I once read an encyclopedia on farm animals. It was like that scene in the Matrix when Trinity is escaping on the stolen helicopter, a machine she has never flown, and just as she takes the pilot seat the instructions for how to fly that helicopter are downloaded from the mothership to the memory chip installed behind her ear. Without skipping a beat, the woman’s hands begin to move across the controls and her iron bird lifts off from the rooftop of a skyscraper. I was thinking reading an encyclopedia on farming would be just like that. So, I read “The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds” from cover to cover.
Books are my key to the Universe. I read and do, read and do, read and do, until finally I’m certain I know, and I don’t need to learn anymore. I just do. Often that’s when I make my biggest mistakes. I’m so certain of what I know that I don’t allow for the possibility of learning something new. My knowledge becomes a series of switches, on/off, yes/no, right/left, open/closed, a grid of pre-existing ideas that becomes a filter for everything that enters my mind.
Thinking on that grid extrudes new information so it looks a lot like the old information and my thoughts become a pattern that repeats itself in my behavior until parts of my grid are so worn from overuse that they become deep ruts, and I bury myself in certainty until my grid is shattered by my own humiliating ignorance. My failure to learn new information and change my behavior often leaves me in a mess. For me, farming was a process of correcting my mistakes as fast as I could discover them.
A farm is not a machine. I thought educating myself with words would be like downloading the farm chip. But, of course, living things are always changing and adapting, coming together and falling apart, shedding their skin, losing their feathers, sprouting seeds, procreating, hatching and diversifying. The job of farming is to manage diversity and keep life flowing in one direction, which is impossible. That’s why they call it work. Life is a river, not a grid. The world flows toward chaos.
I amused myself looking at cow porn and bought expensive bull semen online, but the artificial insemination failed and after a year of trying to get my cows pregnant with human hands, I finally got a real bull. I discovered my carelessness with chicken feed was an invitation to rats, which invaded the farm unnoticed until I found one in the house. I thought I would be able to sheer sheep by watching a guy at the fair, and trim goats’ hooves by looking at pictures, but my hand muscles were uncooperative. There was no chip I could download with the muscle memory of farming.
I thought I could crawl under an electric fence on wet grass in the rain, forgetting that the water on my clothes would conduct electricity. The shock was so bad I let out an involuntary scream and wet my pants. There’s no chip for instinct. I learned that it’s not always smart to be brave, and sometimes it’s faster to slow down. As much as I’d like to keep my life simple and believe easy answers, I know I have blind spots. My next big mistake is flowing toward me right now and seeing with an open mind is my best defense.