Silence is Golden

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Silence is not the absence of something

but

the presence of everything.

   John Grossmannn

 

 My best friend Sally and I could ride our ponies for hours through the English countryside where I grew up.

On the way back home, all of us – humans and horse – tired from our outing, would mosey our way along the grass verge, feet out of the stirrups, dangling our boots through the cow-parsley, while the ponies took the odd snack-on-the-go.

In those moments, life often seemed sweet and almost perfect, and it wouldn’t take much for one of us to burst into the chorus of one of our favourite songs…

‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see

Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see…’

Anybody who remembers the song will know it doesn’t say much for our taste at the time, but it was 1967 and we were 12-years-old, and we were collectively in love with the Tremeloes, who, as it turned out were going to be a one-hit wonder, with not even, as I found out many years later, their own song.

What I remember thinking in those far-off days, and it’s a thought that has stayed with me all my life, is that there are two kinds of silence – an outside silence, which in a sense does not really exist, and an inner one, which arrives on a rare occasion – well, rare to me at least – unbidden, as a sudden sense of quiet inner peace.

I grew up in the country, and I now live in the country, and I still horse-ride – these days through the green macadamia-covered hills of northern New South Wales.

Until recently when we sadly lost my daughter’s Shetland pony, Sally-the-Boy to a brain tumour,  I would take my daughter for a trail ride on him, and  I would walk beside her.  Whenever we did our lane outing, she liked to close her eyes, so, as she said, she could hear the ‘quiet’ sounds. And the quiet sounds were the sounds her pony’s hooves make clip-clopping steadily along, the sound of the breeze, the carolling of the magpies and the far-off hum of the motorway.

If you want to further the argument that silence in a sense is a concept, and not something that really exists – think of the phrase, ‘Silence please’, and where it is used.

Take a school classroom for instance, at the beginning of an exam and the room falls quiet as students begin the unenviable task of working through an exam paper – is it silent in there? Of course not. There are a million little noises: the scraping of shoes on the floor, the occasional cough, the sound of a chair being adjusted, paper being turned – there is almost, in fact, a ‘noise’ of concentration.

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And yet, conversely despite this outside noise that makes the notion of silence not – in any world I know at least – a reality, there is that time when you are in the exam, when your inner world is in silence. Then, if you are lucky and you have studied your subject, a kind of meditative trance falls on you where you become unaware of anything around you, blocking out everything other than that which you are doing.

When we were children we used to play many games in the fields and the woods around my home. One of them, a perennial favourite, involved an attempt to be silent. One of us would hide our eyes into a tree, while another would pretend to be a Red Indian – as we still called native American Indians then – and would creep silently up behind to scare the person hiding their eyes. Sometimes if one of us was feeling cruel, we would all run off and leave the innocent waiting to be startled alone at the tree, and as I know, that produced its own torturous silence – the silence of no response.

For a large part of the past 35 years I have been a journalist working in busy newspaper and magazine offices, and in those offices the ability to call on inner silence becomes absolutely vital. They’re noisy places, newspaper offices. Not quite as noisy as they were pre-computers, but noisy enough. A large open plan-office with telephones ringing and people talking, meeting, arguing, creating is not necessarily the kind of place that you would think would be conducive to writing, but write you must – and so you do – learning to block out every sound, so that you can meet your deadline. Much, dear reader, as I am doing now.

In a relatively quiet, relatively small space in my house, with white desks and two windows overlooking the paddocks below, I am typing an essay on silence. Outside I can hear the sound of the neighbour on his ride-on mower, every now and then my son’s mobile phone pings. I can hear the magpies, crows, rosellas, butcher birds, minah birds and doves that are just part of the noise landscape. One of the dogs is drinking water, each lap magnified by my attempt to hear silence. If I pause for a moment, I can absorb these sounds deep inside, and by absorbing them they become part of the silent interior, the place from which I am attempting to write.

William Penn once wrote: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” For me that rings true, because the curious thing about turning into the inner world is how energising it is.

Sometimes, although not often enough, I manage to get up in the very early hours of the morning to meditate. Even then, deep in the country at four in the morning, the world is not silent. The creaks and groans of an old house keep me company; the cat appears at my side and grooms herself, if there is rain every tiny drop is magnified by the absence of day noise, and the silence of the night reveals itself as anything but, as I try to empty my mind and find that still place within.

If nature is so noisy, is it ever silent? “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence,” said Mother Teresa. “See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence….we need silence to be able to touch souls.” I like that idea that the tree whose branch creaks over my roof, is growing in silence, that silence can be something tangible, if not in fact what we assume it to be. I’ve never thought of the sun, stars and moon as silent, but it’s true, at least from a human perspective. I see its trajectory over my house, I don’t hear it and that somehow reinforces the idea of silence being a sensation, having a presence, rather than an absence.

