My mother loves to tell her story about the time she encountered a team of Belgians. For those who aren’t familiar with Belgians, they are big, strong draft horses sometimes mistaken for Clydesdales, the horses made famous for pulling the Budweiser beer wagon. Because of their size and strength, some farmers still use Belgians for plowing and hauling. My mother makes pottery for a living, and for several years, she fired her mugs and bowls in a salt kiln she had built on a hill at the edge of a farm in northwest Illinois. Terry, the farmer who owned the land where she’d built her kiln, used Belgians to work his fields.
One late summer afternoon after a firing, my mother and her friend, John, were driving home through Terry’s cornfields. Her cream-colored 1978 Chrysler station wagon, complete with fake wood paneling on the sides, barely fit between the walls of corn. The car crept along a single-lane dirt road only wide enough for a team of horses pulling a rake. Suddenly on the top of the next rise, she saw the team of Belgians coming toward her on the same lane. My mother quickly realized the horses were approaching at a full gallop, their heads tossed high in the air, their hooves thundering against the ground. Terry raced behind them on foot, waving his arms and shouting something they could not comprehend. John quickly climbed onto the hood of the station wagon, waving his hands in the air. “Whoa, big boys! Whoa!” he repeated, but they did not stop or even slow down. They kept coming. “They’ll go around us,” John shouted to my mother who huddled in the driver’s seat. But they kept coming, not slowing at all, and at the very last moment, John jumped out of their way, and my mother saw the horses raise their giant front hooves in the air and expose their white bellies as they tried to jump over the car.
As my mother curled into a ball on the passenger side, the mare’s front feet crashed through the windshield, crushing the dashboard down. The male horse had veered at the last minute to the right, and because they were connected by a harness, his momentum pulled his partner back out of the car. The glass tore her chest open before they tumbled to the ground. Moments later, Terry arrived on the scene. He shouted to my mother and John to confirm they were okay and then turned to the horses. They reared and whinnied wildly, blood everywhere. He grabbed onto the harness of his wounded horse near her neck and was flipped into the air, his body like a rag being shaken as she lifted off the ground, over and over, terrified. But Terry held on. He held on with one hand, and with the other began tearing off his clothes and stuffing them into her wound. “GET A VET!” he shouted.
My mother ran the half mile to the farmhouse where there was a phone and called Doc Peterson to come out. By the time she made it back to the field, the horses were unhitched, both lying down. John and Terry hovered, wearing only their boxers, all of their clothes pressed into the wounds to stop blood flow. Doc Peterson eventually arrived and sewed up the horse’s chest. That night, Terry and his wife slept with the horse in the field because she could not be moved. In the end, the horse lived, the people went back to their lives, and my mother’s car was totaled.
The point of the story, as she tells it, is not primarily about the terrible violence, the clash of animals and technology, her folly for not not knowing to move the car, nor about her survival, but rather about Terry, the unflinching hero, who pushed past fear and hung on, his body being flung up and down, exhibiting the kind of courage love requires of us, the kind of endurance we must have.
I often wonder if I have that courage in me, and I like to think that I might be capable of doing what Terry did, but I have never had the occasion to save the life of a huge animal like that one. As a white woman living in a medium-sized city in the United States of America in this particular decade in the 21st century, the number of opportunities I have had to embark on acts of physical heroism are few. But being a person living on this planet in this particular moment in history when the earth is facing issues like climate change, species extinction, environmental injustice, and resource depletion, I do have the choice to enact a different kind of courage every day––which is the difficult choice of whether or not to love and to care about this planet and its inhabitants. Because loving others is risky.
Less than twenty-four hours after my daughter was born, we noticed her breaths becoming shorter and quicker, almost panting, her belly caving in each time the diaphragm worked to get more air. The doctors announced to me that she had a hole in each lung. Pneumothorax was the word for this particular kind of hole, a byproduct of her botched c-section. The air building up in her chest cavity outside her lungs would soon collapse them. There was a terrible moment as they explained this, that I so hate to admit to, when I began to disconnect, to distance myself, to steel myself for the potential devastation of losing her.
