It’s Valentine’s Day, and recent farm events have a particular love story that’s been in the front of my head for a long time, demanding to be told.
A couple years ago, a local neighbor called needing to find an urgent home for her male goose. She had a mated pair, who the night before, had been attacked by either a dog or coyote in her backyard. The attach was vicious and cost the life of her female goose that she found dead, with her body being protected by her mate, an African Goose by the name of “Wally”. The owner cried and cried but feared that whatever had killed one, would be back the following night for the other, and so “Wally” came to live at Kuhs Farm.
When “Wally” arrived, we thought for sure his heart would be melted by the sweet and steady charm of our African Goose “Georgie”. Georgie and I first met in a chaotic blur of a small Vietnamese woman making a bee-line for her at a swap meet in Bonne Terre, Missouri. Not having the most polished understanding and command of the Vietnamese language, I was still able to surmise that her intentions for Georgie were not honorable, and I managed to put myself and cash between the small lady and Georgie, and into the back of the Nissan she went. It seemed fortuitous that all of a sudden with the crisis in Wally’s life, we now had a boy and a girl goose that might somehow be interested in each other.
Around the same tie, or shortly thereafter, a new acquaintance was downsizing her farm animal population, and in so doing, I bought her beautiful mated pair of Sebastopol Geese (think ‘Bjork’s outlandish dress for the Oscars years back). They were so exotic and beautiful in their crisp and clean white, with twirling feathers and piercing blue eyes…..together they were a cross of farmyard and old Hollywood glamour, and I named them “Fred” & “Gracie” for Fred Astaire and Grace Kelly.
Strolling around the farm together was like being on the edge of a red carpet that rolled all the way out to The Midwest. Fred & Gracie toured together…..walking around the farm, like the Lord and Lady of The Manor might “take some sun” to go watch the peasants work the fields. They had a sense of refinement and an aloofness that traveled with them like a protective bubble. It was beautiful just to watch them, and everybody did. Even the chickens stopped what they were doing when farm royalty walked by. From the outside looking in, their world and their love seemed flawless (think David Beckham and Posh ‘Spice’ Victoria – the early years). Seeing them, you couldn’t help but feel a little smitten. If you can imagine our hope was that Wally would come to love the simple and steady Georgie in time, those hopes were soon dashed when Fred & Gracie walked past him the first time. All hope was lost.
I may be dating myself but if you’re old enough, you might remember P-Diddy went through this weird phase where he went to movie premieres, parties and All Star events with this crazy looking dude in a seersucker suit with a bow tie named ‘Farnsworth Bentley’, who followed Diddy everywhere holding a ridiculous ‘Mary-Poppins-meets Versace’ umbrella.
It was so pretentious and weird, and thankfully somebody told him what a dork it made him look like. It stuck in my mind because this poor guy with the umbrella just trailed ‘P Diddy’ (or was he ‘Puffy Daddy’) everywhere like his butler or footman…just so completely subservient to shadowing him no matter where he went.
So here are the King and Queen of Farmlife, touring the farm like Elizabeth & Prince Phillip, when their magnificence is witnessed by Wally. From this moment on, his life is changed. Wally’s world was rocked. Call it smitten, call it enthralled, ‘star-struck’…whatever you want, but from that point on, Wally attached himself to their entourage-of-two, and wherever they went, Wally followed. It was kind of ridiculous. OK, a lot.
The strange thing was that he didn’t follow like a stalker; a farm paparazzi waiting to jump out of the bushes….he walked either in front of them or behind them as if he was poultry secret service. The first couple times I saw it, I was like “Awwww Fred, you better watch your girl…that goose is getting all L.L. Cool J on her”, but then I realized Wally wasn’t confronting or challenging Fred. Instead of hanging out on the sidelines of a party, sipping his cocktail and acting nonchalant while he’s secretly mentally undressing Gracie, he’s acting more like the good guy who just wants to make sure the cute couple doesn’t get accosted by fans. It was cute. No silly umbrella, but he was their protector, and all the while very respectful and chaste.
The more I watched, I felt bad for Wally. He had just lost his love, and before he could go to any meetings to talk about his feelings or read a self-help book about moving on, his black solar system had 2 new white hot suns. He was their 3rd wheel, or if you’re a ‘Top Gun’ fan, he was a ‘Wingman’. I guess it was better than descending into depression, but perhaps it felt good to have something to occupy his time and make him feel needed. I would imagine that it all made sense in his head and that he’d made his peace to worship from afar, but devote his life nonetheless. Very stoic. Very Jane Austen. Back then it struck me as noble.
