Thursday, April 27, 2006

Remembering Sheena

This one is for Angela.
I thought we would knit together, so when the call came that Sheena was dead, it disoriented me as well as saddened me. In this season of a reluctant spring in a cold country, life had been seeming fragile and this one more reminder fell hard on my spirit. And I had to tell my husband just two days after the anniversary of his late wife’s death that his sister in law had died. Remarkably, he asked only had it been sudden and set about making preparations to “pay our respects” to the family.

My first acquaintance is in their home at this sad time, but they have heard about me. I am collecting epithets here. I may be “Morris’s new wife, the American”; I may be “the one who visited Sheena in hospital and brought her the wool”. Both are apt, but I ache every day for the familiarity of people who know me by so much more than a single instance.

I hate hospitals and sickness and sadness, but my life here is full of things that I might rather not do. When I left my job and house and country far behind, I made an implicit agreement to embrace this newness and find my way in it, so I am resolved to be a good visitor to this person to whom I am a stranger. Remembering that Sheena had been a knitter, I took the handknitted cowl from a friend back home off my neck and she touched it with the fondness of someone who missed the feel of yarn slipping through her fingers, bending it to her will, her design.
When I came again I brought some wool bought at the last minute at a charity shop. I couldn’t get needles, but it seemed to make her happy to touch it. After months of inactivity she seemed interested in knitting again. She asked her granddaughters to bring her needles from home. Was she just being a good hostess? Did the yarn get set aside and forgotten? Did she wait for me to come again to knit with her and give up hope of waiting?

Married to a fisherman and then a widow of 31 years, Sheena must have known well the art of waiting. And now she lies within a simple wooden box. Two stark white flower arrangements atop the coffin and a few daffodils in a moss-covered basket behind the byre are the only adornments in the Keiss Free Church of Scotland. The sky outside is gray, the stones of the church are gray, and the many mourners are all dressed in black. I wonder if she knitted for the joy of color in her life. As I fumble through the unfamiliar hymns it comes unbidden to mind that Sheena is much like the storm-broken branch in the overgrown garden that I have adopted as part of my new life. Twice I have tried to clear the broken branch from the embrace of the surrounding branches. It has resisted my efforts as well as those of two gales greater even than the one that broke it in the first place. In its own time, the wind will move it back to earth.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Shiva on the North Coast

My sister asked me for this story of the little black and white calf. I was going to send it just to her until I was part of a conversation at the cattle market this past Monday. My husband and I sat over soup and bacon rolls with my brother in law and sister in law and another long time farmer. He said that even after all his years of farming, he still struggled with the death of a calf, and everyone around the table just nodded silently. So this story is for them as well as my sister.

No one wept for the dead almost calf. Black and white and eyes open staring as if still trying to catch that first breath. And so neither did I. I am a newcomer, an in comer, an outsider, an other. A blue passport in the land of red passports. I want to belong. I want the differences not to show. And so like all newcomers I try to look like the others. If I behave that way, then surely the understanding will come in time, and, if it doesn’t come, no matter.

But of course it matters. The elation at the first snotty nosed breath of a newborn calf must have its corollary in the silent infinite stare of the little black and white one. I abandoned the poem—an elegy to a calf that never breathed or ran or sucked and so today another day another calf and the tears will have their way.

What can I tell my husband? He is a kind man and I love him but he can speak of skinning a dead calf and putting the dead calf’s skin on another calf in order to complete a masquerade for life with no sense of the grotesque. The mother of a dead calf is deceived into taking the costumed calf as her own and so it seems a triumph for life and the living, but the image of the silent calf deprived of life and breath and now bereft even of its skin appals me.

I walk in the garden to calm my nerves and look for signs of hope and plenty in the garden. Among the overgrown, lichen clad trees, sharp-thorned rose brambles and long matted grass turned back defensively upon itself, I see the first daffodils in bloom and many more in bud. One odd little flower that starts pink and turns purple when in full bloom now has dozens of companions in bud or in bloom, the fuschia and purple against the gray green stones of the garden wall like a jester. A natural fool. I need the perspective that a jester brings.

From my Indian friends I have learned about Shiva and the integral relationship of life and death and growth and decay. I know the dead calf and the live calf wrapped in its skin are a marvelous metaphor for this concept, but this perspective gives me no comfort.

