Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Who's Your Momma?

I didn't hear the phone ring as I settled into the computer for a brief conversation with family and friends to recover from several hours of gardening. Morris called out to me from the corridor, "David needs me."

I start scrambling for my shoes because if David needs Morris, then he probably also needs me. As David once said: "two people is more than twice as good" when moving cattle. Two people, like two points, can determine a line. Cattle apparently understand geometry better than I ever did.

As we head for the field, Morris fills me in. There are two cows--one recently calved; one just calved right now. They need to be separated from the other expectant mothers in the field and from each other "and the blue one is wild." A cow recently calved will do the most bizarre things. I have seen a cow charge a front loader or a 4-wheel bike, and I have been on the receiving end of a mother's wrath. I pay careful attention to the words and to their import.

The other information comes on an as needed basis. They were mothering up to the wrong calves. Blue cow, in her agitated state, was trying to "pinch" the other cow's calf. Orphaned calves are a problem and mommas missing their babies are a problem, so it is important to get them sorted out fast.

The first cow and calf have been separated from the herd and are making their way into the paddock as Morris and I get there. We move her into the next paddock with minimal effort. "I'm betting that was the easy one, David." His response suggests we have a hard job on our hands and he repeats, "Don't go near that blue cow. She is wild," as he jumps on the four wheeler to get mother and calf into the paddock.

He drives up to mother and calf and lifts the calf onto the bike and whisks calf into the paddock. Mother follows for a few steps and it looks as if the task will be accomplished relatively smoothly. For no apparent reason, the wild blue cow stops mid stride and stands looking baffled. Morris and David both try imitating the sound of the calf to encourage the mother to follow. Instead she turns and breaks for the far end of the field and the safety of the herd.

David takes off on the bike and tries to turn her back to the gate and her calf, but the field is large and she avoids being caught between the bike and the dyke. She keeps moving to the open field. David and I are so far apart that the geometry of the line is lost. My mind bounces back to the evening my brother tried to show me how to check mate my opponent with two rooks. Column and row. I move up the field hoping to be the other rook to David on the bike but this is a giant chess board.

Cattle, being social animals, join together and begin running across the top of the field. The wild blue cow has sought solace or safety with the others. It is easier to move several cattle because they will clump together, so David moves adroitly among the pack of heavily pregnant cows to move them all down the field. Blue cow slides through the gate with four others; two more linger on the far side of the gate. I get to the side of the gate with blue cow and Morris and David. When blue cow sees her calf, she forgets the company of the other cows. The other cows, now that the chase is over, are easily moved back into the field. The gate is closed, blue cow gets down to the important job of licking her calf dry, and we can all head home.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

War of the Words

Americans and Britons do not speak the same English. Even within Britain there is wide variation, and despite the fact that it is a small country, Scotland embraces many dialects based on regional history. In the Highlands, there are some Gaelic speakers. Gaelic has now become the second official language. One woman took umbrage at the announcement because she thought her second language was Scot's English, which had now been demoted to a third and unofficial place. Caithness, this corner of northeast Scotland, has a long history of viking visits and many of the place names are remnants of Old Norse, which was spoken on some of the islands until recent times.

So my experience with BBC programs on PBS, Monty Python routines, Beatles songs and novels by Dickens and Jane Austen had not prepared me well for this part of Britain with its rich linguistic soup. I did better with face to face conversations than telephone ones. Perhaps face to face gave me more context clues or reminded the speakers that they needed to speak carefully. At any rate, for the first few months, I listened hard and understood about half of what I heard.

Of course it is not just the words or the accent, but the way conversations are framed is also different. Stories here are often a cross between Homeric bardic language and Ring Lardner short story narrative. In the first instance, any tale begins with a recital of the ancestors of all the characters. The main thread, or so it seemed to me, is then embedded in description of day to day details which may lead to discussions of land, barley, grass, cattle, or weather. Since I did not know any of the connections, even when I cracked the code of the structure, I was still lost.

As with so many elements of the transition, this invisible corner was turned before I realized it. David came to the door and asked for a torch. I gave him the one nearest the door and turned down the hall to the office.
Morris asked, "Who was that?"
"David. He asked for a torch, so I gave him a flashlight."
Morris was not sure whether to laugh or not--I was sometimes more sensitive than good natured during the transition, but he could not suppress a smile.

I went on some time in this semi-permeable fashion of language making as I began to understand more and more of the words around me. But then I began to notice the result of an internal debate: sometimes the words would roll around in my head like the numbers in a bingo tumbler while my tongue waited impatiently for the winner. When I confided this problem to a visiting friend from the States, she assured me that this would pass and then I would automatically adjust to the language around me. I believe her because she is wise and knows about such things, but it is odd now to be on the other side of situations I have observed. When I asked my Indian friends in the US how they knew which dialect of the many they chose to use when speaking to a friend or family member, they always replied, "You just know."

So now the next time I go back to the States I will have to see if American words come back to me. It is hard to imagine a rich, red juicy Indiana tomato being called a "to MAH to." Or a drookit Scottish rain as a downpour. My daughter has suggested replacing the words that make no sense such as "boot" for the trunk of a car with more sensible ones such as "auto butt."

