Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Spiritual Wake Up Call

I woke up slowly and grumpy. I am still sick and I am very tired of it. My first deed upon waking was to feel my face--Has the swelling reached my eye? Did I wake because my face hurts? Way too much me-thinking. Looking out the window I saw one of my barn cats working hard in the field looking for her breakfast. I watched her briefly. Although the sight was not enough to jolt me out of my mump, I did check the nearby areas for Hopalong, the sterk hobbling around on three legs. He was lame when we bought him, apparently a long time injury. My husband and the farmer who sold him in this condition came to a good accord, and Hopalong the sterk (last year we had Hopalong the lamb in the same field) is in this quiet, grassy paddock in the hopes that the good grass, fresh air, and open spaces will give him room to heal. I watch him several times a day to see how he progresses.

Gnomie, the hard working cat, and Hopalong, the lame sterk, both register on my consciousness and my concern, but I am still in my self-imposed, feeling sorry for myself mode.

And then I get a 4-alarm spiritual wake up call. A friend emails saying that he and his wife are going with their church back to Gulfport, Mississippi because even now many of those folks are still without a house, a church, or the basic necessities of everyday living. I am swamped with guilt, gratitutde, pain, and hopefulness, all in very short order.

I remembered crying long hot tears as I watched the news of the hurricane that hit New Orleans and left so many people dead, sick, or despairing. I was devastated with the particular helplessness of an ex pat: "What have they done to my country?" I am one of those folks who believes that Hope, the last thing to come out of Pandora's box, is the balm for all the other ills. But Hope, like all things with wings, is fragile. In Russ's email message, I feel hope struggling to fly: his own hopes, those of his church work mates, and those of the people that he wants to help.

I do my best to help him as my own hope limps off the landing pad. I do believe that a handful of people can work miracles. Despite the storm and the hobbled bureaucracy, some people will be given the gift of four walls and, maybe, just, maybe, enough hope to make a home and a community. I send an email encouragement to my friend and his colleagues, I give thanks for the opportunity to have friends like that in my life, and to have been given a wake up call just when my own spirit was collapsing in on itself. I will get dressed today, tuck my antivirals in my pocket, and go out in the sunshine and remember to count all my many blessings.

Here's the link to my friend's blog about the volunteer experience if you want to send some encouragement to them: .

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Doubtful Sound

Thanks to my husband for these photos.

In a recent communication, Paul ( talked about "discovering" a poem. Most poems seem at least to start that way for me, but then comes the hard part of translating them from the dream time into the words of everyday exchange and preserving at least some of the feelings. The first bit of this poem came to me when I was in Doubtful Sound in New Zealand and has lingered on the edge of my mind. I decided to pull it out and have a go thanks to Paul and his blogpenpal Nasra, who says that her poetry is often inspired by the beauty of nature.(

All of New Zealand is beautiful, but Doubtful Sound, in the middle of a nature reserve larger than Rhode Island, is deservedly cherished above many others. For our first anniversary we took an overnight cruise onto the sound. It was a long slog to get to the boat, so most of the more casual tourists had gone to Milford Sound, which is also beautiful but more accessible and hence more traveled. We spent the night on the boat and had dolphins frolic alongside us and learned about the flora and fauna from a passionate conservationist.

The next day we had the ultimate treat--nothing. The boat moved slowly into one of the many small inlets along the sound. Everyone on board was requested to be silent for a few minutes. They stopped the engine and we drifted into the deepest silence I have ever experienced. At first the silence was complete, then gradually the birds reclaimed the air with their birdsong, the untroubled waves of the water lapped against the shore, and the wind sighed through the trees clinging tenuously to the steep stone walls surrounding this secret cove.

