Sunday, March 26, 2006

Lessons from daffodils and tulips

When I decided to "force" spring bulbs this season, I did it simply because I didn't want the unplanted bulbs to be wasted. I love flowers, and at least I'd be able to enjoy them if I planted them in pots. I didn't do it as any type of learning experiment. Indeed, I would never have guessed that I could learn anything from spring bulbs. That looks funny even as I write it! I've had spring bulbs in my garden for years. If they had any lessons to teach, I'd have learned those lessons long ago. Right?

But who among us has not learned something new about a person when we had the opportunity to live with them, even if for a short while? Living with my tulips and daffodils has taught me a lot, not only about the flowers, but also about life. They've reinforced the idea that patterns in nature repeat themselves over and over again -- and I'm not talking about patterns that can be seen with the eye. These are patterns that can be felt with the heart and quantified with the mind. Several days ago (am no longer sure if it's been three or four days), I noticed the daffodil in the vase above the kitchen sink was starting to open. One petal of the flower was starting to peel away from the rest of the bud. Every time I went back to the kitchen, I glanced at the bud, hoping it was open a bit more, but even today there is still just that one petal that is slowly peeling away from the rest of the bud. Then last night, I walked into the living room to find another daffodil starting to open. Three petals were unfurling, and I could see the beautiful pink cup in the middle. A part of me wanted desperately to reach up and gently peel away the other three petals, to make the flower bloom so I could enjoy its beauty immediately! But I knew that would ruin it. If I tried to force it to move faster than nature intended, I would destroy all its beauty.

I remembered my first experience with hatching chicken eggs in an incubator. Almost everyone tells you that you cannot -- you must not -- interfere with the hatching process. Even after the chick has pipped the egg, you cannot help it by peeling away parts of the shell. I read detailed explanations from a variety of farmers around the country on Internet groups who said that if you don't let the chick force its way out of the egg, it won't have the stregth to survive. They say that the hatching process itself is vital to the chick's health. Then there are a very few who say that it's okay to help if you see that a chick hasn't made any progress in a couple of hours. Maybe the shell is too dry, and the chick is stuck. You see, the chick has to spin around in the shell 360 degree, breaking the shell as it slowly turns. If the humidity in the incubator isn't high enough, the inside of the shell might be too sticky for the chick to turn.

It seems that this desire to "help" increases as you move further up the food chain. While probably everyone would agree that you shouldn't help a flower bloom, a few people think you should help chicks hatch. Even more think we humans need to help livestock give birth, and the desire to "help" increases as the animal's value increases. The funny thing is that when the various protocols are researched, it often turns out that "helping" does more harm than good. A study was recently released about lambing. Conventional wisdom would say that lambs born in the barn, who have their umbilical cords neatly cut and their navels dipped in iodine, would have lower mortality, especially when someone is also there to make sure they start nursing properly. The study actually showed that lambs born under such conditions had a higher mortality rate than those born in the field with no "help" at all.

Once you move all the way up the food chain to humans, the desire to "help" with birthing is so strong that almost one in three American babies is now born by cesarean, even though studies have never shown that they are saving lives with a cesarean rate any higher than about 1-2%. My despair about the total lack of respect for women's body and the birth process was what pushed me from the field of childbirth education and labor support almost 10 years ago. The irony is that while I was regarded as radical in my views with human birth, I am learning now that even I didn't have enough respect for the birthing process.

Last year, we had a ewe whose placenta did not come out after a few hours. I knew that in humans, most doctors would manually remove the placenta after an hour, if they waited even that long. I called a vet, who said that it was a problem, and I went to her office to get a syringe with oxytocin, an artifical hormone that should cause the uterus to contract and expel the placenta. I came home, gave her the shot and waited. An hour passed and still no placenta. I posted a message on the sheep board, expecting to have to at least one or two breeders yelling at me for waiting so long (several hours) before doing anything. Instead, they were reassuring me that everything would be fine. One woman said she had a ewe who dragged around the umbilical cord for almost a week before finally passing it. She said there was a slight risk of infection, so I could give her a shot of antibiotics if I wanted to be safe. It wasn't easy, but I followed the advice to let nature take its course. Six days later, the umbilical cord was gone, so we assumed the placenta had finally come out. Obviously nature had taken care of everything, because a year later, that ewe is still walking around and looking pregnant for this spring's lambing. I told this story to the son of a dairy farmer, and he was shocked that I didn't have the placenta manually removed. I don't think it's a coincidence that a dairy cow is worth 4-10 times as much as a sheep.

I am continually amazed at all the lessons life has to teach us. We just need to open our minds to the possibility that we do not know as much as we think we do. We have to turn off the voice in our head that is telling us we have all the answers, simply because we are human. How ironic that it is considered an acceptable excuse for making a mistake to say, "I'm human!" when we use that exact same explanation to assert our dominance over the universe.

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