In the meantime, I am taking the Humpty Dumpty approach and making up words. After one too many days of rain up here, I exclaimed, "I am sick to death of these drookit draps of dribble falling on me!" It may not have advanced linguistic knowledge, but it did feel good and no one would have missed my meaning.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

"the rising sap of the silver birch"

Serendipity led me to Scotland and then led me down the aisle in New Harmony, Indiana and back to Scotland and now it has led me to Aberdeen and a glass of white wine made from the rising sap of the silver birch. Poetry on a wine label. The wine is from Orkney. The vikings there are, as always, both poets and shrewd businessmen.

After a little more than a year of working hard to learn the basics like how to make a phone call, buy groceries, turn on lights, and even how to dress for weather that beggared my imagination, I was beginning to get restless. Even the challenges of learning when to stand up to a cow and when to run away were taking less adrenalin than before. Evenings at the Tuesday sewing group, knitting with a good new friend, and coffee with other newcomers all helped to make me understand the world I was now in but also raised that restlessness of wanting something to write me into this new world as a full scale player rather than an observer.

I was delighted to be called to help out at a coffee morning. Although I had no idea what it was, I am so eager to be invited to participate that I say yes and then muddle my way through it. A coffee morning is a combination of rummage sale and cafe. I was asked to put plates of pastries on the tables. I finished that and asked for more to do:
"Can you put the fairy cakes on a plate?"
"Sure!" then "What are fairy cakes?"
we all shared a laugh in the little kitchen. One other woman said the term was new to her, too, and I got the plates loaded and went out again in search of another job. It was good to have a laugh, but when I don't know a word it sometimes shakes the fragile hold I have on who I am.

I am assigned the book and knitting table. That is an enormous relief. I know about books and knitting. I am even bilingual about knitting. A woman with two lively kids in tow comes to the table. She knows me but I am struggling to put context and name together and then it clicks. She hands me her card. She has changed jobs and is working in renewable energy. My eyes light up. I think there might be a connection there. I tell her I will send a link to my blog and that I would like to know more about her new job.

I email and suggest we do lunch. I am at heart a very shy person. Only people who know me well believe this because I have a well practiced outgoing veneer. In an instant I can revert to the new kid in class looking to have someone to play with at recess. Fortunately, my friend accepts and over dessert she suggests a job for which I might apply.

From that suggestion, we shift into rapid fire motion: First, to meet the person who has the position, to her office to read the job description, and then back again for an ad hoc interview. All this in time for her to pick up her daughter at school. I have not moved that fast since I left the United States. I have not been as excited about working in a long, long time, but most importantly I find that my hunch-playing gyroscope appears to have realigned itself for this new geographic location so that serendipity can find me.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

An Iffy Calf

About a dozen cows have yet to calve. They are in the field close to the house so we can keep an eye on them. A large black cow has been showing the early signs of calving, and Morris and I are on maternity duty. On my morning walk, she had been in the early stages, but later as we are hurrying along the farm road around the field, I see something that suggests her time has come. Although we are late, Morris backs the car up and one look with his experienced eye says yes, the calf is on its way right now. He will take me into town and come back and look in on her.

By the time he is back, the calf is here. An easy birth is good news all around, but later we discover that the calf has not sucked. It seems such a simple thing for a calf to suck. The instinct is there, and mother and calf are both healthy and fond of each other, but the topography of her udder apparently makes it difficult for the little calf, so we have to fill in for the two of them. I think perhaps I can handle this on my own, so I set out for the paddock with bottles of the mother's own milk and teat in a pan of hot water to keep the milk warm.

Even a small cow is large, and Momma is a big cow. She is agitated as I get near to her calf. I try getting the bottle into the calf's mouth while looking over my shoulder at Momma. How angry is she? How long will it take me to get to the gate from here? I step away to think about it and Momma comes up to the calf and licks it harder and rougher than I have seen. Is she agitated enough to do harm to the calf?

I walk through the paddock to open the gate into the larger field to get Momma out of the way, but I have lost the nerve to get the right body language and tone of voice to move a massive animal away from her calf. I trudge as quickly as I can in Morris's boots back to the house for reinforcements.

"Something's not right," I say vaguely but quickly.
He has read my voice and is already putting on his work clothes. Morris and I both know that the something not right could be me, but he is too patient or too polite to say it. He asks matter of factly, "Is his mouth warm?"
Having had my hands in the calf's mouth, I can say yes to that one. "The milk is going down but he is sucking very weakly."
"Did he have any milk in him?"
"Not when I first went out. I got about half the Diet Coke bottle down him, but he wasn't sucking and the mother was agitated. She seemed too rough with the calf so I was afraid something was wrong."
"You know they get agitated."

I don't need to reply. I do know mothers get agitated but I don't know what it means. Even an intensive course on animal husbandry is not enough in 18 months to have developed that kind of judgment. Between that small bit of information and the complexity of a large, upset mother and a reluctant calf lies a gap in which any or all of our lives are in jeopardy. I had worn Morris's boots out to the steading because they are easier to put on or so I had told myself but also in some vague hope that it would give me the courage or the knowledge to feed this one little calf by myself.

The cow has moved herself into the larger field but starts moving back to the paddock and her calf quickly when she sees us coming. With Morris by my side I find the right tone to shoo her back into the field and close the gate. She paces on the other side of the wall as we go toward the calf. When we move the little calf to the flagstone wall to try to get him to take the bottle, we are so close to the mother that I can feel her breath on me. Her eyes are opened wide enough to show the white rims so she reminds me of the statue of a fierce warrior in a temple in Hong Kong. But this one is real with her breath steaming in the cool evening air.

