Every season on this small world of house and garden, barn and chicken coop, fields and wooded slopes, has its beauty and its challenges. Our rather brief summer means that the seemingly endless list of items “to be done,” jostle each other for time and priority. But in the pattern of days, moments of connection with the wider world experienced by those who have gone before us give even routine chores a sense of wonder.
Bringing in the Cows
Because of the way this place is laid out our three cows spend at least part of their time on the opposite side of the house from the barn, over in the field with the old apple orchard.
Years ago, we used to turn the animals into the pasture behind the house--what had, before our time, been called the “night pasture.” There had been a dozen or so head of cattle as well as a team of horses to look after then and they had apparently spent the summer nights in that field, presumably because there they would have access to water in the stream which runs in the valley at the back, and it would not be hard to find them come morning milking.
For several summers now we have put the night pasture off limits to the cows, hoping that a bit of a rest might effect a change for the better in the quantity and quality of herbage there. All that the cows see of it is a rather narrow laneway that gets them from the paddock beside the barn, past the granary, back behind the old chicken house and drive shed, up past the big maple tree, and into the orchard pasture. As I suspected, they spend very little time in the laneway, being much more interested in the long grass in the orchard.
The resulting configuration of pasture and paddock looks something like one of those mazes the men in the white suits are always dropping mice into to see whether they can figure out where the cheese is. In order for the cows to get back to the paddock at milking time they must initially turn away from the barn in the direction of the night pasture and then negotiate the twists and turns in the laneway before they can see the barn ahead of them. It does no good to stand outside the barn and call them, even though we and they all know it is milking time. If they hear us calling, they simply come to the point in the orchard closest to the barn and stand peering over the fence looking glum.
By virtue of this state of affairs we arrive at one of the pleasant tasks of the day, called "bringing in the cows." It is a meditative activity, giving one the opportunity, when the cows are gathered and convinced that one means them to go to the barn, to observe earth and sky, to listen to the songs of the birds, and to ponder whatever it is that seems worth pondering at the time.
Cows are not much given to haste, so the trip is at a contemplative pace, and if the herdsman is inclined to pause to investigate an unfamiliar plant or flower or to listen for the song of a bird back in the woods or just to admire summer clouds in the blue sky, why, the cows are quite content to stop and think their slow ruminative thoughts as well, taking up their progress again when the time comes.
Just now, the eye of the observer is well advised to be cast upon the ground, as the wild strawberries, startling flecks of crimson in the pattern of greens and browns in the short grass along the laneway, are ripening, and, as one of the children, along on the excursion, observed one morning, one tiny wild berry has all the flavour of the cultivated berry twenty times its size.
Now, a part of the night pasture that has remained free of alder bushes seems also the poorest in terms of the plants that it will grow--even goldenrod there is sparse and small. Instead, on the dry, sunny bank sloping to the south-west beside the drive shed, we have drifts of mouse-ear hawkweed, with its pretty dandelion-like lemon-coloured blooms raised above the surrounding thin grass on long, fuzzy stems, just as, earlier, a little further down the slope, lots of the little white stars of the wild strawberries gave promise of delights to come.
The hawkweed is what its name implies, a weed. It loves dry ground and degraded pastures. Bent on taking over whatever land it can by forming mats of creeping runners and spreading its flat rosette of leaves tight against the ground, it discourages other plants more acceptable to the cows and the farmer.
It is an ancient plant, though: man’s companion over thousands of years. The Greek Dioscorides, living in distant Asia Minor, knew it and included it in his Materia Medica sometime in the first Christian century. Pliny the Elder, who perished in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, mentions in his Historia naturalis that hawks feed upon the plant to sharpen their eyesight. The Middle Ages knew it as Auricula muris, ‘Mouse ear.’ Among the great herbalists of nearer times, both John Gerard, in The Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597), and Nicolas Culpeper, in The English Physician Enlarged (1653) valued the hawkweed.
Those humble members of the rose family, the strawberries, who use the same method of propagation as the hawkweeds and are found everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere above the tropics, remind the farmer that the ground needs lime. But this little plant too has the dignity of long association with man, and seems to have been especially dear to the English. A thousand years ago the ‘streawberige’ appeared in an English herbal now preserved in a manuscript in the British Museum. ‘Strabery ripe!’ was the cry in the streets of London in the fifteenth century, as the poet Lydgate reminds us. Ben Jonson mentions them in a play written at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Even Mother Goose tells of a suitor who promises Curly-locks that she shall “...sit on a cushion / And sew a fine seam, / And feed upon strawberries, / Sugar and cream.”
