News and Tribune

April 8, 2013

CUMMINS: Talking to the animals

Local columnist

— When you talk to animals, they don’t talk back and seldom bark or snarl at you. It’s tougher talking to people these days when most of them are texting, which does prevent hearing damage. Congress won’t talk to each other either, but they’ll debate. They’re going to debate our country into shutting down unless they sit and talk to each other, but the problem is that liberals and conservatives speak different forms of English, one New and the other Old.  

When I grew up on the farm, we talked to the animals — sheep, cows, horses, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, dogs, cats and the varmints running loose. It was lonely there at times, working in the elements of nature’s pure realm. I talked to the animals since I was with them as much or more than with my family and the neighbors and their kids. Many a day, I’d drive our horses, alone with them, mowing, hauling or plowing. Sundays were our talking time after being talked to at church. The neighbor boys would gather to play ball, and we’d talk through any dispute that might arise. Then we’d ride our bicycles to the country store for candy bars and cold soft drinks, and hurry back before milking time.

I’d sit there on the stool pumping away, and say, “easy now,” and the cows understood. Our work horses knew four words and some knew more. Giddup, whoa, haw and gee meant stop, start, bear left or right, and they knew. Old Bill would get in a hurry at times plowing through a row of corn. When I’d holler out in a certain way, “Slooow down Bill, slooow down,” he would. My granddad had a special way of calling his sheep. He’d look down over the hill and call out in a sing-song way, “Oh, sheepy, oh, sheepy,” and they’d come to him from under the bushes and the shade of the trees.

They came, because they trusted and depended on him, as did all who heard him. We depended on our animals, because they were our source of survival; and we were theirs. We worked year round to feed them, and they and the land provided the means of sustenance for all of us. We knew their nature and they knew ours. If you treat any form of sentient life in a gentle way, the response is more apt to bind all to its naturalness.  

My grandfather, who raised me, had a special way with his animals. He knew exactly how to care for them, an insight natural to him. In my book about him “Feed My Sheep,” I wrote that he always took care of all life around him first and then tended to his needs. We milked and fed the cows before we ate our meals. He’d get up in the middle of a cold winter nights to check on his sheep during lambing time. He’d ride Lady, his saddle mare, out to the fields every day to make sure his flock were well and safe. And I knew he’d make everything safe for me as best he could. I didn’t understand it at the time, but one way he made my life secure was by teaching me how to work, every day. I didn’t understand it at the time, but all his work was the kind that helped other people and improved his land to make it a better place.

One can’t go back to a former time and place, but I do, in my own way. If I were an artist, I’d paint that past and distant landscape, but I can return there using memory’s device. I can write about that idyllic life by moving my heart and mind back to that time and place. I see him ride out on Lady, to see if something needs help or repair. I follow him, and catch the clover-blossom scent and see the bees feeding there. It matters not the wind, sleet or the still sun’s bake. I’m immersed in the elements there with him and the enduring work in renewing the life force.

One can do worse than talking to the animals with a voice and a stroke that brings all things near. The saddest part — my children’s children won’t ever know. Their world is caught in too many “artificial” things. I worry about them, missing the connection that binds one to all natural things. The cyber world might be natural, but I doubt it.

— Contact Terry Cummins at