I have often wondered if wilderness places are silent – if you climb Mount Everest, for instance, do you sit in silence? In the Antarctic are you surrounded by silence? People tell me this is not so, that even in the quietest places there is noise, even if the noise is the beating of your own heart – even the absence of noise can be noisy.

There is a wonderful book by photographer Jeffrey Gusky entitled ‘Silent Places’. This poignant photographic journey through Eastern Europe documents in black and quite the crumbling landscape of the Holocaust. Houses, synagogues, railway lines, a simple corridor, a door, the entry to a Jewish home now used as a public toilet – every image silently tells a screaming story. His work is of outstanding quality, and somehow what he brings to the photographs is even more poignant than those of the time – the absence of people tells us these were their homes, their places of worship, of education and play – and in the case of the railway line to Auschwitz, their journey to death.   You feel that if you stare at them long enough you will bring them to life somehow, that the families will return, peeking out of the shadows, bringing light and love and warmth and noise with them, but until then this landscape bears silent witness to the bloody past.

 

 

'Corridor in Kazimierz', former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

‘Corridor in Kazimierz’, former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

Battlefields, memorials, cenotaphs, burial mounds, roman ruins – everywhere where man has once existed but is no longer, it is not the silence, or lack of it, in the direct environment of these places it is the silence of the structures themselves that strikes one as being so overwhelming, hinting at one’s own mortality. I am here, I am noise, I am flesh, I am anything but silent, my blood flows, my heart beats, my stomach growls, my joints creak, my eyes see, my ears hear, tongue tastes, in each movement I make, each kiss or cuddle I give or receive, in each angry word, or happy laugh or bossy command I am an active presence.

Perhaps it is this more than anything that creates anxiety for a lot of people around the idea of silence. In a world full of iPods, iPads, tablets, phones, facebook and computers, whether we live in the (supposed) peace and quiet of the country, or the white noise of a city, the idea of silence, without or within, can be laden with fear. I can’t hear, does that mean people can’t hear me? Do I, if I am not constantly in contact with humanity, matter? My lack of silence, my constant interaction reassures me – I am here, I do matter, I am in contact.

The very fact of modern human’s difficulty with silence means that it is increasingly more important for us to acknowledge it, to hold it within and embrace the silence – to give our soul a chance to speak.

Perhaps one of the best-known prose poems in the world is the Desiderata, which far from being written in the 1600s as was commonly thought, was in fact penned by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Ehrmann, a philosopher and writer who wrote six books in ten years and then became a lawyer because he felt he would never write a book that made him enough money to support his family, would be astonished and gratified to know that 84 years later the Desiderata is one of the most widely read poems in the world.

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ he wrote, ‘and remember what peace there may be in silence.’

What he was speaking of, I am sure, is inner silence – that deep, profound state of being when all is right with the world, so right that one could still be compelled, in the right circumstances – a horse ride along a quiet avenue of trees, a dog or three at my heels – in my case – to sing out loud, ‘Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see’. And always to remember, of course the wise words below:

Keep-calm-and-enjoy-the-silence

The Horse Rescuer

Amanda Vella has one mission in life - to rescue as many horses as possible

Amanda Vella has one mission in life – to rescue as many horses as possible

SAHA’s mission: To provide as many neglected, unwanted, slaughter bound horses with a second chance at life and love.

  When Amanda Vella, the founder of the charity Save a Horse Australia, got engaged last Christmas, she put in on Facebook, definitely the modern way to communicate important events in our lives.  But for Vella the announcement wasn’t made to a few dozen, or even a few hundred, or even a few thousand people.  It was made to an astonishing 20,000 people who follow Vella, her steadfast band of volunteers and the stories of the horses she rescues on a daily basis from her home at Beaudesert.

But despite the overwhelming support and congratulations from those who support her and her organization, there are only a few who know the full story behind the engagement and fewer still who know Vella’s personal story of love lost and love gained.

Vella grew up in the small country town of Narrandera (population 3,871), on the banks of the Murrumbidgee in the Riverina district of southern New South Wales.  “I always loved horses,” she says.  “I was just born with a love for them.  I borrowed a neighbour’s pony, and I got my own pony when I was 11. I was in Pony Club for a while, but I got kicked out for being naughty – I was a bit of a rebel.”

But the rebellious streak was not surprising.  Vella lost her mother to cancer when she was seven, and her father, who didn’t cope well with her mother’s death, committed suicide when she was 13.  Vella, caught in a maelstrom of loss and grief, turned to horses even more. At 14, she rescued her first horse, Gypsy.

