On the Other Side of the Fence

“If something doesn’t quite seem right, your eye will fall on it… Because it’s a pattern that’s totally different from the pattern you expect to see.”

– Danielle Moser

Three years ago, I moved to a rented home close to Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. There are many histories that shaped this land, but in the context of this interview, I focus on the more recent agricultural practices that now dominate the surrounding landscape. The Dickinson College Farm is my next door neighbor. 

My home and the farm, seen here in an aerial view of the area. The Yellow Breeches Creek snakes along the image’s lower third towards the village of Boiling Springs, PA. Satellite photo edited by Mo Geiger.

In what started as serendipity, I have been on lamb-watch and sometimes bottle-feeding duty on the farm for the past two spring seasons. A vastly under-skilled but convenient choice for this role, I jumped into it. A portion of my artwork involves fibers, textiles, and textile-related processes, so this was a new link in the fiber supply chain to explore. Following this initial interest, the lambs became part of a ritual I perform while air warms and soil thaws. I jump over the fence to check on members of the flock, look for new or struggling lambs, and bottle-feed with warm milk formula. The process offers clarity through repeated tasks meant to sustain a life—efforts that aren’t always successful. Later, during this ongoing period of global mourning, working with the lambs remains a way to navigate survival, loss, and care. Having never spent much time with livestock before this, my concern has expanded from a personal realm into something more communal: specifically, I wonder how this experience resonates among members of my community for whom agriculture is a way of life. Symbiosis is a spectrum, and exploring agricultural relationships can make the complexity of interconnection more visible.

Originally, I got to know Danielle, a livestock apprentice, artist and aspiring veterinarian, by name and not by face—she was another person caring for the sheep. Time with other people in the pastures is limited, especially now during the pandemic. Even so, the act of caring for these animals feels like social dialogue. Lamb feeding instructions come in the form of text messages, notes left on kitchen counters, unfamiliar tools, empty soda bottles, and plastic numbers on tiny, floppy ears. The following conversation is an initial survey of ideas that come to mind when I examine this work, along with potential connections to expand upon. 

The two of us spoke while walking around Carlisle, PA, where Danielle lives. It’s a fifteen minute drive north of Boiling Springs and the farm.

Mo Geiger: So I was thinking the other day—the lambs are going to kind of book-end COVID, which is a crazy thing.

Danielle Moser: True, right? Hopefully.

Mo: Yeah, and it might continue, obviously, will probably continue. I was wondering if, in caring for animals on the farm, you think about time differently?

Danielle: I think it works almost, at least for me, in the same exact way as it will probably work for Will (the farm’s vegetable manager) and people in vegetable production. When you’re working with animal husbandry and there’s a reproductive cycle to keep track of, that totally influences the concept of a year. Seeing the year in terms of seasonality is so different, the more I’ve worked with animals. Working with the reproductive cycle as a career, definitely, you start thinking of time differently in that way. And with the lambs: the time, really the timing, can be so important, as we’ve seen before: you mis-time [things], then you suffer and your animals suffer. 

Mo: Right.

Danielle: You know, Will might think of July and think of whatever vegetable he’s putting in the ground. I think of July and think, maybe we’ll probably be done calving by then.

Mo: Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to farms or to livestock? How would you trace that in your own life?

Danielle: Sure. Yeah, in my case, my only farming history is that my mom grew up in Lancaster [Pennsylvania]. And so whenever we’d visit my grandparents, we’d always be driving through the farms. My mom was always involved in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) stuff when we were younger, so I also had that kind of knowledge that such a thing existed. Then, I started volunteering at [animal] shelters and got interested in veterinary medicine. And everyone I talked to was like, oh yeah, sure, small animal vet, but you should really look into being a food animal vet, because that’s what we need right now. Everyone’s always talking about the deficit in food animal expertise. Then, I was studying chemistry, [and] at that point, I was like, I don’t think I’ll probably be a vet. Got interested again, and that was a big reason why I came to Dickinson and then just found that I preferred working with the sheep and cattle.

Mo: You make artworks in addition to farming and raising livestock. Can you describe that connection?

Danielle: I think part of my interest in medicine is because it’s so visual. Farming, for me at least—I definitely see it as a visual thing. And observing these animals, observing their anatomy. For example, one time I did a camp. It was a session of going to University of Penn’s small animal hospital and touring the pathology lab. And the veterinarian showed a slide of a tissue sample. And I was looking at it as a piece of art. I was like, This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! Some of the visual anatomy and stuff like that. And even, you know, when you see a butchering done—I mean, the act of butchering I’m not particularly attached to, I’m still a vegetarian—there’s a lot to be explored there.