Despite the nearness of the mother, I try to concentrate on the calf wriggling and folding back upon itself accordion fashion. And then as if exhausted by the effort, the calf drops on all fours on the grass. He takes more milk but still does not suck well on his own. "He is not as lively as one might like," Morris says simply. His understatement both reassures me that there was something not quite right but it also makes my heart sink.

The next two days are spent in variations on the attempt to feed the calf and then to get her to suck. We seem close on several occasions. If he does not manage to suck, then perhaps we can put him with another cow or feed him, but he is an iffy calf. Morris does not need to explain the word. The calf's rough-tongued mother with all her own massive sturdiness exhorts the calf to be more lively because she, too, knows how hard the world is on calves who cannot suck.

When the calf manages to suck on his own, we are all relieved. Momma has put away her warrior persona. Instead she and her calf sit comfortably side by side in the sun in the paddock in a pastoral madonna and child. It is just one iffy calf, but it feels like a triumph.

Friday, May 19, 2006

"Life's Little Day"

"Life's little day" was 9 years and 5 months less than a century for George Mackay. I calculate this while standing outside his house crammed full of family and close friends staring at the card in my hand:

George Mackay
26.10.1915 - 14.05.2006
Funeral Service
From his home
Friday 19th May 2006
George died suddenly and so the card was a simple one with that plain front and only the words of the two hymns to be sung on the inside. This death is literally closer to home than any of the other funerals I have experienced; George Mackay was a neighbor. He was also a character and typical of the people up here who know more than they say unless prompted. George's 15 minutes of celebrity came when the BBC recently interviewed him on T.V. about the nearby nuclear plant. His no nonsense manner and clear insight won the hearts of all those who watched him.
When I met him he was long retired and walked slowly leaning heavily on two sticks. His eye was sharp and his smile was warm. I will miss him. I concentrate on the words of the second hymn. I like to sing them even though the language is often stiff and the melodies wander with the voices of those around me. "Abide with Me" shows up often on the funeral sheets. The second chorus of the second hymn must be the cue for the undertakers to move forward. I see them approach out of the corner of my eye and my hard-won equilibrium is lost. My voice quavers and the tears roll quietly down my cheeks.
The houses and fields up here have names. The names are often the only traces of the men and women who lived on them and took their names briefly from the land. Westerlea is the tiny house to which George retired. He is known as George Mackay of Buldoo. George's son now farms Buldoo and perhaps his grandson will follow after him. And then perhaps the heather or the rushes will reclaim it and even the name will be lost.
When we called on the family before the funeral, his son Sandy was regretting that he no longer recalled the details of his father's arrival in Caithness. "And now there is no one to ask," he said simply with his hands upturned and the lines around his eyes quietly betraying the loss.
And so for George's sake as well as our own, I will share here a story I know about him.
George was getting his barley in and there was a delay in getting Johnny Mackay's combine to the field. Morris finished his own fields and saw that George was getting behind.

Morris went down to George's field and set about getting the job done. And then George's wife came down to the field with home made scones and jam and rich farm butter and hot tea and they had a "half-yoking" - a picnic - in the field they had just finished together, sitting with their backs to a stook of sheaves.
Long after Morris had forgotten the day, he was reminded of it because a little kindness is often long remembered, and stories of home made scones and jam and butter after a hard day's work in a neighbor's field are worth telling and retelling and thus remembering.
Each day contains so many stories, so many heartbeats. How do we measure a life at the end of the day? The number of people standing in the cold grey afternoon in and around his little house are one measure, but more telling for a farmer are the fields who gave him his name and to which he gave his life. As we drove past his farm, Morris pointed with pride to the fields that contrasted sharply in their lush greenness with the rough ground adjacent to it.

The Train to Inverness

I wake early. I cannot tell time by the sun here and now. It is the season of near constant light. At 5am the sun is up but low on the horizon and the sky is full of flat grey clouds. If the sky lifts, it will be a lovely day, but the clouds can linger for days and occasionally deposit a cold rain. Even though it is May and the temperature is moderate, the damp cold bites through clothes and sometimes drains my spirit away along with the warmth. I wear tights beneath my jeans and layer a camisole with a thin lambswool sweater and then a favorite purple shirt. My clothes are now a mixture of American and Scottish. On top of the basic layers I add a wool jacket in purple, black and gray checkerboard squares. I bought it in an organic, whole foods store in Indianapolis from a couple who brought them back from some part of the world that needed support. A friend had the same jacket that she bought in a sidewalk stall in New York. Comfort clothes, good memories and the reason for my early rising make the morning easier. Today I am taking the train by myself from Thurso to Inverness and the only train south leaves at 6:51.

Before Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends there was the Little Engine that Could. Childhood memories of books and a well-worn record led to a fascination with trains that I have not outgrown despite many disappointments trying to travel by train in the United States. Scotrail runs reliably if not grandly in the highlands. By virtue of its location it offers some of the most wondrous viewing in the world, but the beautiful scenery contrasts sharply with the dilapidated condition of the stations. The station in Thurso is closed. Most of the other stations along the way seem closed or, at best, down at the heels and offer only minimal services.

I find a seat with a table in front. It is all plastic so it is a bit like sitting in someone's kitchen. From my window seat, I look out as the arable fields give way to moor and heather with gentle waves of soft colors of taupe and beige and golden brown and purple grey stretching along a wide horizon. The gentle swaying of the train eases me into dozing. I open my eyes near Kildonan, the site of the historical center of clan Gunn territory--my reputed clan. The name probably refers to a church purported to have been built by Saint Donan back when Picts were bringing Christianity to the region around a thousand years ago.