In this wet cool green center of creation
A gift of stillness
Calls me back to the source of meaning.
Too soon the world returns,
but this small still spot lingers within me.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007


The persistent virus has triumphed over me again. I thought 2 weeks was an eternity; other people said it was fast for a recovery from shingles. Apparently, too fast. I did feel fine, and I guess in that normality I threw caution to the winds. Cold winds, that is. The chill of the cold air lingered a bit longer on that side of my face, but not worryingly so. I kept working; I was tired but I rested over the weekend, and then the tell tale spot emerged. Even then I thought perhaps it was something else but resolved to call the doctor just as a precaution.

By the time the doctor's office opened, I no longer had any doubt. Apparently neither did the doctor: without even seeing me, he phoned a prescription for the anti-viral into the chemist (pharmacist). I phoned my office and was told absolutely not to come in. I demurred and thought I would come for half a day and then my own words to my blogpal, Curmudgeon came back to me. I have been ragging on him to take it easy and to stay home, and so I had better follow my own advice.

If you don't hear from me for a day or so, you can imagine the scene: every 4 hours (except during the night), I will faithfully chug down my 800 milligram antiviral imaging that it is a bazooka aimed at a nest of virus lurking inside my hard working mitcohondria. The continual barrage will quickly bring the rebels to heel and conditions will be normalized: trigeminal nerves will cheerfully go back to their roles as supporting actors and the virus will retreat into obscurity.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Standing on his own Four Feet

Another spring, another calving. I mark the seasons differently now. It's not just the geography that differs, but the entire world in which I live. Spring is time for calving and lambing and balancing the barley and the silage against the hungry mouths as we wait for the return of the good rich grass. It is also time to complete the IACS--a complex form that I am only beginning to understand, and balance the expenses of fertilizer and equipment repairs and diesel fuel against the little bit of money that comes in at this time of year. I am learning about the business side, but just now that world is compressed into the tiny chin of a newborn calf cradled in my hand.

I hold the chin so that I can position the calf 's head so he can take the milk properly down his throat. It also helps me gauge how sturdy he is. His eyes are bright with Disney-like eyelashes looking almost coquettish on this young bullock. I try not to be distracted from the job of getting him to suck the bottle of his own mother's milk. David collected it earlier and left it in the fridge in the steading. Babies of any species operate on a different schedule, so calving is a time of long hours. The milk has been warmed in a hot water bath that has loosened but not yet dislodged the Irn Bru label. (Irn Bru being the Scottish equivalent of Mountain Dew.)

The calf turns his head trying to avoid the bottle because it is strange and my hand is strange. Not unpleasant but strange. Nothing in his young brain has told him how to deal with these things. I note that his head is strong. There have been calves who did not have the strength to hold up their heads. His resistance encourages me. I put a little milk on his lips and notice that he has tiny blue gray whiskers on his nose. His curly coat is a mixture of blue from his Belgian blue mother and black from his Aberdeen Angus father. His tongue comes out and licks the milk. That is another good sign. I give him time to think about it and then when the tongue emerges again, I put the nipple on his tongue. In an instant it is in his mouth and he begins to suck vigorously, another good sign.

Some farmers use a bag with a tube on the end and force milk into the calf's throat. This shortcut may be necessary sometimes, but if we have the luxury of extra hands and patience then the recycled bottles of Irn Bru with momma's milk delivered at the calf's pace are a better way of doing it.

He sucks well and takes an entire bottle. The effort exhausts him but he seems relatively content. He shivers slightly in the cool breeze through the open door into the old part of the barn. Morris moves the heat lamp a bit closer, and I slide an old piece of plywood across the front of the improvised neonatal unit--large flagstones on either side, plywood in front, heat lamp suspended from the old hay rack for the byre this part of the barn once was. Little Black and Blue nestles into his bed of straw and shivers a bit less as we watch him drop off to sleep.

I proclaim I can do the next feeding all on my own. I put on my husband's boots, telling myself they are easier to get into than my own, but it is the first step into the world of magical thinking. The sky is cloudless, so the stars dance and the air is sharply cold. The short walk across the drive from the house to the steading is a walk into a different world. Earlier that day in the safety of bright daylight I had seen my first rat. I know there are many of them in the dark, and I don't know if they will still remember that I am the dominant species. The rules often change in the dark.

