It is cold and stormy up here, we are in the big change. Flo was hanging around the porch this morning, she told me clearly that she was ready to come in, and she came into the house, had some breakfast, hopped up on the top of a sheepskin rug on a big chair and went to sleep. She will go in and out some, but she has come in from the cold. I am happy to see her here, Minnie will follow shortly, I suspect. I love giving the cats their lives and their freedom. They can be in on cold nights and stormy days, they can go out and live the lives of cats. I like having Flo around.
We last saw the sun yesterday morning, it is a stormy, rainy windy day in Bedlam – my favorite writing weather. Today, something different, a creative stretch. I had coffee with David Snyder recently, he's the new muck-a-muck at Hubbard Hall, our beautiful arts and education center (housed on a former vaudeville house, an "Opera House."). I'm not precisely sure how it happened, but when I left, I had agreed to write a short play for the Hubbard Hall Theater Festival in January.
I wrote part of a play once before, it was based on the day AT&T laid off many thousands of people in Northern New Jersey. I wrote it from the point of a 28-year-old "outplacement" counselor "advising" the middle-aged men who mostly made up the company's workforce and whose lives had been unimaginably shattered. My play was shown in Soho on a new playwright's theater night.
I'm taking on a similar subject for Hubbard Hall, I'm calling the play "The Last Day Of A Dairy Farm," and it was inspired by my many visits to dying dairy farms in my agricultural county. I was so moved by the pain and loss these farmer's faced, and by how society – the politicians, economists and food consumers – has abandoned them, discarded them like trash, and left them behind.
I am intrigued at the idea of the discarded man (or woman), something that once was a shocking idea in American business, but it now business as usual. Once there was a contract between employee and business, now people are tossed out into the street like trash whenever stockholders get nervous.
My play will focus on the last day of Ralph Tunney's dairy farm, as a small family farmer – his family has owned the farm for 200 years – has run out of money and options and faces the awful reality of shutting down. For Ralph, this also means that his beloved cows will never set foot on grass again, they will most likely go to a corporate farm where they will spend the rest of their lives on concrete and be put down the second they get sick. A wrenching thing to see, a hard thing to write.
I write here on the blog, and I write books, but a play is different, requires a different head. This morning, I'm holing up in my study, driving rain and wind keeping me inside. I'm trying out my new Tai Chi drills to get limber in the head and body (more about that later) but a good play is a tough thing to write. Wish me luck. I love trying new things creativity, love stretching my mind, keeping it open. You can put up photos of cute animals all day, but that is not really creativity to me, it is taking the leap and jumping right over the cliff. I have 15 pages so far, 30 or so to go.Have to think visually and in terms of good dialogue.
Some facts to consider about Bernie's famous ride four blocks down Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan: In December of 2013, according to the NYPD, 25 people died in New York City traffic accidents, 4,227 people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention or hospitalization. In that year, 16,059 pedestrians and cyclists were injured, 178 people were killed in traffic accidents. In December of 2013, there were 17,260 motor vehicle crashes in New York City, in that year there were a total of 203,260 total accidents and crashes in New York City.
This year, there have three incidents reported involving New York Carriage Horses running away or colliding with a motor vehicle. No person or horse was injured. The script is familiar by now, so rote and predictable as to almost be hollow, even dull. Over the weekend, a carriage horse named Bernie was being groomed at a stable, he broke loose and ran down a nearby street as police cars chased him and blocked him in a side alley. His owner came with a bucket of oats and walked him back to the stable. No one was hurt, the horse was checked by a veterinarian and returned to work the next morning.
The animal rights group NYClass, the group spearheading the drive to ban the carriage horses, claimed the horse had been abused, that he was being washed with water that was too cold for a windy day in late October – this left many horse people with dropped jaws – and ran away to escape his torment. The group said Bernie's stroll proved that horses did not belong in New York City, and should be banned.
There was one departure from the normal script, and it came from New York City's media, which later – much later, and after days of breathless videos and news reports – did some reporting and found that there was no water being applied to the horse, Bernie just broke from his tether and went for a ride.
All over the world, horses and donkeys have escaped from their stalls and pastures and taken a walk or a run for thousands of years. It is not considered major news – more important than the death and injuries of thousands of people – anywhere but New York City.
