04 September 2004

From Today's New York Times

Catching Nell

The other night, just before dusk, I walked across the pasture with a bucket of grain. Two dozen chickens followed me in a mob. Some came running toward me, wings flapping, as if with enough room they might actually take off. I led them into their pen, scattered the grain and closed the gate. Then I drove the ducks and the geese into their yard. "Drove" is too strong a word. I hinted at the direction I wanted them to go, and they went. I opened another gate and led the horses down to the barnyard. When they had been fed, I stepped into the pigpen. The gilt came over for a rubdown, and the barrow flopped down beside her. They lay back to back, eyes closed, pale pink bellies available for scratching.

Some evenings I notice the haze that settles in the valley nearby or the big orange moon coming up over the trees. But that night I noticed how we all fit together, the animals and the humans. The piglets arrive pretty wild. Baby chicks clatter about the brooder house in fear. But time passes, and they all settle down. They seem to tame themselves somehow.

That night I suddenly realized all the ways that they've tamed me. I never rush the ducks. It only confuses them. I never ask too much when herding chickens. The horses expect a certain presence from me, which changes with every situation. The pigs want joy and vigorous scratching.

None of the animals seem to want me to be other than human. But they want me to be a human who knows how the world looks to them and respects it.

All of our animals except one were raised among humans from birth. That one is Nell, the mustang. We bought her not far from our farm here in upstate New York, but she was adopted as a weanling in Nevada—part of the federal adoption program for wild horses.

I've seen other mustangs captured, so I have a good idea what it was like for her. She's 17 now and has lived the last decade with us. She's been trained, trailered, ridden and cared for. And yet it's always a tossup whether she'll let me catch her.

Our animals show their trust in us every day. But sometimes Nell trusts us, and sometimes she doesn't. The freeze brand on her neck isn't the only sign of that long-ago capture. All the rest of us, animal and human, live together in a single place. Nell lives in her own. She somehow reserves the right to withhold herself, to stand apart.

The chickens grow placid, the pigs learn to like us, and the other horses go on with their lives. And yet the most meaningful moments, after all these years, are when Nell crosses over from her world to ours. She walks right up, as if to ask where I've been, and settles her head in my arms. I feel the power of the choice she has made every time she makes it.

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