“Does anybody know where hamburger comes from?” I asked.
Eyebrows wrinkled, fingers went to lips in concentration. One little girl gasped suddenly and her hand shot into the air.
“A pig!” she cried.
Behind us, in the barn, several Black Angus cattle began to moo, and I pointed the kids in their direction.
I was teaching five different groups of elementary school students about farm animals as part of Serving Up Spring, a one-day workshop run by Farming For Our Future. I have been involved with this amazing non-profit for nearly three years, ever since I moved to Northern Michigan. The organization’s executive director, a true visionary, is a friend and source of personal and professional inspiration. She and I share a passion for getting people outdoors and persuading them to be excited about the environment as well as knowledgeable about where their food comes from. I love the activities we do because they often take me to Pond Hill Farm, a paragon of agricultural diversity and sustainability.
That day, I ushered the children into the chicken coop, showed them how to tell the difference between a rooster and a hen, warned them that the goose would peck their boots, told them what it meant for chickens to be “free range,” pointed out a chicken scratching in the dirt and talked about why it was important to let them do that. I helped them “moo” to get the cows to come into the barn, talked about heifers and steers and cows and bulls, showed them what an udder was and explained why cows like to lick salt blocks, helped them cull vegetables to feed the cattle. They reached out to touch shorn sheep, then felt the wool stored in bags beside the pen. They threw fruit into the pigs’ trough and jumped excitedly when I told them there would be piglets arriving in less than two months. We launched old produce from Farmer Jimmy’s famous “squash rocket” into the field and talked about compost. It was a good day.
Some of the children were more comfortable around the farm than others. Those who lacked experience with animals usually acted in one of two ways: they were either painfully shy and didn’t want to approach the creatures, or they behaved totally inappropriately– running, shrieking, throwing hay at the cows’ faces. This behavior shocked me and I quickly realized that a very basic crash course in “Animal Interaction 101” was necessary.
I don’t remember anyone explicitly telling me how to act around animals, and I don’t pretend to be an expert or any kind of whisperer. But I do remember sitting in the calf stable in my grandfather’s barn for hours, trying to get the spindly, wide-eyed creatures to trust me. I knew I had to be quiet, confident, slow-moving. Somehow I realized staring them in the eye was not a good way to start. Certainly, shrieking was out of the question. I remember riding horses, in rings and on trails, realizing that every ounce of pressure I exerted on the reins translated directly into their mouths. I remember trading the horses for a bike I pedaled around our city block, stopping to rest it beneath a tree where I had found a family of squirrels living. I sat under the tree, experimenting with what tone of voice might bring the squirrels out of their hole to face me. I named those squirrels too (one was “Faith”) and actually thought I could tell them apart.
Even though I never gave them much thought at the time, I am so thankful for those experiences now. I watch my son learn his lessons with our dog, with the horses I ride, with the frog my husband caught from the pond this morning, and wish every child could experience those magical realizations of how, for just moments at a time, to leave the human world and join the one that belongs to animals.