January in the Kispiox, and 2019 stretching out before us like a country road. Looking back at 2018 feels like time-lapse in reverse. Christmas has come and gone, whoosh! The Solstice, a family wedding, everybody’s birthday, the mud season, whoosh! Samhain, more birthdays, start of school, the harvest, the drought season, the smoke and fire season whoosh, woosh, woosh!! all the way back to the last time I posted, about the arrival and departure and re-arrival of the faery cows.
It was a summer of second chances. I know you’ve been waiting to hear what happened about the cows. You will remember the neighbours brought them home in their stock trailer, having given up on the usual methods of herding and roping from horseback, and resorting to seduction by oats. The price of the herd’s leisurely stay, besides my deep embarrassment at being That woman with cows but no experience, was a long lecture about my terrible choice of breed and an offer to take them straight to auction. How to explain that I didn’t know myself how it had come to this, but magic and mind moving were highly probable and as tempting as the offer was (it’s only money, and borrowed money at that) I was merely a pawn in the cows’ project to find themselves a new home. No, better to smile and open the gates – to a more secure barnyard, and to adventures yet untold.
One line in my neighbour’s soliloquy on cows, and Dexters in particular, stays with me still – “five-strand barbed-wire fence, zing-tight”. And someone else’s advice “keep ’em close til they know where’s home”. Close to us and the feed room, presumably. In the dread heat of the drought last summer, with a wildfire burning up the road, while the fencers worked their way around the 18 acre field, we worked around those seven beasts, bringing them hay, harvesting their poo, letting the other critters (goats, geese, pigs, skeptical horses) introduce themselves. Taking our time.
I will always be grateful to that neighbour for her kind heart and sharp words because that combination clarifies my resolve about things. We’ll learn to harbour Dexters, and we’lI do it right. In due course we were able to open the gates for a few days of clover in the larger barnyard, and then blessed freedom in the fields and woods beyond, and days without any real contact, maybe a sighting in the distance. We would have high-fived if we had the energy. The relief after a prolonged period of uncertainty can be suspect.
This is not to say that the life of the herd has been altogether uneventful. In early September, when I was on my own here, the youngest calf fell through the rotted boards covering an abandoned well. What a way to find out it was there, the bushes concealing it probably cropped back by the goats. Imagine you hear the cows making strange noises and you run out to them and you see that a spot in the field, that wasn’t there until now, has opened up. There before your eyes is a square, timbered hole full of water. Imagine yourself looking down at the calf, plunging and splashing, her eyes rolled back in her head. You are looking at blind, reddish membranes. Zombie cow. The other cows moaning and keening, peering into the hole. You throw yourself flat on your belly and by stretching down, can just touch her. The water smells like a vase after the flowers have died. You wiggle forward, balance on the edge of the hole, reaching for her. She plunges, goes under, comes up blowing. You grab her by a leathery ear, by the jaw. There are old boards floating in the hole and you try to work one under her front legs. But she’s a cow. Now what?
You obviously need help but it’s wonderfully private here, off the road. The nearest neighbours are elderly, the others you haven’t met yet. The dogs and goats have gathered round but you are the only one with thumbs. You are the only one who can decide whether to lie there til your arms give out and watch her drown, or to leave her while you run back uphill to the house, the keys to the truck, an old choker you’ve found useful before when hanging meat, or dragging a log out of the bush for a clothesline. Those ubiquitous cargo straps. Not like you have a list, you just grab what you see.
You bump back across the field in the truck, the gate swinging shut behind you. You don’t need the horses getting out. She’s still afloat when you get back. You have her by an ear, leathery, thick in your grip. You’re trying to tie a strap around her head. Like a halter. You’re still terrible at knots (and you don’t know more than 2 or 3 constellations, and have never learned to make creme brulee). Eventually, after losing her once or twice (she goes under, she comes up panting and splashing but her eyes are the right way around) you get her tied, head above water, to the blessed clump of little trees growing beside the hole.
You take a breather. You’ve been hyperventilating for quite some time. You tried to haul her out bodily, belaying. You’ve considered (for a wild moment) getting down and pushing her out. But you couldn’t find bottom by plunging a long pole down, and she’s three feet down in the hole. It’s still real that you might have to watch her drown in front of you. You need to think. There’s a jar of old tepid water in the truck, and three goats looking for crumbs. You take a drink, choke on the water in a dry throat. It feels like you’re really short of time. Someone would surely come if you phoned them, but your phone doesn’t work out here in the field. You need help, badly. She’s so heavy.
There’s only you, however, and you call on the goddess (or was that a swear?) and then you know what to do. Something so obvious that anyone else would have already thought of it. You shove the goats out and move the truck into position. You’re going to haul her out by the head. You’ve hooked that choker onto the truck before, to help your son drag an old olive-green GMC down from the pasture, so he could stencil the family name on its side and one day you’ll plant sunflowers in it; the two of you just fetched a clothesline pole with it. This is your first truck, and you a country girl (having spent the last 40 years in the city), and you’ve used it for a lot of things but never a calf in a well. The choker is a wire cable, with a couple feet of chain on either end. Solid metal hooks, that fit into certain holes on the frame, and somehow you’re on your belly again, holding Fiona the calf with one hand, fumbling to untie her from the bush with the other. How did you even do that? You’ve got the choker hooked under her tangled, makeshift halter. You pray it holds. You drive. Slowly, slowly. You can’t look back, but then you do and her head is above ground. You drive a little more and she is out.