I pick the clippings of flowering currant that have been chopped from the bush whose branches had tangled among themselves and trailed over the remnants of the path. The abandoned stems with their buds and green leaves now lie orphaned in the pathway ready to be taken to compost or to the pyre. I pick up a few of the branches and trim off the ends. They will have a day or two in a vase in the sun before they join the others in the compost.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Spring Creeps Over the Windowsill

Ever since I was old enough to notice the world around me, I have looked for signs of spring. As a child, my older brother and I bundled up as soon as the worst of the bitter winter had eased and set out with a vague but intense mission to find signs of spring--any signs of green among the dirty remnants of snow and slushy half frozen puddles. Cracking the skim ice on puddles with our boots became the goal of the quest to hasten spring's arrival. We went home muddy, cold and wet and satisifed that even if we had not seen the signs of spring, we had urged it along.

Daffodils and birds building nests and the last snowfall after everyone has decided spring has come are common signs of spring whether in the middle of Indiana or in Caithness. And mud and sometimes slushy half frozen puddles. I walk now between the fields or along the beach but I still look for signs of spring and frequently come home wet and cold and muddy.

For most people in Caithness, spring means lambing. The first sight of lambs in the fields with their mothers certainly betokens spring, a season of new growth and hopefulness.

For me, the season begins when the cattle move out on to the grass. The oldest cows, walking slowly like well endowed mature and respectable citizens, kick up their heels no matter who is watching for the sheer joy of feeling the air around them and the fresh green grass beneath their hooves.

Even the brand new calves, who have not yet seen grass, frolic and dance after seeing their mothers kick up their heels. And for me it now means that my first glance out the window in the morning will be watching the cattle. After all the years of looking for signs of spring, I learned from the cows what to look for.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Brand New Calf

C23, a large red colored cow, was looking thoughtful, which is how a cow looks when she is close to delivering. Although not perhaps the most descriptive term, it seemed apt to me because a calf is a lot to think about.

She went into labor and was moved into a nice pen with fresh straw for the calf to lie on. During the evening we waited. The stockman worked late into the evening, but the calf had not yet made its presence felt. The hooves were small; it should be an easy birth unless there were twins. Farming, especially calving, seems to be all about watching out for the unless-es.

So at 10 o'clock, my husband and I bundle into work clothes and wellies and walk under the sharp cold stars to check on C23. The barn is quiet as we enter with cattle chewing the cud or sleeping or looking out the window. They stir only a little as we turn on the lights. As soon as we turn the corner to the quiet pen, we see C23 looking warily at us and huddled, still wet and shivering wide- eyed looking back at us is a lovely little red-brown calf.

When calves come in the usual way, their front hooves are either side of their heads and they swim out of the warm watery world of the uterus. Little red-brown has just made his swim into this world. He needs his mother's tongue to towel him off and begin assuring him that he is as safe now as when he was a swimmer.

We leave as gently as we can because we are an unnecessary intrusion. As soon as we are out of sight, I hear C23 begin the quiet rumbling sing song of the secret language of mother to calf.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Party When the Cows Go Home

When you live on a farm, you are always at work. My alarm clock now is the sound of heavy machinery and I listen to the sounds of the cattle at night. This particular Saturday night the farm was settling in for the evening. The workers had gone home, the machinery was off, the cattle were quiet. I took advantage of the long summer twilight to settle into the computer for messages when I heard something that didn't seem right. It was just a mother calling to her calf---but the sound seemed too close.

I went to the window and saw one cow where there shouldn't be any and then another. I called to my husband, making a kind of doppler effect of his name as I hurried down from the third floor. By the time I reached the second floor, he was up and all business, so I pulled on warmer clothes and headed for the back door and my Wellies.

There were reluctant cows and a few wandering calves in the beginnings of our kitchen garden. Because this is a favorite project of mine, I was not as diffident with these animals as their bulk usually warrants. I was also emboldened by the fact that the cows looked as if they knew they should not be there and had reluctantly followed their errant offspring. The chase was on to get the cattle back where they belonged and avoid having any of them run down the farm road onto the highway.

One cow called her calf in a tone that even I knew meant no more nonsense and they both headed back to the pen they had recently left. The rest of the runaways, unfortunately, headed down the farm road and began to pick up speed. I tried a flanking maneuver and managed to slow one of them down, but only temporarily. And then looking for all the world like the cavalry coming over the hill, our stockman drove into the road with three of his friends. They jumped out of their car and shooed the animals back into their pen. He had stopped by to pick up something on his way into town and left as soon as the gate on the pen had been double tied.

