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.