“I paid $75 for her from the horse sales,” she says. “I had her with me in Narrandera for three months, and I adored her.  But I knew I had to get away from home, and when I was 14 I made the decision to move to the Gold Coast to sort my life out.” For Vella, who has older and younger half-brothers and sisters, but was the only child to her parent’s marriage, the Gold Coast was one of the few places she knew that had happy memories. “I’d been taken there on a holiday by a family friend,” she says. “When things got difficult with my family I was living with my grandmother, who was not able to keep me permanently, so it was a question of going into care or leaving Nerrandera.”

Vella chose to leave, selling her childhood pony, Sandy to raise her bus fare, and for almost a year, lived, as she puts it “rough”, until with help from the Miami school principal, Jim Baker, she got an orphan allowance from Centrelink, and Austudy to go to school. “Mr Baker actually became my legal guardian at the time because I couldn’t even go to school unless I had a legal guardian because I was under 16,” she says.  “I rented a caravan near my high school, Miami High, and I worked part-time – at Bernie’s Burgers, Sizzler and Toys R Us.” (She tells me this almost casually, as if it’s an everyday occurrence for 14-year-olds to move thousands of kilometres away from home, live in a caravan, study and work three jobs.)

It took Vella some months to feel secure enough to send for Gypsy, who was being looked after by a friend in Narrandera. When Gypsy arrived Vella was overjoyed – until disaster struck again.  “I’d only had her up here for a few months when she was stolen from the property where she was agisted a 30-minute drive away from where I was then living.” she says.  “I was completely devastated, at that time Gypsy was my life – I looked everywhere and advertised for her return, but nothing.  I never found her, and I worried about what had happened for years, until only fairly recently I finally managed to trace her to a lady who had got her from the RSPCA so obviously the thieves couldn’t or didn’t keep her. This lady owned her for years until she was put to sleep – and I only missed her by a few months, but at least I knew she had been well looked after.”

Top:  Trixie not long after she arrived at the sanctuary, and bottom, a few months later

Top: Trixie not long after she arrived at the sanctuary, and bottom, a few months later

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Vella, still traumatized from her emotional roller-coaster ride, had given up on horses at this point, but far from being deterred by Gypsy’s disappearance, Vella rescued her second horse, an emaciated bay Thoroughbred called Buddy she heard about from a friend.  “My friend called me and told me about someone he knew who had a really skinny horse, so we rang him, and he told us to come and get him.  He was in North Brisbane when we collected him, and after he’d recovered his weight we adopted him out to a lovely lady in the Lockyer Valley.” For Vella her trials have simply reinforced that this is her calling.  “I’ve heard people say that they’ve been brought to earth to do a particular job,” she explains, “and that’s how it is for me. I was born to do this. I know that, and I’ve always known it.”

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and watching Vella at work – organising to pick up a surrender case, speaking with the local RSPCA, confirming the care requirements of a particular horse, and telling me she’s had to make the heart-rending decision to euthanaze a horse that isn’t going to make it, I wonder whether she feels that the loss of her parents – and of Gypsy – actually in some way prepared her for the life she leads now, a life in which she witnesses again and again the best and the worst of human behaviour and where she has to handle the prospect of a horse’s death on an almost daily basis.

“I think it definitely gave me an ability to cope,” she says.  “Not that the decisions I have to make are easy, but at the same time what I do feels urgent and necessary and so I just get on with it.”  (In a sad postscript to her Buddy story, his adopted family had him for many years until he and three other horses were drowned in the massive 2010/11 Queensland floods when the waters swept through the Lockyer Valley.)

Despite her long-term ambition to own a horse-rescue centre, even as a teenager Vella was canny enough to know that it would take money, and working her way school and university, she became a business development manager, earning enough to self-fund her horse rescue habit through her salary.  “I started my charity the opposite way to most people,” she says.  “I had 15 horses in care, and I was still working full time and self-funding all the horses. I finally decided to register the charity in 2009, and self-funded that for a long time as well. But then it gradually started to take off.  I started up a Facebook page, and that just went crazy, and now a lot of our pledges for support come through Facebook, and last year I was able to start working full-time for SAHA.” Examples of goodwill towards Vella and her charity include a woman recently donating $10,000 to pay for an urgent operation needed for a rescue horse, vets donating their time whenever possible, and thousands of people donating money on a daily basis. “Everything helps,” says Vella. “Even five dollars makes a difference, and I am thankful for every dollar people give us.”  (At the time of writing SAHA has 47 horses in care, and Vella says over 700 horses have been through the centre, although sadly not all of them make it, and even during the course of this article several horses had to be euthanized for various health complications.)