Her family is around her, smelling her. Licking her. You advance toward her, to unwind the orange strap that held, though it slipped and failed at first, and the yellow strap, that broke. She flinches away, and you look into her black, liquid eyes and you tell her to stand, so you can get those foreign things off her, and she lets you. Now your legs want to quit, you want to lie down on your back until you stop shaking. Cry some liquid tears.
But what’s the good in that? You need to cover that fucking hole before someone else falls in. What if she’d broken her leg? What if it were ANY other beast, bigger and heavier than her? What if she’d drowned before I heard the weird bawling? What if I had gone to town, like I’d planned? What if the smoker wasn’t about to burn the bacon, bringing me outside to check on it? What if?
The next day, it was the weirdest thing. Those cows hung around that hole all day, eating grass, staring into the distance. I’d dragged timbers across it, an old gate, some random branches. I remembered the wells in Ireland, the sacred cow. What could it hurt? I picked the prettiest flowers in the garden, corn flowers, nasturtiums. Sunflowers. I went out there and laid them on the well. The goats ate them, not long after.
I stayed shook up for several weeks, thinking later that maybe all kinds of things, less important, rolled into this one big scare. The thought was, this is escalating, this series of events that happen when animals meet fences: the horse that rolled too close and couldn’t roll back because the field was a bit uphill and I saw him and thought all kinds of crazy ways to maybe help him until I got the Mikita and took a board off the fence. He was up in a flash, and back to grazing. The goats who get their heads stuck here and there all the time because they’re goats, always wanting to eat something just out of reach. The way sometimes one animal (a dog) might find it fun to chase another (a piglet), and take a little nip out of its backside because now it’s got its whole head jammed through a square of the electrified netting that is supposed to protect chickens from foxes.
Something bad happened just recently, when we were gone all day up to the Wet’suwet’en supporters camp on the edge of the “exclusion zone” while the police did god knows what to the people trying to keep the gas company out of their lands. I let the pigs out to mingle before I left, thinking maybe proximity to the boar would bring the young sow into heat – good timing for spring piglets – and came home to three wounded horses. Our winter arrangement, the de-icer floating in the stock tank, brings the cows and horses in to the barnyard to drink, meaning, apparently, that Kitsune the boar could corner them in the barnyard. We knew he liked to gnash and froth at them, but usually they would move out into the open field where it didn’t matter. Thank the goddess Falcon’s belly wound did not pierce all the way through to his gut. Thanks too, that the wound on Molly’s buttock – which tells us she had turned to kick the boar – has not crippled her. Fly had a scrape, healed up already. Absent easy access to a vet up here, we fall back on homeopathy, a specialty of many British vets but not as common here. I appreciate that there is a remedy combination for prevention of tetanus but I will ungrit my teeth in about a week when they don’t get it. I think my nerves will do better with some anti-tetanus and tetanus toxoid in the fridge.
It used to be funny when the boar would pace, gnashing and frothing at the horses, but now he’s grown his tusks, though you can’t see them with his mouth shut and we only found them the other day, still short. But sharp. If we were in the city, it would be vets and stitches and what have you but out here we have to assess and decide whether and how to treat, how long we can wait, and whether we can trust that the animal will heal on its own. This is a tough line to walk. We can’t overdo it “just to be safe” and waiting to let Nature “take her course” can be excruciating. Still, refraining from interventions has worked out time and again. Obviously it’s not always possible, see above: “calf in well”.
So back to the more ordinary, though still eventful stuff. We have three pregnant cows, whose calves will be big enough to butcher about two years from now. Steery has gone to heaven and his beautiful meat is in the freezer. Thank you, young steer. And thank you kind people who helped us get him there. Proud of my daughter for learning on the spot, out of a book, how to separate all those complicated cuts. It’s backbreaking work but we aim to get faster and better at it.
Butchering (put your big kid panties on and hear me out) is terrible. There is nothing fun or easy about doing it, or watching someone take the life of a fine young animal and skin it out, helping to scald the hair off if it’s a pig, or learning to kill, pluck and eviscerate a chicken. Though interesting every time as an anatomy lesson, and gratifying when it’s all over for now and you’ve got meat, it’s also primitive, primal and kind of grim. Hunters who have helped us “process” pigs (is “harvest”a better word?) tell us that for them, it’s much harder to shoot a fenced animal at close range than to hunt one down. I think it’s because there’s no element of chance, or escape. So why do it? Food. It’s not a tragedy to kill for food. Cruelty to animals is tragic, doing nothing to alleviate their suffering, causing them hunger, thirst or pain, isolation and loneliness, close confinement: these things are tragic. I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but I find that in a death-fearing culture a lot of us don’t really want to know where our food comes from. Strange times.
I admit that when I lived in the Dream of finding a way to move to the country, to clean air and drinking water and the promise of self-sufficiency, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. A lot of what we find ourselves doing seems to have just happened. When you’re living the dream it is now your reality – imperfect, challenging reality. That means you will have to find another dream – but perhaps not immediately, because you must wrangle this reality, and yourself, in order to live it triumphantly, because it would be tragic to have achieved the dream and not be having any fun.