Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Shot

I’m in God’s country. Sunday morning, along the Nolichucky River, where the Greene County/ Washington County lines and the river meet. This is beautiful Tennessee farm country. Full of life and early morning sunshine. The Chucky River Valley is luscious and green. Old farms. Old property rights. Old habits.

The road is two-lane. Narrow bridges. No traffic.

I stopped for a cup of coffee at the Amoco station just before the bridge. They were typically busy. There’s no other morning eating place for five or ten miles in either direction. In any direction. Several pick up trucks are parked. A few jalopies, too. No one seems to bring a new car, if they have one, to the station for breakfast. If you did, you would be branded a outsider with money—a yuppie, to the rest of us--and shunned from the in-group.

Across the highway from the gas station is national forest. All the way to the top of the ridges of the state line and beyond, down into western North Carolina. To the opposite way is all farms. Not a sole business of any kind except the God business from here to US 321, coming over from Johnson City to Greeneville. Up and down the two-lane state highway is next to no businesses and not one other place to grab a cup in the morning, especially Sunday morning. The river is just “over there.” You can see the bridge. The Amish store is just “yonder” two, maybe three, hills away.

Tusculum is a full five miles up the road.

Once over the river, the road meanders between white fences, between woven fences, between fences of locust posts, fences of pine tree, between old oaks surrounding white farm houses.

I pulled off the road for a moment to scan the countryside. To see if any bird life would avail itself to my watching. To make themselves available to this humble servant, whose only interest was to enjoy them.

Along this lane, paralleling the river, locust grew wild on the bank side of the road down to the riverside. Open grazing country on the other side of the road. The sky was fall blue as only sky can be so blue in the fall. The air was warm and moist, 70 degrees. Rain last night or early this morning. The grass was still wet. The air smelled of wet grass and leaves. It was a good day to be alive. I could hear lots of twittering near me but up the hill, around a barn and feed lot, a cow was mooing so loudly, I now think of it as bellowing, instead.

I wasn’t looking for any particular bird. Or insect or flower or scene. I was interested in the spot, the pastoral, as they say. For surely, the two ought to go together. I thought I had found it.

The birds I’d curiously spied turned out to be Palm warblers. First Palms for me this year. Along the fence, bluebirds skittered and dodged and weaved. A kettle of turkey vultures took to the air up the hill behind the barn.

A raft of swallows hurried into view and left just as quick.

I watched all in awe, my binoculars roaming and scanning trees and fences and buildings. Anywhere there was movement and life.

From the farm house down the road came a pickup--white, diesel powered, tandem axle--skidding out of the driveway, in a hurry, and turning towards me. I prepared my explanation and apologies. Perhaps, I had invaded someone’s privacy? He (I presumed the driver to be an angry husband defending the decency of his lady) roared towards me, unburned fuel belching black, the engine working extra hard, automatic transmission not yet relieved to shift up. I leaned back against my truck. Ready. Fake casual. But he zoomed on by me, then turned up the lane towards the barn. Towards the cows. And above the cows, I noticed again, the vultures. Not sparing any fuel, he squeezed every ounce of acceleration he could from the engine. This man was in a hurry.

Relieved I wasn’t the locus of manly anger, I decided it was probably time to move on. Moments passed as I looked over my guide book to be sure of the Palms. I should quit stalling and leave. Get out of the way a fore this man returned to me after whatever important business he had in the cow shed.

From the general direction of the barn came a shot. Not the light snap like a twenty-two. Something heavier, I thought, than a twenty-two, but I don’t know guns well enough to know. The thought raced through my mind that he’d shot something rather than shot at a target. Why should I think that? Then a second shot. He’s killing something? A long pause and then a third shot. I stood still, now, waiting for the fourth shot. Either whatever he shot didn’t want to die--what would--or? Or, what? He’s put down the cow, I thought. Or, a later observation, he’d aborted a breached birth. Or maybe he only shot a cornered skunk or ‘possum that had itself cornered the cow. The bellowing stopped immediately.

I’m not enough of an animal husbander to understand all these things. I’m a city boy. My steak comes wrapped in cellophane. But it was a startling revelation that one hundred yards from where I was watching Palm warblers forage and flit with complete abandon, death and destruction was going on in that barn; a place within my sight but into which I could not see. Do I need to see an animal slaughtered to know what slaughter is?

Whether it was a first for this cattleman or not, I don’t know, but I doubt it ever gets easier. As hard as that business must be--without cows dying in the fields--he would have to be a hard man at times to counter a sympathetic feeling towards the herd. They may be cows--milk machines--but they’re animals with personalities, too. To the casual shopper it’s just a package of something to eat. A condition we don’t resist as if eating other animal species is the norm for humans. Despite our stubborn reluctance to understand or reflect about the death of the hundreds of thousands of animals that go through the slaughter houses in the US--humans have an inbred distaste for doing the killing--the further removed we are from the living animal that gets sacrificed, the easier we accept it.

Because we do know what death means.

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