“JJ the Sheep” print by Danielle Moser

Mo: And you have kind of a kinship with the sheep, right?

Danielle: Yeah. And chickens. We got chickens when I was in high school, which got me interested in veterinary medicine in that way again too, because well, their anatomy is really cool, but I also just got such a kick out of their personalities and practicality.

Mo: Do you feel like while you were learning how to take care of livestock animals, that you had already done some of that physical learning beforehand? Or did it feel like a new process?

Danielle: I’d say a new process. Because that’s what it is with every animal we work with. It’s just so weird to conceive [of the fact] that these animals eat grass, or hay or something, when you’re so used to kibble, or wet food, or whatever. When it’s time for the animal to eat, and you chuck in a bale of hay—it’s definitely a change.

Mo: Right.

Danielle: This is a contention that I have with a lot of people who say that cows are just big dogs, or that horses are just big dogs. They’re just so different. And that changes the way you check if there’s a problem. Like—are they behaving normally for that species? If your dog is being more fearful than usual, they might have an injury, right? But if you look at a cow that way, if the cow runs away when there’s a loud noise, it’s because it’s a prey animal—that’s what they do. So, noticing behavioral changes, seeing what’s normal versus what’s not, that’s definitely a totally different thing, too. I’d argue that recognizing those discrepancies in behavior, or overall state, definitely is an everyday part of taking care of them. Checking to see: are they all ok, is anyone sticking out? Because you don’t want that, for sure.

Mo: So there’s an element of looking at the individual and looking at the group at once?

Danielle: It’s a lot of, at least for me, I’ve always enjoyed trying to see… You know, like those pictures where you have to search and find what’s different from the two pictures? Yeah, I always liked that kind of thing. Or doing jigsaw puzzles. And, when you check on the animals, if something pops out at you, you look closer. Because this individual that’s kind of making themselves obvious in a way—there might be something that’s abnormal.

Mo: So, you’re kind of constantly searching for changes. Does that describe the process?

Danielle: Yeah, or just… like almost errors in a pattern, you know?

Mo: Oh, that’s so interesting. Yeah.

Danielle: If something doesn’t quite seem right, your eye will fall on it. So if there’s an animal that is limping, you fall on it pretty quickly. Because it’s a pattern that’s totally different from the pattern you expect to see.

Danielle and the cows, May 2020. Photo by Matt Steiman.

Mo: Has taking care of animals and looking for patterns in that way changed the way you interact with people? Or does it change your observation in worlds where animals aren’t around?

Danielle: It’s definitely influenced my own understanding of my ability to do that. And recognizing that as kind of like a skill, or something like that. It’s hard to say. I think a lot of people get into taking care of animals because maybe they don’t read humans well, or, as well. Taking that knowledge and applying it to humans isn’t something that I’ve done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done.

Mo: Sure, sure. And I wonder too, because I do work with textiles, there’s this preconception that the concept of care is playing a role, and there’s this feminine exploration happening. And sometimes I think care is [seen as being] limited to that scope: a delicate, care-ful sort of thing. I wonder if you, in your experience, have had to deal with that idea.

Danielle: Like the femininity attached to the nurturing aspect of animals?

Mo: Yeah.

Danielle: Yeah, I’d say I definitely relate to the nurturing. I don’t always relate to the female aspects. But that’s just me as an individual. When I was trying to visit a farm to come out and do some work for them, the one person who I knew had worked with them before was like, Oh, yeah, she only likes women to come by, because men go about livestock in a different way. So in some ways, the women in livestock may be stronger [workers] because of that attachment and nurturing things. Or if such a relationship exists, it might exist in some people, and their female identity has influenced their nurturing interest.

Mo: So that comes up? The gender difference?

Danielle: Yeah, and the whole gender difference thing can really mess you up if you’re trying to find opportunities with some more conservative, male livestock people. And that goes back to stereotypes of you know, women getting overinvested or physical strength being a barrier. I was warned by a veterinarian on both being a woman and being young: “You’re going to encounter difficulties.”

Mo: And then wanting to work with large animals. Yes, right.

Danielle: But it’s funny because you think, [in] livestock animal husbandry, so much of the emphasis—or basically all of it—is on the female animals.

Mo: Yeah!

Danielle: That sexuality is so inherent to it. And yet, it’s dominated by men who, you know…

Mo: Who actively exclude women for these preconceived reasons.

Danielle: Yeah. So I wonder if [the bias] has an aspect of preserving your, you know…

Mo: [Laughs] Vessel-like nature?

Danielle: Exactly. And if they view animals solely through their reproductive capacity, I wonder if that influences how they’re going to view a woman. Just on that basis.

Twin lambs in the spring of 2020, born the previous day to a recently sheared ewe. Image by Mo Geiger.