But then I looked at her again, a little being with perfect hands and guileless eyes, and lungs so new to air, now gasping for survival; my child. I forced myself to turn toward that vulnerability that is love and stood fast in my attachment to her, despite the fear that burned through my body. Luckily, I had chosen, to the confusion of my nurses, not to take any kind of painkiller after my surgery, so I was wide awake. I watched as they inserted all kinds of tubes into her tiny body, flattened her in an x-ray machine nearly a hundred times. For several days, I stayed by her little glass cabinet in the neonatal intensive care unit. I did not sleep. I thought she needed someone to be holding on, so I kept my hand on her and sang to her, over and over again, a little wordless lullaby my friend had once sung to me. A kind of mantra that kept me from coming unglued. My own incision seared when I moved––I was aware of it––but I knew I needed to stay. And eventually, thankfully, after many days, both of our wounds healed.
Loving something, caring for it, requires wading in with the whole heart splayed open. It is so easy to avoid caring, especially when it isn’t for something like your child. And it’s even harder when there is real work involved. My teenage son, whose life-long love for frogs has led me to meet frog experts, and frogs of many shapes and colors, and to learn the difference between the calls of bullfrogs and spring peepers, told me recently that he thought it might be too depressing for him to continue studying them. Around the globe, many frogs are facing extinction due to a host of human-made threats including habitat destruction, pesticide use, and climate change, as well as a deadly fungus called chytrid. He said he was afraid the frogs wouldn’t make it. I reminded him of our friend Devin Edmonds in Madagascar who was successfully breeding endangered frogs and of Brian Kubicki in Costa Rica protecting and rebuilding frog habitats. But inside I thought, of course, he’s afraid. Aren’t we all? No one wants to open themselves up to disappointment, to loss, to pain. So much simpler to remain detached, to avoid watching something suffer. I was certainly capable of it. But what if we all turn away?
I don’t own a horse, but I do keep honeybees. Like horses, their unique qualities have been harnessed by humans. Honeybees traverse our flowering fields, disseminate pollen, collect nectar and magically produce honey, one of the sweetest substances known to man. Naturally, humans learned to keep them. They currently pollinate one-third of all the food we eat. We depend upon their quiet labor. But I keep them for more than the honey and pollination services. I love watching them floating in and out of the hive, delving into blossoms and covering their furry bodies with pollen, and stroking each other’s birdlike faces with their antennae. I love the murmuring sound of a happy hive. But like frogs, honeybees are struggling.
Soon after I became a beekeeper’s apprentice, it became more and more clear that honeybees, along with many other pollinators, were in serious decline. They, too, are facing dangers that come from coexisting with humans, problems that stem from pesticide use, agricultural practices, diseases, and climate change. I have to admit getting overwhelmed, like my son, by all they were up against and thinking any effort to change these trends would be futile. Sometimes I still feel this way. But for the past several years, I’ve been searching for the Terrys of the bee world. I wanted to learn about what was destroying them and what was going to keep them alive. As I searched, I met a lot of heroes. I met scientists, urban farmers, beekeepers, artists, writers––people I never dreamed of meeting––who are working hard, and often risking a lot, to keep the bees humming and flowers blooming. There are many different ways to care about something when it’s not thriving, and sometimes healing takes much more than fixing a wound. Sometimes it takes changing our habits. Sometimes whole systems have to change. But the work of healing only happens when someone cares.
As I write these words, many beings on this planet are in danger, in need of care––frogs, honeybees, polar bears, salmon, elephants, and of course, so many humans who are affected by droughts, who need clean water, who need clean air, who need safe neighborhoods. Their problems will not always be so obvious or immediate as a bleeding horse or your own suffering child, but when we recognize these problems, when we are faced with them, we will need the courage to refuse that temptation to shut down and walk away, and instead to heroically open our hearts, to turn toward, and then to hold on.
Heather Swan has a Ph.D. in English with a CHE minor and an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her interests include environmental literature, environmental justice, animal studies, contemporary American poetry and fiction, post-colonial studies, visual studies, and insect poetics. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Cream City Review, Poet Lore, Iris, Basalt, and Green Humanities Review, and her nonfiction has appeared in Aeon, ISLE, and Resilience. Her book, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field, a work of narrative nonfiction about the interdisciplinary response to pollinator decline, is forthcoming from Penn State University Press. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is teaching environmental literature and writing. She is also a beekeeper.