Ok, Anthony Bourdain I ain't, but we'll get to that later. For now, let's just say that I enjoy new experiences. Learning isn't something that should be tossed aside with age or indifference or fear. In my opinion, ceasing to learn is equivalent to crawling under a rock and waiting for the grim reaper to appear, scythe in hand.
Maybe it was this curiosity (or some say my propensity for boredom) that caused me to have an abundance of careers. Careers that shaped me into who I am at this point in time.
My time spent mucking through at the car wash, animal shelter and naval reserve taught me humility, hard work and respect.
My time in the computer world taught me confidence. No matter the task at hand, it could be done and done well. Ok, except the Lan network. That one pretty much did me in.
My time in film and television production taught me patience, work ethic, team work, how to think outside the box ... way outside the box (remember the Stallone truck incident, Jasmine?) ... and did I mention patience? I also learned that being severely sleep deprived wouldn't kill you. Okay, there was that time leaving Whistler. Maybe I should have just skipped past the film portion of my life entirely!
My time at Coast Guard taught me that helicopters are not my enemy, that it takes a diverse, eclectic, awesome group of people to live an isolated lifestyle and that no job is too big to tackle. Not even a cluttered warehouse with dust bunnies the size of Cuba or the request to write a 'How to be a Lightkeeper' manual.
But I think it has been my time in the photojournalism world that has brought me the most rewards. Every story I was asked to write or photo I was asked to take led me to some other world, each with its own set of challenges, drawbacks, naysayers or fans. From a new security pen invented by Frank Abagnale of 'Catch Me If You Can' fame to air ambulances to Afghanistan memorials to five-year-long submarine refits, there wasn't an article I wrote or a frame I captured that didn't teach me something.
Now that I am semi-retired and focusing more on fine art photography I have to work harder at keeping my learning curve arched. But moving to small-town Manitoba hasn't hindered the opportunities whatsoever. I haven't made it to the snake pit yet, nor have I wandered the sand dunes in decades. But I did get an eye-opener when it comes to the not-so-obscure practice of bull castration!
The day started around 11am with a trek through mud-plastered back roads the likes I have never seen. Thank you Shelley for allowing me and my camera bag room in the farm truck as I'd still be a quarter mile up that road crying. Country gals really can do pretty much anything, can't they?
Most of the ropers chose to saddle up back at the farm and ride to the pasture instead of tackling the mud. This gave the ground crew time to unpack the food (there is always food, no matter what the job), turn on the generator to make coffee, haul out some lawn chairs, stake four calf-catchers inside the corral - okay I didn't get the official name - and start weeding out the calves by size. The larger ones can't be roped and dragged for fear of injury to horse and human. They are run through a chute individually by the "team behind the fence". I didn't venture back there for fear of the electric fences and the hooves of frightened calves. Besides, there was enough going on in my immediate vicinity.
For a herd of close to 400, the day went remarkably fast.
The ropers arrived shortly after the coffee light indicated it was perked so most grabbed a steaming black cup and the traditional rhubarb muffin before saddling up and heading into the corral. The first rope was tossed about 11:30.
The process is quite simple and yes, I did feel sorry for the poor, cute little calves who had been separated from their mothers overnight but days like today wouldn't be needed if the FDA and consumers didn't dictate that it be done. I'd equate it to the inoculation and circumcision of baby boys. I could be wrong, but I doubt that many boys remember much of either. (For a better explanation, I came across a blog that I felt was clear and concise - http://agricultureproud.com/2011/05/12/why-castrate-cattle/
Once the calves were roped, they were dragged a few feet to the 'calf-catcher' which looked like a large, bent, thick, wire coat hanger that kept the calf's head held down, sometimes with the aid of several young, eager boys and always with the rope held taut by the cowboy.
A metal tag was placed in the ear for identification, two injections were given, and the calf was marked with two colours to confirm receipt.
The unlucky buggers who had horns, and they were few and far between, had them burned off.
Then the sex was determined. The heifers were finished with their unpleasantries and dragged or shooed off to the eastern pen, but the young bulls were about to endure two minutes of more discomfort. Only a lucky few would keep their 'bullhood' entact. A woman no man should annoy was called for each bull calf found. Arriving with purple bucket and sharp knife in hand, she would snip and pull until the job was complete. Fast and efficient, but every time I watched it made me shutter. Bull becomes steer.
Somewhere around 6:00 the crew began packing up, cleaning up and getting ready to tackle the mud back to the farm for supper.
Just before nightfall the fire was blazing, the coolers were stuffed with pop, juice, water and beer. One table was loaded with food in the manner I've become accustomed to since moving back to the prairies. The other was gloriously adorned with different coloured, textured desserts.
After the feast, some sat, drinks in hand, leaning back on plastic chairs at the river's edge and chatted. Others with chores of their own to do, loaded up horse trailers and headed for home. The kids continued with the frog-chasing and other made-up games until the highlight of the evening took place.
This is where Anthony Bourdain comes in. He travels the world and seeks out foods from all walks of life. He lives to eat anything and everything unusual. Me, on the other hand, am pretty much a meat-and-potatoes girl. Regular meat, that is. Prairie oysters? Not so sure.
With the fire dying down and the white cinders giving off the perfect heat, the lady with the purple bucket and sharp knife went to work once again. She washed the bull's testicles that she had gathered in the bucket. She snipped off the funny bits and cut them in half to stop them from bursting in the heat. Then she coated them in a flour and spice mixture along with mushrooms and onions and handed it to Randy to cook over the fire.
I assumed that this would be an event for the adults, as most children I know seem to be picky eaters. I was wrong. The sizzling pan was like a beacon drawing them from every direction. All grabbed for the toothpicks and stood at the ready. I watched as everyone dug into the pan and popped the 'oysters' one by one into their mouths. My husband ate two before handing me half of one on the end of his toothpick. I stood frozen, hoping no one would notice my resistance. But that wasn't going to happen in a crowd like this. There was shouts of encouragement, calls for a rope to tie me down and force feed me and even the five-year-old telling me I couldn't bite off small pieces, I was to pop the whole thing in my mouth at once and chew. So, wanting the full experience of bull castration day, I ate my half of some poor bull's testicle. Would I have it again? No. Did it taste like chicken? No. More like a chewy oyster without the flavour. But I was proud of myself for at least trying it and not looking like a wuss in front of an adorable cowboy-boot wearing, pig-tailed five-year-old girl.
Two things will stay with me about the day. First, the freedom of the kids to be kids. Before the crew was ready to start work, the kids climbed fences, tossed logs, chased frogs, rode horses and laughed, totally ignored by the adults and left alone to play. Once the work began, they all had a job to do and they did it with pride and determination. I didn't hear one of them cry, argue or complain. When they got tired, they would spell each other off and tackle a different chore. And some of these kids were only five years old! Also, the patience of the adults to teach each job to each child was a pleasure to watch.
Second, how welcome my husband and I were made to feel, even though we were totally and completely out of our element. Our many questions were answered, we were given easy jobs to do and no one looked at me alarmingly when I pointed my camera in their direction. Well, except for Leon!
So thank you, Shelley, Randy, and the gang. It was an amazing way to spend a day! I can check another thing off my purple-bucket list!