It takes a lot of people to run a rescue operation based around our largest domestic animal, and Vella now has around 35 people working with her – volunteers, committee members, foster carers and adoptive homes as well as an additional army of horse vets, dentists and farriers. What’s more, this is no glamorous get a gorgeous horse for free outfit – as Vella wryly puts it – “we’re not talking Olympic champions here.”  Even running a charity, and with the massive amount of supporters she has, she’s found that, as she says: “Most people want something for nothing. And the horses we get are mainly old, or younger ones with particular problems, or horses that have been almost starved to death.  Re-housing them is very difficult, and often we have to keep the very old ones ourselves. With the younger ones, once they have been rehabilitated, they are trained, and then fostered out before they are offered on lifetime adoption contracts.”  (As well as the numerous amount of foster carers on personal properties, SAHA has two permanently leased properties – one of 20 acres in Beaudesert, and a 12-acre-property at Wongawallan in the Gold Coast hinterland.)

Because of the extraordinary numbers of horses that end up at knackeries – close to 40,000 per year according to Vella, she has had to narrow the focus of SAHA to something achievable.  “It’s hard to actually quantify the exact number or horses that are killed every year,” she says, “because no government body keeps an exact account, but we know there are two official production plants that kill 700 horses a week each in order export the meat overseas for human consumption – one in Caboolture and one in South Australia, and there are 33 licensed knackeries in Australia, so even guesswork makes it a huge number of horses that are killed every week.”  The charity’s decision was to bid against the ‘doggers’ as they are called, at the sales, and therefore save lives.  “Once the slaughter men have bought them they are not allowed to sell them on, so we try to outbid them once we’ve decided which ones to try for,” she explains.  And that, in itself, is a heart-breaking process.  “We have to ignore the ones that we know cannot be helped, and that we would have to euthanaze straight away,” she says.  “But other than that we don’t discriminate at all.  Fortunately at many of the smaller sales, the younger horses in good condition – young ex-racehorses for instance – are often bought by people looking for a horse, which leaves us free to bid for those horses that need a second chance, but sometimes we will buy a young healthy horse to stop if from being slaughtered.”

There are a few things that make Vella angry and one is the idea that saving broken-down or old or sick horses is not valid. “Sometimes we get comments on Facebook about it, as we also do about the people who have let the horses get in this condition, and also about the guys that run the ‘kill’ lists and buy horses on a kill quota from the abbatoir,” she says.  “I am absolutely firm on the fact that every horse deserves a chance at life no matter what their condition, and those of us that run the charity make the choices for good reasons about which horses to save. There’s no point in making accusations about people – stuff happens, people get in bad situations, or they simply don’t know, and the kill guys are just doing their job.” It’s a credo that she takes into her social media, frequently stopping negative lines of comment with a firm hand.

The day I visit the sanctuary I meet one of the stars of SAHA’s recent rescues.  The completely adorable Trixie – a small (13hh) grey pony who arrived, having been bought by SAHA at Grafton sale for $100 so emaciated she was basically a terrified bag of bones.  When horses are this sick they have to be introduced to food extremely slowly, and little Trixie was touch and go for a while.  Because she was in such poor condition, she contracted a chest infection that required massive antibiotics, and just as all of her growing legion of FB fans were breathing a sigh of relief, she was affected by a paralysis tick, and again, being so small and thin it was a life-threatening situation.  For three days she was kept in a stable with mattresses on the floor, and around the walls, so the 24-hour-volunteer roster could turn her every few hours. When she finally got up and walked and started eating again, there was an almost palpable sigh of relief from her thousands of followers.   A few months later, she’s well, happy, putting on weight, and has learned to trust the human race again.  With her little pink outfits (even a pink playball in her stable), she walks herself into her stable at night, and tucks herself up for the night. “Worth saving?” says Amanda. “You bet – and if she continues to improve there’s a good chance she’ll find a forever home.”

Trixie - one of the SAHA stars

Trixie – one of the SAHA stars

With all of this going on you would hardly think Vella would have time to look for romance, but it found her in the strangest way possible.  “When I was at high school in Narrandera I had a boyfriend, Mark, (Davies) but we were young, and when I moved up to the Gold Coast we lost touch,” she says. “Then for Christmas 2012 I went home to see the family, and I met Mark again, and basically we just reconnected. What was so strange was that he was living and working in the Gold Coast too – we’d been living near each other for years, and had no idea, and then we met up at home again.” The romance quickly became serious, and Davies, who works in a quarry at Beaudesert has thrown himself into the SAHA work, helping Vella out at the weekends and whenever he has time.