I crank my wind up flashlight as if the sound alone will send the rats scurrying for cover, get to the sink, and feel the relief of the light dissipating the shadows at least in this small area. I get his momma's milk from the fridge and pour the hot water into the improvised container and look in on him while it warms--"blood warm" Morris says. I test it on the inside of my wrist. The comfortable warmth contrasts with the cold air around me. The calf is fine. He drinks well and makes a funny sound--more frog than calf.

In the larger part of the barn I hear an animal bellowing urgently. I think of the expectant cows and go to take a look, but as soon as I open the door, I hear nothing but the quiet breathing of the cattle and some rustling in the straw. I return to the calf and the sounds begin again. It is his mother calling out to him in the night. This, too, is a good sign. She misses him. He was born prematurely and sometimes a cow will just walk away--all the hormonal or instinctive bonding having failed, but Little Black and Blue has a momma, a large Belgian Blue, who wants him back. I promise her to do my best to get him back to her.

The next morning David has brought the calf out to see momma who has been given an injection of oxytocin to bring on her milk. The combination of her affection for the calf and the hormone works well and her milk is flowing. The calf sits where she can see him as David milks her. She is restrained comfortably in a pair of gates so that she can see her baby and not get hurt (or hurt us). As I approach the calf with the first bottle of her milk for him, she swings her massive head like the lethal weapon it can be. I duck for cover. David moves the calf so that we are in sight but out of range. She stamps and would charge if only she could. The calf sucks and I keep hoping that she will understand that we both have her calf's well being in mind.

After Little Black and Blue has three bottles, we put him and his momma into her straw filled byre. She licks him and sits close to him to give him her warmth. We hope that perhaps he will manage to stand on his own.

At noon, Little Black and Blue is sleeping fitfully by his momma, slightly shivery. David moves him back under the heat lamp so I can feed him. After the time with his mother, the calf seems limp and listless. It is more like pouring him out of his arms than putting him down. I manage to get less than half a bottle of warm milk into him. David, Ranald and I all look at him and Ranald says simply, "Poor little thing." "Oh, he's better than yesterday," I say, but I know it's not true and wonder what went wrong from this morning to now.

I walk into the house thinking I am being the good farm wife and knowing that we have done our best and that not all calves can make it and no sooner have I finished my brave talk than two giant tears leak out of my eyes and race down my cheeks. My husband sees them and in an instant we are back out to the calf. He sets the calf upright shaping it into more of a calf shape, adjusts the heat lamp and makes the improvised unit smaller. He gives it a bit more milk and some milk of magnesia. We all know we are definitely bucking the odds. The first 24 hours were a miracle and now we don't want to give up, but we don't see much hope.

I try to lose myself in a Hercule Poirot mystery. I want to see death defeated with style and wit in period costumes. Morris looks in on the calf and comes flying back--"Right, we're off to the vet, now." I scramble for shoes and look somewhat embarrassed at David as he loads the calf into the back of our Volvo country estate wagon. The calf moves a bit in the car--a good sign. Sunday afternoon and the only vet is the one who has looked after my cats. I hope he knows about cattle, too. In a cursory examination of the calf in the back of the car, the vet says the same kinds of things that Morris says, "The calf looks bright in the head." He also says that the calf is probably only about 10 days premature.

The vet takes the calf's temperature and then Morris and I move the calf into the vet's office, where the vet gives him an injection to loosen his stomach muscles. "Give him physiotherapy by standing him upright so that his brain gets the idea that he has legs," he says as Morris and I hold the calf in an imitation standing calf pose. It's not easy for us, but the calf seems to be getting the idea. He has up to now never gotten further than his knees. The vet gives the calf an enema and jokes, "If my friends could see me now," but we all know that excrement is important, so we study it with nearly the same intensity as ancient seers looking for omens. "Feed him often and little so as not to overload his system. It looks as if it is complete and intact."