As the train rolls into Helmsdale and Brora, we ride along the coast. I have been on the motorway looking over at the rail line and at the ocean. When I was a child in Indiana, I often heard a train whistle in the night and resolved that someday I would ride that train. Even in my childhood, the train was relegated to carrying only freight, but I have been trying to ride trains wherever I could as if this would satisfy that childhood promise to myself or just to see what it is like to look at the same place from two very different perspectives: like diving a particular coral reef in the early morning and then again at twilight.

The clouds have lifted and the sunlight off the water as we head towards Brora has the lambent silver quality of a quiet sea at twilight. The tide is out, the water is calm. I have seen those colors before; I have walked on that beach. Brora to me means ice cream because almost every time Morris and I pass here we stop at the little ice cream shop. I once had lavender ice cream, but the flavors are usually more conventional. Place memories help connect me to this new life.

The next station, Golspie, is the site of a rock shop and exhibit area that is a treat for rock hounds but not exactly a mainstream tourist attraction. Golspie is also where Morris goes to the dentist. It is a long drive for a dentist, but the scarcity of dentists is one of the challenges of living in a remote rural area with a declining population. Perhaps also there are failures of policy oir mis-administration of the NHS but I cannot follow all those arguments and perhaps I never willl.

The train moves inland again. I close my eyes and the sun warms my face. When I open my eyes, I see the branches of birch trees with their green leaves unfolding. The sight makes me smile. Back home the trees are only beginning to leaf out and there are few trees. Back home in Thurso, that is. In Indiana the trees are well leafed out, the corn is in the ground and poking through the dark soil like soldiers on parade. I shake my head to shuffle those memories. At first it was too painful to think about it at all; now I can indulge an occasional memory of my first home without a twinge but I do not linger there for long because there are still sudden tender spots in the remembering.

The last few stations are more urban. The train makes a polite, electronic whistle: tootle oo that would be lost on the more remote stations. We roll into Inverness, the capital of the highlands, a big town, a regional shopping center, and I step off the train for an urban adventure. I am alone in a city in Scotland on my own for the first time. The quickest way to dispel the myth that everyone else knows better than I do how to get around this strange town is to ask directions.

I ask directions first from a couple who sit down next to me at a cafe immediately adjacent to the train station. It turns out that they are on a bus tour of the highlands and are even less local than I am. I buy their coffee and hot chocolate and relish the opportunity to say to someone else the words I have heard so often: "Enjoy the rest of your holiday." In the cafe, a local directs me in the general area of the driving office and then someone else volunteers to give me detailed directions.

Unfortunately, life in a state carved out on careful grids and living in a city with straight streets and names and numbers on the streets has not prepared me for Inverness. Nothing is straight and phrases like "second right" lose their meaning when streets and alleys look alike and nothing is named. I find out later that I have wandered too far afield, but it is a pleasant day for a walk.

When I lose faith that I am going in the right direction, I stop two young men. They are, like me, semi local. They live here but they speak mostly Polish. I point to the map and explain what I want and they talk to each other in Polish and then each points in a different direction.

I do eventually find where I need to go and discover how far afield I was and go back an easier route. I feel at home when I see a sign for Capaldi's ice cream. I find a used book store and browse among the knitting books. Then I find a shop that sells good walking boots and chat with a young man. I come out with boots and insoles and a new pack and a big grin on my face. I am one step closer to my new persona of hillwalker.

I find my way to the train station. I am ready to head for home, but the train won't leave for another hour. I go next door to a hotel where I have been before. I have been here at least 4 times but I have clear memories only of the last time. My first year in Scotland has some vague spots. I settle into the bar with a glass of red wine and looking over my purchases. Nina Simone is playing in the background.

I go back to the train station early. I am ready to be home now. I join a few others making a queue and head tothe train as soon as it opens as if this will hurry it on its way. I call Morris and he says that he can meet me at Forsinard, a station about 30 minutes from home. I say yes despite a bit of worry about finding one more new place today because I am ready to be home and I have for some time wanted to see the station at Forsinard because guided walks through the Flow Country begin here and I want to take part. Like the boots and the interval training, at least touching down at the station is in my mind another step toward being a hillwalker.

The young man who brings me a sandwich and cup of tea comes back with a brochure and map of the route--not a detailed topographic map but a representation of the route that describes the wildlife and a bit of the history. I lay it out on the table in front of me and follow the train's route. In part I am anxious about finding the right station, but mostly I am ready to be home and somehow checking off the stations seems to make this faster. The young man lives in Thurso, he tells me. He tells me which street and I am able to see it in my mind's eye. I am one step closer to home.

The cityscape and the coast give way to the moors and I see two deer by the side of the train and then I see a handful of them and then as the train moves along, the moors come alive with deer. They are so close in color with the land that it seems as if they spring up from the ground itself. At last the train slows down to pull into Forsinard. I see Morris on the platform trying to look unconcerned but I can tell he is glad to see me. The conductor has said to leave by way of the back door of the leading car. I have no idea which car is leading and, hence, which door is the back door. I find my own way to the nearest door, push the yelllow button, and hop down the two feet to the platform. At once I see Morris smiling and a confused conductor picking up the little step stool from what must have been the back door of the leading car. Next time I'll know better, but now I am home and thoughts of the train are already fading as it pulls out of the station with the few remaining passengers.

