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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Feedman's Day

Incessantly idyllic, the labor pillar seems to stick with pretty much every Deep Springer. The Trustees visited campus for the first time in a few years; my one bonding point with three of them was that we each did feed. Mark Taylor (DS62) told me that, in his day, he did feed with two burros and a wagon pulling hay. We don’t have any burros anymore. I drive a glorified golf cart. Regardless, Mark’s comments got me interested in the genealogy of labor positions and how the content of jobs has shifted throughout time, but I then realized that we have little beyond passovers (which only reflect the last year) and oral tradition to carry portraits of each labor position. Rather than trace a genealogical tree, I seek to offer a mere leaf. These are my meager observations and reflections from two terms of listening to the buzzing animals of the desert. By no means do I know animals. I only hear.

The desert is full of death. Land holds back its warmth as it beckons me to the start of the day. I put the same work clothes on for the fifth day straight; it’s too dark, too cold, too lifeless to think about things like clothing. I have to do my job, do it well--can’t let animals starve, can’t have Tim yell at me (though he will regardless). Once I make it out of my room, I’m encountered by a deafening silence. It’s still dark, so there’s little to see. Touch overwhelms me. The air slices the surface of my face. The tingle drags me out of sleep; now I’m awake. It feels like I might be the only one.

I hop in the feed buggy. It takes some coaxing to start, some more to get moving, but it goes. The feed buggy is the icon of every feedman. I don’t notice it much as I use it, but the vehicle quickly reflects who the feedman is. The red cart tells any passerby where I am. It’s littered with random things of mine; torn gloves, a Hemingway book (for when I fill up water tanks), headlamps, knives, bones, feathers, beans. The buggy and I melt into one another as we zip to the museum to grab pig slop. It only has one gear which roars from beneath the backseat, bare and agonized. It makes everyone think I go much faster than the 20 miles-per-hour which caps my gas pedal. We stop under the handicapped parking sign by the PUNIT, next to where the milk cart should be. I scour the museum’s leftovers fridge for food that nobody’s touched in a few days. There’s plenty: cornbread, slaw, beans, failed attempts at baked goods, and some old roast beef for good measure. I mix it in with food scraps left from the night before, melt back into my buggy. Off to the pigs.

At the rumble of the buggy, the pigs dash from their morning slumber puddle to the feed trough. I don’t feel special; they think every vehicle that drives by signifies food, but in reality I’m the only ice cream truck for them. I hop out and turn on a hose to wet their wallow, since mud is their sweat and heat will eventually come, and dump their slop as evenly as possible. All eight pigs (Sam, Amin, Hannah, Martin, Anna, Antón, Connie, and Francesca) jump right into the trough. They lap up whatever remains in their mouth. Their lips are awfully inefficient; Amin drops a half-eaten piece of stale bread and Hannah pounces on it, only to drop another half for Martin to clean up. Antón, uninterested in the antics of others, hops out of the trough and goes to the Pork Maker™ to get his breakfast of pellets. The pigs honk at me. I’m not sure what they strive to communicate; they seem to snort only when I’m nearby, regardless of whether or not they have food. They are louder when hungry, I figure, but I don’t understand the sounds that emerge when they eat. I throw in bedding, which Sam and Amin think is food. They bite the old rye for a minute until they realize that, once more, I’m insulating their napping spot with food. They dash back to the trough. On to the haystacks.

I make it to the lower ranch, where hay awaits the sun to dry the outside just a bit more. The recent cuts are still green. They gradiate to the southernmost stack of Field 3’s winter rye, which silently shines a muted gold. I grab what I need for the bulls. The Herefords love Rye and the Anguses love alfalfa, and luckily I need to finish both of those stacks. I stack the four bales on the buggy, the most I can put on the back when I load from the ground. The bed is too small to carry anything meaningful. Eight bulls only eat four bales anyways, so it works. I drive off from the haystacks to the horse barn, where true challenges await me.

Water trough. Horses need some water; I turn it on and set a timer. Can’t flood a trough--the guilt would be too much. The sun seems to be creeping up. I can turn off my headlights. I walk through the two doors of the horse barn, where chirping greets me. Starlings flee upon my first step. First non-pig-or-machine sounds I’ve heard all day. The chirping changes pitch. I pray, as I walk to the stall where my chicks are, that none are dead this morning. The cloud of chirping is a good sign; many mornings ago, I walked in and there was no chirping. All the chicks vanished. I found two decapitated about a day later. I stick my head into the cloud. They seem a bit cold, but the day will only get warmer, so I leave their heat lamps for now and make a mental note to come back soon to turn one off. I step in to scatter them. The cloud disperses; some float over to food, while others flock to water. One seems to be getting trampled. I pick her up. Her head is turned around, like she’s been punched in the face so hard she can’t turn back. She can walk, which is good, but she seems uninterested in drinking. I build her an isolated pen to protect her from trampling. I can’t take losing another bird. Timer goes off--the chicks freak out--but their food and water is fine, and they’ll be warm. Off goes the trough; on I go to the horses.

Badger awaits food; like a cow, his stomach is a ceaseless pit. He fears no human or fence. His head sticks two feet out from the top of the top bar, as if his mere presence there will cause hay to fall from the sky. Mick and Starbuck see me coming and skip to the closest feeder, near enough that I can throw them hay, but far enough to flee me if I tried to touch them. I cut the two bales I left there yesterday afternoon and toss them some grass. Lefty runs to eat beside Mick. Maybe he thinks Mick will protect him from acquiring more bite marks; poor Lefty is littered. Tex shoves Tuscarora out of the way to alfalfa, but Tusc fights back and they go on a minor run together. A bit romantic. Pancho waits alone at the last trough, knowing he needs to get the bite in first or he’ll never eat. I hop in and give Gus a hug. He looks lonely; his buddy Utah’s out this morning. He offers his neck. Human over food. The calves start mooing, though, and I have to get going. The haytuation awaits.

We make it to the large pen where the weaning calves loiter. Half are in the back chewing cud. Half offer me a death stare. Luke’s here to help. I inspect the trough. I can’t have any calves eating alfalfa dust and bloating themselves, and I don’t want to fill their trough up with inedible weeds. There are crests and valleys, corresponding to the quality of the round bale that each trough section is filled with. Mountains of weeds occupy one spot where calves stand longingly. I clear out the bad troughs and the sun breaks over the Inyos. Its harsh yellow beams end the slicing of my skin. I drop two jackets off. The dust mirrors the sun into my eyes. Its golden glimmer grows blinding. I cough as I clean, a true janitor. Luke and I finish clearing and we each take a side to begin loading up the trough with fresh hay. The cows, magnetized, begin to cluster around the forkfuls of food. I comb my bale. Coaxing as much hay onto a scoop, I stack. Their stomachs are Tartarus, truly; even when I fill a section, I look back and half of it is gone. I fill it up again. They have to get warm for winter. The calves have no notion of personal space. They poop on each other and desire only what my hands move. The hay is right in front of them, and still they snuff the ground. It’s almost disrespectful. Luke and I eventually feel like we’ve done our job, so we call it a morning and head out. Off to the next job.

Feed is a series of many small tasks. One task feels like an eternity if it takes longer than twenty minutes, like feeding calves or changing chick bedding. I’m leaving out a great deal; chickens, bulls, other horses, other calves, other cows--but each task offers its own meditations. Feed juxtaposes the life-spirit of the desert against the backdrop of daily death. I got to roleplay that spirit, just like many before me.

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