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  • Writer's pictureKen Campbell

Parables from Farm Animal Stories

A parable is a story that conveys a lesson, usually a moral lesson. A vignette is a short descriptive literary sketch. I write vignettes about the interactions between the animals that I see on the farm. I look for parables in these vignettes. There are plenty of observations that lend to vignettes, but parables? These are harder to come by.

In fact, well-known parables are usually in the form of short fictional stories where a moral issue can be clearly emphasized. In the natural world, where moral issues don’t really exist, it is difficult to find a moral lesson in any given set of interactions between animals. Instead, we might look for a parable in nature in the form of a nuanced expression of life that gives it context or deeper meaning.

One theme that is often touched on in my vignettes is the matter-of-fact character of life and death on the farm. We encounter this theme among the wild animals when the local bird-eating hawks capture and eat birds at the bird feeder. We see it in the interaction of wild and domestic animals in the predation of our chickens and lambs by our local coyotes. And we see it in our own actions in the annual slaughter of pigs, chickens, lambs, and heifers/steers for freezer meat. The vignettes about all these actions make poignant contributions to the theme but where is the parable. Where’s the lesson here that brings extra meaning and depth to our lives?

We have multiple-generation residency on the farm with children, parents, and grandparents all living on the premises. If there is a lesson to be found in the vignettes that reveal the matter-of-fact aspect of life and death on the farm, that lesson is received by each age group quite differently. For the children, death is a remote concept, and their major concern is with finding satisfaction in their immediate experience within the life-part of the equation. For the parents, their own mortality by now is quite apparent to them but their primary concerns are to protect the children from the possibility of premature death and to help ease the increasingly difficult lives of their own parents for a fate that is not far away. For the grandparents, the death-part of the life-death equation looms large and cannot be ignored; they must be concerned with the legacy they leave their children and grandchildren. The awareness of these issues comes naturally to these age groups and no amount of lesson content of a vignette will contribute anything more than poignancy to the facts – is there no parable to be found here?

However, this is not to say that parables can’t be found in observations from nature. Prior to moving to the farm, Jean and I lived on the banks of the mighty Columbia River. There was a mid-river island in easy view from our living room window. Every November a herd of deer would gather on that island to conduct their annual breeding rituals. Because the bucks carried their identification signatures around on their heads in the form of readily observed antlers, I could identify individuals among them. The most notable was a really big buck I called “Big Guy”. He was the island monarch and occupied the top rank in the breeding hierarchy with no serious challengers. He came to the island year after year. I knew it was Big Guy each year because, even though he shed his antlers every year, he grew a nearly identical set to replace those he had shed.

Big Guy was part of a river deer herd that lived on an archipelago of islands that extended for 50 miles along the reach of this big, brawling river. These deer regularly traveled between islands and swam against the river’s current as a routine part of their travels. I marveled at their readiness to swim and at the strength with which they swam to beat the river’s current.

When I first saw Big Guy, he was already a mature animal at least 4.5 years old and probably older. The years went by and each year Big Guy showed up in November and asserted his position as monarch-in-charge with top breeding privileges.

But buck deer are surprisingly short-lived and a 10-year-old buck is already well past his prime and susceptible to the many challenges faced by living in the wild as well as susceptible to being displaced from his rank in the breeding hierarchy by younger bucks. And so, it was in December of our last year in residence on the banks of the Columbia that I saw Big Guy, now in the neighborhood of 10 years old, traveling alone along the island’s brushy perimeter. He was on his way to the island’s northern tip where a shoal led into the river and into the strait that separated our island from the next island north. When he broke out of the brush and onto the gravel shoal, he stood for a long while and surveyed the river current and the breadth of the strait he was going to have to cross to get to the next island. Big Guy had crossed this strait many times in the past but today it was late December and the breeding season, which had been underway for the last two months, had taken its energy-sapping toll on him. He was tired and the task in front of him was going to take a lot of energy.

Big Guy gradually worked his way into the river with the cold current washing strongly against his legs causing a pronounced downstream wake. He was going to have to swim against that current to get to the next island. When he eventually got to belly-deep, he pushed off and began his swim.

I watched as the current pushed him off his bee-line. His trajectory was taking him on an arc that would land him on the river’s far shore and not on the next island north. When he had nearly reached the far shore and it was obvious that he was not going to get to the island, Big Guy turned around and swam back to the island from which he started. He had been swimming for approximately half an hour when he climbed out of the water onto the shore of the island where he started. A wet, bedraggled, and defeated monarch, he began slowly making his way through the island brush all alone in the descending darkness of that cold, grey winter day.

One week after Big Guy failed to cross the strait between islands, he was again on our island but this time with a band of approximately 20 other deer. At mid-morning, a contingent of six of these deer opted to swim to the next island north. Big Guy was one of them. They entered the water off the north tip of our island as Big Guy had done one week earlier and they swam directly across the strait to the southern tip of the next island north as Big Guy had previously attempted to do. But today, Big Guy swam the entire distance positioned right behind and in the wake of a strong-swimming, lead doe. It took 10 minutes to make the crossing. Upon hauling out onto the southern tip of the north island, Big Guy shook the water out of his coat and then hustled onto the grass-covered central section of the island to consume the energy-enriching fodder that would help replace the deficits incurred during breeding and winter stress.

I suspect that Big Guy would not have made it across the strait if he hadn’t had the strong-swimming doe breaking current ahead of him.

So where is the parable? Here it is. In the matter-of-fact theme of life and death, the transition between the one state and the other is not necessarily instantaneous as at the bird feeder when the hawk catches the songbird. Rather, as in Big Guy’s case, the transition from full to diminished vitality takes place over an extended period of slow, progressive diminution. To compensate for this diminution, the aging person needs to become part of a community with younger people. In his wisdom, the old person lets the younger people do the heavy lifting associated with physically-taxing life chores. By this, he extends the time over which he may continue with life’s basic activities, i.e. he lets the strong-swimming young person break current and then swims in her wake to get to the next island. That is far better than going to the old folk’s home and regressing into a complacent, sedentary life before succumbing to the denouement.


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