Little Black and Blue is loaded back into the car and taken home. Morris and I struggle together to get him back to his neonatal unit. As we have to carry him upside down by his legs for the last little stretch, he calls out to his mother and she calls back. We position him carefully, optimistically, and give him a small bottle of milk. By late afternoon, he is alert, responsive, and begins sticking out his tongue as soon as we arrive in anticipation of the warm milk. After giving him another small bottle, Morris takes me to our regular, Halladale Inn, where I have 2 glasses of wine. I want to be sober enough to give the calf his milk but numb enough if he is not able to take the milk. The calf welcomes us with a bright eye and sucks vigorously. I go to sleep quickly and content.

At 1:51am I sit bolt upright in bed. "What if the calf is dehydrated? What if the heat lamp is too close and he stands up and hurts himself?" My husband is both patient and concerned enough that he is not at all surprised and simply chuckles and begins pulling on his own clothes. The calf is fine. He takes a bit more milk. Morris tells me that he'll take the early shift so I can sleep in.

When I wake Monday morning, Morris has already been out to the calf. "He was standing on his own."
"Did you help him up?"
"No. He did it all on his own."
"Will you be able to walk him back to his momma?"

I dressed and prepared for my other life out in the world content that Little Black and Blue was on his way now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Makes you want to say "Hmm."

My blogpal, Curmudgeon, nominated me for a thinking blog award. I was honored and dismayed because I am the dinosaur he alleges to be at least with respect to my use of technology. I have been cheerfully blogging for a year now just telling myself that it is a word processor with a megaphone attached. I have tried making links. There is some half-baked HTML sitting in my pre-fabricated layout, apparently harmless, but not very effective: nothing up front where it counts. Now I need links and memes. I feel like a sham--how can I be a thinking blogger when I just got here by accident in a hot air balloon?

So I said thanks to Curmudgeon, sent an anguished email to my pal, Amy, and began looking at all the other posts and blogs on the meme trail. Learn from the experts or shamelessly copy.

First, the copying part:

This award/meme originated with this
post on the thinking blog.

These rules also came from the original site, but I cadged them from www., Curmudgeon's site:

The participation rules are simple:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,

3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative
silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog).

Now here's the learning part.

When I reflected on blogs that made me think, I began in a rather pedantic way to think about content and rhetoric and audience analysis. In the midst of this, I got an image of a former student from years long gone by. He was not good at any of those concepts, but he managed to like me despite my efforts to teach him things he didn't have much use for. He would buttonhole me in the corridors or at the coffee shop and he would always have some wry way of looking at the world that was both funny and insightful. He would nearly always conclude some assessment of the foibles of the universe with a sideways cocking of his head and a coquettish finger by the side of his mouth as he said, as if it explained everything: "It makes you want to say, 'Hmm,' doesn't it?"

And that, I think, gets at what is a thinking blog, and, hopefully, makes me a thinking blogger. If you read some of these posts and go Hmm, then I can feel as if I have earned the award.

Now here are sites that make me go Hmm.

1. is not like grade school: I am not nominating him because he nominated me. In large measure, I keep blogging because he asked the question about why blog. That post got me started thinking, and, fortunately, subsequent blogs have kept me thinking about the things he has said and the the things that he hasn't: for example, living as a person of faith in a secularized, multicultural world.

2. Hayden has a very different look at the world than Curmudgeon's and lives in a part of the US that I have never visited. She makes me think about the sensual nature of food and its creation and also about the angst behind the wonderful life that Americans have enjoyed for some time now but which is becoming increasingly more difficult to sustain.

3. taught Arthur to be the once and future king by teaching him how to be a fish and a bird and all manner of creatures. If you want to achieve such grace, then this blog will help you accomplish that. It is also a tribute to a very fine writer who can make you care about life from the perspective of a banana slug.