Bernie was not harmed, neither was anyone else. Across the city, in Brooklyn that day, a woman and her two small children were murdered in their apartment, a six-year old child was run down and killed by an unlicensed driver, a woman on the East Side was hit and killed by a runaway truck. Last year, in Central Park, close to where Bernie pulls his carriage, two children were killed by fallen trees.
Since twice as many people have been killed by trees in one year in Central Park as by horses, and no human being, no resident of New York City, has ever been killed by a carriage horse, runaway or not, in the 150 years of the carriage trade, it makes sense for human rights groups to work to ban trees from the park and keep the horses there.
How to make sense of the inverted morality and perspective in New York City when a carriage horse has an accident? Hardly anyone believes a thing the spokespeople for NYClass say about these accidents anymore, they have been caught in so many lies and distortions about the carriage trade and the horses.
In their telling, the horses are always abused, but never really are. The plot always thins, but is never corrected.
Soon Bernie's photo will appear on the NYClass website, he will be added to the gallery of exploited animals, and lots of good-hearted animal lovers will send the group some money. More than a half-million dollars of their money went to politicians in New York City in the past few years (another half-million to try and build those vintage electric cars), according to city campaign d monitoring groups.
If NYClass has saved the life or improved the life of one single animal, there is no record of it. Go look for yourself, see if you can find one.
So here is the issue facing the horses and animals in general:
Can a carriage horse ever have an accident? Trees can, cars and bicycles can, children and buses can, so can taxicabs and pedicabs, planes and garbage trucks, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Lots of them, many thousands. The carriage horse controversy highlights many problems in the way we look at animals, one of them is what the author and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin calls the "zero tolerance" people who call themselves animal regulators and activists have for people who live and work with animals. Up until the 1960's and 1970's, she writes, the people responsible for regulating the welfare of animals actually knew something about them, they lived and worked with them. The brought reality and perspective to issues relating to animal welfar.
That is no longer true, today regulators and activists know little about the animals they are protecting – just consider the statement that it is abusive to groom a horse in windy weather, or that it is abuse for working animals to work – she cites the meatpacking industry, where the rule is no animal ever gets hurt, under any circumstances. "I constantly argue, " she writes, "that what we really need to do to protect animals is to set high standards. People can live up to high standards, but they can't live up to perfection."
Neither can the carriage trade. Horses will get sick and fall down. They will sometimes be frightened by a crane or startling sound (as they are on farms and rescue preserves), they will slip their harnesses, one horse will one day hurt someone, even kill someone, as so many cars, busses, trucks, bicyclists and people do every day in New York City. It is the cultural equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment, the worst kind of double standard, to think that of all the cars and people and bicycles and motorcyles and trucks in New York City, only horses must never have an accident or a problem.
The carriage trade is the most heavily regulated animal trade in America, there are literally hundreds of regulations and five separate city agencies who monitor them constantly, the city has set high standards for them. And according to the regulators, the carriage trade has met them, no carriage owner or driver is facing any kind of charge of neglect or abuse today.
The carriage trade ought not to be asked to set standards of perfection that can never be met – no cab driver in New York could survive that standard – and that no one else in the city is asked to meet. That is not moral, and from the lawyers I've spoken with, it is not legal either.
Temple Grandin has spent her life working for animal welfare and improving the lives of animals.
"People and animals are supposed to be together," she writes in her best-selling book Animals In Translation. "We spent a long time evolving together, and we used to be partners. Now people are cut off from animals unless they have a dog or cat."
And sadly, and as the carriage trade conflict demonstrates, people are increasingly ignorant of their true nature and need for well-being. People need animals, and animals need people. Banning the carriage horses because Bernie took a walk will not help one single animal in the world, it will take more than 200 horses out of safe and regulated environments and sent them into the holocaust afflicting horses all across America.
And if either species has taught the other anything in their long history together, is that we are imperfect beings in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world. Carriage horses are, by any factual account, the safest and most domesticable living things in New York City. They do no harm, and much good. Like their human partners, there will be incidents and accidents, future Bernie's who take a walk or go for a run.
