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.


At 4:49 PM, Blogger Mark Newton said...

Russ gave me your blog address. I relate to your stories, as my Grandmother raised black angus cattle all the years of my childhood. Her farm was only a 10 minute drive, so I spent time there every week, and several days a week during summer vacations.

Death is a hard thing to accept, but we understand that it is part of life. How much would we appreciate life if death were not there to remind us of the fragile and brief thing we hold. We mourn, but ultimately turn back to life and marvel at the calf who survived because another gave up something he no longer needed--his skin--so another could live.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

Sharon, Mark said so eloquently in his second paragraph what I intended to write.

When I first saw the word Shiva, I did not interpret it in the Indian way I immediately thought of sitting shiva. I do not know if you know about this, it is a time for sharing the mourning for the one who has died with the person/s who has/have experienced the loss, a spouse, a child, a larger family. Sitting Shiva goes on for 7 days after the funeral so that the remaining family are not left completely alone and isolated in their acute stage of grief.

As I read your post, I felt your sense of loss and grief for the dead calf yet (and I hope I am not assuming too much,) I also thought about sitting shiva and it felt to me as though you were, in your own way, working through some personal issues here. The cow and calf have given you the opportunity to express some of your inner emotions and from that you can move on into the life you now have. Welcome!

It is beautiful that you can feel these sensitive moments and write them.

At 9:12 PM, Anonymous molly gunason said...

Thanks Sis, it is related to so well.I still cry over every animal I lose. The most recent of course my yellow mare of 33 years. Yes One of the orginal Indiana kids.

At 7:40 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Mark, it is great to hear from you. You are lucky in many ways because so few Americans can remember being on a farm. Does your fmaily still farm? One of the reasons I started blog was that I fear that farming is going to fade away from people's memories.
I love your altruistic perspective on the calf. Yes, life and death are inextricably linked and it is up to us to remember that.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

zacl, I had forgotten about sitting shiva. That is a wonderful remembrance. Yes, you are right. when I wrote that I had been here for less than month and I was reeling with all the changes in my life. Thanks for the welcome. I can now say unequivocally that I am glad to be here.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Molly, I am glad that this was OK for you because I know how sensitive you are to your critters. I did not realize how much of our history also our animals come to share in their lives with us.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Mark Newton said...

Yes, farming and ranching are alive and well, just not in Indianapolis,IN. Go 30 minutes from Indy almost any direction and you are in the farming communities, where people still shop at "Tractor Supply Co" and "Rural King", and they live on gravel roads a bit off the beaten path. My grandmother's house was 1/2 mile (OK, 2.4 km) off a gravel road. It was a small farm(110 acres) and by the time I came along she rented the farmland to another local farmer. Grandma raised chickens, ducks and cattle along with the dogs and cats that called the place "home" as well. I have many memories of chasing cattle, fixing fences and early morning chores, esp. when the snow was waist deep. She was a consummate gardner: her garden produced enough food for 3 families after she canned/froze all the food she would need for the year. We picked cherries, peaches, gooseberries, strawberries, apples, raspberries...you get the idea. There was always work to be done, and she kept my little hands occupied. I learned the joy of working outside from her, something I still miss in corporate America. Good memories for me, and it sounds like you are getting your share as well.


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