Friday, May 12, 2006

How I Was Rescued by a Calf

Before I left Indiana, a friend asked with all the enthusiasm she felt about my new life, "What will you be doing? Tell me what your day will be like." And I was blank. I had no idea what a day would look like, and there were some days that emptiness weighed more heavily than others. By August when the last calf of the season slipped unceremoniously into the field, I had managed to help move cattle from one place to another and had watched them often at a distance or up close. I had not yet touched one.

New calves are the embodiment of hopefulness. With knobby knees, tiny tail and big eyes, they are literally and figuratively hungry for the things of this new world. By the time we meet the little red and black (red undertones from her mother's side of the family) and her mother, they are already fond of each other, but the calf looks hungry. We move the pair into the room of the barn that functions as nursery or delivery room for a closer look and we discover that the mother has no milk to offer her calf.

Morris shows me how to mix powdered milk in a former Diet Coke bottle with a leaky nipple and I hand the bottle to him. He gets Little red and black to take the bottle apparently effortlessly. I fill another bottle and we develop a relay replacing one bottle smoothly with another until red and black loses interest. We move the large, sober minded cow from the room in the barn into a grassy paddock opposite. She is a cow more familiar with the routines of the farm than I am, so she ambles complacently into the paddock, but with a watchful eye on her calf.

Little red and black, likewise, has her eye on her mother, but tired from her first hours of life, she folds her legs and tumbles onto the straw in the corner of the room. With the same patience as her mother, she is moved willingly but uneasily on her new legs into a grassy area above the paddock where her mother is. Mother and calf can see each other, but there is a gate between them. They both are quiet during the night.

First thing in the morning I look out the bedroom window to see the calf below staring through the gate as if she could will herself to the other side. She is hunched down standing in the cold rain. Her mother, at the far end of the paddock, shelters as best she can in the lee of the stone wall. By example or necessity, the calf backs into a flagstone as if the stone will open up and take her out of the rain. The stone does not yield. She turns parallel with the upright flagstone. Although this position provides some shelter from the wind, she no longer faces her mother. When I look again, the calf is curled into a ball with her nose to the edge of the gate.

I climb back into bed and try to get my feet warm. I read and doze and then I wake to hear the calf. She is hungry. I go back to reading until Morris comes in and suggests that I feed the calf. My farming skills and my confidence in those skills are both so limited that I think he is teasing me. He persists. I agree to go as long as he comes with me. "Wear the oil skins because if the calf gets her mouth on you, it's wet." "Everything about a calf is wet, " I reply. Especially one that has been out in the steady drizzle of today's rain.

Armed with three bottles of warm milk, we approach the calf. She tries even more earnestly to get to her mother as we approach, but with some effort and some calming from her mother, she gets wedged into a corner near the gate and the flagstone. Morris tells me to get in close to her to keep her still. I feel the warmth of her side against my legs through the oil skins. Morris explains about the location of teeth in her mouth; he urges me to put my fingers in her mouth and feel for myself. I decline.

Although she remembers the bottles from last night and is eager to drink, I do not have the same effortless touch to ease the nipple into her mouth. After several attempts that result only with milk on her nose, warm milk dribbling down my oilskins, and both my hands so sticky with milk that she tries to suck my fingers, I am near despair. Morris is patient and resolved. I know that none of us is getting out of this cold rain until the calf gets fed. By happy accident or the calf's persistence, we get the first bottle into her mouth.

She sucks eagerly and her tail moves rapidly side to side. Morris tells me that the speed of a calf's sucking is related to how fast its tail moves. I don't know if this farming wisdom or pulling the leg of the newcomer. Before I have a chance to ask, we need to switch to the second bottle. The relay is pretty smooth, thanks to the calf. She thumps my leg with her tail at a rate that suggests we might need a fourth bottle.

And so after that on the job training, I take up the job of feeding Lady Marmalade, as I dubbed her then, three times a day. She became my alarm clock and my reason to get out of bed in the morning. As she got older, she became my early morning exercise routine as well. After breakfast, she and I would run up and down the paddock. I could hear the milk gurgling and sloshing as she ran and leaped. I gained a great appreciation for four legs for cornering and speed over short distances.

When she was old enough to be moved in with the other calves, I was relieved. It had become very demanding even after she had gone to a bucket for feeding. But the first day in her new pen, I went to look after her and was worried that she was not fitting in well much the way a mother worries over her kindergarten child. Wee Calfie, as she had now come to be called, was smaller than all the others and was unused to being with other cattle. She called after me when I left, so I promoted myself with the support of Morris and David to foster mother to them all. Every morning and afternoon, I made a mix of barley and sugar beet--bovine granola-- and made sure they had lots of hay and fresh straw. And sometimes I sang to them.

Now they are all out in the field dreaming their own bovine dreams in the sun, listening to bird song, and dancing and chasing with each other. Wee Calfie will grow up to become a mother herself and I like to think she will be a good one.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Trip to the Regular

Yesterday was a beautiful day here. The sky was blue and it was almost too warm (for the natives, that is); I reveled in the warmth to wear a pair of sandals and eat ice cream. Today was greyish and cool. As the day wore on it went from cool to downright cold. The air can get a bite to it even though the temperature is still relatively mild.

To compound the spirit-draining effect of the weather, the day was spent in paperwork. Having worked for a pharmaceutical company in their computer validation documentation, I thought I knew paperwork. The volume and complexity of the paperwork associated with farming still leaves me reeling. Imagine having three sets of directions for more or less the same thing using different words for the same thing and none of the words making much sense and those that do contradict the others. A grey day and paperwork had only one possible antidote: a trip to Halladale Inn.

