According to the archaeological record, human beings have been domesticating livestock for close to ten thousand years. The evidence is a concentration of bones from yearling sheep and goats found in the middens of ancient settlements, proving — at least to those with a need for proof — that our first attempts at domestication were linked to permanence and early forms of urban living. Anyone who has ever lived with livestock can tell you that the interactions between men and beasts have a feel of something much older, something akin to the time of the hunter gatherer. Think about it like this, imagine having to depend upon the flesh of animals for not only your meat and fat, but for their skins to clothe you against the elements, their bones and antlers for weapons and tools, their sinews and organs for a variety of survival gear unobtainable elsewhere. Imagine how long it would have taken to figure out that the simplest and most efficient way to survive, long term, would be to shadow these herds rather than to depend upon chance meetings of individual animals isolated and vulnerable to hunting parties desperate for a meal. Herds move at a different pace than individual animals, leave far more evidence of their passing, provide a constant source of nourishment through culling of the older, slower, injured or young. The process of domestication has already begun absent the confinement of these early livestock herds. By cutting out the weak, the herds become healthier, by constant shadowing the herds begin to trust their stalkers or at the very least view them as a constant part of the scenery. It would only be a matter of time before an orphaned calf or lamb would become a part of the human camp, and the domestication process taken to the next level.

When I move the herd in the late afternoon in early Autumn the lead animal sprints to the far side of the upper pasture, the rest of them following in a knot of moving flesh, all hooves and tails. It was a behavior I didn’t understand for the first few years, something I overlooked while tending to other chores, but once I realized where they were headed and that it was purpose driven based on the season and past experience, I realized that they wanted the drops from the ancient apple trees that overhung the far edge of that pasture. They knew both when and where the sweet apples fell and they led me to an understanding of our mutual dependence upon one another. Since that time I have made it a practice to rotate our herds and flocks daily from one part of the farm to another, to make sure they have the opportunity to graze on the orchards after it rains and the winds have cleared the trees of weak fruit. I wonder if it was humans that introduced livestock to these food sources or if it was the reverse. Perhaps domesticated animals predated agriculture, aiding in its creation simply because they knew where the best sources of vegetation were located and their human shadows discovered something the dumb brutes knew for eons. With my understanding of our herd today and by using vocalization I have stolen while listening to the herd, we move together with ease, they look forward to my arrival and signal one another whenever I appear with the dogs. In this way we have domesticated each other.

In many contemporary pastoral communities herds are moved from grazing grounds based on seasonal opportunities; highlands full of cool weather grasses in the Summer, the coastal lowlands in the Winter. Their human shepherds and ranchers follow the herds, directing them specifically, but generally following along beside them, providing security during calving and lambing season, when the herds and flocks are most vulnerable and allowing for a constant source sustenance for their keepers. This, it seems to me, is the far likelier means by which domestication originally began — not the importation of selected animals into fixed settlements, but rather the slow and inexorable process of mutual dependence based on shared environments tied to seasonality. Modern day CAFO operations are based on the concept of fixed urban centers dependent upon a steady input of calories produced elsewhere. Modern scientists see the past through the lens of the present, and thus they assume that domestication required confinement to flourish, fixed settlements and that is where they look for their evidence rather than to understand the intimate relationships of the hunter/gatherer with that which he hunts and gathers.

In an era of specialization we have come to take most of our lessons and learning in classrooms, from professionals. Few people come up in the world of generational apprenticeships where first hand knowledge is passed on in daily doses, day by day as the lessons reveal themselves in the course of life itself. How much information has been lost in our turning away from one style of information sharing in order to focus on another. Whether this is to our benefit or detriment there is likely a variety of opinions, but one thing is clear; there is world of knowledge we have turned away from and that can never be good.

The USDA rates beef cattle based on body shape and finish. The charts are readily available for anyone with an Internet connection. Fitness and health do not fit into the determination between Choice and Prime, only the amount of body fat. If the USDA were to rate human beings, morbidly obese bodies would be at the top of the chart, marathon runners at the bottom. I look at my animals based on their overall look; clear eyes, well muscled backs and legs, shiny coats. A listless and slow animal is unwell, an animal so fat that it cannot move at the same pace as the rest of the herd isn’t a boon to the farm no matter how many pounds of meat it may produce, it is a handicap. My first obligation is to the health of my family and that means clean, grass fed — and apple finished — protein rich beef, lamb, pork and poultry. The flavor, although secondary, is beyond comparison.

The conventional belief is that human beings shape the world and the environment to their needs and desires, so that any need and desire can now be reshaped into reality. We forget — or intentionally overlook — the fact that our environment shapes us in ways we cannot recognize, especially when we are divorced from the natural world. Cities are a product of humans and in turn humans become a product of those environments, increasingly removed from the world outside of the conceptual. We alter ourselves to fit into whatever reality we experience and in doing so become something else, something less human than before. Our domestication is now driven by the unseen shepherds who shadow us from afar and we are harvested no less than our counterparts on pasture or in feedlots. The perspective to see this is no longer.

I’ve given up a lot of beliefs that I have held for most of my life since we began our second life. I miss some aspects of what we once had, but increasingly the list becomes shorter and less important. We are far more fit, sleep better at night, work longer and harder, but enjoy our down time much more than ever before. We eat the food that we produce, care for it at every stage and have learned how to preserve it for the lean times. I understand the passage of time, the advance of the seasons, and the inevitability of my own demise while my genetic heritage lives on in my children. I don’t have any definitive solutions for anyone’s life beyond my own, but I can tell when things are not as they should be no matter what the specialists and experts may contend. The archaeologists may be right; urbanization created domesticated livestock and hunter gatherers were simply an outdated mode of human existence entirely dependent upon random encounters with whatever caloric source they stumbled upon, but I doubt this very much, my own experience proving otherwise. I believe that some of our greatest accomplishments were simply mirrors of Nature’s infallible designs, the world’s oldest OJT and that we have a lot to learn before we’ve fully domesticated ourselves.

More on Transhumance.

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