Essays 05.01.2013

Ordinary miracles

Saturday afternoon my daughter and I volunteered on a local farm tour, at a farm where the two main attractions are goats and pickles. I’ve got a cabinetful of pickles at home, but no goats, and I figured even if a nine year-old girl got bored checking people in and welcoming them to a farm then surely baby goats would keep her entertained for hours. I was more right than I’d bargained for, as it turned out.

We arrived too early. We were supposed to arrive half an hour before the tour started, to set up and get the lay of the land, but I got us there half an hour before that. The farm was, I thought (and Google Maps confirmed) over half an hour away, and I had to stop off to buy chicken feed. But the map was conservative, the trip easy and the errand quick, and so I allowed far too much time. As I climbed out of the car and saw Mike, the farmer, walking towards me, I apologized and promised to stay out of the way.

“No problem,” he said, friendly but a little hurried. “In fact we’ve got a goat giving birth right at the moment, if your daughter wants to watch.”

I leaned back into the car. “Ivy, you want to watch a goat give birth?”
A second passed while my words sunk in — it is not the sort of question she is used to being asked — and then she bounded out of the car.

Mike had come up to the house not to greet us but to call his wife, Katherine, to help him; the doe had been in labor for some time and seemed to be wearing out. When the four of us got down to the barn the poor girl was bleating miserably, having managed to produce a few bulging inches of amniotic sac and two hooves — the front ones, luckily, and the head was next, but she was clearly in distress. Katherine held her by the head while Mike tried to move the kid, but the doe was struggling and he had trouble holding onto the kid’s legs.

“Push, girl,” he said, but she didn’t.

“Sir? Would you mind giving us a hand?”

I climbed over the gate and wrapped my arms around the doe’s neck, steadying her while Mike and Katherine, doctor and midwife, both worked to free the baby.

“I want her to push,” said the doctor.

“She can’t push,” said the midwife. “She’s worn out.”

So they nudged and pulled and guided, and the doe thus encouraged gave a couple of halfhearted thrusts, and in half a minute the kid slithered out and began to kick and bleat. Mike showed the doe her baby, and we all got out of the way.

Only some hours later, watching other people’s reactions to this story, did any of it strike me as miraculous. No, let me rephrase that: only later did I remember that it was miraculous. Not because the baby should normally have died, or anything like that. Not because the birth required an act of heroism; it was all in a day’s work if you breed livestock. It was in the moment almost businesslike, calm in the way that really urgent matters must be. Purposeful calm is infectious, and walking back to the house my attitude was one of “yep, all in a day’s work,” when, in fact, I have never in my life attended a goat’s birth. There were dozens of kids running around outside, all born in the past several weeks, and now another had been born: a good thing, but perfectly ordinary.

It wasn’t a miracle because it was extraordinary. It was a miracle, I suppose, simply because life is a miracle. We forget that too easily — or, embarrassed by the language, we rationalize it away in favor of purely materialistic explanations. We forget or we refuse to be amazed and awed by what would, had we never seen it before, amaze and awe us. This is, I think, the main reason I like spending time on farms, and gardening and working with animals, and even simply tramping off through the woods: it puts me in a place where miracles are there for the taking. The leaves emerge from the buds of a poplar tree, day by day, perfect miniscules of their summer selves. The swallowtail will lay her eggs in my herb garden and her caterpillars will eat up all my parsley and become chrysalises and then butterflies. Seeds become food; babies grow; last year’s rubbish rots and births new life. They’re miracles if you want them.

One can’t, of course, spend one’s entire life standing around being awed and amazed. There’s rarely time in the present for miracles: you don’t want, for example, your obstetrician stopping to sermonize about the miracle of life while you’re lying on a table ten centimeters dilated, or while your wife is. (I can speak from personal experience only to the latter, but I’m pretty certain about the former as well. The goat certainly wouldn’t have been interested.) And you can easily take this sort of thing too far, into a mystical pantheism that has you fearing to cut down a tree to make a chair and daring not to step on an ant, too full of wonder ever to get any work done.

The harder thing to remember is that all of these things, seedling, tree, ant, goat, butterfly, you, me, are all perfectly ordinary — and they’re all miraculous. We need to recognize both, to hold both in our head simultaneously. We need the sensible farmer and the mystic poet; we need perhaps to be both. The best farmers, I think, respect the mystery that lies beyond and underneath what they can see and understand and control, and the best mystics have gardens. We need to be awed, far more often than we are, perhaps as often as possible, not to remind us that we are ordinary by comparison to the truly awesome, but to remind us that miracles themselves are ordinary, and no less miraculous for it.

They are miracles if, as I said, you want them. And if not? Well, then, as Wallace Stevens wrote,

Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

My daughter, anyway, didn’t need all this ponderous analysis. She watched the birth rapt, silent, wide-eyed. She made sure to tell everyone who visited the farm that afternoon, all hundred and sixty-odd of them, that a baby goat had been born just a few hours earlier, and they could go down to the barn and see it if they liked. She volunteered to lug food and fresh water down to the mother, and tramped off in search of a two week-old kid who wasn’t with his own mama. But she will not, I expect, have any qualms about a good bit of cabrito, any more than she spurned a sample of chorizo after cooing over how cute this year’s new piglet was. She knows how it works. That newborn kid is going to grow up one of these days, and when he does, he’ll be somebody’s dinner. And, I’m certain, a delicious one. He is a miracle, but — and — he is an ordinary one. So is all this glorious mess, and we had better get used to the idea.

Thanks to my daughter Ivy for the photos, and to Mike and Katherine Berezny of Windy Acres Farm for the day.


3 comments on “Ordinary miracles”

  1. Diann Foreman says:

    If that were the case, then all ordinary peaches would grow from trees rooted in organic soil and be picked by gentle hands only when ripe, only when no traces of green remain in the skin. All ordinary peaches would be placed carefully in a single layer in white buckets to be transferred to the packing shed, where they would be sorted and arranged in tray-lined flats. And then, they would be chauffeured four hours to the organic farmers markets in Seattle, where people would wait in line to spend $3 per pound for Red Haven peaches from Rama Farm.

  2. David Walbert says:

    Diann, I can’t tell what “that” in your first sentence refers to — that life is a miracle? — but if your point is that the word “miracle” only makes sense to you in the context of a marketing campaign, that strikes me as deeply sad.

    If I’m misunderstanding, please explain.

  3. Katherine B says:

    Living on a farm taught my children about the about the circle of life which they will carry with them forever. I’m glad your daughter got to experience the miracle and hope more kids get the opportunity.