I have been thinking about the ways we teach young children how to interpret their sensory experiences. In doing so, we often teach them what to hate, what to fear, and, hopefully, what to remember with love. Here’s a case in point.
The first weekend in May last year I took care of my friends’ three-year-old daughter, Serafina, while her father helped with the branding at our neighbors’ ranch. For most of the morning her dad was inside the corral on his knees with a sharp pocket knife castrating the bull calves. Serafina and I squatted on the ground, observing the activity through the lowest rung of the pole fence. I noticed how careful I was to guide Serafina’s sensory experience. I am not a rancher, neither are Serafina’s parents, but we love where we live and respect cattle ranching. Not everyone does.
From Serafina’s perspective, the strongest sensory experience was the steady sound of bawling cattle. To me, it is a pleasant, familiar sound, whether at a spring branding or a fall round-up, part of the hubbub and the necessity of the occasion. At three and still so new to the world, Serafina was simply learning to associate the noisiness with a word, “cow.” Maybe when she is older she will join 4H, raise a steer, and, at the auction at the county fair, she will bear the ambivalence of sending to market the animal she has named and cared for.
We watched the calves being roped and dragged from the herd to the branding fire and then stretched taut by two riders, the header and the heeler. “It’s so they hold still,” I told Fina, wondering what she was thinking about what she saw, and then I remembered that “holding still” is something a wiggly three-year-old has begun to understand.
I watched her attention turn the trio of men intent on their work, kneeling around the outstretched calf, an image that has changed little in the West in the past one hundred fifty years. She could see her dad, whose steady hand gave him the task of cleanly removing the calf’s testicles. Each time one of the men skillfully pressed the hot branding iron, we got a whiff of calf hair and hide. I did not teach her to go “Eww” at the pungent smell.
When a cowboy stood to loosen the rope around a calf’s hind legs, I saw her eyes follow the wobbly calf as it ran back to the herd. “It’s going back to its Momma,” I told Serafina. She smiled at me with trust and understanding.
This spring four-year-old Serafina went to the branding with both her parents. I understand she spent the morning in the ranch house kitchen as her mom helped to prepare the branding lunch, always a festive event.
What Serafina doesn’t know, doesn’t need to know right now, is that she is privy to a way of life and livelihood that is under siege. This is from a recent article in Range magazine: “…today most cattle ranchers in the western US are…besieged by people who want the cattle off the public lands and, basically, want to discourage people from eating beef. Cows are bad for the land and beef is bad for your body, so they say.” There are animal rights activists who consider branding livestock cruel and barbaric, who shudder at the communal nature of branding, which brings friends and neighbors together to share the labor and to celebrate a good day’s work with the hospitality of food and drink.
Maybe a generation from now spring branding and fall roundup will be a memory for everyone. I hope not, for Serafina’s sake and for us all.