At the beginning of September, I set off on a new adventure: I’m traveling around the country over the coming months, living and volunteering on a variety of small-scale organic farms through WWOOF. This essay is about my most recent stop: a family farm in Bulls Gap, Tennessee.
One of the pigs went into labor within the first hour of my arrival at my latest farmstay in Tennessee, which belongs to a married couple (husband J and wife W) with two sons and two daughters between the ages of three and eight. The sow laid on her side, panting, while we watched from outside the fence.
A tiny, speckled piglet slipped out and wriggled blindly in the hay, and then another. I squirmed and squealed, just like the pink-eared baby animals. This was delight. This was wonder. This was the blissful naïveté of optimistic glee that infused those days before the presidential election, when it seemed like the whole country was on the cusp of exhilarating newness — nervous, but so very hopeful.
The kids were enthused but easily distractible, already familiar with the bloody births (and deaths) of livestock after residing on the farm for a year and a half. They were interested in the process, but more inquisitive than enchanted. Children always seem so blithely curious about these things, as if still too close to their own births and too far from their own deaths to view either margin of life as loaded with formidable magic. They come riddled with pure questions, unweighted by adult anxiety.
The birthing process soon took a turn for the worse. We had predicted ten piglets based on the number of the mom’s teats and expected them to arrive about ten minutes apart, but twenty minutes passed after the second piglet, and then thirty, and then forty. As the first two attempted to nurse, the sow growled and snapped at them aggressively, shoving them away. Each time, I leapt, battling the urge to jump the fence, to nuzzle the piglets myself, to interject.
“Come on, mama,” we kept pleading from outside. “I don’t understand.” “I don’t understand.” “I don’t understand.”
“Why?” asked the kids repeatedly, losing patience. “We don’t know,” replied the adults, at a loss for answers. “No, oh, no!” we all said, over and over, losing hope.
We were wrestling for control as it slipped like sand through our fingers. Our words would change nothing, but they were, at least, expressions of emotional energy, converted and released — the jerks, tugs and yanks of empathy, worry, and unease. They were the reverberating echoes of our shared human pain, passed from one person to the next while we communally watched the natural but hideous catastrophe unfold, powerless to stop it, simply wishing the outcome were different. So quickly, delight had cracked and crumbled into defeat.
I’ll save you the gory details, but the sow ultimately bore four babies. By the following afternoon, only one tiny-hoofed tot remained alive. It was the second of the four, recognizable by its pattern. By coincidence, it was also the only one that the children had given a name.
“Let’s call that one Lucky,” they had said, almost immediately after it emerged, when things still looked good, but not long before they gave up waiting and abandoned the scene. “See, you can recognize it because of the black spot around its eye, see?”Lucky. Yes. I saw. In the days that followed, watching was just about the only thing I could do, unsure whether to smile or cringe at the piglet’s vulnerable stumbles and sniffs around the pen. I watched and I witnessed as — by what seemed like a miracle — he survived.
LOSE (v.) 1: to be deprived of or cease to have or retain something or someone 2: to become unable to find something or someone 3: to fail to win
LOSS (n.) 1: the fact or process of losing something or someone 2: the state or feeling of grief when deprived of someone or something of value 3: a person or thing that is badly missed when lost 4: physics: a reduction of power within or among circuits, measured as a ratio of power input to power output
In addition to pigs, J and W raise ducks, chickens, and sheep in separate flocks of rams and ewes. (J’s parents, aka Grandpa and Grandma to the kids, tend to the geese at their house just over the hill.)
About four times a day, I make my rounds to feed the animals and to replenish their water. The seven ducks squawk and waddle toward me as I dump a bucket of dried corn and peas into their dish, then splash around in their tubs as I run the hose, repeatedly dunking their beaks into the bubbles. While they eat and play, I wander their large enclosure to retrieve two or three palm-sized eggs, propped randomly in a new corner every time — a true Easter egg hunt. Here, a swatch of aquamarine in the bushes; there, a white one in the mud; always poised on its flatter side like a proud artistic creation, triumphing over gravity’s goading to tumble and roll.
In their hay-filled laying boxes, the 82 hens regularly leave more like two- or three-dozen porcelain-perfect globes in varying shades of blue, green, and taupe. (Different breeds produce different colors.) Sometimes, when I open the creaking wooden covers, I find the feathered ladies still plopped on top of their nests, and they stand on their pimpled feet to shift and show off their precious masterpieces (still warm) before striding victoriously away to peck for bugs in the bushes. I always tell them, “Thank you,” as I pick up their proffered prizes — another way of saying, “I see you. I acknowledge you. Your efforts and your artistry are not lost on me.” The bucket of breakables makes a quiet chattering sound as I carry it back to the kitchen.