Mo: So, this pandemic is happening, and we’re surrounded by an awareness of life cycles and death in a way that I don’t think, um, the vast majority of people expected…

Danielle: [People] who are outside of farms?

Mo: Yeah! and that’s a huge part of raising anything on a farm, right? This constant awareness of death and life cycles? And now, more people feel that in a way that’s not always been so obvious. 

Danielle: So going back to some of the really conservative people and livestock… [They] will put a lot of work into saving an animal, and when the animal doesn’t make it, they’ll say, “The Lord decides when it’s their time to go. He takes them.” And I’ve heard some of this used by people in regards to anti-masking. In the really conservative spheres that don’t want to wear masks, they will be like, “Oh, if the Lord wants us to get COVID, we’ll get COVID. And if it’s our time to go, we’ll go.” [I am] seeing that kind of selective attachment—or dis-attachment—to life and value in that way. Or, chalking it up to fate, or a higher power. I’ve given some thought to the way that conservatives view life and death in that way, how they’ve applied it to COVID, and losing animals.

Mo: I wonder too, if there are things that can be dug up from the knowledge of raising livestock. Are there things to take away from this experience that we’ve all had over the last year, and what are the connections?

Danielle: Unfortunately, I think in some ways, there’s a connection that can be made absolutely with the divide in the country. 

Mo: Right. Because this kind of care is becoming so distant from people—it’s not so much in front of our faces— it’s happening behind the scenes to a certain extent. Has the idea of care changed as a result?

Danielle: As a result of COVID?

Mo: Well, and also everything that led up to it. You know, economies pushing our awareness of raising animals further and further to the edges.

Danielle: Right. I mean, it’s funny, because I feel like a lot of small farms: smaller, sustainable ag farms… Business-wise, they might have done a little bit better than usual. I think that was solely because of the interruption of supply chains. Which is entirely a result of economic stuff.

When you interrupt the status quo [and] shake it up a bit, what tumbles out? You definitely look at it differently. What’s left behind? What survives?

Mo: Being a vegetarian and participating in this kind of relationship building—does pursuing a relationship [with food animals] feel ancient? Like: this is the only way to have that kind of relationship today?

Danielle: You said, does it feel ancient?

Mo: Yeah.

Danielle: It’s super interesting that you said that. The one time where I felt like I kind of understood, a little bit more, the connection that you can have with an animal and yet still do this thing, too, was when Hamid came to the farm. He lives in Lancaster; he’s an Arab Israeli who came to the U.S. His family—they have a shawarma stand. He does a lot of meat stuff,  particularly with lamb and mutton. First of all, the method: they exsanguinate, [but] they don’t stun or anything. And I’m the most secular person I know, but in some ways, I think religion is the perfect way to bridge that gap. There’s so much imagery around harvesting animals, and lambs. Sheep are so common in the Bible and the Qur’an. So many ancient texts describe the relationship between humans and sheep.

Mo: Yeah.

Danielle: He opened up the actual process with, first of all, he was insistent that no one take pictures. Because it was a sacred thing. Which Matt (the farm’s livestock manager) requested as well, the one time I saw a sheep harvest before this. 

Mo: Yeah, you’re watching a death.

Danielle: Right. And it’s like… to document that with pictures… I don’t know. I’ve gotten into debates about it with other people who are like, if you can’t take a picture, should it exist? But he also prefaced it with: “This animal is a gift from God, and we are telling God that we accept his gift.” Maybe it was his sincerity that was palpable, but I thought that was a really cool perspective to have. 

Mo: Yes. 

Danielle: And it’s clear that there’s an attachment between [human and animal] as well, right? A “care.” But ultimately, consumption. In some ways, I’m jealous that I can’t quite practice religion in that way. I kind of severed my ties a long time ago.

Mo: I have a similar relationship with religion: [being] somewhat in awe of its power to be able to do that kind of thing. But having shed it many years ago, it’s kind of interesting to be able to have that separation, where maybe you can observe how it can be practiced that way.

Danielle: Right. To have it without any sort of lens. But then again, a secular perspective can be seen as a lens, too.

Mo: I guess it’s all lenses.

Danielle: Yeah. Gotta have bifocals, I guess.

We all gaze at the horizon sometimes. Image of a lamb on pasture at the Dickinson College Farm, by Danielle Moser.

Mo Geiger (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist and graduate student in Art+Social Practice at Portland State University. See more of her work at mogeiger.com.

Danielle Moser (she/her) is a second-year Livestock Apprentice at the Dickinson College Farm in Boiling Springs, PA. She is also an artist and aspiring veterinarian in food animal medicine. See more of her work here.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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