A barn full of animals that have nothing to fear is the most peaceful and holy place that humans can create. Surrounded by the quiet of chewing hay and slow breathing, among sheep and cows, perhaps the most enlightened species that live, a peaceful barn is as close as we can get to heaven and still be inside. A barn is the perfect setting for holiness.
A perfect setting for a lot of things, really. I love this barn. It feels vast, roomy, and open. Light and sacred, like a cathedral. It fills me with gratitude every time I think of it. I am so blessed to offer this beautiful, comfortable space to our beloved cows and sheep. Soon, the horses will join them, as well.
The setting is perfect, too. It is on a hillside, amidst rolling pastures, with a constant chorus of songbirds. PennyLove, Johnny, and I spent many an evening gazing out from that barn, watching the sun melt into a red-orange orb and drip into the purple and blue horizon. Years ago, I had a similar ritual with her mother, Penny Power. We used to walk along the meadow, shoulder to shoulder, slowing our breathing as the sun set, bowing our heads in gratitude for the day.
PennyLove wasn’t very much like her mother in any of the obvious ways, though. Penny Power was cuddly and nurturing. She loved being given baths and brushed and hugged. PennyLove was a bit more like a cat. She let you know when and how and for how long you could pet her. If you wanted to give her a hug and she didn’t want one, she’d swing her head at you as if she had horns and wasn’t shy about using them. Healthy boundaries, I’d laugh.
But something about her reminded me of her mother. I felt her mother in her, in some inexpressible way, and I found it such a comfort to have a tiny spark of Penny Power back.
I loved watching her.
I loved how the sheep revered and trusted her. I loved how her cow friends, Gus and Houdini in particular, would come to her new “retirement” quarters to visit with her. I loved her dignity and the clarity with which she let us know exactly what she wanted and needed.
I loved seeing the sun shining on her red coat. Loved the thickness and warmth of her fur. Loved her slow, careful lumbering gait.
We knew, when she needed more and more help every time she wanted to stand up, that she wouldn’t be with us much longer. For a while we had a nice system going. She’d moo a specific moo when she wanted to get up. Johnny would warm up the tractor while I got straps under her. We’d work together to shimmy the straps into the right spot, then I would attach them to the tractor, and he would raise her slowly.
PennyLove would work with us helpfully and patiently through the whole process and push her front legs up as the tractor lifted her hips. The three of us got so good at it that we could get her up in just a few minutes. And then once she was up, on the nice flat ground of her pasture and barn, she got around really well. She was slow and methodical, and it worked. She was happy. So, so happy. Contentment radiated from every pore. I was feeling optimistic. Maybe we could keep her going long enough to enjoy sweet spring grass and milder temperatures…
A barn is a great place to face the truth of things. Harsh realities seem cushioned by the soft gaze of gentle creatures that love you. One day, we raised PennyLove with the tractor, but her front legs wouldn’t hold her anymore. As I lay in a fragrant bed of hay with my beloved PennyLove, and looked into her eyes, I understood that she would never rise again.
She was content with that. Her life was complete, and it was beautiful.
PennyLove rested then. Slept with her head near mine on that huge pile of hay. Her eyes were closed. Her breathing even. The sheep sniffed gently around us, calmly knowing things that remain a mystery to me.
Our beautiful PennyLove’s life force flowed, like a great orb of red-orange light, and melted into the indigo horizon. Gently, slowly, gracefully. Achingly serene. A barn is a great place to die.
Words escape. Words are wispy, vague, slippery. A thousand– even a million– of them cannot paint a picture of a life and a love and a death and a joy, a being full of rich complexity and glorious simplicity. The wonder and the grief and the gratitude and the billion hallowed moments that make up a life are so essentially related, so fully interconnected, it renders that life unutterable. One wordless love.
Nearly fifteen years ago, I set out to change the world with two goats by my side. One was all sweetness and harmony, the other was all impishness and shenanigans. Both had eyes that glimmered with mischief and senses of humor that were subtle, complex, and silly.
These little goats were my family, my friends, my confidants, my loved ones, my little devils. Truer than any human loved one has ever been– could ever be. These goats were my home.
And now they are my past. My memories. My spirit friends.
My goats are gone.
Ruckus and Hootenanny were young when their first family decided, after only a few months, that having goats wasn’t such a good idea after all. They had tried to keep these intelligent, rowdy, energetic, mischievous little rascals in a tiny pen. As a result, they broke out constantly to wreak havoc on the garden. Finally, the people found a way to lock them in the pen so they could not escape. And the little goats just cried and cried, not understanding what they had done to cause them to be held prisoner in this way.
Finally in frustration, the people gave up the goats. And I was lucky enough to get them. I gave them a huge pasture, an airy barn, a jungle gym, and we played constantly. What fun those little devils were! It was impossible not to laugh in their presence, so full of comedy was their every move.