4 and 5 I hope this fits the criteria for a blog. My friend Marilyn recommended it to me. It is the entrance to a variety of blogs, essays and editorials and book- in -process chapters by a pair of editors describing themselves as progressives, which, as nearly as I can tell, is only vaguely in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt when he was not charging up San Juan Hill. I like it because it provides more than the teeny sound bytes of US news that make it over here. Like most ex pats, I sometimes filter out the things I did not like about my country when I lived there and so I need some hard hitting news to keep my memory realistic, although I remember feeling even before I left that someone had stolen my country.

I would proudly display the thinking blogger award here except my efforts to display it have been thwarted by my technoinadequacy. Thanks anyway, Curmudgeon, it encouraged me to look around a bit more in this blog world.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Saving the Planet One Cuppa at a Time

The best jobs seem to be the ones we stumble into. I met a woman who saw something in me. She met me again because I was helping a friend and eager to fit in and be useful. We had lunch and by the time lunch was over we had mapped out a strategy for a project with me in it. I get to earn my living saving the planet one cup of coffee at a time.

Fuel poverty--the stark reality of having to choose between being warm and eating or paying other bills--is more common in the highlands than even in the rest of Scotland, and higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. The original remit for my position was as social science researcher addressing the issue of fuel poverty in the Highlands. I am, technically, an employee of the local college, seconded to the Environmental Research Institute but physically located at a local community association. Because my degrees did not match the requirements for an MSc student position, I am a post graduate researcher. I will need to present a report at the end of the funding cycle along with the degree-seeking students but I have fewer constraints because I am not pursuing a degree.

I studied hard the strange words in a strange country. The only anthracite I had seen was an exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry when I was a child. I did not know anyone really used it as a fuel. I swam upstream of the foreign words describing houses and tenancy and the workings of a gas-fired back boiler or the relative efficiency of open or closed anthracite heaters. Now I can cite chapter and verse of aging housing stock, increased distances, higher fuel prices, fewer suppliers to choose from, longer heating season, and lower incomes and less uptake of benefits that characterize this corner of the highlands.

All this was mixed with experience translating complex issues in simple terms, and, having discovered that behavioral changes can account for up to 20% reduction in fuel costs and that there are three legs to fuel poverty and the best way to approach them is one on one relationships in face to face relations, I am now part of a team travelling in pairs across the highlands like a Noah’s ark of energy efficiency talking with strangers about how to make their homes more comfortable and how to take on their fuel providers for lower cost, better service, and more comfortable homes.

Equally important as that knoweldge is the quiet listening in the living rooms we visit. Mrs. M has lost both her son and her anthracite fire and the light has gone out of her life. The framed photo of her deceased son and his dog stare out from above the cold hearth. Two China dogs stand guard on either side of the fireless hearth. We can’t bring back her son or his dog or her anthracite fire, but we can demystify her electric bill and show her how to set her storage heaters. Our armamentarium includes energy efficient light bulbs, a room thermometer, and hard won knowledge of the argot of the energy suppliers. Along the way to warming their houses, we hear the stories of lost sons or husbands or the stories of the quiet heroism of everyday people facing life’s basic challenges.

So my colleague and I sit in Mrs. M’s living room. I listen to Mrs. M’s story about why she has only one hearing aid while Louise calls Scottish Hydro. She starts with the toll free number. On a good day, we get someone on the other end of the line who can navigate the fragmented waters of the departments of the energy provider. One area handles priority services register. No one told her that she could get her bill in large type, she could get her meter moved to where she could read it, and that she would be given a priority for any repairs required.

In fairness to Scottish Hydro, they had included a booklet in the bill. If Mrs. M. could have read it, she might have known that she could get more than she was getting. She could not have known, however, that her financial situation entitled her to a social tariff—a special price for her electricity—with an automatic 20% reduction. That is an important part of the service we provide. We have been given the magic decoder ring with which to unlock the secrets of the electric bill.

Louise inserts the magic decoder ring, and the voice on the other end of the line has no choice but to respond. The first step of the quest is completed. Mrs. M. will get forms sent to her which she will not understand any better than the pamphlet enclosed in her bill (or her bill for that matter) and we’ll be back to work with her and her carer to fill out the forms and listen to her stories.