My husband and I stood trying to settle back into some routine after the adrenaline of cattle chasing. "Let's go somewhere," he said.
"We can't go anywhere dressed like this. We'll look like local yokels."
Without a moment's hesitation he explained, "We are the local yokels."
"Right," I nod, shrug, smile and clamber into the car still grappling with my new identity. We drove to the only convenience store open later than 8pm and bought Diet Coke and ice cream and sat on the steps in front of the store with a handful of other locals.

The Road to My New Home

The doves are back and so am I. This is the second March I have experienced in the North of Scotland, my new home. The days stretch rapidly as we move out of the winter shadows into the long light of summer, when the sun scarcely sets. Before I decided to move here, I had experienced the Highlands only in July, when it is characterized by long days and soft air so delicious that breathing is a joy in itself. People and flowers bloom with exuberance because the light is lovely and all too soon it is gone. Although I knew it could not always be July, it is impossible to intellectualize cold or what it feels like to become like a child again because you do not know the words for objects or how even simple things like light switches work. I kept a journal of how I floundered between the familiar and the new. I wrote to make sense of this new world to myself and to share my experiences with friends and family. Those writings will form part of this blog. I once complained that here in the Highlands we are far away from everything. “No,” a local friend replied with a patient smile, “everything is far away from us.” Because that is both literally and figuratively true, I decided to share my discoveries of the highlands not only with friends and family but also would be visitors, armchair adventurers, and my new friends here. I hope to include as well voices of those who come to experience this part of the world for themselves, and in so doing to share with others a unique look at a way of life and a place that is often invisible. Since last March I have learned the British or Scottish names of enough things here that the grocery store no longer reduces me to tears. I can tell the difference between a cream biscuit and a water biscuit—neither of which looks anything like what Hoosiers think of as a biscuit. I no longer recite “keep to the left” as I drive or panic when I turn on to a street where parked cars face me on the left because I know without having to think about it that cars park any which way here. I can shift with my left hand, negotiate single track roads including the insouciant wave from the layby, and find my way into the nearest town (and back again) on my own. I have begun spontaneously saying things like “dead chuffed,” “spirtle,” “petrol,” and “scunnered.” My dreams are no longer full of loss or abandonment. I even understand some of the jokes I hear. I have survived homesickness on three different continents, winds that tear the very thoughts from your mind or saw at your nerve edges with relentless soughing, attended half a dozen funerals, and been midwife for at least one calf. It is remarkable that I am still here because many people come here, as I did, for love of someone and leave again: Love deflated by wind or cold or seas that foam or long cold dark nights or days where everything is far away. Too far away. March means not only doves but also the season of new calves and lambs. Many of the people in Caithness who received invitations to the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla had to decline because it was lambing. My life now is not only in a different country but in a different world: I live on a farm and many of my stories will include such topics as the truth about cow tipping, wooden tongue, and how to move animals who outweigh you and have more legs than you do.Posted by Picasa

Friday, April 14, 2006

X13 and the Cull Cows’ Last Gallop

X13 and I have stared into the face of death once already together. Staggers, like so many things, was new to me. Cows can develop an acute mineral deficiency and then they look and act as if drunk—hence the descriptive colloquialism. X13, the large number on the tag in her ear, looked funny in the morning and so she got an extra dose of minerals and a closer look. By early afternoon she was so weary and wobbly that she could scarcely be moved. A call was made to the vet and we prepared to move her from the field back to the steading, the farm buildings, where the vet could either give her IV minerals or else. I didn’t know what or else was and didn’t want to think about it.

David, our stockman, chased her on the latter day quarter horse, a noisy four-wheeled bike, until she refused to move any further. We abandoned the bike and cajoled and bullied her onto the road from the field back to the farm buildings. With one last burst of energy and rebellion she bolted away from us, found a grassy verge and sat on her side mindless of the grass around her. Cows are always eating, so even I knew something was not right. She was breathing heavily and then I noticed the stare. Not quite glassy eyed but definitely out of this world. What do cows look for when they look into the beyond? Do they have metaphors like beyond the vale or a light at the end of a tunnel?

