Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Jungle

Late spring rains spawn a jungle, a pasture eye-deep in silvery spent oats and scraggly wild mustard. White feverfew blossoms--they are everywhere this year--brush the horses' knees, their chrysanthemum-like scent wafting upward. The leader for the moment, Odie winds his way through the tangled plants, following, like an explorer, the trace of a path worn into the grass last summer. It's barely visible, but Odie presses on, his eyes blinking protectively as the plants gently slap his sides. Behind him, nose pressed tightly into the mule's scrawny tail, Argus follows along, his expression merry. Rounding out the trio of adventurers is Caleb, who uncharacteristically walks last in line. On occasion, Argus glances nervously at the alpha horse fast on his tail.

They emerge from the thick part of the pasture and hit an open stretch of shorter grass, breaking into a ground covering trot as they push onward toward Neighbor Jim's gate. It's summer, after all, and that means that Neighbor Jim has once again gifted his three acres of nirvana to the Watermark Farm horses for a season of eating pleasure.

Odie explodes through the gate, crossing the line as if he's a man on the run. Behind him Argus and Caleb float along effortlessly in their ground-covering trot. They look left and right, brown eyes big and wide. The three horses stop suddenly and snort loudly, heads suddenly shot up high. They remind me of a trio of little boys, hard at work pretending.

Suddenly, the predator is visible. The horses stop, stiffen, tremble.

Argus becomes the leader, bravely stepping out in front of the others. Watching them, you get the feeling that this is all just an elaborate game, an adventure of three horse friends.

Ahead of the brave explorers, in Neighbor Jim's front pasture (which adjoins the one our horses enjoy), the interlopers stand at the fenceline, staring. They are Neighbor Tony's unusual band of family pets: two Brahma bulls, a mother goat, and her little white kid.

The adult bull is enormous, and fearsome-looking, with a huge hump that sways when he walks, and a dewlap of loose skin that flops downward from his chest, drifting past his knees like a giant lap blanket. He's accompanied by his constant companion, a smaller yearling bull rescued as a newborn from an auction last year. Standing on top of the bigger bull's back is the tiny white baby goat, who uses him as a moving mountain. We have watched in absolutely amazement as the papa bull lets this baby play all over him. He moves carefully around her.

I trudge through the drying grass, annoyed at the millions of foxtail stickers that are filling my paddock boots and attaching themselves greedily to my wool socks. I am the fourth horse, trailing the herd silently, watching this showdown between two neighboring gangs unfold.

I smile, knowing the horses and the bulls and the goats all know -- and like -- each other, and the posturing is simply for fun and effect.

Argus stops just short of the common fence, coming to an elegant and controlled halt just ten feet away from the bulls, who regard him with a bored expression as they chew the summer grass. I'm pleased and happy that Argus gets to be an adventurous boy, enjoying pasture games with his companions and developing friendships with Brahma bulls and tiny goats. How far we've come, I think.

At the fence, I perform the now familiar task of scratching the big bull's head, ignoring the gamey intact-male perfume that I know will permeate my skin. I weave my hand through a square in the fence, finding an expectant bovine on the other side. Papa bull sighs gently as I massage his ears and forehead. It took me a few weeks to work up the courage to do this, even knowing that these bulls were pets, and friendly (although I would never walk through their pasture). Occasionally, the big bull runs his rough tongue appreciatively across my salty arm, seemingly trying to return the favor in his graceful gesture. I chatter away at him, with my free hand poking stems laden with oats through the fence. He takes them politely and chews thoughtfully. We regard one another with great admiration. He's my very first bovine friend ever.

From behind me, the three horses watch, their game of jungle explorer over.

Soon, it's time to return to the house, and the mundane tasks of life: starting dinner; pleading with children to complete their chores; feeding dogs, cats, chickens and horses. I bid my four-legged neighbors goodbye, and slowly trudge through the scratchy pasture, lost in thought. Ahead of me, my house and barn are warmed by soft pink and yellow evening light. I think about my love for my family and my gratitude at my good fortune, the luck I have to be healthy and able to enjoy this all. To be here on this farm, surrounded by people and animals and the always changing dance of nature, is a dream come true. And then there's Argus.

As if on cue, I feel a warm breath on my elbow. The normally shy and reclusive (even with me) Argus is walking alongside me. "Hi buddy," I say softly as I reach out and touch his neck. He sighs once, his eyes peaceful and content, as we purposefully follow the path that leads us home.