But the days wore on. I became much less carefree and no longer played with them. And they went from being two of my only farm animals to be two of nearly 200. They kept having fun. I never tried to fence them in– they free ranged over the whole farm, and yet never left the property, taking great joy in their liberty.
Months have passed since I wrote these words, since I set Ruckus’ spirit free. And still words escape me.
It is not that I mourn him; it is that I cannot describe, with mere words, who he was to me– who he was to the world, who he still is and ever will be.
His death was beautiful and peaceful. He faced it fearlessly, with his two closest two-leggeds at his side. He knew he was loved; he knew it was his time. My dear, sweet Ruckus had no regrets and neither do I. I did what I set out to do. I gave him– and beloved Hootenanny, who crossed over a year before him— a good life and a good death.
This is my job and I do it quite well. And yet…
My goats are gone.
Ruckus believed in me. He had faith in me. He stood by me lovingly, unwaveringly, through the dark times, times when I struggled to care for my growing flock of orphans, when it was just me and the animals, alone on the mountain. And he remained steadfast even as he watched the light come back into our lives– as he watched the sanctuary– and me– bloom.
I remember one day, very early on, when I despaired of ever succeeding in this mad experiment of plucking as many lives as possible from hopeless pits and giving them the freedom to experience a joyful, natural life. It was the deepest part of winter– when the sky darkens in these mountains as early at 3:00 pm.
One of my beloved goats, Hullabaloo, had been killed by predators. Her blood stained the snow and ice. I locked them in every night for safety, but she had found a way out in search of mischief. If I had been more adept at fixing things, I could have created an escape-proof pen, and she would have lived. Further, I had not even heard her being attacked. I had vowed to protect her, and instead, she was eaten alive.
I fell to the icy ground, wind howling around me, and sobbed. I was unfit for this task. I couldn’t go on. After I was all cried out, I made my way heavily into the barn to finish my chores.
And there was Ruckus, gazing at me steadily, faithfully. He trusted me to care for him– to care for all of them. He believed in me, and I could not let him down. In order to live up to the trust of that little goat, I found the strength and help I needed, and banished the darkness.
Through the years, I often found Ruckus’ calm eyes on me. His faith never wavered. There is something that happens to you– or at least it did to me– when someone places their faith in you so wholeheartedly. You find inner power you never knew you had. You draw on all of your reserves and you find a way to live up to that trust.
I set out to save him, and he set me up to save hundreds more. That one little goat has changed so many lives. And I have realized, as I write this, that he knew I was ready. He wouldn’t have left if he did not know, for certain, that I was strong enough to go on. That I have the faith I need, and know who I am.
Beautiful spirit. Beautiful goat. Treasure of my heart, my gratitude will never cease.
This song of mine will wind its music around you, my child, like
the fond arms of love.
This song of mine will touch your forehead like a kiss of
When you are alone it will sit by your side and whisper in
your ear, when you are in the crowd it will fence you about with
My song will be like a pair of wings to your dreams, it will
transport your heart to the verge of the unknown.
It will be like the faithful star overhead when dark night is
over your road.
My song will sit in the pupils of your eyes, and will carry
your sight into the heart of things.
And when my voice is silent in death, my song will speak in
your living heart.
– Rabindranath Tagore
Introducing our newest rescues, Wynken, Blynken and Nod! Please donate today to help us with their care by clicking here.
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the lamby-lambs three:
(by Eugene Field)
The old red cow rolls dreamily through the pasture, her benign gaze lingering on spry calfs cavorting in circles nearby. She lays her arthritic body on the cool ground as regally as a queen lowering herself onto her throne. Reclining in the sunshine, she soaks in the peace.
A small long-haired, long horned cow meanders over and settles in next to her. In tandem, they breathe slowly and deeply. They are content in their eternal now, secure in the knowledge that harmonious, all-encompassing love, the Great Truth known to all bovines, reigns here at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary.
The Grand Dame does not focus on others times and other places of her life, where love was not allowed to reign. She’s been a mother many times over, and many times over her calfs were taken from her. And yet she doesn’t hold on to those memories. She is content simply sending light to those times and places whenever they flicker through her consciousness. With love, but without effort or thought, her breath itself is a prayer for her lost babies and the blindness that damages so many.
She holds no fear and no blame. She does not seek vengeance. She is beyond the surface labels of right and wrong.
The sage Grand Dame holds ancient memories of the Light that all beings come from. With a wisdom beyond knowledge, she understands that we are One. Our actions towards each other, ultimately, are our actions towards ourselves. She feels compassion, yet also understands that each of us, a ray of light in earthly form, is on our own path. We will each return to our true nature in due time.
