“Absolute good and evil can exist as concepts, but we will never find them in human beings. We are all mixtures of varying proportions. None of us [even animals] is any one thing” – Derek Lin
Mules are somewhat of an enigma to many people—part horse and part donkey—these sterile long eared animals are the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. Beautiful like the horse, well muscled and strong, and sure-footed as a donkey, mules are excellent for packing supplies across challenging terrain, driving a carriage and pulling weighted sleds, pleasure and endurance riding. But for some folks –my sister in law included–there is something plain “weird” about an animal that cannot reproduce.
For Bruce the mules mean trouble on the farm. They eat native grasses allowing competitive grasses and weeds to flourish. Hence the farm has more than one hundred acres covered by tumble mustard, cheetgrass, and knapweed. Though the region supports a variety of wildflowers like the stunning yellow balsamroot—the mules have eaten the wildflowers, so blossoms are only seen dotting our neighbors’ meadows.
Bruce seems to expect the worst from the mules, and he gets it. “Stupid and a pain in the ass” are two phrases I’ve frequently heard him mutter when he is shooing the mules aside. They seem to know he doesn’t like them, and they act accordingly. Though we’ve had farm equipment, cars, trucks, and my gleaming orange Jeep parked at the farm, it’s only Bruce’s car that has been damaged by the mules. They tore off his windshield wipers, and weeks later they pulled off the rubber molding that attaches to the car above each tire. When Bruce was working on his huge wooden farm entry, the mules came at night and knocked the sixteen-foot posts off their foundation. Next morning when Bruce found the beams scattered and lying on the ground, he said, “Look what those stupid mules did.”
The mules also annoy Ouzel, Bruce’s favorite hunting dog. Whenever they get uncomfortably close, she lowers into her wolf-crouch and growls. She stalks them and usually her growl erupts into rapid fire barking. The mules have given her several warning kicks, but she continues her campaign. Last month she chased after them into the creek bottom and got cornered long enough for one of the mules to kick her in the head. The blow fractured her jaw and a bone above her right eye. I heard – “Those damn mules” once again, but it seemed to me the mules could have killed her had they wanted to. I’d say Ouzel was fortunate to have walked away. She might not be able to open her mouth wide enough to retrieve a duck this season, but at least she is alive.
The other problem Bruce has with the mules is he needs them—at least for now. Their presence on the land has allowed Wasco County Planning department to award us “farm status.” And, if we have a farm income, such as the income Mr. Habberstad’s twelve mules bring in, then we are allowed to build a home. Plus our tax status is lower, if we are a farm, which in the long run means more funds toward native plant restoration and building bird habitat.
Yesterday a neighbor came by while Bruce and I were fixing a fence, and she had a suggestion. The ridge above the farm is called Razorback Ridge, and the old road still visible up there was a stagecoach mail route. Connie said, “Why not call the farm Razorback Ridge?”
Later Bruce said, “Maybe we should name the farm after the historic route, but if it wasn’t for those damn mules . . . Let’s stick with Mule Springs ” I agreed, but not for exactly the same reason. I really like the mules.
I’ve told everyone – “the mules are very smart.” Although I grew up around horses, the mule has an intelligent though quirky personality I find more charming than that of a horse. Sure my horses enjoyed being groomed, and they often came running when I showed up with carrots, but they didn’t possess the intriguing complexity of a mule. The horses’ version of trouble would be to get caught in a barbed wire fence. A mule gets into trouble by unlatching a tricky gate and letting the herd into the lush upper pasture.
Last week I set my folding chair up in front of the old homestead and began reading the August issue of Audubon. The mules were grazing nearby, and before long they began to move my way. Instead of coming straight to me, they filed through the old house. Two of the mules stood in the living room and poked their heads through the broken out windows. The smallest mule named Little Boy griped a long sheet of ancient floral wallpaper in his mouth and waved it up and down before letting the paper sail to the ground. As other mules strode into the living room, and it became crowded, Little Boy walked out the front door. Skookum, my favorite dog, sat on the ground beside me. As the mules ambled closer, Skookum hid behind my chair and lay down. Unlike Ouzel, Skookum learned, when one of the mules gave him a soft kick in the ribs, to leave the mules alone.
The largest and friendliest mule I call Burtina. She approached and nibbled my hair and gently pressed her muzzle onto the top of my head as I tried to read an article about birding in South America. When I looked up from the article I was confronted by her massive sorrel chest muscles.
Nothing is ordinary about the way a mule does things. To be around a mule is to interact with a mule. Whereas a horse might stand with its tail swishing in the sun, a mule will explore its environment by entering in, walking through, jumping across, pawing, or by testing items with its mouth. Mules snort, nip, purse their lips, and they can produce a powerful kick backward, forward, and to the side with their hind legs. In addition, mules can jump vertically six feet in the air from a standing position. This feat is called coon jumping. When a mule gets excited it draws back its lips, lifts its head, and creates a sound that begins like a horse whinny and ends in a donkey bray (hee-haw). When I first heard the odd sound, I laughed out loud.
When Blackie came over and joined Burtina, I stood up and moved away from the shade of the elm tree into the bright sunlight. Although one gentle mule is fairly predictable, two mules vying for attention could be a problem. I didn’t want to be in the middle if they decided to nip and snort. I couldn’t read for long though, because I noticed Blackie exploring my daypack. It was lying on the ground beside the chair, and the black mule proceeded to unload it. First he took out my water bottle and dropped it in the dust. Next he gently picked out my salmon colored fleece and flung it aside. I knew the binocular case was next, so I walked over and said, “okay guys that’s enough.” Burtina and Blackie got the message and slowly walked back toward the house. I wasn’t going to get anything else done here today. I picked up my things and headed to investigate the barn restoration progress. Soon I heard a heavy clomp, and I turned to see Little Boy following close behind me. I stroked the soft whiskered skin around his nose and spoke to him. When he saw the mules moving up the valley, I took this as a cue to resume my path to the barn, and Little Boy trotted after his herd.
I know the mules won’t be here much longer, because the grazing agreement ends December 31st, and then we will have to find another source of farm income. Eventually we may have a small haying operation or we may allow animals to graze on the property for short periods. The mules have been grazing on the farm full time for four years, and they have done a lot of damage to the land. Having the mules has been a mixed blessing, and I will miss them when they go, but at least we have named our farm after them, and I won’t ever forget the distinct and interesting qualities of our “damn” mules.
Questions for readers:
Have you ever been around mules? What do you remember best about them?
When you think of a mule what comes to mind?