So I take my time to admire the hawkweeds and the strawberries in their own part of the pasture. With only a few cows we are not under the heavy economic pressures of commercial farming and feel free to invoke legend and beauty as goods above the good of strict utility.
It is a time in and out of time, bringing in the cows. The time of day, the weather, the whole knot of life from the herbs and tiny creatures underfoot, to the swallows dipping and swooping in the air overhead, to the moving pattern of cloud and blue sky--it is all one moment and only one moment, unique, never having happened before and never to be just this way again. But as the cows and I pause to greet the green wanderers through time and space at our feet, friends and associates of man down thousands of years, chores and the day's demands are in abeyance, suspended in a momentarily distant future.
If you have a milking cow and you want to have milk, then every year or so you want to see to it that there is a calf for mother to cherish. That seems simple enough, but even little Jersey cows have been bred to provide far more milk than the infant can handle. After the birth, the cow’s milk, called colostrum, is rich with all kinds of specialised elements which the calf needs to get it off to a good start, so calf and cow are kept together for three days or so. After that comes a period when the calf is “put on the cow” to nurse before the milker sits down to take the rest of the production. Then, some days later, at last the calf is ready to wean.
The world divides, even in the barn
Talking about weaning calves reminds me again that the world divides and redivides itself on any issue that may come down the pike, however indivisible the issue might seem at first glance.
I originally discovered this penchant for hauling up on two sides of any question when I was younger, and, incautiously as it turned out, assumed that everyone loved the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan as much as I did. It came as a great surprise to me to discover that the whole world did not share my enthusiasm. And, I must say, I still find it hard to believe.
Ever since that discovery was forced upon me I have been keeping mental note of inexplicable divisions we humans insist on. Take the dogmatic disputes over weaning calves.
We have not had all that many calves to deal with, since this is what the British would call a "smallholding." Not having been brought up on any farm, where the weaning of calves was simply one of the things about which God - or father - pronounced in the beginning and thus it was done ever after, when we first were confronted with a calf that needed to break the mummy habit we turned to a slim volume from Maine, The Cow Economy, by Merril and Joann Grohman. How we came across this book I don't remember now but it was the best help a small operation like ours could ever want, providing just the amount of information needed without sinking the reader in tables, charts, and cross-sections of "the stomach," etc.
Not only did The Cow Economy discuss the pros and cons of keeping the calf with the cow for more than a few days (better not, unless you are so blessed with land that you can afford to keep cow and calf in separate fields more-or-less for ever), but it also discussed the pros and cons of weaning strategies: buckets with nipples vs. plain buckets, etc.
Without realizing that we were standing at a fork in the road of life, we followed our authors' lead and set out for the barn with an ordinary bucket, prepared for what might come. As I recall, what came was some awkwardness about getting the recommended grip on the nose of the calf so that one's fingers in his mouth made him think of mother while one pushed his nose down into the bucket that held his milk ration. During this struggle the bucket was being guarded against spillage by another member of the family. I really can't remember how many of us it took to wean that first calf, but we would probably have filled Madison Square Garden.
I do vividly remember the moment, not too long after, when the calf, drawing analogies, wacked the bucket the way he was accustomed to wack mother when the milk supply seemed to be getting down. I at the time was leaning over the calf, holding his nose down to the milk with one hand, while holding on to the bucket with the other. What the physics of the calf’s action might be I don't know but I do know that the milk remaining in the pail instantly gathered itself together and shot upward with great force, catching me just under the chin. From thence it too divided, a portion proceeding upwards to make a good try at drowning me whilst the majority took a sharp right and disappeared down the neck of my coveralls, headed, no doubt, for my boots, but contenting itself with producing a miasmal swamp that reached from neck to knees.
That pretty effectively ended Lesson One, and whether we or the calf learned more it would be hard to say. Subsequently, we learned to back the calf of the hour into a corner so that his tendency to leave unexpectedly was thwarted, and we learned to keep a firmer hold on the bucket. The geyser effect has not been vanquished but we are better at ducking than we were. That calf, and his successors, have all grown up to be happy, healthy and productive members of society, as far as we can tell, but we just learned last week that Dire Results ensue from this method of weaning. Apparently the Only Way to wean is with a nipple pail which enables the calf to keep his head up and thus the milk goes into the right stomach, etc., etc.
You pays your money and you takes your chance in this as in other things, it seems.
