In Our Stars

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

-William Shakespeare

In the morning after the chickens and the turkeys have been fed and watered and the dogs and barn cats have had their rations I make my way to the pasture where the cattle are waiting. They know the sound of the tractor, send up their lowing across the hillsides and I look forward to seeing them, every day without fail. I usually open the gate before moving the round bale feeder and the bull is always the first to emerge from the pen. He makes sure that I am aware of him, that he is the dominant male in the herd by lowering his head and tucking himself towards me in a bluff before he moves out of the enclosure towards the last tufts of grass to graze. It is one of those instinctual moves, hard-wired into his musculature and intractable. I am wise enough to give him the illusion of submission and after the rest of the herd moves out I go about my business and take apart the round pen panels and reassemble them while the dogs watch from a distance. The calves always set out at a trot, kick up their rear legs and then reform as a separate herd from their mothers. The heifers go right to work at grazing with delicate nibbles and alert glances towards the dogs and the sound of the metal pins and chains as the panels are brought into position. The bull calves pair off to butt heads or lift their lips and when they come close enough to the bull he will nod toward them and initiate their advance. They butt against his massive head and he plays a butt in return, softly, but with enough force to challenge their parry. This plays out until the bullocks tire of it, bouncing off the weight of their sire, unmoved by the persistence of youth. It is a gentle exchange meant to encourage their defensive nature as they grow into mature bulls. Bring a new male bull into the mix, as we have done in the past, and that casual atmosphere becomes tense, the duel between dominant bull and newcomer a brutal exchange that leaves no doubt as to dominance.

My Father called the other night and after a moment of asking about each other’s health we launched back into our usual conversation; books, history, politics, philosophy. Speaking with him is like having a talk with myself if I were twenty years older and halfway through, somewhere between Margaret Atwood and Cincinnatus, I found myself thinking about the bull and his calves at play in the field. I stopped somewhere along the line and thanked him for what he had done for me, whatever it was, and told him that he had given me the confidence to think I could do anything with my life.

“I believe you can.” he said, and it sounded like he meant it.

Years ago, right before my Grandfather died I had made a habit of stopping by to give him a shave. He wasn’t as steady as he once was with a razor and even in his nineties he preferred to be clean shaven rather than whiskered. It was both easy and difficult at the same time, easy because we shared the same face, its jawline and chin so strikingly similar that I felt as if I were shaving a mirror image of my own, hard because I knew how little time was left and how much I would miss him when he was gone. And I was right, I miss him still nearly twenty years after his passing, but I also remember looking into that face as if it were my own in the mirror this morning.

I have been thinking about genetics a lot lately in both the practical and the abstract. When we bought our first four cows we knew very little about them, only that Herefords were docile in nature and that being polled there were no horns that might accidentally take out an eye or tear a hole between my ribs if I got careless. I knew enough about their ability to endure cold temperatures due to their stocky bodies and their excellent flavor in the form of steaks and ground beef. Each calving brought new variables into the herd and every Autumn we’d make the decision to cull or harvest based on the least desirable factors, keeping the calmest and fastest growing heifers as our next generation. One of the unexpected developments was a white stripe between the shoulder blades and white socks above each hoof on the best animals, like a seal of approval. Those without tended to be the most flighty and skittish while the ones with the most prominent line backs grew quickly and were easy to handle. In less than ten years we discovered an animal uniquely suited to our style of farming and our land and even the old timers have remarked on their looks and overall health. A well integrated herd with similar genetics behaves in a way that is both dependable to the person dealing with them, but more importantly to each other. They are at ease with each other and unified in their movements from one pasture to another, always on the lookout for the safety of the herd. We have given up on bringing in different types of cattle to add to the herd — no more Chianina or Angus, not because they don’t taste good or do well on the forage, but because they cause unrest and trouble fitting in with the herd we have. An animal that weighs upwards of a half ton is a lot of work when it is uneasy, it is a dangerous proposition when the rest of the herd excludes it and demonstrates it through their own social behaviors. I see DNA as a set of instructions that clearly outlines the operation of the vessel in which it is born, not only appearance and color, but personality and behavior across a wider spectrum. It’s as if it uses life as a means of refining its own coding, one generation at a time, an immortal life form reaching as far back into history as life itself.

I was driving to New London the other morning on the road that hugs the southern lake shore. It is a ride that never fails to deliver some surprise; a moose or a bobcat poking their heads out of the dense woods that line the road, rainbows arching across the surface of the lake, bicyclists and hikers, Fall foliage or ice covered branches like black lace against the sky. As I was driving a small blue truck passed me in the opposite lane and for just a second I caught a glimpse of the driver’s face, smiling, his hand lifted in a wave and I recognized my oldest son in that split second on the curve and I waved in return before he disappeared in my rear-view mirror. His face was a glimpse back in time for me, my long ago glossy dark hair fixed on his head, that same lift of hand and arm in casual greeting that we both share. When he was little and I worked in an office I would arrive home to have him challenge me on the living room floor — “You wanna wrestle? I know that you do.” and we would roll across the carpeted floor, pinning and grasping each other, flipping and pushing in a firm, but gentle replay of faux aggression until I would beg off and call him the winner. If there was any difference between that and what the bull did with the bullocks on pasture you’d be hard pressed to identify it.

The young woman who has been helping me with fence the past month or so will be leaving the farm with her fiance’ in a week and we will miss them. Yesterday afternoon she came out to help on the last section of the season and I asked her a couple of questions about DNA and genetics. She is a research scientist working with lab rats and cancer cells and what she does is far outside of my sphere. I asked her a question my son had posed about naked mole rats and their resistance to cancer and she admitted that it was outside of her knowledge set as well. She crimped the wire sleeves with a new found competence as we spoke when we passed each other moving wire up and down the fence line we exchanged a few last words. She told me about a pregnant dog they had euthanized at her last job because they needed the fetal tissue of the puppies and looking at our pregnant Aussie I got the feeling it was one of the things that had turned her off of lab work. My children came down after they got off the school bus and told her that we would be naming one of the puppies after her beagle and she smiled at that. She told me that she had applied for work up here just to see if she could get something and that her fiance’ had as well and that getting a small farm was definitely something they were thinking about, that staying with us had changed their perspective. I told her that it was a great idea, that I was grateful for her help and that they would be missed and in the last of the fading light we completed the tensioning of the top wire to the sound of the cattle lowing in the distance.

It’s hard not to question the meaning of life when it’s all that you do every day. There are days when I wonder why we are doing what we do, if it isn’t foolish to spend our lives and our efforts doing something that can be done much more efficiently on a larger scale using industrial methods and robotics and that maybe we made the wrong decision. Those thoughts are usually on bad days and thankfully there aren’t many of them. For the most part I am fairly certain that anything else would have been a mistake, that we were meant for this on a level that was genetic. That what we were giving our children was something far more important than anything money could buy and that the payback is equally profound. The food we eat, the air we breathe, the sleep we earn is the fuel that propels that secret living code written in our genes one generation further in its travel through time and that in a way we’re just hitchhiking, going along for the ride. The longer I live the more I realize that things we think are unique about us are really just borrowed bits from the ones before, a shared operating system that gets passed with a wave from father to son, like on that road the other morning where you catch a glimpse of yourself moving past. Maybe one day my grandson, if I am lucky enough to have one, will shave my face when I can’t do it any longer and it will be as easy for him as it was for me because our faces will be just that much alike, separated by three quarters of a century or more.

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