It was a year later to the day that Davies proposed, and a delighted Vella accepted.  Their long-term ambition is to move further out of the Gold Coast to Beaudesert or to the Lockyer Valley in order to open a horse sanctuary on their own property.  Just to contemplate what this young woman has done with her life in the past 20 years is to know that there is absolutely no doubt she will succeed – and in the process she is not only, as she says, “making horses better and giving them a second-chance,” she is giving many of us who are horse lovers a chance to be better people.

SAHA

Magical Moon Moment

Original photo from Almost A Cowboy Western

Original photo from Almost A Cowboy Western

IT WAS a full moon the other night, and somehow it seemed to bring with it a small oasis of calm in the weeks of somewhat wild and unpredictable weather we’ve been having in the Northern Rivers.

I  look forward to full moons, because a while ago my daughter and I made a pact that we would try our best to do something different on a full moon, or – her school work and my writing permitting – a few nights either side.  In the past four or five months we’ve driven into the macadamia forests and had a fire and marshmallows down by the river; gone down to Byron Bay to watch the moon rise from the water – almost as golden as its brother sun; danced outside on our arena, and had a full moon dinner in the garden.

This month, we hadn’t even thought about a full moon moment.  In fact, the night before the weather had been so violent – with lashing rain and gusting winds, that full moon fever was the last thing on my mind.

But now, standing in my kitchen, looking out into the garden, everything was clearly silhouetted in silvery light, and I could see my Paint horse, Storm, lying down in his paddock, with his companion, Johnny, our grey Arabian, grazing close by.

Storm was born on the property, and I was lucky enough to be there when it happened.  When he was a foal, and used to take his baby naps, I would often go into the paddock and lie down beside him, and he was always welcoming.  He would open an eye, and close it again, and we would lie there together quite contentedly until I had to go back to work, or he’d had enough snoozing.  Sometimes his mother, Glimmer, would stand over us both, and they were always special moments.

I wondered if Storm would be let me talk to him now, in the full moonlight, so I wandered over to the paddock, and sure enough, he kept on resting, while I sat on the ground beside him and scratched his neck for him.  We sat there companionably together, and now that I was outside, I could see clearly into the house, back into the kitchen where I’d been standing, and where my daughter and her two friends were hanging out.

Wouldn’t it be lovely, I suddenly thought, if we could actually ride in the moonlight?  How amazing would that be to embrace the still, crisp night air, and the moon in all its glory, with a horse?

I looked at Johnny, grazing away.  We’ve had our occasionally slightly over-excited Arab for eleven years, and somehow along the way, he’s become a been-there, done-that sort of a horse – exactly the sort of horse to go riding on in the moonlight – as long as there were no horse-eating dragons out and about. (Fortunately, in Johnny’s horse brain, horse-eating dragons are usually absent from the arena, and only present when he feels he has to keep his wits about him in the macadamia forest.)

The girls were willing, and so was Johnny, and so there we were with the natural horsemanship halter, and the bareback pad, just in our tracksuits and gumboots, pottering around in the moonlight on a horse.  What a beautiful feeling it was!   No pressure, no force – we just let Johnny wander around with one of us beside him, and one of us riding.  He was mostly curious about the light shining from the ubiquitous iPod, and what he really wanted to do was just hang with us and cuddle – which was fine by us.  So we all had a turn, riding in the moonlight, and then we sat and chatted, while the other horses looked at us over the fences as if to say they too would like to join in.

It was a magical moonlit moment out there with the three girls, and the snowy-white Arab – one for the memory banks, that’s for sure.

 

The Worry Monster, Mother’s Day and muddling through…

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

I woke up in the early hours of the morning to the sound of the rain on the roof – as I so often do living in the green hills of the Northern Rivers.  (Note to self:  In Australia, a country renowned for its droughts, there’s a reason why this area is always green.  Second note to self:  Always research an area before moving there.)

As I lay there wondering if it was too early to get up at 4.30 am and work, the Worry Monster came to visit, and soon we were running through our favourite conversations – too many horses with too many fungal diseases (also due to the weather); too little time, too much to do, not enough money, no clear direction at the moment as to the way forward – and why not?  And what is wrong with me??? Everything was absolutely focussed with crystal-like clarity on what is wrong with my life.

And this day, the Saturday before Mother’s Day is always a little hard because three years ago we were told a very beautiful and valuable thoroughbred horse, Fox, whom we’d owned only for a few months, was dying of pneumonia.  It was a catastrophic series of tiny mistakes which had led us to this sad place, but there we were with just the slightest chance he would make it through the night, but at 5.00am on Mother’s Day morning, he died, and I’ve felt the sadness most acutely at this same time of year ever since.

I took a deep breath.  After several years of trying my best to acquire the positive habit of the Law of Attraction I knew I wasn’t doing myself any favours.