Halladale Inn is about 6 miles away to the west in Melvich, which is in Sutherland--the county adjacent to Caithness. Traditionally, the boundary between the two has been marked by the split stone---a boulder by the side of the road supposedly split in twa when a demon lashed it with its tail. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The actual border is a bit one way or the other of the stone, but the geology marks the difference dramatically between Caithness and Sutherland. Caithness has rolling hills and arable land and pastures; Sutherland has open moors and bogs and wetlands. The difference is dramatic. Each has a beauty of its own and they share the ragged sedimentary rocks of the coastline.

Halladale Inn, our regular pub, serves meals any time of the day; in contrast with our local pub, Forss House, which serves only dinners and Sunday lunch--in season. Halladale Inn serves macaroni and cheese and has a pool table and a juke box; Forss House has a quiet bar adjacent to the dining room. Halladale has a pub dog, Tim. Forss House is too upscale for dogs. Forss House caters to business people and fishermen. They have a stuffed salmon over the mantelpiece. I don't recall anything remarkable at all over the mantelpiece at Halladale, but the fire is always warm.

The company at Forss House can be quite good. We often go there for wine and conversation with the manager and whichever guests are staying at the hotel, but tonight was a night for macaroni and cheese and talking to Tim, the pub dog. Although I am mostly a cat person, I appreciate the unique contributions of dogs, and Tim is always good at what dogs do best--making you feel better. Tim is too old to be more than casually welcoming. He looks up, gives a desultory wag of the tail, and then gets on with his business. That is normally enough to raise my spirits and set me up for the macaroni and cheese.

Tonight we had an extra added bonus--Floyd (after Pink Floyd), the young pup, was also in residence. Floyd provided the other favorite dog act--the ability to reduce me to hysterics by the serious look on his face while holding a ragged toy in his mouth. The juxtaposition of the noble animal look with the ridiculous trophy gets me every time. If I could have taken Floyd outside and played fetch, my spirits would have been lifted in an instant.

Instead I talk with the co-owner about Floyd. It turns out that he has a pedigree and was born at Balmoral Estate (the queen's home away from home in Scotland). I am not too impressed but I make polite comments about his pedigree and comment on how shiny his coat is. The owner tells me with a little smile that Floyd likes hanging out with the sheep. "Oh," I say, "lanolin," knowing all the while that dogs roll in the things people usually try to avoid. Her look says it all, and I am happy because thinking of Floyd rolling in sheep manure is somehow almost as good as playing fetch.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Death at a Distance

Since I have moved to Scotland I have attended more funerals than in my entire life previously. Although few people can say they enjoy funerals, I struggle even more than most to keep my equilibrium and to find through the funeral some sense of peace. A friend in his blog used the phrase, a "detente with death" ( I like the phrase because it conveys the sense of a temporary, tentative resolution. A detente may fall apart and conflict may resume, or it may grow into a lasting peace. And so through these funerals I had come to a tenuous understanding with death.

The news of my former father in law's death disturbed that fragile peace and made me appreciate the value of funerals. I had not spoken to my father in law since my marriage fell apart. We had no reason to. I think from time to time he may have thought of me and might actually in some vague way have missed me. I like to think so because from time to time I thought of him and was saddened to learn that now with his death there would be no possibility of talking to him again or remembering the stories of his life.

If I were at his funeral or gathered afterward for coffee at his home, I could say to someone, "Did he get his purple heart for that wound in his leg on the ship?"
And someone would say, " I didn't know he had a purple heart."
Another would add, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I think he had two."
"Two? Oh, well then one could have been for that first wound on the ship. Was that before America was even in the war, officially, I mean."
"Yes, he lied about his age and ran off to join the conflict with some expeditionary force."
And so the funeral would allow us to talk his life back into the room. I was not there. I hope someone remembered the story of the ship. I would have liked to have heard others.

Harold Wesley Kasserman was a fighting man. He liked to tell the story of running away to war and was very proud of becoming a full colonel in the regular army. But he was not a fighting man in the sense that he was a warrior or clamored for conflict. His fight began with reading books. In Hannibal, Ohio, a tiny town on the river, reading books was unusual. I don't think I ever knew how he happened to read books, but I remember the pain and determination when he told me about reading words without ever having heard them. As a result, he thought Napoleon was pronounced "Napple Open." He did not tell me how that mistake was made known to him but even as a young woman I could read the pain in the telling of the story and knew that the world could be very cruel to boys from small, tough towns who read books.

Life on the river was rough he said simply. With a shake of his head, he picked up some other conversational thread. "I was a captain in the Army before I could speak properly," he told me. I never knew quite how to react. It was not clear if he wanted sympathy or praise or daring me to say that he was not speaking properly. And that internal fight kept most of the people in his life at a distance.

When I first came to know him, he was a lieutenant colonel in the army and he was in Viet Nam for his second tour of duty. Like many of my generation, I was opposed to the war, but I could not help but sympathize with his son's anxieties over his father's well being and his own conflict in having to keep it a secret that his father was serving in this unpopular war. Perhaps this ability for my own ambivalence made a bridge over which he and I sometimes talked. He had stories to tell and at least one book he wanted to write. I hope he did.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

There and Back Again

My first solo driving adventure took me through Thurso, the usual terminus for my driving adventures and the extreme end of my knowledge of local geography, all the way to Lybster. Yesterday I made it there only half an hour late with one and a half wrong turns. Getting there was one of the achievements of the day.

