Cattle After Their Kind: Lost Calf
No life, however quietly lived, can be entirely free of anxieties. “Time and chance,” the Preacher said, “happeneth to them all.” Henry Beston, in his lovely book, Northern Farm, writes, ”The truth is that from our first breath to our last we inhabit insecurely a world which must of its transitory nature be insecure.” While we kept a variety of creatures and cared for and about them, we were not immune to anxieties and sorrows. The first colt born here to Gem, our steady Morgan mare, broke a leg out in pasture and had to be put down. And one summer evening in June, several years after we had moved here, we lost five cows to a bolt of lightning. The only survivor, a Jersey, survived only because she was in the barn, having just freshened the day before. We called her newborn Lucy. Much is made, in the popular press, of spectacular disasters (at the moment the sinking of the Titanic is the darling of the media), but spectacular disasters are few and far between, thank goodness.
"And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost."
Other people keep calves with their mothers in pasture and all works out well. We are always more cautious, as we can afford to be with only one cow, but this year we decided, as the weather was favourable and there was still plenty of grass in the pasture, we would try keeping cow and calf outside. So the next morning after the birth I carried the youngster, now a light fawn colour, outside and Maggie, her mother, was happy to follow us out. Maggie does not think much of the box stall in the barn.
Half an hour later I went back to check the pasture. All was well. Maggie was contentedly grazing. But where was the calf? Where indeed? "She must be lying down," I thought and went to consult Maggie. No calf could be seen. "Maggie, where's baby?" I asked but got no answer.
A determined search of the pasture yielded no calf. I scanned the space, anxiety rising high. How do you find a lost calf? Where could a lost calf, only a day old, go? One side of the pasture is woods. If the calf had gone into the woods it would be about as visible as a young deer. One side of the field faces barn and driveway. Surely I would have seen a calf on the driveway? Being triangular, the field’s third side runs along the road. If the calf had gone onto the road...! For sure, that was the side to try first.
Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack! The weeds beyond the fence were high, and much of a dun colour, growing on a steep bank dropping to a drainage ditch before the road itself. Those weeds could hide a calf. If the calf was lying down I could step on it before I knew it was there. But I could find no calf.
Suddenly I remembered the pond in the field and went to check it, hoping against hope that the calf had not drowned. No calf.
An excursion up and down the fence by the woods was no more successful. I had been looking for an hour and as minutes passed I grew more worried. How long could a day-old calf last on its own? I didn't know but didn't want to think either. Again I walked the ditch between the pasture and the road, circled the pond, walked the woods. No calf. "Maggie, where's baby?" I asked her again but she had no thoughts on the matter or was keeping them to herself. "Why isn't she making a fuss and why isn't the calf making a fuss? Maybe the calf has been right here all along and I didn't see it." Hope rose briefly, but after some more searching I had to admit that I could pretty well see the whole pasture and there was no calf in it anywhere.
As morning wore into afternoon, I kept asking myself how this could happen, and stringing together lists of untoward happenings over the past year to which the loss of the calf would be the crowning blow. Then I would go out and check the fence lines again, coming back to the road because that was the only place where a calf might possibly have walked under the electric fence.
I stood in the field, listening as best I could over the wind stirring up the trees (it would be a windy day), listening for any cry of distress however slight, hoping that Maggie would give some clue. She did seem interested in the lower part of the field near the road but only mildly. Even so once again I set off outside the fence, scuffling through the weeds in vain.
My wife, the art teacher in the local high school, arrived home early in response to my rather frantic phone call. Together we reviewed the events of the day and the possible places the calf could have gone. Not having heard anything now for over five hours I was beginning to lose hope. Neighbour children came to visit and plunged with gusto into the Adventure of the Missing Calf. After another fruitless journey around the fence line I went back to the house to do something about dinner, feeling worse than I had felt in a long time. Poor Maggie! Poor calf!
It was probably only twenty minutes later when the children arrived breathless at the door. “Your wife found the calf! Come see!” Indeed it was true. There in the lower corner of the pasture were Maggie, the calf, and my wife. Maggie had at last decided that the outing had been a good one but it was time for the youngster to get back home and had gone into the lower corner of the field, where the woods came down to the road, and literally pointed to baby, waiting to be discovered, lying down in an open patch by the roadside, but in the opposite direction from where I had been looking.
Not all stories have a happy ending but this one did. Without further ado I picked up baby and, mother following, went directly to the box stall. Pasture may be good for some things, but the box stall makes the best nursery.
I know how the fellow in the Bible felt, though.
29 September 1992