I decided, as I also often do, to tune into one of my favourite shows – Jennifer McLean’s Healing with the Masters, and her replay of her interviewer with author and teacher, Patricia Cota-Robles.

And there it was – the exact phrase I needed for that moment:

“The company of heaven say that worry is a way of praying for what you don’t want.”

 OMG!  So true.

I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself, ignore the rain and take the dogs for a walk before I fed the horses.

As I drove up the lane where I live there was a single White-headed pigeon sitting bang-slap in the middle of the road.  I had to get out of the car and shoo it away before it decided to fly up into the nearest tree – and that was just the start of my morning adventures.

The pigeon was followed by more bird-life than I usually see in weeks, all in the space of half-an-hour.  Ground-nesting plovers stalked imperiously away from me scolding me crossly for daring to drive through their territory; flocks of Australian White Ibis and the Black-headed Ibis took to the sky in their droves as the dogs and I walked up and down the avenues of macadamia trees trying to avoid the pouring rain, a pair of delicate Grey Herons, (actually the Australian White-faced Heron by the way), rose gracefully into the air looking exactly like birds on a Japanese scroll.  Even the sky – a deep shade of Payne’s Grey – looked like a painting, ominous, brooding and beautiful all at once. On the way home a pair of Willy Wagtails and a pair of Butcher Birds were right next to the White-headed pigeon – which led me to wonder why the pigeon was by itself?  Had it lost its mate?  After all, pigeons are monogamous and mate for life – like many bird species who seem to have achieved something with which we humans have difficulties. Were the other birds keeping it company in its loneliness?

Stranger things have happened – certainly in my animal-filled life!

Talking of which, what do you when you get home and you need to move a guinea pig and rabbit from a horse stable so you can put two horses in the two stables in order to dry them out a bit?  You put them in an Ikea laundry basket – you know, the silver ones, with a wire frame and fine mesh all around.  Plenty of air, light to carry, fine enough mesh that the sawdust doesn’t fall out – problem solved – and it only took 20 minutes of chasing them around the stable to get them in there.

(Of course all of that might beg the question as to why the guinea pig and rabbit are in a horse stable to begin with, and that goes back to the weather.  They’re living in massive five-star hotel luxury because they were constantly being rained out in their previous home and I got sick of rescuing them.  Now they live in a stable big enough for a 17hh warmblood, and are ejected only when I need the stable.)

Then, because ‘needs must’, as my mother used to say, I heat up a bowl of olive oil – not as a nature’s own remedy for me, but in order that I can rub it in to one of the horse’s legs.  Our old show-jumper, Cardigan, gets regular outbreaks of Greasy Heel, which spreads up his legs, and olive oil is just one of the numerous treatments we have to apply.  I let the leg soak up the oil for a while before I spend half-an-hour happily engrossed in scratching scabs off.

By now my human needs are more than calling me – it’s time for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea.

I discover, to my surprise, that I’ve enjoyed this morning much more than I might have thought I would when I first woke up, and the Worry Monster has been well and truly banished – at least for a while, and when she makes her presence felt I will remember, when I worry, I am praying for what I don’t want.

The illustration with this post is actually of cranes, of course, but it captures the heron spirit!

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When Less is More

Kansas Carradine has a conversation with Gretel at the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre.  Photograph Candida Baker

Kansas Carradine has a conversation with Gretel at the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre. 

“The next frontier is of a spiritual nature. Our success is no longer defined by our accumulation of material goods, but by being in service to a worthy cause.”

 Ariana Strozzi

 It’s a wonderful thing in life that we can know, or believe we know, a lot about something, and still find that there is plenty more to learn.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to attend a clinic given by one of the Cavalia riders, Kansas Carradine, at the Byron Bay Equestrian centre.  If you haven’t yet caught up with Cavalia, think Cirque du Soleil with horses…

Carradine, who grew up in Hollywood (her father was David Carradine) has been involved with Cavalia and with trick riding for many years, but on the side she has been discovering a whole new area – Equine Guided Education.

After studying with Ariana Strozzi of Skyhorse Ranch in the US for some years, Carradine is now teaching this most gentle and yet revealing of horse practices.

I thought horse-whispering and natural horsemanship were already a world away from most of the accepted practices we learn on how to interact with horses, but Equine Guided Education takes it a step further – with absolutely no riding involved, and with the horses at liberty in an arena, the session quickly becomes more about what the horses show us about ourselves, than what we might traditionally consider we should show the horses!

With four horses at liberty, there was bound to be a bit of non-verbal discussion, and one mare, Gretel, and her follower, Lucy, quickly established themselves as the leaders. Another mare, Belle, and a gelding, Brierley, seemed, at first, to be much more on the outside, and yet, as the day progressed, the seemingly disinterested Brierley connected to those of us in the group in an absolutely magical way as he went quietly from one person to the other, choosing to stand by us, and in a couple of instances, to offer healing.