Another achievement was actually getting the car up to 60 miles an hour--the speed limit. Ever since I started driving in this looking-glass world, staying on the road and fighting the internal vertigo that comes from mirror image driving occupied all my attention. Driving used to mean occasionally doing up to 80 miles an hour on the interstate around Indianapolis to get to work on time or trying to keep pace with even faster moving cars on the Dan Ryan expressway to get to my daughter in Chicago.

Because I made it to Lybster and back home again, I decided to go back again today for another day of a workshop on felting. With my new found confidence I had the opportunity to reflect that the route from the farm to the North Lands Creative Glass works in Lybster describes much of the countryside, so I'll take you through the trip with me.

I notice the fields as I drive out the farm road. The barley that was sown about a week ago is through the ground and giving the brown fields a sheen of green something like a verdant hopeful first growth of a teen ager's beard. I also notice the rooks in the chimneys of the abandoned farm cottage in the turn of the road, the gulls in the fields, and the swallows. I am too late for the magpies song and dance routine above the fields or the rabbits on the edges of the field. The cattle are settled into the business of grazing and I slip by them without causing them even to look up.

I turn on to the main road, which looks like a county or state road in Indiana. One other car joins me within the next few 5 miles as well as a tractor pulling a load who turns into a nearby farm. I do not remember his name, but I smile and wave as I go by. Nearly everyone here knows who I am, so I smile and wave even if I am not sure that I know them. With each day, it gets more likely that I do know them.

This route into Thurso takes me along the coast. The road has a number and perhaps a name, too, but I have always heard it described simply as the coast road. When I first tried finding my way all the way into Thurso, Morris said simply, "The ocean on your left into town; on your right back home." I am aware of the water but can't take the time to notice the colors or the mood of the water. White caps mean a wind of at least 50 miles an hour; active waves that break on the shore mean rougher weather coming in a day or so.

Atop the crest of the hill that begins the descent into town is a sight that always amazes me. The water spreads in front of me from one horizon to the next. Out of the corner of my eye I see a large ship. Not the Hamnavoe ferry, something a bit out of the ordinary. I'll hear about it either from the newspaper or from our butcher or one of our neighbors. People notice and talk about the world around them and use the letters to the editor column of The Caithness Courier and The John o Groat Journal for lively conversations.

Thurso is a big enough town to be more than a dot on the map. Although not the biggest town in Caithness, it has a three-plex cinema, library, fitness center, two large grocery stores, a recognizable downtown, and a pedestrian mall with shops, including our butcher, as well as schools and churches, including the remains of a 12th century church, St. Peters, and a bowling club.

I turn onto the A9, which someday when I am even braver, I will take all the way to Inverness. The 110 miles to Inverness includes three roundabouts and more traffic than all of Caithness combined, so that will be a super size adventure. Today I pass the Georgemas train station and then road signs pointing to the villages of Watten and to Halkirk. After a scatter of houses and sheep and cattle grazing in the field, I come to Spittal, the only town on the route large enough to have a name on the side of the road and a reduced speed limit. I go the prescribed 50 miles an hour through the town. It takes exactly one minute to go through Spittal.

The farming landscape gives way to hilll country--peat and heather and boggy ground. Patches of evergreen trees planted as shelter belts offer dark green spots on an amber and tawny beige landscape. The dancing ladies of Causeway Mire--two dozen wind turbines-come into view and dominate the landscape. Today they wave their blades gently in the breeze in a lyrical reverie. Caithness has great potential to harvest the wind, but as with so many things up here, it is controversial and opinion is polarized. Those of us in the middle ground mostly stay quiet.

Next to the dancing ladies is an active peat harvesting area. This, too, is controversial. Some think that digging peat is a useful industry and part of long standing traditions; others think that the peat is a resource to be preserved.

Shortly after the peat and the dancing ladies, I turn left at a small sign that says simply, "Lybster 6 miles", but that in itself speaks volumes. Lybster is one of the many place names that testifies to the Viking presence in Caithness. Variations on the "-bster"suffix derive from the old Norse word for farm settlement.

And the road itself is another Scottish phenomenon--a single track road. The name suggests what it is, but just to make it clear, I'll tell you a joke that I have heard often. "Why is it that Americans are so fond of our single-track roads?" "It's the only time they don't have to worry about which side of the road to be on!" That's only half true. The single track is narrow enough that you have to worry about staying on the road. Either side is likely to be unfriendly to cars--wet or high or a drainage ditch or containing a lamb that just might decide to run across the road in front of you.

As if that weren't enough to think about, there is the challenge of what happens if a car comes the other way. Notice I say if. I have been on single track roads where this was a non-issue, but this road runs through Rumster Forest and Outdoor Recreation area and there are also farms and houses along the 6 mile stretch. I meet another car, and so I look for the nearest layby-- a small half-lane vaguely like an aneurysm on an artery that provides a holding pen for one of the vehicles. The rules of engagement are that whoever is nearest a layby pulls in to let the other car go by unless the lay by is on the other side of the road. It is an offence to cross the road, so to speak, to pull into a layby. On the way to Lybster, I successfully pull into a layby for a car and then two cars pull into laybys and let me pass. Very civilized. A little wave is usually part of the exchange.

