole life thing is and how much we humans really want our time here, our experiences, our thoughts, our loves here to have meant something and to have some evidence that we, and these things we have cherished, both mattered and really did exist. We want to keep our memories for as long as possible and will go to great ends to fabricate a way to do so. We want proof by physical evidence.

This need to show others that our lives counted has been perhaps the leading motivation for the creation of all types of art, literature, architecture, and such thru the history of humanity, from the caves of Lascaux, to the Arc de Triumph, the great Pyramids, and the paintings and scultptures in the Louvre and in all the other museums world wide. Humans have found some way to tell the stories of our lives and our thoughts thru these expressions of art and literature. We have built great monuments to the intended eternity of the memories of our existences. These art expressions are our way of leaving our foot prints.

The fact that any of us are even here at all is a phenominal and improbable happening. We are all just groups of atoms that happened to randomly jump into this form for a brief period of time and when they are done with this grouping they will move on to another form. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. It is our spritual nature that sets us apart as a species and it is in our striving for this eternity of our memories that we have done beautiful and glorious things. Sadly tho, these memory markers too, will at some point vanish, decay and crumble. All of the good intentions of making the most archival photography, varnishes that won't oxidize, crack and turn brown, buildings that won't fall down, and words that will remain written somewhere to be able to speak thru an eternity, is just a prolongation of the inevitable end to this ephemeral world. Yet we continue to try.

No one but me sat on my horse Atlas, and no one but me understood how sensitive and willing he was, and how incredible he was to ride. There were no witnesses to see all the hours I spent with him. People who live on this land after me will not know anything about this horse. All of those things are now just synapse firings in my head and a remaining pain in my heart. He was a glorious animal spirit and I have worked thru some of this grief time by writing about him, drawing his portrait over and over, and simply closing my eyes to see him again. I can already feel some of the fog rolling in, clouding my memories of the details. I plan to take the braided lock of his tail my vet sent me, and wrap the top to bind it securely with colored string and hang it in my studio to try to keep his ghost here as long as I can.

This weekend I drew his outline with my knife on a weathered picnic table that was perched on the edge of a nearby lake. It won't take long for this to fade, I know that, just like the last foot prints have already been washed away from my arena and his paddock by the pond. From this terrible refresher course in the pain of loss, I am going to try to keep on remembering just how short this ride can be, and try to live as tho I really understand that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anybody or any thing. One day we are here and then, poof, gone.

I also won't be doing any waiting for shedding season to be done, any more, to take more photos and videos of the wonderful horses who grace my life.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I recant my opening from my last blog. Colic is not the worst 5 letter word I know. Grief, tops it, by far.

This is the third morning since Monday's call to put an end to my horse's life. What is becoming clearer to me it that the things that happened in and around that event and subsequent call and decision, were in a dream like distortion of time, place, and reality, a mere following of the flow.

There was a separateness to the happenings, am impersonality, and abstraction. Now there is a crystal clear fact staring me flat in the face. It is every where I turn and in every thing I think and do. That wonderful spirit, that incredible personality that was embodied in that magnificent horse that was Atlas,is, absolutely,and undeniably, dead and gone. He will whinny to greet me no more, forever.

From my experiences with death before, I do know the process of healing. Time does heal but with trade offs. It steals and erases the memories. They go away, become foggy, until they are loaded far in the back of the recesses of my brain and far from the sensors of my heart. It is this, that I am rebelling against in my pain of the current moment. I do not want to forget this horse. I feel a desperation to write about him and remember all the images I can before distractions of daily life take them from me and leave me forever forgetting the details of my relationship with this wonderful animal.

Atlas was born in a dressage ring. His dam, Robijn, was always a sneaky one for not giving clues of impending delivery of her foals. This arrival was no exception and Atlas was delivered a bit early, at the letter C in my arena late one night in May. My first impression of him was of his ears. The tops of them hooked strongly inward towards each other like the cartoon version of the devil, perked forward giving an extra amount of curiosity and interest in what he was looking at. Then there was his face. Large brown eyes separated by a large star between them on a slightly rounded forehead. Then the white continued as a stripe down his nose and spread around his nostrils and mouth. He was a bright chestnut red with 4 white feet and socks.

Atlas was the prettiest foal I had every seen and he never took an ugly moment in his life, awkward at a brief moment of adolescence perhaps but never anything but handsome. He held himself in a regal posture at all times and picked his feet up with no impression of gravity having any hold over them. The sheer joy I felt as I watched him move with grace and power around the pasture was like being drenched in spring sunshine after a brutal winter.