“ Leave her”, the experienced ones said, “she’s not going anywhere.” And I should have gone too, but something made me stay. I tried to put it up to curiosity and said later that I had not wanted her to wander on to the road, but I did not feel she should be left alone to die on that grassy verge on that day. I busied myself with odds and ends and then just sat on some leftover fencing not far from her. It startled me to see how small such a large animal could become. When the vet drove in, he drove right past her. We laughed about it, but the fact is that X13 had become invisible.

David and the vet tended her and I tagged along trying to justify a place there. I watched, I asked questions, I held the IV as it went into her veins. I noted the bright red color of her blood as it leaked out of the vein around the hole made by the large bole needle. And still she stared. She did not react to the people or the needle. And then the muscles along her massive side began to twitch. The vet and David noted it in such a way that I could not tell if they were glad or not. I asked, no doubt betraying more than I wished to, “Is that good?”

“Yes, that’s good. The chemical balance needed to get the messages from the brain to the muscles is working again,” the vet explains.

And David, softer, simply, “Aye, it’s a good thing.”

Before the vet has finished the regimen, X13 lumbers to her feet. She has become large again though not quite as big as before. As if her rebellion is renewed with the minerals, she bolts away from us before we have a chance to get her to the field or to the steading. She seeks sanctuary in an abandoned building, in a bed of nettles, and, finally, we marshall her into the steading. It began as a merry chase, but I grew tired of it. Now that she was large again, it was a challenge of her will against ours.

For several days now X13 has been in the small grass field in front of the house. One afternoon we came home from town to find her wandering up the path in the steading. She went back easily enough that time. Often in the mornings I have seen her calling out to the other cows. “She’s lonely,” I say. “Why is she by herself?” Morris explains in practical terms. And I let it pass. But today I walked out just just in time to see X13 moving down the path a little bit too far ahead of David. I moved to head her off and took pride in being able to turn her. David shows me where she is going and then slowly I realize that this is X13’s last day. She cheated death once and has had these last few days of grace, but today the truck will come and she and the other cull cows go off.

One of the other cull cows kicks up her heels for one last time. My heart sinks and I put these thoughts as best I can out of my mind. I am a farmer’s wife now and I live off these cows. I cannot afford to be sentimental, but I cannot let X13 go without at least a brief eulogy. I look into her eyes one last time and then I come into the house and busy myself with my chores. I try to make her invisible again.

Learning the Language of Cows

In the light of a cold June morning, the pieces of a puzzle come together as with a shattered glass: even with all the pieces reclaimed, the mystery that held them together is no longer apparent. Yesterday a calf was still not looking right, so the vet came quickly, diagnosed pneumonia, and we went to town for vitamin e, multivitamin, and copper.

The calf and his mother are in the small paddock close to the house as if the proximity can warm it or bring the life back into his lungs. In the night I hear a louder than usual bugling that startles me awake. It has an urgency that unsettles me. "She is only calling to her calf," my husband tries to reassure me. Again and again I hear her but I do not hear the calf reply.

When I come downstairs in the morning, the computer is on but the office is empty and the tea pot is cold. Something is wrong in the steading--the farm buildings just beyond our house. I make tea and look into my husband's face as he crosses the divide between the barns and the house. I can read the set of his shoulders. Whatever the problem, it has been resolved as best as can be. I wait.

"A dead calf, " he says simply as he walks in the door.
"Is the mother all right?" I ask thinking it is one of the pregnant cows.
"Yes. It was that calf from yesterday." he shows me the bright plastic ear tag--"that's his number."
A little bit of yellow plastic with six-digit numbers makes a poor memorial I think as it lies uneasily in his hand.
"Was the mother the one I heard in the night?"

My husband is a good farmer, which means among other things that he understands that loss is part of the nature of the business. After fifty years, he cannot grieve for each lost calf, but he feels the loss as a personal loss. He thinks each time what he might have done better or other. Each calf is given into his care and, in that sense, each loss is a kind of personal failure.

And also he wants to protect me. He has read my eulogy for a black and white calf.

And so after a moment of silence he adds, "It's a shame; she's a good mother. A very good mother."

I cannot bend my mind to the task of calculating meters of dykes for the paperwork of farming or of cleaning the kitchen. I think about the cow calling out in the night to her calf and wonder how she makes sense of the fact that her calf did not call back.