Dispatches From Bedlam Farm

By Jon Katz

Villard. 273 pp. $23.95

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Reviewed by Susan Balée

For The Inquirer

nolead ends We're in the dog days of summer, and only the Lab knows what to do: sleep. And swim. Then sleep some more. Humans can do one more thing: read. It doesn't tax the system and can be done in bed, between naps and dips.

Jon Katz has written the perfect summer book, based on his wonderful columns in the online magazine Slate. If you love animals, especially dogs, you need to check out these columns. If you want a more extended visit with border collies Rose and Izzy, Labs Pearl and Clem, Jesus the baby donkey and his herd, the flock of sheep, the rooster and chickens, the barn cat Mother, and Elvis the mammoth steer and his girlfriend Luna, then buy this book. You will not be disappointed.

Katz is a former journalist (he worked at The Inquirer, among other newspapers), who tired of his life in New Jersey and decided what he really needed was to chuck it all, move to a farm, and take care of animals. He did it, and began to document his life at Bedlam Farm in Upstate New York for Slate. "I write about my animals, and so, in a way, they are my crop; they do provide my living." However, "if the farm renews me, it also sometimes wears me out with its constant cycle of health and sickness, disruption and repair, life and death."

That's basically the thesis of this book, as simple as it is profound. Health and sickness on a beautiful spring day:

Yet the day was not proving as serene as I'd hoped. The Labs had found some dead thing the evening before, apparently, and whatever it was had taken a toll on their digestive systems. I awoke to a dreadful mess. . . . Lulu [a donkey] was limping, so I got out the hoofpick, knelt down next to her, and pulled a shard of rock out of her hoof. Thus distracted, I didn't notice the new ram, Rupert, scuttle up behind me and butt me. It wasn't too hard a blow, and Rose was on him in a flash and backed him right up, but lightning bolts shot up and down my vulnerable spine.

Disruption and repair:

Upstairs the barn became a cathedral, soaring to the equivalent of a three-story building . . . Sun streamed through two old-fashioned windows and through holes in the planks. . . . When the sun lit up the old post and beam ceiling, it looked to me like the Sistine Chapel in its weathered glory.

Anthony was less apt to see the poetry therein. "That barn is about to fall over," he announced. . . .

Life and death on the farm:

If my animals have taught me anything, it's that life moves along its own path, caring little about what we want or how we feel. Perhaps this is why dogs and other animals are so adaptable and stoic, why they seem to accept their fates while we humans struggle so bitterly to alter ours. . . . Some of us are here, and some of us are gone, but the Dog Days are back, timeless, greater than us and our insignificant lives, very different and very much the same.

The only moments when the narrative falters for me is when Katz attempts to impose a larger meaning on it. At various points, he refers to his lifelong feelings of anger and alienation and how living with the animals on his farm helps him to deal with these personal irritations. That leads to pseudo-epiphanies like this: "Belonging is largely internal, I've come to see, not only a decision by the outside world. I belong if I feel at home, if I'm comfortable with myself and what I'm doing. It's not for [other people] to decide if I'm an outsider or not; it's a matter for me." And this, on training dogs: "Anger does not work. It's not effective, not with people or with dogs. . . . Though the lesson is long overdue, I'm beginning to grasp this anger thing, and work hard to conquer it in the time left to me."

The book doesn't need this touchy-feely framework, and Katz is at his best when he's focused on the dogs and other animals. One of my favorite characters is hard-working border collie Rose. One stormy night, Katz finally discovers where she sleeps: in a spare bedroom, on a single bed with a window overlooking the sheep pasture. "Two or three rawhide bones lay scattered about along with, to my surprise, two or three of the stuffed animals that the Labs loved to march around with, and which Rose rarely deigned to notice. Privately, though, she'd been assembling a stash of bones and toys, along with two of my socks and a handkerchief. I half expected a bottle of whiskey and a nightstand photo of an old flame." This touching insight into Rose the dog is better than any human epiphany. It's why I love Katz's columns and this book, and why you will too.