The Hartsbrook School

A Young Man and his Steers

CalebPicTaller than his 14 years, and with long, loping steps Caleb enters the steers pen. Fire and Cracker, now large Holstein steers not yet 2 years old, greet him as always –with their long tongues searching out the texture and weave of his jacket; their deep dewy eyes following his every move. One can see a sudden transformation take place – the gesture and body language of young man and beasts changes. Caleb suddenly reaches to his full height, shoulders no longer drooped nor eyes downcast; the steers slowly and almost imperceptibly lower their heads, just a hint, to show obedience and waiting for the command. A sort of dance will now unfold as both young man and animals begin their work of the day.

It has been more than a year since Caleb began working and training Fire and Cracker to the yoke. Barely up to his waist when they first arrived, they now stand taller than their driver who has to jump every now and again to deliver a goading tap to the off-steer. He has taught them the basic commands of “Gee” and “Haw”, “Walk On” and “Whoaa!” “Back Up” and “Easy”. With loud verbal commands, he drives them with gentleness and ferocity, tenderness and impatience; he is proud of what they have learned and easily frustrated by their stubbornness.

This dance between man and beast has existed for millennia; we have invited the ox into our midst, taken him out of the wild to serve and work for us. He has pulled and driven; cut furrows in the deep dark earth for us to plant and cultivate; hauled water and people; and in return for food and shelter, offered us his faithfulness and obedience. But what of today? No longer needed for draft power, easily replaced by a tractor, is the ox to be relegated to the past, an ancient icon with no further purpose or is there more to unfold in our relationship with these gentle giants? As we find ourselves moving ever further away from a true relationship with Nature, is there a new meaning and urgency in creating other ways of being in relation to these animals?

Caleb has been a student at The Hartsbrook School in Hadley Massachusetts since kindergarten. Now a freshman in high school, he has risen through the grades participating in our agricultural arts curriculum by working with all of the different livestock throughout each successive grade. This has meant that he has learned how to stare down a chicken in 3rd Grade while gathering eggs from a broody hen’s nest! Haltered and led a recalcitrant donkey or goat in 4th Grade while taking them out to pasture; herded a flock of Shetland sheep back into the pen with his 5th Grade classmates while the sheep had different ideas and moved like the swell of a wave throughout the campus! Hand-milked our Jersey cow in 6th Grade while seated on a stool, head rested against her flank listening to the movements of her rumen and feeling her sweet warmth. These experiences that all the students enjoy in their journey through the grades at Hartsbrook has provided Caleb with the foundation upon which to build this deep and important relationship with the steers. While our agricultural curriculum introduces our children to meaningful work in the gardens, fields and with the livestock, it is in the daily care and work with the animals that a deeper, soul relationship with the natural world is truly formed and cultivated.

Caleb is a young man who has found it challenging to be fully present in his own body; this has meant that the path from his house to classroom has been decorated with items that he “left” along the way. Shoelaces often untied, feet dragging over the asphalt, bumping into doors, spacing out in class, in other words, not being fully “here”. The stillness and focus required by a full lesson could find him looking out the window, taking multiple walks to the pencil sharpener, or seeking entertainment from his classmates – anything to add interest to the work required. With a warm and sensitive heart, strong physical abilities, and keenly observant large round eyes, Caleb seemed a perfect candidate to train a pair of young working steers and along the way perhaps develop a closer connection to his own center, his ability to attend and to his higher Self. Little did we know when we set out, the journey that was to unfold.

The goad stick is usually made of ash, and honed just right for some flexibility with which to deliver a solid tap, never a hit. It is just long enough to reach over the backs of the animals to tap the ear of the off-ox as a direction command; the purpose being to have the animals watch the stick, be directed by its commands so that driver and steers are moving as one, almost as a conductor’s baton leads his orchestra. With this one moving stick, the will of these great beasts is held in abeyance; close to one ton of animal muscle and power contained within the command of a stick. Incredible! The goad stick becomes an extension of the driver through which his sense of Self is held. It has taken many months for Caleb to grow into the use of the goad stick so that it has become the extension to himself that the animals watch for. At first, he would drag it on the ground, swing it all over the place, in short it would be held in every position but the correct one and of course the animals were confused! Now, held high, and with the grace and pride of a marching baton, Caleb has learned to position the goad stick for the steers to watch him and by extension has focused himself, become centered and can now hold the animals’ will by his very being.

But of course it is so much more – it is also the trust that has unfolded between these animals and Caleb; the trust that he will ask them, invite them, to join him in his work. So easily this relationship could become mechanical, the goad stick used too frequently, where the animals become what is known as “stick sour”. But when the command is held in balance through the warmth of the driver’s heart and which has become awakened, then a true and healthy relationship between driver and team is born.

In a world that too readily invites us to think smarter, be smarter and regards our intellect as defining who we are in the world, our relationship with the animal kingdom allows us a means by which to find balance and an opportunity to cultivate a soul capacity within each one of us that reflects what it is to be truly human; empathy can then grow, allowing us to relate to the world with both intellect and heart. For Caleb, this is awakened every time he enters the pen and sees his dew-eyed steers waiting for him; when he brushes and grooms them so that they shine, and experiences the joy and pride that comes with knowing and understanding each one of these creatures in all of their difference and sameness. But most importantly that he alone is responsible for their health and vigor. He also knows that with warm heart open and goad stick in hand, he is the only one they will listen to!

Nicki Robb
Land Stewardship Program Director