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A Day Between Gales

Saturday my grandson managed to get back from Orkney after his rugby match in a very uncomfortable ferry crossing. The Pentland Firth was fretful then, but the sailors said worse was coming: a Force 12 was forecast for later that evening. Everyone was heading for shelter. The ferry would not run again until the weather eased. Here in the North, we tell the weather in many ways--the actual forecasts, the sky, the sea, the clouds, but one of the best indicators comes from the harbor watchers. At work yesterday, my colleague said, "My father watched the Faroese boat. It tried for an hour to get out of the harbor and then it gave up and came back. " I have watched in awe as the little Faroese boat has made its way out of harbor. Faroese, if your geography is a bit shaky, refers to a tiny set of tiny islands north and west of Scotland. In older times, tales were told of Selkies--seal-people, and they always came from the West. If the Faroese won't or can't sail, then it is bad weather.

Saturday night the house was rocked in the cradle of that wind. For 300 years the house has been here, so I thought it would make one more storm, but it was my first experience of a howling gale. Banshee winds with undertones of sawing at any loose edge--gables of houses, gutters, foolhardy cats, and, as we discovered later, stones and cliff edges. Sunday morning the weather was cold but indeterminate. We surveyed the debris of house parts strewn about the garden but sighed with relief that no serious damage was done. After breakfast, my husband suggested a drive along the coast to see the effects of the storm.

Drving past the dunes, we see that a giant's handful of sand has been picked up and deposited in one turning of the road. As a former Hoosier, I am familiar with the capriciousness of winds, but I am always intrigued by it. By the time we set out the tide was well out. Even so, the pent up energy of the waves sent them crashing up against the far shore. The foam from the waves climbed up the shore and exploded. Near Brim's Ness, a favorite surfing spot on calmer days, I watched a frantic wave surge onto a 150 foot cliff edge and climb nearly to its top. Nearby waterways that normally spill water over the edge into the sea below met with such force of wind that the water was pushed upright like a geyser.

We headed west and saw at Castletown beach how the waves had rearranged the rocks on the shore. The carefully laid out assemblage of sedimentary rocks was now scrambled as if a toddler bully had dismantled a Lego creation in a fit of pique. For the first time I saw the Merry Dancers of Mey---a marvel of symmetry and grace when the complex of tides meet. The smaller waves of the colliding forces form regular lines and bow and do si do as if in a country dance.

In a small harbor, three sets of men worked anxiously over the ropes that held their boats in place. The boats lay peacefully at rest on the bed of the now dry harbor with the tide full out, but it was an angry ocean and they clearly feared what it might do.

Down another little cove, "I think that boat might be Jimmy Simpson's," my husband says. I counted seven ropes on it seemingly from every possible angle. The boat lay poised, at ease, equidistant from all sides of the harbor. I know Jimmy Simpson. He has weathered many storms. He got here early and did what needed to be done and then went off probably for a nice Sunday brunch or to church. The younger men in the other harbor were still at it, fretting over their lines. With luck, both they and their boats will grow older.

By the time we stopped at a little bed and breakfast that was open for a meal, the wind was driving hail and frozen snow. One other woman was there. Three reservations had been canceled at the last minute the owner explained with as brave a face as he could manage. One of the cancelled reservations was due to their roof having been lost. We counted our blessings, speculated about the weather--would the promised gale arrive? Would it clear? The vagaries of the weather up here and its implications vie with cattle and sheep for the number one conversational topic. Sometimes they merge as in, sheep tend to lamb when the weather gets bad or cattle prices go up when the weather gets closer to grass. But today, away from the farm, the conversation focused on the immediate effects of the weather. We were still an hour away from home.

We called in at a friend's house on the way home. The wind was boisterous but not hurling anything at us. "I think we will not get a storm," Morris said cautiously. "It will be cold but not a storm." People came and went as always on a Sunday in Reg and Angela's house. We lingered until they sat down to eat. They had made a chicken thinking we might come by, as we often do, but today was just a temporary shelter on our way back home to wait out the weather.

