One community I’ve become a part of is Mare Stare – more particularly, the message board called Mare Stare Cams Foaling Alerts and Updates. The service offered by Mare Stare seems simple enough: Host streaming cams to watch over expectant mares (and donkey jennets and goat does and sheep ewes and, well, there hasn’t been an elephant – yet), so that the owners of said pregnant critters can keep an eye on them even when they’re not in the barn. The MS motto is “Because you can’t be everywhere...” and the front page describes their mission thus:
Mare Stare is a family — a community of cam owners and viewers who help each other share the miracle of birth. The camera owners graciously put their foaling barns on line for the world to see. In exchange, they get the watchful eyes of viewers from all over the world, who will call them as soon as their mare goes into labor.
As a reward for their vigilance, the viewers get to see the birth live. Then, they get to watch the foal stand for the first time, take the first drink of life-giving milk from its mother, and run, play, and grow stronger day by day, as many owners share the progress and development of their foals with our community.
It's a family relationship that breeds friendship, trust and love among people from all over the world, even though they may have never met in person.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the community that’s grown up around Mare Stare is as complex as any other human community, with its own mores, customs, lingo, and traditions. It’s determinedly positive, for one thing; even a hint of criticizing another person’s choices in breeding stock or foaling practices or animal care is simply Not Done. When a foaling looks to be going badly, one doesn’t say so outright; one simply offers prayers or jingles or wishes for a good outcome, or zips one’s virtual lips.
Joining that community was a bit of a culture shock. I came to it via another online community, one that prides itself on fiercely uncompromising bluntness, on argumentation over the tiniest of points, on clever snark and bristling confrontation; one that abhors smilies and sentimentalities, mocking them as abdication of articulate reasoning. A thread in the least serious forum there about one of the MS cam feeds sucked me in – horses! that’ll get me every time – and from there I found the MS message board.
Well! “Polar opposites” would barely begin to capture the chasm between my launching point and the place where I landed. I lurked for a while, absorbing the ethos of this new world, fascinated by the culture whose outlines and nuances I was sussing out. When I felt I’d figured things out well enough not to make a total idiot of myself, I joined (with a different identity, Janicket, than the persona known to the smartass board) and began to participate.
It was fun! It was rewarding – I made the alert-the-owner call that mattered a few times; once for a birth that would have gone badly had the owner not arrived in time. Did that make me feel good? You damn betcha! I mastered the art of the MS smilie palette; I saw births easy and hard; I saw foals that were up and exploring their new world quickly, others that struggled in their first hours of life.
And I saw death. I saw people fight heart-wrenching battles to save fragile foals. I saw people do everything in their power to preserve the tiny lives they’d hoped for, dreamed of, worked so hard to bring about, worked tirelessly to preserve, and were at the last powerless to save. I saw gut-wrenching struggles to save, if not the foal, at least the mare herself from the double tragedy of her death in fruitless labor. I saw the moment when hope was extinguished, when the life left the frail body, when mourners clung to each other over the shell of the vanished soul and wept in each other’s arms.
And it wasn’t all fun and games any more. It was, it is, quite literally, a community of life and death. I’ve been a part of this virtual world for about a year now, and while I never have and never will go through the birth of any animal of my own, I have come to appreciate just how stressful, how wearing on body and mind, how nail-bitingly suspenseful, how gloriously rewarding and horrifically devastating the process can be for all who go through it. The relentless insistence on positive interactions among MS members, I can see, is no mere Pollyanna pose; it’s vital to the wellbeing of the people who allow the world this glimpse into their lives.
I’ve been thinking about Mare Stare, its culture, its hold on me, for quite a while, puzzling out just why I have become so powerfully attached to the place. Then Sadie at Big Sky Farm went into labor. This is the thread that followed in realtime the unimaginable tragedy that unfolded: the hard-fought birth of a filly; the shocking, utterly unexpected stillbirth of her twin, a colt (horses don’t do twins! or, rather, very rarely they do; it’s even rarer for both or even one to survive); then the desperate struggle over the ensuing week to save little Athena, crippled in one hind leg by nerve damage but a gallant fighter, whose flicker of life dwindled despite all that could be done to nourish it. I was there, via cam, when the vet made the last merciful injection; I was there, watching, grieving, as her people embraced and wept over the filly’s body, as the cam went to black; though I’d felt from the outset that her chances were grim, still her death was a kick in the gut.
Why? Why did it hit so hard, why did it hurt so much? Why did I care? What’s it to me, that I should invest so much of myself into this event, this community, this pain?
The answer welled up, poured out into what I posted then in the thread and end this essay with:
Quote from: bigskyfarm on April 15, 2011, 06:08:50 pm
Kristen, the "person" of Sadie and Athena, asked that I post a heartfelt THANK YOU to all our wonderful friends here at MareStare. She appreciates your kind words and prayers during this long week.
We could do no less than offer our prayers, our heartfelt wishes for healing, and at the last our grief at your loss, for we have walked in your shoes; we have felt the wildly cresting waves of hope and despair sweep through us; we have ripped out a piece of our heart and sent it over the bridge with the beloved when hope was gone and only loss was left.
Whether it be a newborn foal or the faithful companion of many years; whether it be horse, dog, cat, donkey, or any other dear companion, I daresay there is no auntie on Mare Stare who has not looked into the abyss of sorrow confronting you now. My first horse, mine since he was 10, was crippled in a pasture accident at age 23. For a week we fought to save him, till he told us it was not to be, he could go on no longer; then I gave him the last gift that lay within my power, and released him to run free across the bridge. I had my heart’s companion for 13 incredible years; you had your darling Athena for only a week; yet I know you grieve as bitterly as I did, as I still do, for love is not measured in length of time together; love is, and the loss of the beloved cuts us all to the quick, cuts out a piece of us that departs with the departed and can never be filled.
We cling to, we cherish the memories, and when we see another suffer as we did, we suffer anew with them. And so it is that we here on Mare Stare followed Athena’s story so passionately, rode the swings of hope and despair as the days passed, and grieve now at her loss. Though we never knew her as you did, never knew the gift of caressing her beautiful face, of seeing the light of life and love in her soft eyes, still we mourn her passing, for it rekindles in us our own eternal pain, and we weep with you.