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