Now when I walk to the barn to feed the other horses, there is no lovely boy to trot up to the fence to greet me. His bridle hanging in the tack room still has a little clover leaf on it, from our last walk to the pond dam for his last graze after our final, incredible ride on Friday. The stark, brutal finality of this reality and emptiness is nauseatingly sobering.

The vet who performed the surgery sent me, at my request, a lock of Atlas's tail, a thick long braid still holding bits of the wood shavings he laid on in his last painful hours. It is both a source of intense pain to look at and hold and is also the only remaining connection I have to the physical reality of that horse ever having been here. There are videos of him that I will look at when the memory starts to fade and I need to see him again, a pitiful and poor substitute for the real thing.
The questions began yesterday, the second guessing about what might have been had I done this or that. What clues did I miss that might have averted this evil course that fates took us on. What were the signs I just didn't see until too late? It is this attempt of cold anaylization of an emotional and horrific event, that as tho by my doing so, I can magically turn the clocks back to the golden rays of sun on Friday and bring back my friend Atlas.

I did force myself to ride my two mares on Tuesday and felt such guilt and intense pain at the thought of my ruining the last remaining foot prints from my last ride on Atlas. There on the sand lay the evidence of that ride, the lateral work, so easy for him, our path that day laid out like words in a book. I cried as I rode them, trying to enjoy the moment with them and was not able to. I will try to again today. Perhaps it will be easier, but I have doubts before I attempt it.

There will be, forever etched in my mind and heart, the magic of that last ride I had with Atlas. That day his ease and ability and willingness to try raised a bar of expectation that I don't know will ever replicated or surpassed, a benchmark of excellence. My image, too, is that of after our ride, standing in the barn aisle, him untacked, no halter holding him there, the sun shining on his smooth coat and him looking gently back at me while I brushed his back. Engaged and content, it was a blithe moment of two friend of different species, who shared it together.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Last Hoof Prints

Colic. Five of the worst letters put together in the total language. It has no boundaries and is a cruel and savage illness.

Saturday began with my trip to the barn to feed and things were going normally until I got to Atlas, my young rising star gelding, favorite personality, and bright spot in the pasture and in my life. When I presented him with his feed bucket he sniffed and turned away instead of his usual attack of the grain. This was totally against his norm so I tried a different feed to see if maybe I had gotten a bad batch or it smelled funny to him or something. Still no interest. Called my vet and gave the boy some Banamine, a pain med, to help him with what was appearing to be a bit of apparent tummy trouble. By noon he was better and at 3pm he was back ill and worse. Vet came out and gave more pain meds and sent some oil down the system to try to loosen things up. Then the waiting game began.

For non horse folks reading this, colic is a condition in horses where they get food backed up in their guts for whatever the various reasons and if this blockage is not loosened with oil and pain meds, then surgery is the next and only recourse. In a colic situation time is of the essence and things can get very fatal, very fast. Horses have incredibly delicate digestive systems and the phrase "eat like a horse" is terribly misleading to the unfamiliar. They evolved to be grazers, constantly getting small amounts of grass and occasional whole oats and such. One little glitch in how they process the modern day of feeding a domestic horse, and their not being able to throw up or if they get a compaction, they die.

By midnight the oil had seemed to have worked its magic and things were working right along. Atlas perked up and the outlook was certainly looking brighter. By morning tho things were not good. Atlas was back in pain and lethargic and depressed. Another vet exam determined that we needed to take him to Birmingham to a clinic with surgical facility. so Mark and I loaded Atlas in the trailer and took off for Birmingham.

There, further blood work, exam, and ultrasound still showed no obvious reason for the boy to be still feeling this much pain. His calcium and protein levels were suspiciously low and nothing seemed to fit a pattern of explanation. After a period of re hydration therapy, surgery was the remaining option.

Mark and I had traveled back home before the surgery and waited to hear the outcome. The attending surgeon finally called and told me that there was no one thing that they could find to remove and fix but that the large colon showed considerable damage and that was not something they could remove or fix. Some displacement, either in the colic or the cause of the impaction, and had caused a blockage of blood flow to the area. The large colon was now basically one big ulcer leaking toxins into the poor fellow's system. After a sleepless night for the vet and the horse in horrible and uncontrollable pain with an untreatable condition, the decision had to be made for the humane treatment of an untreatable situation and Atlas was euthanized.

Now I sit here and weep, and remember my boy...we had just begun really working together as a team, the early breaking and introduction to being ridden had been finished. On Friday, my final ride on him was amazing. We did collected trot, extended trot, and I mean BIG super fancy trot. His leg yields became shoulder in and that turned into half passes. There was nothing that I asked him that he couldn't do. After each movement that was better than the last I would stop and he would turn his head for the rewarding scratch that always came when he was a good fellow. And he was a very good fellow and got lots of rewards.