Vast numbers of her brethren, bovine and otherwise, are mistreated each day. Each one of them is a sacred being, a ray of Divine Light. And yet, because we are all rays of the same light, inextricably linked, she recognizes that through her liberation they are also freed. Through her life and in her light, they live. She breathes and prays and loves and feels joy that they may also partake.
As this knowledge-without-thought vibrates beyond her consciousness, the frolicking youngsters and warm sunlight are the manifestation of truth. In this sanctuary love reigns.
Angry wind burned my cheeks and stung my eyes as the Harley engine’s raucous song filled my ears. I hid my face behind the back of the driver, trying to protect it from the air we viciously cut through in our headlong tumble down the country road.
I was accustomed to travel by horseback, to feeling my warm horse beneath me, anticipating my requests and changing pace or direction before I even shifted my weight or squeezed a finger to ask her. Together we explored the woods and rivers of the surrounding countryside. We travelled so silently, and in such harmony, that we were often able to observe deer and other wildlife up close.
So this other mode of transport was utterly foreign to me. And whilst I admit that the danger and speed of it gave my younger self a thrill, I think even then I knew this wasn’t really who I was.
He turned halfway around and yelled something to me.
“Pardon?” I yelled awkwardly, straining to be heard.
“How much time do you have?” It was so much easier for him to trumpet his big voice over the engine’s grinding chorus.
“I’m in no hurry,” came my naive reply.
Off we plunged, down winding roads and around sharp turns. Trees, pastures and farmhouses contorted into Dali-esque shapes as we whizzed by, too fast for me to surmise or even wonder at our intended destination.
We slowed, and the world we passed took on more definite shapes as we turned onto a gravel lane cutting down the center of two empty pastures. Rounding a curve, a centuries old stone farmhouse gracefully came into focus. Daringly, I lifted myself up a bit to speak into my companion’s ear.
“Who lives here?”
“Someone I want you to meet.”
That someone was Anne Nicodemus Carpenter, horsewoman, poet, dog trainer, and since that day one of my closest friends.
The house had big rooms and windows, unusual for such an old home. Anne sat in the living room, surrounded by paintings of children and animals. Horses, dogs, cats and chickens gazed out at me from silver frames scattered across every surface, frozen in posterity.
Her lively eyes sparkled as she took me in. “Do you write?” she wanted to know first.
“Do you ride?” was her next query, which she clarified with a pointed gaze in my companion’s direction while chuckling at her own double entendre, “I can see that you ride, but do you ride horses?”
Satisfied that I was a bona fide word and animal person, she dismissed my friend and took me outside to meet her familiars. We continued our conversation from that day to this, sometimes with long pauses in between, but always great energy to resume.
Perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, you meet someone you can really relate to. Someone who understands why you do the things you do, because they do them, too. Anne was one of those for me.
When I met her, she was in her 90’s and I was in my 30’s, and yet the 60 year age difference never hindered us. Anne was living alone on her beautiful old farm with her horses, chickens, guinea hens, dogs, and cats. I was wishing I lived alone on my farm with my animal companions.
She spent her days spiritedly observing the life teeming around her and reporting her astute findings in cleverly rendered verbal portraits. I spent my days getting lost on horseback, and my evenings recounting the infinitesimal drama of barn life for my dogs, whom I had banned from the barnyard after one too many chickens were lost.
Anne and I used to spend hours together, discussing minute details of animal behavior, positing ideas on how to help them, sharing notes on our interactions with all forms of life. She showed just as much interest in and compassion for the raccoons who stole birdseed from the bird feeder strategically placed by her window as for the powerful, pedigreed stallion in her pasture.
She used to get so excited every time she learned about a new insect! Her eyes would light up and she’d laugh in delight as she told me little known facts about potato bugs. The last time I saw her, which was just last week, she spent nearly an hour regaling me on stick bugs, ancient and clever creatures that shed light on Earth’s mysteries.
“I think that’s why we live,” Anne confided once, “It’s our job to learn. Once we stop learning, there’s nothing more for us.”
Anne was the only person I have ever known who truly understood my certitude that it is perfectly reasonable to give over one’s attic as a winter home for squirrels or rodents, and that to live fully and completely with a pack of dogs, herd of horses or a flock of chickens is more fulfilling and engrossing than any other lifestyle.
She never questioned my frequent practice of going days on end without leaving my farm or speaking to another human. To her, this was not an unhealthy or lonely life, but one replete with intellectual stimulation, excitement, and emotional fulfillment.
She never questioned the wisdom or expense of trying to build a brace for a turkey with a deformed leg; she simply offered ideas from her own vast experience. She never second guessed that I would know whether to keep trying to help my foundered mare and when to let her go. She appreciated that because I was living as one with the animals, I understood and respected their wishes.
I remember visiting her one day after she lost a hen to a red-tailed hawk. She poured her grief into a poem filled with elegance and reverence for the drama and glory of life. Oh, how I loved to sit on her sofa with her and read her latest poems! Her handwriting was atrocious, and arthritis didn’t help, but Anne had a rare command of words and I was intensely affected by her work.