Tesse Ferguson, Manager of the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre, with her girls, Gretel and Lucy.

Tesse Ferguson, Manager of the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre, with her girls, Gretel and Lucy.

It was surprising too, to see this most submissive horse, firmly suggest to the other horses that when he was with the humans they were not to come near.

We were asked continually to think about ourselves, how did we react being in a group of horses?  Could we imagine being a horse?  What issues did the different horses behaviour bring up for us?

It was a day full of surprises and revelations.  Some of the ideas that Carradine brought to our attention intrigued me.  She talked of how important it is to horses – and of course for ourselves – that our inside and outside landscape must match, that we must, as she put it, be congruent.  She asked as us to look at where our attention was drawn, which horses we were drawn to and why.

At one point three of us role-played being one horse, and were asked to silently move amongst the horses, as if we were a horse, which was an extraordinary spatial experience – particularly when we were sawn in half by a horse coming between us!

To truly try and put oneself into a horse’s hooves is to begin to understand their immense sensitivity to their environment – and to us.

Brierley initiates communication...

Brierley initiates communication…Photography for this article by Candida Baker

 

A Meditation on Magpies

The stranger in our midst

 And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle

The magpies said.

                                                 Dennis Glover.

Photograph: Candida Baker

For the six years we’ve lived at our property, we’ve shared it with a colony of magpies, or perhaps, more correctly, they’ve shared it with us.

At least I thought it was a colony, until I thought I should find out the correct collective noun – and there seem to be a few on offer: congregation, tiding, tittering, gulp, charm or murder; although I’ve always thought it was a murder of crows.  I’ve decided congregation is by far the most descriptive noun, since their singing sounds remarkably like a bird version of a church choir.

Their carolling is the first lovely noise we hear in the morning, and in the evening they gather interestedly to watch the preparation of the horse feed, and to ‘help’ the horses eat. There’s about 20 in our particular congregation, and they sing, squabble, eat and play very much like humans.  It’s always been a harmonious relationship between the birds and people around here – that is until last year, when for the first time ever, an aggressive magpie somehow found his way into the pack.

Suddenly, I found myself being viciously swooped, and generally forgetting to arm myself with an ice-cream carton or hat, or even sunglasses on my head, I would find myself wearing a grubby feed bucket, or even ducking under a horse to get out of the way.  I shouted at him, scolded him, explained to him that it was not how our magpies behaved, but he was having none of it, and kept up the aggression for what seemed like months.  It’s usually the males that are the aggressors, and you can tell the males from the females by the fact that they have vivid white plumage on their necks, as opposed to the softer grey neck plumage of the females.

Magpies are well known as collectors of anything that catches their beady eyes. 

A friend of mine once rescued a baby female Magpie who grew up to be a fully-fledged family member.  She could mimic the sheepdogs perfectly, and wasn’t above trying to round up the sheep herself.  She also, if anyone was repairing anything, would helpfully arrive bearing twigs, or string or bark for you – her head cocked on one side, as if to say here you are, just for you!

Celtic folklore suggests that when two or more magpies fly into your life good fortune is on its way – although it doesn’t mention anything about one grumpy male unfortunately.  They’re certainly clever, that’s for sure, surprising ornithologists with their adaptability to even a poisonous intruder, such as the introduced cane toad.  It took the magpies of Australia only a few generations to learn to flip the toads over and attack their soft and non-venomous stomachs – showing a highly-social learned behaviour skill.

Magpies are highly valued for their symbolism as well – their vocal songs a joyous creative expression of themselves that we could well emulate.  On the plus side they’re seen as communicative, social, extroverted and cheerful, their negative symbolic attributes include gossiping, deception, vanity, wilfulness and opportunism.

All that for one little bird!  Curiously, and quite frequently, the East and West have different symbolic takes on animals, and that’s also true with the Magpie, which for the Chinese is considered a ‘Bird of Joy’ signifying good fortune, but in the West, in stricter Christian times, it was seen as a manifestation of the Devil himself.

Mark Twain once acquainted himself with a magpie on a visit to Australia and wrote:

…He had lived in a lady’s house several years, and believed he owned it. He was always on deck when not wanted, always having his own way, always tyrannizing over the dog, and always making the cat’s life a slow sorrow and a martyrdom. He knew a number of tunes and could sing them in perfect time and tune; and would do it, too, at any time that silence was wanted; but if he was asked to sing he would go out and take a walk.

With that kind of contrary personality no wonder my aggressor was deaf to my pleas of a truce!  But curiously, this second year, he’s not so bad – still swooping and taking me by surprise, but not so viciously, and not so often.