Fate has a wonderful way of killing movie stars in car crashes, motorcycle accidents, downed planes and by falling overboard Robert Wagner’s yacht, and out of the blue, Fred met his end underneath the front truck tire of farm helper Phil. Absolutely and without a doubt a total accident, but now Gracie finds herself alone. Ok, not really alone, because Wally didn’t miss a beat. He was there to comfort her and follow her around while she mourned the loss of her mate. Always respectful, Wally continued his ‘watch’ to make sure she never went anywhere unattended, or was ever in harm’s way. I was very sad to lose Fred in such a tragic way, but I was rooting for the underdog to finally have a chance at happiness.
Months went by, and still the admiration ever evident in his supervision of Gracie’s daily routine. As soon as the Mr. Turtle pool was cleaned and replaced with fresh water every day, Wally was squawking with wings open, pushing everybody out of the way like a linebacker so that Gracie got the sparkling clean fresh water to bathe in. Never mind that it was everybody else’s drinking water, first and foremost it was Gracie’s because of Wally.
Over time, I thought for sure, we might consider them a real ‘couple’, but I have never seen any unchaste behavior. Nothing rude or assumptive. Always she is show the utmost respect. I began thinking of them like two 30-something year olds who both lost a spouse, and from two broken beginnings, make a new life together. Two creatures who have known loss and settle in to a safe life of being good to each other. Now as farm life went on, these 2 could be seem just outside the edges of everything, just the two of them in their own private bubble. I thought this is how it would always be.
Spring 2015, just in time for our annual Easter party and egg hunt, neighbor Joshua and family had taken home chicken, turkey and duck eggs weeks prior, so that we would have Spring chicks, baby ducks and turkeys. We had been collecting these amazing dark charcoal grey eggs, one day at a time and wanted to hatch them. They were so exotic and strange, almost like ‘Game of Thrones’ dragon eggs. We were all fascinated and Joshua set to work to see if he could get them to hatch…and of course he could. Just in time for the party, he brought brown and yellow baby ducks with black feet and black bills. They were a hit at the party and we had 7 of these adorable little guys.
As these little ducks outgrew their brooder box, for safe keeping, we put them in their own little protected pen, attached to a tiny house with a walk up ramp to get inside. They even got their own Mr. Turtle pool with fresh sparking water. This house is directly across from the farm house, and enough removed from where the chicken house stood, that to discover the addition of the baby ducks, you’d have to walk a bit away from the main chicken house where the ducks also lived, along with Wally and Gracie.
With the addition of the baby ducks, they had attracted curious onlookers who upon wandering towards the barn, discovered new lower toned quacking coming from inside. The little brown and yellow ducks had begun to turn colors as their baby duck down turned into glistening black feathers with emerald green accents when hit by the sun. They were beautiful and exotic and reminded me of the star power wattage of Fred and Gracie when they had first arrived. You couldn’t help but look at them and “Ooooh” and “Ahhhhh”. Also caught in the tractor beam of admiration were Wally and Gracie. As soon as the chicken house door would open in the morning, the two of them would make a B-line for the baby duck pen, where they would spend their day walking back and forth the perimeter looking and squawking. Not a little bit of squawking like “ooooh look at the pretty tiger”, but more like alarm. This went on for days. They did nothing else, and at the end of the day, had to be physically herded back to the chicken house, all the while with Wally protesting with open wings and quippy comments. We began to worry that the two geese weren’t even eating or drinking. They were absolutely consumed with circling the pen, attention so tightly focused that we began to deeply question what had them so singularly focused and driven. The baby ducks were getting bigger, that as I went down a list of what-the-hell-is-going-on, I thought “Well, why don’t we open the pen door and see what the issue is?”. I actually thought it might be ‘clean Mr. Turtle Pool water envy’ so I thought, “Let’s just see what happens”.
After me telling all the humans that I take full responsibility for whatever happens next, the pen was opened, the two frantic geese stormed into the yard with the 7 baby ducks. I thought for sure the next thing would be Gracie plopping herself into the pool and all the clean baby duck water sent splashing out, but it wasn’t. They walked in calmly. Walked towards the Mr. Turtle pool and passed it. They divided and each flanked around the little black ducklings, and from the backside, came back together in the center of them, and then kept them herded together. And then they did something weird. In the middle of the babies, Gracie bent her graceful white neck down, and began grooming them, one by one, while Wally trumpeted around them with outstretched wings. Something beautiful was happening. Something really really beautiful was happening and not a person that saw this didn’t realize what we were witnessing.
