A Rare and Simple Gift

Connections at the Shaker Farm

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If you ever give small children a chance to name an animal, you will discover that they have an utter disregard for gender-appropriate names.

Every year during the Baby Animals Event at the Hancock Shaker Village Farm, we give children the opportunity to name a lamb, calf or chick. The result is delightfully unorthodox. Newborn animals have become “Batman,” “Cinderella” or, my personal favorite, “Mr. Superfluffy.”

It matters not to the little boy with the freckles that the baby chick he named Pecker should never be spoken of again. Nor does it matter to the blonde little girl that the bull-calf she named Princess Catherine will grow into 2,000 pounds of testosterone.

In their minds, both children have made the animals their own, and thereby have established a connection between their world and the world that provides wool, milk, eggs and meat—a world that all too many children this day in age have no familiarity with. This is where I come in.

Having lived at Shaker Village for several years now—I say “lived” because this is not work to me—I have witnessed moments that are “special connections.” Numerous families stroll through the barn and, though they do not live on farms, many older folks approach me with a flash of nostalgia in their eyes and tell me how the smell of hay and manure brings them back to their childhood on a dairy farm. The older folks remember, but the younger ones don’t know.

Most kids today don’t grow up on a farm. They sweep through our barn doors loaded with questions and eager to pet every creature in sight. Most have never seen a chicken, outside of a happy meal, and many are startled when they hear what a “moo” or “quack” sounds like in real life. I answer questions ranging from “Will the lamb peck me?” to “Are the cows real?” and “Are those the chicken’s paws?” Other times, I don’t need to answer. The child’s grandmother catches up to us. She tells me that this farm is identical to the farm she grew up on. She takes her grandson to the calf and shows him the “secret spot” to scratch under a cow’s neck to make its eyes roll back in bliss. They both laugh, and for a moment, the generation gap isn’t so much of a gap anymore. A connection is shared.

The strongest connection at the village threads back to the Shakers. Spring on their farm meant raising new animals to replenish their herds. It meant pork, beef, milk, eggs and sweaters for the coming year. Spring meant that one of the brothers would coax a boar inside the sow’s pen to breed her at the right date. Spring meant cute baby piglets, but it also meant self-sufficiency: the very core of simplicity and everything the Shakers stood for. Their quintessential song said it best: “Tis a Gift to be Simple,” but the Shakers could not realize how very rare of a gift it would be for later generations.

We are now so far removed from our food source and from the very animals that keep us alive, with each generation moving further and further. This summer, bring your child to the farm at Shaker Village and give them the simple gift that the Shakers understood so many years ago. It will set them free.

Laura Field is a writer who grew up on a small farm in Cheshire, Massachusetts. She works at Hancock Shaker Village, where she is a farm educator, animal handler and oxen trainer. Over the years, her comical encounters with the farm critters in her life have led to a growing fascination with the animals, she someday hopes to open her own educational farm.

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