25 February 1987
No matter how often I came to the barn to tend to a new calf, I found something unexpected that made the process memorable. Nine years after the experience above, faced with two calves, Frank and Jerusha, and weaning time, the battle of the sexes ran high.
Down in the barn as the weather warms a bit and spring may possibly be on the way, emotions are running high among the barn cats, rather to the mystification of our splendid but purely decorative Thomas Not-a-tom who continues to focus closely on food and making sure he gets more than his fair share.
Thomas has acquired a new title, thanks to an off-the-wall novel my wife was reading a while back. Part of the action was set in a vegetarian restaurant with Buddhist overtones in San Francisco in the sixties. Need I say more? You can probably make up the plot to please yourself. Anyway, this restaurant had a cat named “The Ever-Present Fullness.” Well, names like that don’t turn up every day in the week and when one does present itself it would be the worst sort of consumerism not to recycle it. Thomas positively basks in the implications.
The two calves who have been getting their milk from the source had gotten so big that I finally decided that it was time to wean. In other years, when there was only one calf to deal with at a time, the logistics of weaning were simpler. This pair, though, have had the freedom of the big box stall and it was obvious that calf B was not going to stand idly by while calf A was being introduced to a new food source.
Eventually I tied them in opposite corners of the stall and advanced with buckets. Jerusha, the heifer, was all for leaving to go see mommy, and although I had her backed into the corner we managed to spread milk about with (to coin a phrase) reckless abandon. It reminded me of that Bill Cosby skit in which, rather than admit he doesn’t know where the gas cap is in his new car, he tells the gas station attendant to “just pour the gas over the top; maybe it will run in someplace.”
Frank was a good deal easier to deal with. Like Thomas, Frank was not one to question the source of supply, as long as the supply lasted. I dipped a couple of fingers in the milk, applied them to Frank’s mouth, lowered his nose into the bucket and we were off and running. Now and then we emerged from the deeps, snorting and blowing milk far and wide, but generally we were in business. I left the pen with a good deal of the milk I had brought in (but it was distributed differently), and quietly congratulated Frank for demonstrating the innate superiority of the male.
In the evening, however, it turned out that Jerusha’s objection was not to milk in a pail but to me putting my fingers in her mouth. I left her with her bucket and tried the same experiment with Frank. He stuck his nose in the pail and then came up wild-eyed, looking for fingers.
A week later, Frank is still devoted to me. Jerusha finishes her bucket by herself and without spilling a drop.
“It just shows the natural superiority of women,” my wife explained when I told her.
26 March 1996
To an outsider, one who has never had the opportunity to get into the rhythm of simple tasks like barn chores, the whole process would probably seem uneventful and uninteresting - chores in the modern sense of that word. To one attuned to the fine shadings, so much of interest goes on that it scarcely seems possible to attend to all of it at once.
There were times, I will admit, when I could think of other things I would rather do than my 'barn chores,' but by the time I got to the barn to milk I slipped easily into the always-the-same-yet-ever-new routine and 'chore' took on a sense of satisfaction and contact with the real world. Sometimes, indeed, that little world, that microcosm, like a mirror seemed to reflect the world of human affairs...
Keeping a milking cow usually means keeping several cows because a calf is the enticement which starts the milk flowing. Maggie, our bossy cow, is not alone. She gives us milk, Mirella,
her last-year's heifer, is growing up to be a milk cow herself, and John, the two-year-old steer, is about ready to retire from the herd.
As the late autumn days grow colder and the cows are in more and more, the barn chores move into their winter rhythm. For a few moments when I come into the barn all is bustle. Cats skitter here and there and the cows shift their feet expectantly, looking forward to hay and grain.
We put our hay in loose, so I climb up in the mow and pitchfork down enough for a couple of milkings and then climb down to fill the mangers with the dried grasses fragrant with memories of summer now past and gone. By this time the cows have finished the water I had put down for them and are ready for food.
While the cows tuck into their hay I clean out the manure gutter and put fresh bedding down under each of them, checking as I do to see which cats are in evidence and noting that both the toms are present, the dingy grey-and white Lopsie, the current boss cat and the larger tidy tabby, named Fraidy, a stranger who seems inclined to move in.
Quickly I measure out the grain for each cow into a series of rubber buckets and put the right one in front of Maggie, our current milking cow. She gets more grain than the heifer and the steer because she is milking and a milking cow cannot get enough energy from hay alone. She shoves her nose into her bucket and tosses it expertly so that she can get the most grain in the shortest time. I move around to her side to set down the milking stool, sit down, lean my head into her flank, and pick up the cat's basin to give them a dollop of fresh milk.
