As the Worm Turneth

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Photo by Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon–University of Idaho 2005

 

My mother told many stories about growing up on a wheat farm in the rolling fertile Palouse hills of eastern Washington state during the Great Depression years.  One was about the fabled Giant Palouse Earthworm, said to inhabit the deep soil of those lonely farms, and occasionally surfacing during cultivation with the horse drawn equipment.

This was no ordinary worm;  this cream colored invertebrate, first described by a zoologist in 1897, could grow up to 3 feet long.  It could move quickly through the loose topsoil, burrowing deep when threatened.  When it was turned up to the sunlight by the plowshare,  all work would cease in the marvel of  such a hidden creature.  This worm smelled like the essence of lilies but when handled, it defended itself through a release of fluid from its jawless mouth–the old farmers said it could “spit” a yard away.

I believed this was yet another of my mother’s “mythical” stories of life on the wheat farm and considered the “Giant Worm” a  fairy tale sharing shelf space with Pegasus,  dragons and centaurs, the stuff of Gary Larsen and “The Far Side”.

However, the Worm turneth “real”.  It actually does exist…we think.

The last time a scientist (University of Idaho) found a Giant Palouse Worm was in 2010.  There have only been a few sightings because the worm can move faster than a shovel, easily detecting the vibrations of humans disturbing the soil. So it has remained elusive, or more likely, adversely impacted due to intensive agricultural practices of the last century.  Environmental conservationists asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to institute protections for the Worm by declaring it an endangered species but it was denied such status.   Somehow the Federal Government is not eager to put resources into a Worm that prefers to stay 15 feet under. Perhaps the Worm shall one day have its day in court.

Actually this modern fable is only partially about saving a fantastical Worm that no one can find; it is also about ever-present environmental battling for preservation of land in its natural state versus development–even modern agricultural development in some of the most fertile soil in the world.  Scientists have put electric shock waves into the ground in an effort to drive the Worms to the surface so we have actual specimens to study and admire and then to call truly endangered.   If I was being shocked out of my comfy little dirt home, I think I’d dig deeper, rather than rise to the surface for poking, prodding,  and photo ops.   And I’d certainly feel like spitting.

I want to believe there must be a whole vital civilization of Giant Worms way down deep, dancing the night away in lily perfume and laughing at all the antics up under the sun.    Some day they’ll rise to make their grand appearance, and like a cross between protected prairie dog towns and a child’s bedroom ant farm, humans in all our wisdom and protective instincts might create Giant Palouse Worm colonies in the soil with underground viewing chambers.

Then we can stare at the underground cream colored marvels, and they can stare… and spit… back at us.

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Fair Weather Farewell

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For the first time since 1992, we are not preparing this weekend to spend the week displaying our Haflinger horses at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden.  BriarCroft has been a consistent presence at this fair for almost two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well  decorated display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We begged the Fair Board for 5 years to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But this year, it was not to be.  Our faithful trick riders Kelsy and Chesna who performed daring feats on their Haflingers in front of the grandstand crowds are busy with their horse training in Tenino, our adult sons have headed off to work in Tokyo, Japan, and college in Chicago, leaving us short of the crew needed to man the display for the week as Dan and I have to work our day jobs.  It was a painful decision to make, but it was simply not going to be possible to do it this year.  I will miss spending time with our dedicated young helpers–my daughter Lea, and the Vander Haak family–Emily, Christopher and David.  Over the years we’ve had many young helpers spend the week with us, now many of them grown with children of their own.

Every year since 1992, we evaluated whether we had the energy and resources to do it  again–for the initial 6 years when Dan and I were the sole farm doing  the display, it meant a week of vacation from work, and very very long days, juggling our small children as well as several horses. Then, with the help of 3R Farms and Teaglach Farm as well as older children, we were able to rotate shifts, still work at our “real” jobs part days, share duties and expenses together. The older kids watched the younger kids, the inbetween kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sit and shoot the breeze.

Did this sell horses for us? Not really. But it sure did create good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on ) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes.

Most of all, why we continued to do this so long, was that we provided what  dreams are made of. I’m not sure how many times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some  10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

He was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I hope someday to see Gary again–it would be great to see this tall accomplished young man who so recently was a shy quiet little city boy of 6, draped across the broad back of a Haflinger, and lost in his dreams of a “someday” Haflinger of his own. This is why we’ve done what we have at the fair all these years. It was for people like Gary who made a connection with a horse and never ever forget it. I’d like to think that a little bit of who Gary is and what he is becoming is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

Perhaps we’ll be back again at the Lynden Fair in the future if we can organize enough helpers.  We do hope the fair-goers miss the friendly golden horses with the big brown eyes that help make dreams come true.