Anne’s home, aptly dubbed Halcyon Farm, became a refuge to me when life’s challenges knocked me flat. She listened as avidly as I spilled my heart about my failures with human love as she did when I plied her with anecdotes on my successes with animal love (and no, that was not another double entendre).
I can never list the things I learned from her. I can never express the satisfaction found in such a true and profound friendship.
I love her deeply, respect her fully, and miss her mightily. That motorcycle ride was one of the most important journeys of my life.
Last night, Anne crossed over. She still lived at home with her horses, cats, and hens, and was surrounded by her children, grandchildren, friends and admirers. She remained cognizant until the last.
I know she hasn’t gone far. I feel her in the wind. I hear her in the birdsong. She lives on in her poems and in every ant, butterfly, and stick bug that captured her imagination.
“They are not dead, who live in the hearts they leave behind.” – Tuscarora
The horses are brought in early in the summer,
Too many green heads when the sun is up.
I move from one dream
To the front steps of another.
The flute that played me awake in tears
Is still crying in the wild cherry,
And some mouse must shudder too loud to live.
Two great blue herons come in sight,
Strung out against the setting moon,
A cliche of a Chinese painting,
Their legs stretched long behind.
They cry hoarsely as they reach the river,
A sound I never knew was theirs.
The unknown artist had been up early,
Not swirling in the vapors of an opium dream
Where a star can cradle impossibly
In the bosom of the crescent moon.
A scuffle in the multiflora. The shriek stops all our blood.
A rooster’s crow is cut in two.
The shock waves gradually fade out.
The air is loud with relief and night business is winding up.
The worst has happened, and it was none of us.
The rooster starts again. Another answers.
Together, they will bring in the sun.
A bat flashes by my head and slips behind the shutter
In a blink of time, two more, there is squeaking
As they hang up for the day like clothes in a closet.
Now there is some light at the edge of the world.
The picture of mares and foals in the meadow
Is developing– so far just black and white silhouettes–
The Welsh filly sees me and calls out in a toy horse’s voice.
Heads lift up from the grass and turn towards the big mare,
She and the young prince move off slowly,
The others follow in close order.
By the time they reach the barnyard
Day is there ahead of them.
Night has gone to fragments of a half-remembered dream.
—by Anne Nicodemus Carpenter from Ma’s Ram and Other Poems
After writing this, I went outside to seek comfort in the arms of a large mare and found a new cat in my barn. Young and lithe, she happens to be long-haired and all black, a cat I know Anne would have found especially beautiful. Remembering that Anne once remarked that, should she be reincarnated, she wouldn’t mind life in my barn where she could enjoy the animals without figuring out how to pay for them, I named the new cat Halcyon, Hally for short. While I don’t think Hally is Anne, I rather think they both might admire the symmetry of it.
I’m dying, and I’m at peace. It is a good day to die.
I’m dying, and it is beautiful.
I am dying, and I am asking you to honor me by learning to live, and preparing to die.
I am asking you to understand that these are the same things.
You’re dying, too. Everyone– everything dies. I don’t know when that will be for me or for you, but I know as surely as I breathe that the day will come when we both must move on. I mean it when I say that Death is my old friend. My good friend. Make Death your friend, too.
The death of a life well lived is not reason for tears, but celebration!
So live your life well.
Ask yourself in every moment, could I cross over right now, peacefully and joyfully? If the answer is no, well then get to work! Don’t you see that your job here on this earth is to learn how to die? Live in beauty. Spread peace and light, and die in that same peace and light.
Let go of your pain. Let go of your fears. Grief needn’t consume us.
I know you hurt. I know you have lost loved ones. You have been invisible to people you care about. You have been overlooked, forgotten, taken advantage of, and used. I know. You’ve suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of people who were charged with protecting and caring for you. I know. You have lost the only ones who really knew, understood, accepted, and loved you. I know. I see you. I understand your pain. And I am telling you that this does not define you.
This is not who you are. Let it go. What defines you is what you make of yourself, and how you contribute to the world, within whatever context you are in. I am asking you to honor yourself and your loved ones by Being, really being who YOU ARE. Let go of the pain and take your power back.
Our loved ones live eternally in our hearts and beyond. Channel your grief into prayers and works towards the peace of all souls– including your own! Don’t tell me you are sorry for my loss. I appreciate the sentiment, but would find greater comfort in seeing you joyously honor our lost loved ones through bringing more peace, joy, kindness and love to our world and beyond.
“My death will be the life of another– I swear that to you. And you watch, you come find me. Because I’ll be standing again in these grasses, and you’ll see me looking through the eyes of a fox, and taking the air with the eagle, and running in the tracks of the deer.” (from The Story of B by Daniel Quinn, page 188)