LOSS (n.) came before LOSE (v.). The two variations of the word share an Old English root, los (destruction, ruin), which also lent itself to losian (to perish), an early version of the word’s verb form.
The modern meaning of LOSS (n.) emerged as Middle English faded from use (one language of hundreds lost to time), and it’s a diminution of its original, not so much destructive ruin as deprivation. To lose is sometimes an intentional doing — to escape or evade a predator, for example — but more often, it’s a not doing. It’s a failure to keep or hold what was yours; an accidental misplacement; a passive neglect or a defeat. A surrendering. Loss is something that happens to you against your will, when you’re not paying adequate attention.
Unlike the poultry, the sheep don’t need much caretaking. They munch gladly on the grasses that rustle around their soft bodies. When they see me coming, they rush towards the fence, hoping I’ve brought extra treats.
But the boundaries of their paddocks have to be shifted every week or so, and I helped with this process for the first time on the Wednesday when Hillary Clinton lost the election. (3: to fail to win.)
“What’s the reason for rotating them?” I asked J. (I asked “why” a lot that day.) He explained the fundamentals of holistic management, a farming strategy based on the naturally synergistic relationships between animals and soil.
Historically, large herds of grazers travelled gradually across wild landscapes, gently trampling the plants and depositing manure as they moved. This way, they never wore out the environmental resources in any particular place and actually aided the continuous regeneration of earthly ecosystems when they left the areas behind. In today’s times, however, an average conventional farmer — a 58-year-old white male — packs his cows or other livestock in one large, longterm pasture, so the creatures devour all of the green growth they can find, then devour the tiny sprouts again when they regrow, until the root systems are too weakened to survive. Soon, the land is overworked and decimated (los: destruction, ruin), and the animals, too, are inadequately nourished. It’s no wonder, then, that many of these farmers resort to chemical fertilizers and other inorganic tactics in a desperate attempt to fix what they’ve unknowingly ruined themselves. (4: physics: a reduction of power within or among circuits, measured as a ratio of power input to power output.)
Those who practice holistic management, on the other hand, mimic the historic patterns by strategically relocating their groups of domesticated animals to different paddocks about once a week or so. This way, each patch of grass gets to rest and recover in the way it was meant to do. The health of the soil improves drastically over time, allowing for increased water retention, carbon absorption, and wildlife habitats. Having been treated with the respect it always needed, the dirt is more hospitable to life of all kinds, human or not.
J has already witnessed just the first hints of the tactic’s transformative effects since starting the farm in 2015. He told me about looking outside one morning to see his fields blanketed in spider webs, glimmering with dew, and about the praying mantises the kids had started discovering in the grass. The emergence of these predatory insects meant there were sufficient numbers of smaller bugs for them to prey on, which meant there were enough leaves and seeds for those smaller bugs to eat, which meant the full food chain was ultimately thriving, reawakening from the (literal) ground up.
Why would any farmer be hesitant to adopt holistic management? Because it requires reflection, decision, planning, and intention.
Because it demands a willingness to regularly show up, to perform consistent, conscious maintenance for the sake of longterm sustainability, intervening only when prudent. (Though the scheduled “migrations” might be labor-intensive, they’re done in the service of an otherwise hands-off approach that lets nature take the lead.)
Because the desperate grabbing for today’s gains — the need to bring home the bacon, both literally and figuratively — can be blinding against recognition and respect for anything, anyone, anyplace, and anytime outside one’s present personal plot.Because it entails nuance, plus a careful collaboration between synergistic species, which seems harder (or at least more complex) than self-serving, short-sighted greed. But it’s the right thing to do — for the land, for the animals, and, yes, ultimately, for their human owners.
A lost cause. A lost opportunity. Lost time.
Sometimes we use the word “lose” to soften the blow of something far gorier, as if its gentle gauze might mitigate the trauma. (We’re sorry, says the ER doc. We tried, but we lost him. A party guest whispers, You didn’t hear? She lost the baby.)
We lose our way. We lose our place. We lose our chance.
We lose our tempers. We lose our trains of thought. We lose our minds and we lose sleep and we lose heart.
What don’t we lose?
