Goodbye, our sweet friend

We will miss you, dear Acorn, and may we all live and die with as much courage, grace and love as you embodied

You will be missed, our dear, dear Acorn. You were a mighty force for love and carried on until your last day with courage.

Farming isn’t for the faint of heart. But it will teach you, often daily, just how beautiful and precious life is.

It is with great joy and a little sadness that I tell you that Acorn passed on last night after having a great (if hot) last day. He and his best friend, Andy, managed to escape chicken duty for one final romp around the farm. He was probably looking for a place to leave us —and he did so mightily, on his own terms, seemingly not in pain (thanks to the medications that we’ve given him with food 3x a day like clockwork since his bone cancer diagnosis). He has been walking on three legs for the past six weeks or so, and in the past two weeks not walking much at all, but he has been so happy for his frequent visits (even if he didn’t like getting the pills).

“Can you take them? My neighbor is about to shoot them.”

Acorn is a beautiful story of redemption and God’s bountiful grace and provision. He came to the farm 8 years ago as adolescent dog with his brother, Dots. A wonderful neighbor came to our old property (where the new Hawbridge School is being built now) and told us she found our “two white dogs.” I looked behind me and my two white dogs were where they belonged. I told the kind woman that those weren’t my dogs. She said, “Well, can you take them? My neighbor is about to shoot them.”

I had more than my hands full at the time. I was recently single, and Vivian was small. I was working 30 hours a week at the Saxapahaw General Store, while trying to move hastily from one farm to another after losing my lease, and having exactly zero infrastructure on the new farm (no roads, no paths for roads, no electricity, no barns, no fences, no water). Even the crazy animal-lover that I am, I said to myself, I can’t take these dogs. But I happened to have an empty outdoor dog cage near the old barn, and I told her that if we could easily corral them in the cage, that I would take them. Sure enough, they went right in. It was just as though they were supposed to be there.

Vivian and Huckleberry, one of the two “white dogs” we already had (Eva was the other) when Dots and Acorn arrived.

Vivian named them Dots and Acorn, and they remained in that cage for 6 months. I moved it every few days to fresh ground and they had shade and cover from the rain with a tarp, but that was all I had the ability to do. I tried to put them in the pasture with the sheep and chickens, and they started hunting both species and killed a few animals before I was finally able to catch them again (days later — they were nearly ferrel dogs). That’s that part about livestock guardian dogs that is challenging: they make painful mistakes when they are young. It takes a long time and a lot of patience to get them to be excellent dogs and then the best thing to do is have an older dog to train the younger ones, but that’s the kind of farm maturation that takes many years. Farming isn’t for the faint of heart.

The upside of their solitary confinement was that it tamed them. I was their only contact when I’d come in to feed and pet them, which they didn’t much like at first. But because they were in a small enclosure, they had to reconcile with me as their food provider. I don’t remember when it was exactly that I let them back out, or trusted them with animals, but neither of them did anything to any of their charges ever again. Dots went on to be the wandering dog of Saxapahaw, no fence/fortress/castle would keep him contained, so he just wandered on the farm, except during thunderstorms, when he would go to the village and fine a porch to get under (it’s not at though we didn’t have adequate barns for him to hide in by that time, but he was always convinced that he could flee the sounds, and nothing except a metal chain would keep him at home). He passed on a few years ago, unfortunately and tragically when he got himself in a bad situation in a storm with a chain. We spent literally hundreds of hours chasing that dog around hither and yon, trying to contain him, and he still died tragically. Farming isn’t for the faint of heart.

Dots, Huck, Acorn (in the way back, center, always the shiest one) and Eva lumbering along like the mountain of a matriarch that she was. This picture was take in August 2014, the first day they arrived on the new farm. All these dogs have now passed on.

It ain’t easy to become the A-team

When it was time for Eva to retire to the house yard (she died two years later after a beautiful and heart-warming retirement, read her story here), and after Huck had passed on, Acorn got Andy as his new pasture friend. He taught Andy about how to be a good chicken dog. I just think that’s amazing: the dog that used to hunt and eat chickens and sheep taught his new and younger friend how to be a good guardian. Maturity and wisdom bring peace and service to others.

And so it has been for years, Acorn and Andy together, with occasional visits from Charity, who has the same “I will not ever be contained even if you build a wall of stone to the sky” mentality that Dots had (it’s a common trait of these magnificent dogs), although she’s smarter about it, and stays home (unless another dog is out, then all bets are off!). The three of them went on a not-so-great adventure almost two years ago that ended in Andy getting hit by a car in a foggy storm. Three surgeries and a lot, lot of TLC later, he lives on, albeit with a significant limp.

Acorn, foreground, with his best friend and protege, Andy (left), under their favorite oak tree in Pasture 3.

If you haven’t gathered by now, containing these dogs is no small feat. They were bred to roam over hundreds if not thousands of acres and guard sheep in the Pyrenees and don’t take easily to confinement, even if that means a pasture fence with a hundred acres or more. The reason why Great Pyrenees are still the breed of choice for many small farms is that they are excellent with people and especially children, even though they are fierce protectors of their herds and flocks. Many livestock guardian breeds are not so good with people and work better on open range in the West, where they never have to interact with people.

As they get older and wiser, Great Pyrenees tend to stay put more. For lots of different reasons, we missed a few critical periods in some of their lives to get them to bond to their flock/charges as young dogs, and working with them as older dogs takes a lot more effort, and is prone to error.

We haven’t decided yet who is going to be Andy’s new partner, but he will get one for sure. 

Scenes from our little funeral for Acorn last night. He is buried in the pastures he guarded so loyally. And the heifers, Lorin the bull and sheep were attending. Wes graciously and skillfully dug the grave, while Pops looks on.

Farming isn’t for the faint of heart, but it does teach you how to live, every single day

The beautiful thing about life is that it goes on. Acorn’s funeral was simple and beautiful. It was one of the only times that I can remember that my family got together with just the four of us, Mom, Pops, Connor and me. For various reasons, all the people who didn’t grow up in our house in Long Grove, Illinois, couldn’t attend. So it was just us, the lovely Wes, and the animals grazing in the top of Pasture 12, where we chose to bury Acorn so he could look out over his kingdom. This was our first proper burial with a digging machine. We usually wear ourselves out with shovels and use a tractor or the skid-loader to dig, but neither are digging devices. Then we’ve had to cover up our shallow graves with many rocks to prevent wild critters or another dog from digging up the hole. Farming isn’t for the faint of heart. It isn’t always as pretty as the pictures, but it is always beautiful in its raw, living, breathing way — and even in dying.

After our simple and short ceremony, my mom put a cross made of sticks on his gravesite, and we all went back to our evening routines. There was so much peace on the farm last night as I checked the cows before bed. Simone and Cora, our two newest heifer mamas, both had their babies with them, Sylvie and Aiden. (It’s not uncommon to have to look for a new baby in the first week in the pasture to make sure we find it instead of the coyotes, as we don’t have sufficient fences for livestock guardian dogs yet on the side of the farm where the milk cows abide.)

Everything was just as it should be. And I could feel Acorn smiling down from the Great Pasture in the sky. 

The colors after Acorn’s burial were even more stunning than usual and the whole farm was infused with purple, the color of royalty.

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