horse stall book cover

Book Club at the Barn: Lessons in Chemistry

horse stall book cover
Book discussion

Interspecies Communication

Last week my horse, Lucida, colicked. If you aren’t familiar with horses, this is a generic term for a stomachache that can result in a number of outcomes ranging from medical intervention at the barn to having to undergo surgery for an obstruction or twisted bowel. And death. When my mare’s back legs crumpled and she tried to go down and roll, it was time to make an emergency call to the vet.

Thankfully, a rectal exam (spare you the details), a gallon of treated fluids sent through a tube up her nose and into her stomach, and a shot to calm the painful gut spasms did the trick. She had a trapped pocket of gas. We will probably never know why. That’s the thrill of horse ownership…sometimes you never know.

What does this have to do with the popular book, Lesson in Chemistry?

Well, not knowing if Lucida was out of the woods, I was compelled to go check on her late that evening and sit for a while to make sure there were no repeat signs of colic. As I headed out of the house to the barn, at the last minute I grabbed the novel my book club was to be discussing that night: Bonnie Garmus’s Lesson in Chemistry. Perched on a bale of pine shavings in a barn at night—just me and a few horses—was a magical place to be. Every noise  became clearer, the air moved more softly on my skin, and time slowed to just the present. I decided to read to Lucida like the kids read to shelter dogs in various community programs. I hadn’t read aloud since I was in grade school. Lucida pricked her ears but continued munching hay.

When I got to one of the sections in the book from the dog’s point of view, her head came up and she looked amused. Her nostrils stretched wide and she rolled her eyes.  I asked her if she doubted a dog could learn several hundred words in English. Yes, I was talking to a horse in the middle of the night.

“Big deal, a few words,” she replied. (Bear with me, dear readers, and suspend disbelief over a talking horse.) “Words are easy. What’s much harder is learning thousands of individual, minute shifts in weight and other signals from a rider in dozens of combinations that all mean something different. Now that’s impressive language learning skills.”

I had no idea my horse was such a species elitist. But she was right. The body language spoken between horse and rider is intricate, and when performed at the highest level, verges on nearly telepathic communication.

Lucida snorted. “As for words, we know all those, too. Walk, trot, can-ter! And don’t get me started on the weird noises. Cluck, kiss… Then there’s the words some horses like to get humans to say. Oh, shit. Whoa, goddammit. We know those, too.”

What’s Patriarchy to a Mare?

She went back to nibbling at her hay with an aura of superiority about her. So, I decided to challenge her with a more complicated issue regarding the book.

“What’s your take on the theme of patriarchy in the story?” I thought I might trip her up here, knowing that horses socialize in groups of mares with usually one stallion. That sounds like male dominance to me.

She abandoned her hay and hung her head over the stall gate. “What’s patriarchy?”

“Well,” I fumbled with my phone, looking for a concise description. “It used to mean a system wherein the head of the family is traced through the male line, but now it’s changed. It mostly refers to a society in which men hold the power, using it to their advantage, and women are largely excluded, discriminated against, or forced in subordinate roles. Like in the book, Elizabeth is smarter and more capable than most of the other chemists, yet she is belittled and squeezed into a more acceptable, stereotypical role for a female.”

“That’s stupid as well as counter-productive. All men treat female humans in this manner?” she asked.

“No. Not at all, but old systems are hard to break. Sadly, too, some women treat other women this way as well. They try to pull an individual back down if they climb too high.” I thought of Miss Frask in the novel. A bitter woman whose own dreams had been crushed and who was now out to destroy any other woman who had a chance of succeeding.

Lucida shook her head. “Humans. What nonsense. We have a better system.”

“C’mon, I’ve seen mares fight each other. It’s not pretty.”

Girl Power, Mare Style

“Yes, but the leader of the herd is usually an older mare. Not the youngest, sexiest one that you humans seem to value. The leader maintains her dominant role even if she may be physically weaker than others because she has had more experience, survived more threats. The main requirement of the lead horse is not strength or size. Sure, dominance is established through some aggression, but mostly through attitudes that let the other mares know she expects to be obeyed. I know this personally.”

Lucida lifted her chin. Indeed, she was older, but the other horses yielded to her authority.

“Great, so you’re a benign dictator,” I replied.

“Not always. A band of mares sometimes make group decisions for the herd. And even if the stallion dies or leaves, the mares will stay together and help raise the young. Find the best food and water. Protect each other.”

I let Lucida revel in her superior attitude, knowing human social dynamics are much more complicated. However, she did have a good point. Women would excel if they emulated and elevated those that were the most capable, not the most attractive. A band of women working together is a powerful force.

I told Lucida she had a good point.

“Then how about handing over a treat?” She tilted her head and if she had eyebrows, would have raised one at me.

“Not until I’m sure you’re okay. You gave me a terrible scare.”

She turned away. I was no longer of any interest to her.

And Now for the Tougher Questions

Satisfied she was comfortable, I picked up the book and prepared to leave. It is a good story. The main character, Elizabeth Zott, will be analyzed, discussed, and perhaps elevated as a pioneer character archetype in years to come. The book has prompted women to examine their lives and experiences. To look back on how far they’ve come. To look ahead to what work still needs to be taken on. The story was funny, touching, and at times uncomfortably true. The only quibble I had was the introduction of religion almost in opposition to science, and the belief (or denial) in God. It was not resolved for this reader’s satisfaction. I watched Lucida for a moment and wondered what her take would be on the concept of God and an afterlife… Now that would be a question.

“Lucida, what do you think about…” I stopped.

No. I wanted to more practical matters from her point of view. I had a dozen questions. I wanted to ask her about what I could do to improve my riding, what she didn’t understand, what would help her feel better, find out why she colicked. I wanted to be able to ask her so many things that would make life easier between us. But she continued to chew hay, cocking an ear at the sound of my voice, but nothing more. Did I see her shrug a shoulder? Or was it a fly landing on her?

She wasn’t talking.

She never had been.

It was me. Our human need to superimpose our thoughts, imagination, even wills on animals. Despite knowing this, I just the same think I captured her voice and opinions pretty accurately. I’ll never know.

“Good night, Lucida. I love you. Do you love me, too?”

She lifted her tail and deposited a fragrant pile. Yes, she loves me, too.

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