As Morris predicted, Monday was cold but not a storm by the standards of storms up here. The wind became a rare northerly--a blast directly from the arctic, but relatively well behaved at a mere 49 miles per hour and only occasionally spitting out snow or hail. It snowed in Glasgow, which was a rare event. A group of exchange students from Malawi destined to come up here in a week or so were treated to their first sight of snow, so it was a welcome sight to them.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Paul's Letter About the Cows

My blogpal Paul left a comment to "Wee Calfie Remembers" with so many conversational threads that I thought I'd turn it into a regular post. Paul's edited comments are italicized.

By now you would have already given thought to "The Cattle Whisperer" then. Do they need that?

Cattle respond to the emotions around them. Once out in the steading I was getting angry with my husband and raised my voice, and then we both looked and saw that the cattle were becoming visibly more agitated. A calm voice can soothe them and moving slowly and patiently are usually best. My husband says, "Never hurry cattle when they are going in the direction you want them to be going." Some say classical music has a calming effect on cattle. Even if not, I'd enjoy it, so maybe next time I work with the cattle, I'll give it a try and let you know.

They seem so calm - normally.

I think calm is a pretty good description. They are herd animals and ruminants, so if they have food to chew on and company, they tend to look and act contented.

Mothers (especially first time mothers and certain breeds) can be wild right after birth, but this usually passes after a couple days. We have a Belgian blue cow who just gave birth a couple days ago and she was quite agitated when we approached the pen where she was with her calf shortly after its birth. She considered going through the steel gate to run over my husband. Then I could see the look in her eyes as she thought about jumping over it. We walked away and then came back a few moments later to watch from a distance that the calf was sucking successfully. Mom doesn't have to like us just now; she just needs to like her calf and be able to feed him/her properly.

Of course then there are the stampedes. Do these happen often?

I think a full blown stampede a la big cattle drives such as on TV westerns are quite rare. The cattle can run at a faster than you want to see clip when they are startled. Since I have been here I have seen cattle running too quickly in the wrong direction only a couple times. Once I heard that some of our cattle out in the field were running scared. We speculate that a dog or a fox may have run over the field, but we don't know what prompted it.

A nearby neighbor on a croft (small farm) had a helicopter land in the field enxt to his cattle and they were very upset and agitated. What made it even worse was that the person who landed the helicopter (an official) was trying to keep our neighbor away from his cattle. This upset both the farmer and his cattle.

Sometimes animals get out onto the road and then sadly it is often people who seem more wild than the animals. Drivers don't stop or slow down and too few people these days seem to know how to handle animals. I thought when I got here that everyone would know about farming and animals, but that is not the case.

Not long ago on a particularly difficult part of the road south (narrow, curving, and going downhill), a lorry (truck) full of cattle ran off the road. That driver and one immediately following noted that there were fields close by where they could turn in the cattle safely, but officialdom refused to let them do it. As a result more than two dozen cattle had to die a slow death in terrifying circumstances or languish until a vet could dispatch them humanely several hours later stuck inside the lorry. I imagine that those officials were city folks who had never been around animals.

I did meet one on a river bank when I was about seventeen...we approached one and it sort of raised its head and we saw it had horns. Little stubby ones, but still...So we left. We didn't stampede ourselves, just backed away rather cautiously.

Cattle are curious. They will follow you more out of curiosity than anything else. If you move faster, then they move faster in order to keep up. My husband tells a story of how he had a little dog that he used to herd cattle. This tiny dog would go up near the cattle in the field and then just lie down in the field. As the cattle moved up to see what was going on, he moved back. They followed.

The little horns would probably do less damage than any of the other massive parts of the critter. A simple head butt from my Wee Calfie from a casual tossing of her head nearly gave me a concussion when she was still only about 100kg. Now that she is 5 times that, you can imagine what an affectionate rub could do to me. Trans-species communication has its challenges!

You're always told if you run from a dog it'll just run after you, so we figured cattle must have about the same instincts.