A rubbery plunk tells me that the heifer has finished her grain and given her bucket the old heave-ho. The crashing of the steer's stanchion indicates his attempt to corral the tossed bucket in the hope that there might be some grain left. As I lean my head against Maggie she shifts her position slightly so that I can get on with milking while she pursues her grain bucket.
There is milk in the cats' basin now and I check over the attending multitude. As usual the younger cats zoom about in excitement, while the older ones are sitting just on the other side of the manure gutter, watching the basin and swatting the occasional youngster who presumes to push in. As I set down the basin I notice that both the tom cats are elaborately ignoring each other, and I speculate with the interest of a dedicated foreign affairs correspondent what the balance of power between these two might be.
Without rising I reach back to pick up the milk pail, set it down beneath the udder and begin to milk in earnest, listening contentedly as the metallic sound of the milk hitting the bottom of the bucket changes to a soft swishing sound as the bucket begins to fill. As I milk I muse. A shift in the balance of power in the great world seems to be the story of the late twentieth century and I wonder whether there is a similar shift going on in the little world of our barn cats.
Unlike Spots, his predecessor, Lopsie hangs on to power with difficulty. His white fur has gone dingy grey and developed yellow, nicotine-like stains, his ears are more and more ragged. Unlike his predecessor, who liked to survey his domain from a perch on a beam over the cows' heads, the high places are not for Lopsie; he gets no higher than the barn sill, six inches off the floor.
Now the two toms circle each other with elaborate deference and take up their positions on opposite sides of the alley behind the cows. Fraidy is still careful in his movements but he must out-weigh Lopsie by a good bit. The hand-writing, as it was for many another petty despot, is on the wall.
This is, of course, all my speculation, and I have to admit rooting for Fraidy. I speak him fair when I meet him and have even succeeded in scratching an ear or two once or twice, but my role in the power struggle going on, I know, is somewhat like that of the deists' God: I have set things in motion by raising barn cats, but now I must allow them to work out their own destinies.
Tonight Lopsie was sitting on the sill when, to my amazement, Fraidy walked across the alley and deliberately sat down on the sill himself, ignoring Lopsie. A milking stool separated them. Lopsie gave him an "if looks could kill" stare around the milking stool, but Fraidy, made of tougher stuff, ignored the stare.
Meanwhile, I finished milking the front teats and reached under the udder for the back two, all the while watching the confrontation of the century. When the steely glance failed Lopsie drew himself up and turned his head to the side, as if to look at something across the alley way. Keeping his head turned away from Fraidy, he slowly put out a paw and placed it on the milking stool.
There was nothing hurried in the manoeuvre. It had the inevitability of an amoeba putting out a pseudopod. With the same deliberate gesture he put the other front paw on the stool and then a back paw followed, ever so slowly. Still his head was turned aside. Fraidy seemed hardly aware of the action.
Milking forgotten for the moment, I watched, scarcely daring to breathe. Lopsie was now immobile, three feet on the stool but the last foot still on the sill. It seemed to me that Lopsie knew that the moment of truth had come. The slightest awkwardness in the next manoeuvre would break the spell and fur would fly.
Seconds passed as if they were minutes. Then, amazingly, the last foot slowly and smoothly drew up to join its mates. Lopsie sat on the stool, directly in front of and above Fraidy. Only then did he turn his head until he was now looking down on the larger cat. At that moment he looked as though there was good reason why he was the dominant tom.
For a moment it appeared that Fraidy would take offense. He stared at Lopsie and began to draw himself up, but after rising about half way he stopped, turned away, and got down from the sill. Moving carefully and without looking back he resumed his usual position across the alley way, facing Lopsie but with head averted. I suddenly remembered that I was in the middle of milking and turned my attention again to udder and bucket.
As I turned back to my cow and finished the milking I speculated, not for the first time, on the connotation of drudgery which the term 'chores' carries with it, and how, on the contrary, my chores are always interesting, always full of things to wonder at, and often like a window on the world beyond the boundaries of this farm. This evening's confrontation of the tom cats leaves me thinking, rather ruefully, that barn politics is not that different from the posturing that goes on between nations. Have we, I wonder, really come as far as we give ourselves credit for in our fascination with things human?
I strip out the last few drops of milk from the udder into the pail and get up. The drama of chores is over for this night but is, as always, to be continued....
9 November 1993