Atlas was an amazing horse to be with on the ground or aboard. He was bright, energetic, well behaved, and 100% tuned into the partnership with such sensitivity and willingness. That, and he was the most athletic horse I have had the privilege to have seen, much less own and get to ride, or just watch moving with such freedom and natural balance. Unlike most young fairly inexperienced and unbalanced horses, on Friday he showed what an amazing athlete he truly was by doing both true lead canter work and counter canter. This would be like asking an infant to be able to do a Baryshnikov ballet move with grace and ease.

On Friday, after we had finished our unbelievable session I walked him down to the pond dam where the grass is green and lush. On the way there, right by the corner of the house, my silly dog Memphis came running up behind up and ran thru a dried up plant. When she hit it and broke the branches off it sounded like a bag of firecrackers going off. Atlas startled and began to leave, but in one blip he stopped and stood like a saint. I was so proud of him and the passage he had made and had grown up so well and had become such a wonderful partner. It was without doubt the most happy moment, of all of my time spent raising and training the young horses in my life.

Then Saturday happened. What I will never forget as long as I live is the way that horse needed me to be with him in his pain, standing, head lowered with his nose gently resting on my left hand, soft breathing and smelling his mom, my right on his neck. When I had to leave for a while, my daughter Emily and her husband Trey stood watch and held his head for me and took care of him many long tedious hours.

We all tried, and the vets tried their best to comfort and save this boy, but it was not meant to be. What a waste of an incredible and special animal and spirit to lose, but what a gift and a joy to have had the chance to be around this horse. This is what I will remember about him, and Atlas will remain in my heart forever.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's Just Another Day

As I reluctantly gained consciousness from my slumber this morning I listened to the sounds of the world outside my cracked window. It is fast and finally becoming spring and the outside world is now filled with sounds of many birds as they are all frantically stressing over the coming nesting season and all that comes with the urgency of finding the perfect mate, finding the right nest location and good sources of materials, making the nest, the egg laying, brooding, feeding, and then finally kicking the little beggars out of the nest, migrating, returning, and repetition of said cycle again.

The phoebes are closest to my window as they are building untidy nests of Spanish moss in the crotches of the posts on the carport. A wren is flitting around close by and one never knows where you will find their nests. Last year one nested on the screened back porch in a fake plastic turkey decoy that was laying on a table back there. It was one of the more perfect nest sites I have seen from a wren, safe from dogs and predators, out of the weather and totally ironic to see a bird nesting in a bird.

There was also the faint wafting of the eau de skunk drifting thru the open window, thankfully brief. Crows were screaming obscenities off in the distance and red shouldered hawks were hollering overhead somewhere as well. A number of unrecognized bird noises I could hear too, but chickodees, titmice, cardinals, raucous blue jays, the schizophrenia of the mocking birds, and the "poor sam peabody" song of the white throated sparrows were easily picked out in the cacophony of these avian voices.

My wakeups usually are begun with my German shepherd, Heidi, pacing the floor impatiently until she can stand my slumbering no longer, then finally her long black nose pushes my covers off my face, accompanied with a plaintiff Lassie type call for help cause Timmie fell back in the well again. It is absolutely pointless to fight it at this point, so I get up and let the day begin.

A thermos of fresh brewed coffee also usually awaits me in the kitchen, a sweet gesture from my earlier rising hubby Mark. After the pack has been out for their morning constitutional I let them back in for a yummy bowl of dry dog food. They seem to like it. I do the email, facebook, and whatever catching up with the rest of the world and such on the internet, when its obliged to be up and running, one cup of coffee and I am off to the barn to feed the horses.

This is by far and beyond, the most exciting part of the day for the dogs. Jack, the Australian terrorist, begins the barking chorus signaling to all that the ritual to the barn has begun. So off we go, Heidi by my left knee, Jack, Marley the unconquerable Yorkshire terrorist, and Memphis,the like, totally laid back white lab. To begin our journey there is great barking and running back and forth and neck biting playing by all. Marley makes repeated attacks to the back of my knees as we walk, throwing her full force of her body at one of them, trying, I guess, to knock me down, and sometimes nearly does. Then she runs off to bark at the impatiently waiting hungry horses.

This game involves her running up and down the fence line and them pretending, or maybe not, to want to step on her obnoxious head to shut her yapping up, and them running with her shaking their heads and sometimes kicking and bucking in her general direction. All in good fun of course. Memphis usually picks up a stick and carries it with the procession, wagging her fat otter tail in a zone of blissed contentment that only a Labrador retriever seems to be able to achieve in life.