After we moved the sheep, I spent much of that afternoon cooking a big meal for my whole host family, including the grandparents and Grandma’s sister, Aunt B. I can no longer remember what I made — a stew, maybe? Was that the dinner with the carrot and ginger stew? That day feels like a different, distant lifetime, because it was. So much was lost in those hours, along with the election; crushed visions and crumbled assumptions tumbled into the cavity of loss.
I needed to be in between clinking pots and pans, to hear the “thwack” of the knife on the cutting board, to peel and dice and slice into different bowls. Too sour? Add honey. Too bitter? Add spice. It all went into the blender with a choppy whir. I needed to scatter ingredients and create something tangible; to lose myself in the steam and the simmering and emerge at the end with something new, something nourishing.
I knew from conversations the night before that at least two of the adult family members were Trump supporters, and at least two weren’t. To be honest, I still haven’t figured out if or how this was relevant to my volunteering to cook collectively for us all, but it feels important.
I cooked a lot as the week went on: chana masala, roasted eggplant, spaghetti squash in cashew “cream” sauce. I made more smooth and soothing soups, like roasted broccoli with vegan “cheese,” and a parsnip, pumpkin, and coconut puree topped with toasted seeds. As my hosts teach me about holistic management and other elements of their humane approach to animal husbandry and meat production, I’ve been teaching them about vegan food. W and I have had several thought-provoking discussions about the ethics of eating meat, warmly exchanging perspectives and verbally expressing genuine respect for one another’s choices — a reminder that it is perfectly possible to engage in tension-free conversation with those who view and do things differently. Compassion and curiosity easily untie any knots of any potential animosity, and we are both loose, open people.
Besides those projects in the kitchen, I found solace in the quiet collection of eggs and in my other structured, grounded farm duties. My candidate had lost, and I felt lost, and I was at a loss for what to say or how to react. It ached, like loss always does with its gaping, but the work offered respite. The animals were — and still are — evidence of innocent life whose mess is purely physical, unlike the cerebral ugliness humans can create. I watched Lucky get stronger, day by day; I intuited that the ducks were slightly hungry, based on their behavior, and upped their serving of feed; I admired the lambs laying down, chewing their cud, which was a sign they were fully content. We weren’t speaking the same language, but I said “hello” and “thank you” and “excuse me” to them anyway, unconsciously, as if they might still interpret the intentions behind my garbled noises, just like I did with theirs. I noticed that some part of me felt emotionally triggered by the pompous aggressions of the roosters pouncing on the hens when I opened their coop each morning, even as the ladies clucked and protested — strange how deep trauma extends. (It’s no wonder that loss hurts like a gash.)
And then, on Sunday, exactly one week after my arrival — less than a week, but also an eternity, after the election — another one of the pigs went into labor. We knew this was coming, but we couldn’t be certain of when, and we just hoped it wouldn’t be that particular night, the coldest of the season so far.
When I walked outside at sunrise, lugging my heavy bucket of feed and slipping on the frosty dew, I found her horizontal in the hay, mid-process, while the boars ate two dead piglets she had already delivered. Every inch of me curdled.
“No,” I said out loud. “No, oh, no, no, no, no. This is too much. No.”
I went inside to find the family collected around the table for breakfast. The kids chirped, “Good morning, Miss Leah,” between dribbling spoonfuls of sweet oatmeal, still snug in their patterned pajamas while I stood there with my knit hat and my damp gloves and my snotty red nose. I told W, “I have some unfortunate news.”
“Oh no,” she said, face sinking, and “I know,” I said — echoes unreeling into echoes unreeling into echoes. Before they all had to drive away for church, she came outside to help me section off the mother pig with extra fencing, so that the others would leave her and any of her forthcoming babies alone. I promised to keep tabs and to text with updates.
I watched, but nothing was happening. I left for a moment to force-feed myself breakfast — I wasn’t remotely hungry, but I had already injected my insulin, so I had no choice — and when I trudged back, I found three new stillborns piled beside the sow.
“It looks like…” I texted W. “I’m not quite sure, but…” I wrote. “I think she’s still going…” We both felt like the whole disaster was our fault — was there something we could have done to avoid this? Had we failed the mother? Why, why, why? I didn’t leave that spot again, though standing there made no difference — at least I bore witness. Loss yearns for a witness. And this pig was not like the last one — she mourned. She pawed hay over her remaining lifeless offspring and laid across them as if keeping vigil.