Now I’m no Walt Disney, but I can see that common emotions transcend the barriers of phylum and class within the Animal Kingdom, and that attachment, love and belonging aren’t the exclusive franchise of humans. From incubator to this very moment, these ducklings had been fed and cared for with love by humans, but what we all forgot was that to be animals and not just our cute little ducks, they would need role models, elders to teach them behaviors to model. Mother Nature has a pretty ingenious system in place to help the young of any species thrive, but essential to that is to have the protection and teaching to get them safely into their maturity. That all makes logical sense. What isn’t so evident is that what is not only ‘good for the goose, is good for the gander’.
I thought of Wally and Gracie as a happy couple that survived loss and found each other in the face of adversity. I thought that was the zenith of their story, but it was just the beginning. Though they began as a mismatched pair, two broken halves can come together, and as it does for many childless couples, adoption can make a family whole. What Wally and Gracie were doing was taking their love and sharing it with the ducklings and bringing them all in to be something even greater together. It was and it is beautiful. It is the most powerful and tangible testament I have ever witnessed to the strength of love that transcends common genes or preconceived ideas. Simply beautiful.
Even more amazing was witnessing Wally and Gracie staying with the ducks and refusing to leave them until finally they all left the pen together, single file, as Wally and Gracie walked them to their new home in the main chicken house. Many weeks later and after a second hatching of more grey eggs, Wally and Gracie repeated this wonder, and with teenager black ducklings in tow, moved back into the pen with the newest black ducklings and absorbed the rest of the hatched black and emerald babies into their fold.
With all the black ducklings from two generations following behind them like a poultry Partridge Family, the new group that instead of two mix matched geese, is now the farm ‘Dugers’ spent their days roaming, foraging, swimming, finding worms and generally enjoying life, while spending their time quite separate from all the already existing 20+ ducks. Every day when the chicken house doors would open and all the creatures fly off to different corners, the geese and black ducks would head off on their own, while the rest of the crowd of brown ducks, white ducks, mixes, Swedes and Harlequins would be in their own social groups like a high school lunch room. They all existed peacefully and without incident without mixing or socializing together. Equal but separate, and I thought this would be a perfectly fine and sustainable stalemate. This seemed like a reasonable part in the story of Wally and Gracie to hit a plateau and continue on until the horizon of who knows when.
I was wrong again.
Several weeks ago, as many of you know, the chicken house, home to almost a hundred chickens, adult turkeys, ducks and geese caught fire, and with devastating effect, took many lives with it. As soon as the fire was discovered, the front door of the chicken house was opened to let them out and away from the smoke and the fire that trapped so many of our beautiful birds that we will never see again. Every morning before that night, with the opening of the door after sunrise, chickens would come flying out the door like a scene out of Charlotte’s Web, followed by the slower parade of turkeys, ducks and geese. On this night, with the inside of the house already engulfed in flames, and filled with thick black smoke, birds can flying out…into the night…into the dark…into clean air…into the cold. Unlike any other exit from the building before, something miraculous emerged from the horror. With the opening of the door, every single duck, regardless of color or social group, young or old, injured, crippled…..all were pushed out of the house by two big geese with outstretched wings, who in spite of the black smoke that proved lethal inside, opened their lungs to call out and trumpet alarm as they pushed their whole family towards the door. Between the two of them, every single black duckling, white, cream, spotted, brown….all the ducks and geese got out safely thanks to Wally and Gracie. The loss for the evening was heartbreaking. So many sweet and wonderful birds never to be seen again. It is still hard to think about, but I do, and I keep coming back to a story of love. A story of two broken hearts that came together to be whole. A love so big that it had room to add more, and in the most amazing and selfless gesture, these two beautiful birds opened their wings, their lungs and their hearts, to protect others. I can’t get it out of my head and I hope I never do. It is beautiful. It is the silver lining to a very dark cloud, but magnificent nonetheless.
Living on a farm, and with the greater part of my time spent with animals instead of people, I sometimes questioned my sanity, for one, or whether or not I risk losing my balance or the ability to relate to people. I wondered if I am missing out on the human interactions that define and shape us while we’re still ducklings trying to find our way in the world. I wondered if there is something human I am sacrificing for all my time spent in the company of creatures, watching and learning from teachers outside my species. I questioned myself and finally came to an answer. I don’t feel that way anymore. I have amazing teachers; two geese that have taught me everything I need to know about how to be good in the world, how love can grow and how much room a heart can have.
I thought it about time that I share it with the people I love, on a day when they deserve to be honored. To you Wally and Gracie: I am so proud to know you, to care for you, to watch you and to learn from you. I love your love and what it has taught me.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you.