Stampede

Royal Palm turkey tomScandal and outrage shattered the dawn. “What on earth?” I put my coffee down and my boots on. It was 5:45 am.

I keep four Royal Palm turkeys; a tom and three hens. They are beautiful; white with black barring on the feathers- very striking. Unlike top heavy, Pamela Anderson style supermarket turkeys, these birds can clear a runway with a few flaps and fly like hummingbirds. I keep them in a pen where they’re safe from the foxes, coyotes and bob cats and only let them out into the field when I’m around to keep an eye on them. (Plus, my concern that they will visit my neighbor and make a mess on her lawn is well founded.) But a flock of wild turkeys had entered our yard and three wild toms were strutting in front of their captive brethren in a brazen display of vanity unbound. My hens viewed their visitors with frank amazement but the tom was beside himself; huffing and chuffing until his head was blue, gobbling like a lunatic, blowing out his tail feathers and dragging his wings in an aggressive demonstration of frustrated prowess. “You better hope Andy doesn’t let me out or I’ll kick your ass!”

It was the first day of Spring; a busy time on the farm. The crew starts at 6. We had vegetables boxes to pack and a truck to San Francisco to get out the door before 8. By 9 in the morning I wanted to be finished with the herb harvest in our Corralitos greenhouse because after that it would be too hot and by 10:30 I needed to be in the Hollister field with a load of Jerusalem artichoke tubers for the crew to plant. It was the kind of day that calls for split-second, air-traffic controller type multi-tasking precision. I gathered up an egg that a hen had laid in all the excitement and left the turkeys to live out their drama.

I grow vegetables for a living but I keep animals too. All the animals have a role to play. My turkeys give me my egg every morning, my goats eat poison oak bushes and animate the landscape, and my donkeys are lovely, long-eared court jesters, always willing to “speak truth to power.” I also keep cows on 80 acres of grassy range. They’re Dexter cattle, an antique heirloom Irish breed and they never get very big. My bull only weighs 800 pounds which, compared to the 2000+ pounds that an Angus can weigh, makes him practically a bovine Chihuahua.

By nine in the morning I was already running an hour late. Manny called from the greenhouse- he needed boxes, bags, and help. And Jose called from the field- he needed seeds, rubber bands, and help. Then somebody called from the insurance agency needing information to clear up some lingering paperwork I‘d blown off for months. And while I was rummaging through the office to find the numbers for the insurance lady Guillermo pinned me down and pointed out that I’d failed to get him a new hand truck he needed to replace the one that broke. So much for “split-second, air-traffic controller type multi-tasking precision.”  The phone rang again; an unfamiliar number. Against my better judgment I took the call. I heard a woman’s pleading voice.

Andy’s Dexters“Excuse me, but I think your cows are loose in my yard.”

“Say again?” Holy Mother of Jesus; just what I need.

“This is Rosa, your neighbor from across the canyon. My yard is full of your cows and I’m worried they’re going to fall in my swimming pool.”

“I’ll be right there.”

“And some of them are heading down my driveway towards the highway”

I jumped in my flatbed and hit every pot hole as I went bucking down the dirt road. My trajectory flattened out and velocity increased as I reached the paved County road; a left, another left, then a right onto a quiet street, and there they were; six Dexter cows sauntering through the suburban yards, lingering on the lawns, tip toeing through the tulips, and peeing on the petunias. A worried woman stood in the street in front of her home. I’m afraid that I had a huge grin on my face.

“Are these your cattle, sir?”

“No,” I laughed. “They’re not.”

She didn’t seem to believe me. It didn’t help that upon seeing me the cows came scampering over, surrounded my truck and commenced to moo.

“But I know the owner.”

Dexter up closeI actually knew the cows too. In fact, my bull was their baby daddy. Every afternoon when I haul the cull vegetables and trimmings from the day’s harvest and packing out to my field to feed my own cattle I drive right past these cows and they always bawl for me to stop and throw them something over the fence. I drove down the lane back towards the canyon and the cows followed me. Rosa, the woman who’d called me, was in front of her house that overlooks the canyon.

“I was so worried that the cows might drink swimming pool water and get sick from the chlorine. Are they yours?

“No,” I said. “They’re Ken‘s. If you’ll watch them for a minute I’ll go get him and we’ll get them out of your yard.” I was glad Rosa wasn’t angry. The cattle seemed happy in her sunny yard, cropping big mouthfuls of weeds from along the fence line.

I found Ken‘s brother filling the garbage can in front of his home. He called Ken. “Hey, Cattle Baron. Get over here. You‘ve got a stampede on your hands!

Ken and his wife were shopping. They left the mall in a hurry. With me in front calling them and luring them forward with a handful of hay and Ken and his wife following behind to motivate the stragglers we walked the cows back down into the cool of the canyon, threading our way through tall ferns and nettles and brambles and redwood trees. With any herd of cattle from 3 to 3000 head it seems like you’re only really herding two animals- the boss cow who leads the herd into mischief and the recalcitrant cow at the back of the mob who can’t be convinced to follow anyone. We found the hole in the fence and lead the cows through and back into a little meadow. A chorus of frogs who’d been chirping up a storm fell silent the moment we entered the glade and all we could hear were the cows cropping at the green grass.

Lena in the redwoodsKen went to get a hammer, some nails, and some wire. There’s an enormous old-growth redwood tree at the edge of the field and I paused to visit it for a moment. My carefully orchestrated plans were in tatters. This ancient tree had been there a thousand years and seen lightning, floods, fires, and earthquakes. I took its silence as a survivor’s counsel to not feel so much urgency about my own day. I turned to leave. I was now a full 3 hours off schedule. Some stuff I’d planned would just have to happen tomorrow. But that’s ok. The vegetables would be there when I arrived. After all, that’s one of the great things about veggies; besides being beautiful, healthy, and delicious, they stay where you plant them.

© 2013 Article and photos by Andy Griffin

Redwood tree photo of Andy’s daughter about 6 years ago on our home ranch property.

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