By afternoon, when W returned, I was exhausted. I should have cried, but I didn’t. I sat on my bed and stared. I got up. I sat down again. I read and read Tweets and articles and Facebook tirades on my iPhone. Eventually, without much thinking or planning, I went to my desk with a pen and paper and started drawing safety pins, mimicking the ones that some people are wearing to show support for marginalized groups in the wake of the election. I hand-lettered a short phrase: “you’re safe with me.” I designed the doodles into shirts, put them up for sale, and pledged to donate 100% of the profits to the American Civil Liberties Union.
You can never replace what’s lost. You can only create something with what’s left.
The etymological roots of LOSS (n.) also relate to those of LOOSE (v./adj.): the Proto-Indo-European leu (to loosen, to divide, to separate), the Greek lyein (to loosen, to slacken), the Latin luere (to loose, to release, to atone for). (That last one is especially interesting.)
Perhaps the looseness is what begins the losing. Trust is lost to a loose tongue. Respect is lost to loose morals. Faith is lost to loose ends of unkept promises. Control is lost to a tight grip or a tight ship gone loose; victory lost because one did not stay fixed, stay firm.
But then, there is letting loose. There is loosening up. To allow joy to enter, we must untighten, too. In losing, there is release, atonement, and repair.
In May, Sharyl Sandberg gave a commencement speech at UC Berkeley based on insights she gained from her husband’s unexpected early death. “I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss,” she said. “But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void — or in the face of any challenge — you can choose joy and meaning.” As adults, she explained, we will all face our own deep losses — loss of opportunity, loss of dignity, loss of love, loss of life — and she wanted to talk about how to rise from those hard days that ultimately determine who we become. Here’s a powerful excerpt:
A few weeks after Dave died, I was talking to my friend Phil about a father-son activity that Dave was not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave.” Phil put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”
We all at some point live some form of option B. The question is: What do we do then?
As a representative of Silicon Valley, I’m pleased to tell you there is data to learn from. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s — personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence — that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship. The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events in our lives.
The first P is personalization — the belief that we are at fault. This is different from taking responsibility, which you should always do. This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us…Not taking failures personally allows us to recover — and even to thrive.
The second P is pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life. You know that song “Everything is awesome?” This is the flip: “Everything is awful.” There’s no place to run or hide from the all-consuming sadness…I remember sitting in my first Facebook meeting in a deep, deep haze. All I could think was, “What is everyone talking about and how could this possibly matter?” But then I got drawn into the discussion and for a second — a brief split second — I forgot about death. That brief second helped me see that there were other things in my life that were not awful.
The third P is permanence — the belief that the sorrow will last forever. For months, no matter what I did, it felt like the crushing grief would always be there. We often project our current feelings out indefinitely — and experience what I think of as the second derivative of those feelings. We feel anxious — and then we feel anxious that we’re anxious. We feel sad — and then we feel sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings — but recognize that they will not last forever.
Personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence are all common traps, she said, and the more we recognize them, the more we can escape them — the more we can lose them and find our way back to breathing.
She also discussed the key role of gratitude. Loss has a way of making you particularly aware and appreciative in the moments when its ache abates. “As I stand here today, a year after the worst day of my life, two things are true. I have a huge reservoir of sadness that is with me always — right here where I can touch it…But I am also aware that I am walking without pain. For the first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out — grateful for the gift of life itself.”
LOESS (n.) is a homogeneous sediment created by buildups of wind-blown silt mixed with clay and sand. It serves as a rich soil for some of the earth’s most fertile terrain. It’s able to support impressive agricultural productivity because it holds high proportions of positively-charged ions called cations, which serve as valuable nutrients for plants. It is also especially porous — airy. Absorbent. Loose. The term takes origin from the German löss, cognate with — yes — the Old English los.
Lucky is thriving. He has become emboldened enough to adventure away from the boundaries of the pig pen, to explore over by the ducks. He has just begun to eat solid food, nibbling at the peas and carrots I dump in piles every morning. He trots joyously and naps peacefully. For those first few days, he was so often shivering, so often looking lonely; now, there is a sense of confidence about him — a triumph, still fragile and delicate, but a triumph all the same.
He is a small, spotted, squealing sprite of luck in the muck where confidence crumbled, expectations unwound, hope unraveled, and it all broke down. Amid destruction and ruin and perishing, Lucky is growing. If I could rename him, I might call him something else. Resilience, maybe. Or Redemption.