Maybe by next year we’ll be friends, the Stranger in our Midst fully integrated, and our Magpie congregation and our family can live together in peace again.

Magpies

Along the road the magpies walk

with hands in pockets, left and right.

They tilt their heads, and stroll and talk

in their well-fitted black and white.

They look like certain gentlemen

who seem most nonchalant and wise

until their meal is served – and then

what clashing beaks, what greedy eyes!

But not one man that I have heard

throws back his head in such a song

of grace and praise –  no man nor bird.

Their greed is brief; their joy is long.

For each is born with such a throat

as thanks his God with every note.

Judith Wright

 

Sad Sally…

Image

The old grey donkey, Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.
A. A. Milne – Winnie the Pooh.

There’s no doubt about it, our Shetland Pony is depressed. 
We’ve had Sally-the-Boy for ten years.  He was bought for my then two-year-old daughter Anna, who insisted that she wanted a girl horse, so Dusty was re-christened Sally, dressed in pink, and, hey presto!  As Anna used to say until she had to accept defeat, ‘Sally is not a boy. He’s a girl.’

But it’s not gender confusion that’s brought about this bout of depression, it’s the loss of a friend.

During the past ten years we’ve bought, re-trained, trained and rescued a lot of horses, and Sal (as in Sal Mineo, or Salieri as our music-loving vet likes to call him), has been that wonderful bombproof child’s pony every horsey family wants.  He’s a friendly little chap but with a touch of small man syndrome, and over the years he’s often quite happily bullied horses ten times his size.

He’s had a few friends, but nobody special, not until last year when Mr Blue – so named because of his strangely blue eyes came to visit for a while and stayed for a year.  For Sally and Mr Blue it was love at first sight, and they hung out, grooming each other, eating beside each other and generally being best buddies for a whole year, but then finally Mr Blue had to go home, and Sal lost his friend… And his appetite, and his lust for life.

I recognise his symptoms, because I’ve suffered from depression myself – that dreadful sense that nothing is as it should be, when you can feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, worried, worthless, guilty, hurt, irritable and strangely restless – quite often all at once!

A depressed person loses interest in activities that were once pleasurable (in Sal’s case eating, and play-fighting, busting through fences and trying to get into the feed shed) they may experience loss of appetite, or overeating, have problems concentrating, remembering details or making decisions and may contemplate, attempt or even desire suicide.

Insomnia, excessive sleeping, fatigue, loss of energy, or aches, pains or digestive problems that are resistant to treatment may manifest as well.  Fortunately for Sally he doesn’t have to make too many decisions, but even so, seeing him stand, head down, in the corner of his paddock with a little lonely bubble around him, is a bit hard to take.

To paraphrase the song by Chicago, depression takes away the biggest part of us, or so it seems to me.  We become less than ourselves, and that biggest part of us seems to disappear down a tunnel.

I’ve learned a careful balancing act through my bouts of depression.  I’ve learned that depression often hides extreme sadness and grief and that if we don’t feel and acknowledge it then the blues or the black dog will stay much longer.  But I’ve also learned that giving in completely is no option.

Depression loves inaction – and in the end the simplest things are often the best antidote – walking for instance, swimming, or exercise such as tai-chi are all easy, low-impact exercises that help the brain re-focus, relax and re-energise.  (Although it has to be said teaching tai-chi to a Shetland isn’t easy.)

Acknowledging the depression is part of the battle, getting appropriate help is another part, and time passing another bit of the jigsaw puzzle, and there is nothing anybody can do about that.

I’ve seen animals depressed before – they feel emotions every bit as strongly as humans, perhaps even more so since the notion of a better future is not really in their lexicon.  As Rollo May so succinctly put it, ‘Depression is the inability to construct a future.’

While Sal is suffering, we’re treating him with kid gloves – extra feeds, little walks to juicy patches of grass, lavender oil under his nostrils (yes, truly), even homeopathy, and lots of cuddles and love. He’ll bounce back and be his naughty self again – and I can’t wait.

Treating animal depression

I ran a story by Katherine Waddington in my horse anthology, The Infinite Magic of Horses. She rescued two brumbies in Western Australia who were sisters.  Once they were rehabilitated the time came for them to go to new homes.

Lily coped well, but Sophie did not and fell into a deep depression.  Fortunately the humans around her realised what had happened, and they organised a visit from her sister, which immediately perked up her pining sibling.

Then, to lessen the blow of separation, they brought the two together from time to time so that both of them would gradually realise the separation wasn’t final.  Sophie gradually became so secure in herself that finally she appointed herself the nurturer for all the newly-arrived brumbies.