It is such a noisy energetic ritual, this walking to the barn. Even the mere utterance of the word "barn" can get the whole pack up and animated, ready for action, bodies tense with anticipation, eyes wild, hackles raised, and great high pitched barks. Life sure must be good for a dog to have this level of revelry from such a simple thing as our heading to the barn to feed the horses. Would that we all had something to get that jacked up about in our days. Imagine barking at the top of your lungs and wagging you tail on your way to work each day.

It takes me a good couple of minutes to get every horse fed and there is a ritual pattern that I do this in to keep the peace. The more dominant horses get fed first so they won't try to kill the lesser ones in their efforts to steal the food. Once all have been grained and hayed a gentle sigh of peace falls over all the horses who are munching away, lost in happy places in their tiny brains. The dogs go back to just hanging out now that their job has been finished until next feeding time.

I return to the house and do plan to do a bit of work on current paintings that I have started. Today is once again rainy and cool and staying inside doesn't have the difficulty that a bright day like the other did. Got some errands to run later but with a fresh cup of herbal, so my hand will be steady with the brushes, tea I will get my brushes busy and push some pigments for a while and hope for good results.

It is a nice day, again so far. Bark, bark, wag, wag.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Today has been just the kind of day that puts optimism back into one's vocabulary. It's been absolutely beautiful, a nice soothing temperature with a gentle breeze from the south end of the pond. After months of mud and gloom on the farm it is such a wonderful change, and a welcome and much needed relief. Since rain is regrettably in the near future I planned to, and did manage to ride all three of the horses I currently have working under saddle. After I had let them eat their breakfasts I started with Kitty, my oldest mare, and for a change of scene from the dressage arena, I rode her on the spot of land between the little pond and our neighbors.

This small field has been my favorite place to work a horse since we moved out here 15 years ago, in no small part because of the shade from bordering big oaks. More recently it has become a bit smaller and parts of it are quite soggy thanks to the resident beaver having raised the level of the top of the dam and thus the water level has raised and has encroached on the area.

It is an ongoing, epic battle for us out here with these flat tailed buck toothed, rodents, and so far he is way ahead. The game goes like this...if there is a tree to be chewed up, he does, it dies. Then he uses it to make a higher dam, or increase the size of his condo, or block the overflow pipe, just generally just being royal pains in the butt by flooding land and killing trees. I knock the damn dam down and next day it's back in place. Round and round ad nauseum. Beavers also know when you have a gun and when you don't. When you don't, they will taunt you by swimming past you and flap that damn flat tail, usually when you are least expecting and scare the crap out of you. Have a gun with you in the boat or on the edge of the pond and where are they? no where to be seen.

Our current beaver has a nice large condo of mud and logs, and old duck box parts all piled up at the shallow end of the big pond, and just recently managed to harvest one of the willow trees we had planted two years ago on the edge of the pond and had carefully covered with the anti beaver fencing around its trunk. I haven't found whether he used this tree for a dam or his den yet. We have dynamited the den a few times, and have managed to shoot a few of our resident beavers with rifles, but when one dies, several more of his kin just move up from the creek below the house. The amount of destruction and cost of cleaning up this rodent's artistry has been almost unfathomable. I hate them but am somewhat resigned now that we are only players in their world.

Any way, after Kitty, I rode Sunset, my most wonderful red mare, had a super session with her and then took her to eat the lush green fescue grass on the driveway edge. There is a such a desperation in the horses now for the green stuff. I have to admit feeling the same but my interest is not in the food value of grass but more in line of the healing quality color of green in general. There is some speculation that horses are color blind. I don't know for sure but I know that a horse can tell shades of green and know which grass is going the be the most choice by that, the paler the green the more tender and most wanted.

It is shedding season now for the horses and I am still wearing, breathing, and eating the hairs that were loosened when I brushed them off. I also hate shedding season but am resigned here too in that when its done , once again my furry yaks will be glossy lovely beasts again. Horses, like cars, drive or ride better when they look good. The birds are glad its shedding season and come in to the barn to pick up the hairs I knock off me and the brushes to line their nests.