They ought to live by the highest standards of care, but they and the people who work and live with them ought not be sacrificed to an unthinking and emotionalized fantasy of perfection.
Up here, in upstate New York, it is the time of the Change, as the farmers say, when the nights suddenly turn cold, there is not enough grass for the animals, and the color and light begin to melt away. Our beautiful garden has turned barren, the mornings are grey, the sun appears, a tease, and then disappears behind clouds of gray. This is November weather. I love each season, and for a different reason. Autumn is so beautiful here, it is the writer's time, when I get so much work done, feel cozy in my office, wood stoves burning, dogs spread out, Maria in her studio.
The flowers have almost all died, soon the leaves will be raked. Different, different.
But I am a warrior for light, and this season is a challenge for me, I feel it in my heart, my spirit, my bones. It is time for me to make my own color, my own light, inside and out. To sing my song in color, to bring color and light to my words, my poems, my books and photos, my blog. Light is not just a matter of seasons, but a thing of the heart and the spirit. I love to photograph the colorless winter pasture, there is a wonderful beauty to it.
Beauty is everywhere if you look for it, it surrounds me if I can only see it. Every year I learn to look for beauty in places where I have never seen it before, and this year will be no different. I began looking today.
The wrenching drama over the New York Carriage Horses has reminded me of the great urgency in talking about the real life of real animals, especially those that are not pets. Were the mayor and the animal rights groups of New York City to get their way and banish the horses, a great wrong would be done, both to animals and people. In New York City, there are powerful, educated people who believe it is cruel for a working horse to pull a carriage.
"People and animals are supposed to be together," wrote Temple Grandin in her best-sellilng book Animals In Translation. "We spent a great deal of time evolving together, and we used to be partners. Now people are cut off from animals unless they have a dog or a cat." It would be tragic to destroy the way of life of the carriage drivers, cut the horses off from people forever, and send these safe and healthy animals out into the catastrophe afflicting horses all over America now. Rescue farms are overwhelmed trying to cope with horses in need, and more than 155,000 horses are sent to slaughter each year.
On my farm, I encounter the real life of animals almost every day. We are encountering it once more with Ma, our biggest and oldest sheep. Ma has had a wild life, she was rescued from a farm in Vermont, went unshorn for years, nearly died giving birth to twin lambs this summer, and now, seems bewildered and in a great transition. We believe she is deteriorating both mentally and physically, coming towards her end.
When I wonder how a sheep is, the first thing I do is watch the border collie, the greatest readers of sheep on the earth. Red has ceased trying to herd Ma, he walks right past her, and she seems not to see him. They both have disconnected from the ancient and intuitive process of sheepherding. To me, this is the sign that Ma is nearing her end, the border collies know it before any human or animal knows it. Red knows it, Ma no longer exists for him in his efficient and intuitive way. Her lamb Deb has moved away from her as well, and grazes most of the time with the other sheep. Flock animals always move away from the sick, they will attract predators.
Writing this, I will shortly be flooded with messages that begin "I know you don't like advice, but…" and these messages will offer remedies, ideas and personal experiences. This ritual is familiar to me now. I have learned a long time ago never to listen to people who know what you want and ignore it. They are not my friends or the friends of animals. But I am always honest about my life with animals, the horses remind me how important it is. Ma is not a pet, she is not a dog or a cat, we are not calling the vet unless we see her visibly suffering. She is comfortable, eating, moving well. She is just no longer behaving like a sheep.
There is this idea in the world that every animal can be saved, healed, can live forever and that we must fight as hard as we can, spend every penny we have, commit our body and soul to changing the nature of life, to alter the real world of real animals, to deny the very reality of life and death. Ma does not need to be rescued from her life. I am committed to behaving otherwise. As long as Ma is not suffering, we will let nature take it's natural course. Animals do not live in a "no-kill" world, they do not exist to make human beings feel better about themselves.
It might take weeks, months or years. Like Frieda, she will go up and down, and decide when and whether to leave the world. She will not get younger, she will not defy the terrible beauty that is the natural world of animals. That is the life of real animals, and I see writing about the horses that the very lives of animals depend on our coming to terms with it and understanding what it means.