On the way home from Lybster, I encounter an oncoming car, and the nearest layby is behind me. With my heart in my throat I make an attempt to do the right thing by reversing into the layby. I do it so badly that the oncoming driver offers me hand gestures to tell me which way to move my car and then glides past. I offer a sheepish grin and a shoulder shrug instead of the usual wave.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A View from a Tractor

I grew up very much a tomboy and chose to play with the boys. When they let me play baseball with them, they put me far enough down in the batting order that I rarely got a chance to bat, and when we were out in the field, they put me in right field and then closed out right field--any balls hit in my area were considered an instant out. The boys learned how to bat and how to field a high fly; I learned how to watch.

And so today 50 years and 5,000 miles away from the empty lot where we played baseball, I am playing a supporting role in a ballet for tractors and front loader from the cab of a tractor. I am playing with the boys, but I have time to watch. I nudge the old red tractor out of neutral and into the lowest gear and we edge forward--the tractor, the trailer, and I--as the front loader scoops its bucket into the earth to capture the many rocks that sprout in this field. When the loader lifts its rock harvest and pirouettes to turn toward me, I stop, put the tractor into neutral and feel the weight of the rocks tumble into the trailer behind me.

The slow pas de deux with the frontloader gives me time to watch the other tractor further down the field. It moves single-mindedly up and down the field dragging the harrow behind it accompanied by a chorus of sea gulls. The gulls settle gracefully behind the tractor in a line stretching the length of the field with a marvelous efficiency. These gulls bear little resemblance to their urbanized beggar cousins. These gulls work for a living. And now they are working. The last of the gulls settles into the end of the line as the tractor makes its wide turn into the next row. In perfect order, the gulls begin their ascent and gently, wave-like the long thin line of gulls settles back into work. And so the choreography continues row after row.

I am called back to work and this time I nudge the tractor into gear and take off across the field closely behind my front loader. I turn very carefully so that the rocks do not heave and complain in the trailer. I bounce along over the ridges left behind by the plow trying to sway with the ups and the downs. With the bravado of a beginner, I flick from first gear to second, third, and then fourth gear. The speedometer reads 10 miles per hour, but I feel as if I am flying. I stop as the front loader dives and pirouettes and comes flying toward me with its latest harvest.

Even this small tractor has tires that are taller than I am. It is a climb to get into it. The seat is tall and throne like and set on springs that cannot quite smooth out all the bumps and ridges in a field or farm road. The cab has glass nearly all around so there is great visibility. It is a bit like a bird hide on wheels. From the cab I see not only the busy gulls but also wagtails and crows.

And from the cab in this field, I can see a selection of blues in the firth ahead of me. From ground level when I walk I see the firth and can note its temperament by the height of the waves, but it is only one hue. From the cab, the blues have their own choreography--pale blue green by the sandy shore edging into marine blue by the rocks and beyond in the deepest water. Medium blue where the water is warmer or moving quickly. And an occasional accent of white as a swell rises and peaks. I could watch the blues edging in and out of each other for some time, but the front loader is off and so I am across the field again in pursuit.

When the largest rocks have been collected and deposited into the trailer, I have the hardest job of the day. I need to make a slow, wide turn and get the tractor through the gate in the stone dyke (wall) around the field. It sounds so simple. I turn like a tugboat and move slowly toward the gate. It feels as if the tractor could take out Tokyo let alone a chunk of mortarless stone wall. I make a leap of faith---it came in through the gate, so it has to be able to go out. "Yes," says the voice of perpetual doubt, "but can you get it out?" The others in the ballet believe in me and need me to do my part, so I move slowly through the gate and realize that there was actually quite a bit of room. I breathe again and have the sense that the others do, too. I celebrate my success by bouncing up the rutted farm road in second gear and cast just one quick look at the ocean as I head for home.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Interval Training Highland Style

In retrospect, one of the reasons to turn my life inside out was the revelation of too much "used to" in my life.
"Do you like to dance?"
"Do you dance a lot?"
"I used to."
And so on.
I used to love to run. I was never one of those sleek, marvels of efficiency moving effortlessly mile after mile. I was more a dumpling pumping and weaving inefficiently as I felt the wind in my hair and thought about anything and everything. The first time I walked under the Big Sky of a summer day in the North of Scotland, I felt like running again.

And so between that first revelation and today I am on my way to reinventing myself as a hillwalker. The word "hill" over here does not necessarily mean an elevated piece of ground. It can refer to rough ground of any height. So on the way to becoming a hillwalker I am walking the farm roads and across the fields and sometimes down to the shore of the firth. As I have gotten stronger I have taken longer and more frequent walks. And now I am doing the hard work of interval training once or twice a week.

In previous incarnations, I have done interval training--running or walking as fast as you can for a given amount of time, taking time to recover and then going at it again--on a track in primary school, with my daughter's soccer team, or on a paved pathway around a retention pond in an apartment complex. I never really enjoyed it. It was always a means to an end. And I was always alone when I did it.

I have been training on the road between the fields and up the farm road for a week but now the cattle are out in the field, so they follow me down the road--keeping on their side of the fence and eyeing me curiously. And when I come to the end of their field, the next group are huddled tightly around the corner of their field waiting for me. As I pass, some of them watch me intently and then get on with eating; a few turn to watch me. Out of the corner of my eye I see them, but my watch says it is time for a fast interval, so I kick it into as high a gear as I have. Some cattle scatter, some remain huddled at the gate, but one, half-grown calf comes along with me, keeping pace with a lot less effort than I am making. He follows me to the end of the field and sends me on my way with a little rocking kick of his back legs--a bovine happy dance. I laugh out loud with the little bit of breath I have left.