Temple Grandin (Animals in Translation) puts cattle and dogs in very different categories. She argues that dogs are predators. They are born with an instinct to chase and then they learn which of the many things they chase they can eat. Cattle are prey animals. They have an instinct toward avoiding anything that chases them, so when they go after you it is about curiosity and whether they need to worry about you.

Cattle often come to associate people with feeding, so they may also have been looking at you as "provider of hay" or "bringer of barley".

Now, if it sounds as if I am knowledgeable and implies that I have always been comfortable with large quadrupeds approaching me, let me come clean. The first time I was in the field with cattle and they began following me, I sang to sound braver than I felt--to them and to myself. This singing probably made them even more curious or perhaps they like Joan Baez songs. At any rate, I walked at a steady pace with the pounding of my heart threatening to drown out my song. Inside I was repeating, "they eat grass they eat grass they eat grass" and hoping that they wouldn't do I know not what to me. The second and third times were easier. And then I learned by watching what others did.

I would really hate the branding. Sounds pretty excruciating. Couldn't you just tattoo them or something?

Cattle aren't branded any more. I asked my husband if it hurt. He thought about it for awhile and thought that it probably did hurt a bit at the time but not much and not for long. Now each animal has a metal tag in its ear and at least one large plastic tag. The large plastic tag contains both a herd number (six digits) and an individual number (another six digits). Within a month of being born, a calf gets its ear tag with its numbers (you an see Calfie's tag in the photo on that post).

The numbers are assigned by the British Cattle Movement System to uniquely identify each and every animal. When the tags come, the animal also gets what is called a "passport" because each and every time the animal moves, a page of the passport needs to be updated. All this information is managed on an online database, so the current location and history of each and every animal is available both online and from their passport. We were recently audited to ensure that all our animals had their tags and all their passports were in order. No small task, but better than branding in so many ways!

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Shingles, or No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I have three posts, including a cow post specifically prompted by my new blogpal, Paul, waiting in my desktop. Moreover, I always thought any post with "shingles" in the title would be a comment on Caithness architecture and the unique blue stone that made a flagstone industry in the area, but all those good intentions have been hijacked by a virus.

Friday I spoke to a preschool group where I work. I love their wide-eyed, snotty nosed enthusiasm. I spoke to them about life in America and we had popcorn and hamburgers and some good laughs. Later I heard that chicken pox was "on the go", but Sunday when I had a sore throat I did not think much of it. Monday, when blotches started appearing on my face, I wondered. By Tuesday something was definitely not right and one of the good things about the NHS is that you can usually get in to see a doctor quickly. So by high noon on Wednesday, I was told I had shingles and sent off with a prescription to the chemist's (pharmacist). The telltale marker was the pattern of the rash, stretching along the nerve pathways of the face, which I had recently been able to study in a display of art and anatomy. As I was visualizing the display in my mind's eye, the doctor commented that it was lucky that it was in the lower part of my face, and, hence, not likely to affect my eye.

Piecing together folklore and science in my own quirky way of looking at things, here's what I think is going on. The chicken pox virus, lying dormant in my tissue from some previous, long forgotten assault on my bodily integrity, heard the rallying call of its freer cousins and rose to the occasion. Not nearly as glamorous as Sigourney Weaver and her alien, my face, or more properly, the left side of my face, is the battleground for my immune system, now joined with the mercenary forces of an antiviral of long proven ability, and the chicken pox virus.

It may not seem like an epic struggle worthy of a blockbuster movie, but as I lie nearly inert because breathing, talking, or even sitting still make my face hurt, my world is shrunk to that battlefield. And so I apologize to Paul and others who want to hear more about Wee Calfie and the truth about cattle as tranquil animals and the other kind of shingles in Caithness.

PS: Wee Calfie is enough of a big girl now that she may go out the bull for the first time this year. Also, David told my husband to tell me that the first calves of this season are ready to be born any day now. One more reason for me to defeat the alien invader and get back to work.