I was standing in the aisle of the barn between rides today and heard the most wonderful sound I can think of, couldn't see its origin but I heard them. Purple Martins. These fabulous birds are the quintessential harbingers of spring to me. The quiet chirping, clicking songs they sing as they fly around over the farm and the pond are hypnotizing, inducing a smile on my face every year they return and grace us with their melodies. Today there were two males and two females. They flew around the farm for a while, and then they circled the houses and finally lit, and began checking out the housing situation for this year. The females did most of the decision making in this area and the males politely sat on the top of the house and chirped, resplendent in their glossy purple garb. They never seem to stay long enough for me in the summer, when they migrate back south, but for today they lifted my spirits and I look forward to hearing then chatter over my farm for several months to come.
Tomorrow calls for more rain and I have plenty of rainy day stuff to get finished but for now I will head back out and soak up the remains of a splendid spring day. I might just get on the tractor and go assault the beaver dam again too.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Spring Buzz

The past weekend held a bit of a tease in the air that spring really was a thought lurking somewhere deep in the minds of the weather gods. The sky was blue and there were a few daffodils opened up. The soft pink flowering almond tree was humming with a low pitched buzz of thousands of hungry bees doing their thing. It was just finally getting to be time to be doing something outside with temps one could enjoy.

After I had fed the horses and Mark had thrown hay at them and we started back walking to the house. I quickly remembered tho about the foundered water heater in the barn and asked my project fixer guy hubby, Mark, what was next on getting it back on and running. So he carefully, and somewhat lacking in enthusiasm, climbed up the ladder to the attic over the tack room where the tank sat and directed me to go turn off the breaker so that he could drain the tank and see about something on the inside of it. I did so and hollered back all clear and then got to doing some other chores in the feed room.

A few seconds went by and then I heard a sound like a hard thing hitting the floor or a pop, and then that was followed immediately by a rather loud "'uck" from Mark. Thinking he had maybe dropped something on his foot or whatever I hollered "what happened?" His reply was something about the heater's power that wasn't exactly, nor totally, "off".

Well it would seem that the wiser plan of action on my part should have been to have taken my reading glasses to the electrical panel so that I could have actually seen which breaker I was flipping to the supposed "off" position. Somehow I had managed to either get the wrong set, or moved the right set to the wrong "off", more commonly known to most as, "ON". Mark had been the recipient of this minor mistake on my part and had gotten a good little nudge of voltage. Nothing further was gleaned from up there on the water heater's status and Mark climbed down and silently walked to the house. I followed at a respectful distance and time later.

I guess we stayed in our neutral corners for about an hour fiddling with this or that, not speaking and with him avoiding the tempting, erupting, blast that I felt must have been right on the tip of his tongue. I think it might have been something like uh, "YOU STUPID MORON". Mark is a wise hubby and let it pass without stating the obvious.

After this truce time was over, sunshine called us back out side and I was feeling like doing some serious pruning of an unsuspecting tree or shrub. I got the loppers out and Mark gave them a good sharpening and I began with an assault on the peach tree by the garden.

Pruning can be at first, intimidating but can also become a very gratifying way to get in touch with nature and the spring spirit of things, and it's art too in that it just feels good to see a tree that is so badly out of shape become something that looks like a Van Gogh painting. It also doesn't hurt the motivation factor of knowing that what sacrificing of limbs I was doing, would only make for more and bigger peaches come summer. That means more peach wine, and the other usual stuff one makes with a bumper crop, like jam, chutney, ice creams, and of course, cobblers .

I was standing there admiring my newly sheared tree and thinking thoughts of juicy sweet peaches to come, when I noticed that the two 3 year silly fillies had somehow made their way to the inside of the barn and were walking unescorted out towards the yard. The realization on their part at their new found freedom hit them like Mark's encounter with those little electrons. Up went the tails and off went their brains as they hit high gear heading up the driveway to the house. Fortunately Mark was already closer to the house and got them turned around back towards me. After a couple of hair raising, knuckle biting, "oh shits" later as I got the two snorting cavorting hysterical fillies trapped in a corner and caught them with some grain in a bucket and a rope on the necks.

My adrenaline finally subsided and the mistakenly left open gait in the barn got closed and all settled back down into a nice quiet Sunday in early spring. The days uh-oh's had been exciting to say the least and certainly could have been fairly catastrophic. That seems to be the nature of life on the farm, one minute basking in the soft sun and the next second watching two prize fillies running around trying to commit suicide. That issue with Mark and the electricity deal, could have been bad too.

Life and death are just a really, fast, one second apart. The power is either "on" or "off". There are so many endless ways to mess up, little uh-oh's, andthen have things go very wrong very quickly. If we are lucky enough to live, we learn.

On the bright side, however, we once again had good luck prevail, and these happenings are being recounted here with a bit of both amusement, and a sort of giddy humor to me. It does puzzle me at this humor in the remembering of the face of near disasters. I hope my sense of humor continues for a very long time, maybe without so many near misses.