Friday, July 11, 2008

Kittens and Calves

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Too many kittens; too few calves.

My hand-reared calf may not grow up to be a mother of champions. She is being given ample opportunity. She has already eluded the trip from here to "off" twice. I am steeling myself to the possibility that her luck might not hold.

The next to last night in creative writing class we wrote short descriptions based on sensory impressions as a little in-class exercise. I wrote one in which the character recalled an event from "the fragrance of the calf on her cardigan". My classmates gave me the good writerly advice to be more descriptive--what exactly did a calf smell like? It was good advice, but it stunned me at the time because I could no longer remember what it was like not to know what a calf smelled like. For those of you, who, like my classmates, have never had the opportunity to smell a calf, here is the fragrance as best I can describe it:

milk-damp warmth mingling with meadow grass and a touch of the earth warmed more by the heat of the calf than that of the pale sun

That fragrance wound up on my cardi because we had a lively little critter who suddenly got a belly ache. As it turned out, it was not serious, in part because we caught it in time. After the folks who knew what they were doing assessed him and dosed him, I was called in as surplus labour to provide nursing services. I didn't take the time to pull on my boiler suit (coveralls) because I felt an urgency about this little guy who had so recently been so lively. If he could get on his legs again, things would be better for us both.

He did not rise up as I approached the paddock where he was sequestered with his mother, so I leaned over him and tried first persuading him with a gentle nudge on the side on which he was lying. I am only strong enough to lift half a calf, so I next tried getting either half of his legs to raise him up. In this exchange, my cardigan picked up his fragrance--earth, grass, warm-milky breath. His mother spoke to him, and he rose looking much like a telescope unfolding itself with his disproportionately long legs.

Once on his legs he threatened to return to ground. I wrapped my arms around his mid section to persuade him to stay upright. His mother rumbled to him and he tottered to her. He quickly got better. Later that night through the window I saw him walking behind his mother. By the next day he was frisking again with the other calves.

All that came back to me in the whiff off the cardi as I prepared to load it into the washer. Not all stories of sudden illness end so happily, so it is important to cherish the successful ones.

Whoever coined the phrase as helpless as a kitten must not have known any barn cats. I worked patinetly with three generations of one family to get cats that I could pick up. It is a rare combination of personality and training to make them have enough faith to abandon their elusiveness as a defense. I had two cats that were trained to come when called--if, in the way of cats, it suited their schedules. They had their shots and they were respectively spayed and neutered. All seemed well in the tabby clan.

Another tabby of the same generation as my two was never tame enough for me to touch her. She came for food, but was always elusive--at least to humans. She managed to produce three kittens. Even when she was ill with a growth on her face that I suspect killed her, I could not touch her. Of her three kittens, only one of them, Button, has allowed me to touch her--and that is tentative.

Button had 4 kittens--three of whom have now been re-homed thanks to three wonderfully patient friends. The fourth kitten--you guessed it-- managed to avoid capture even in a small space with three catchers complete with nets. That elusiveness will probably shorten his/her life span considerably. Un-altered, un-immunized cats typically live less than 2 years.

Button, the hard working single mother, is canny enough to let me touch her kitttens to get them out of the attic after the gale passed (Don't ask me how she got them in..) and to let her kittens be captured, but not canny or faithful enough to let me get her in a box to take her to the vets--at least not on the first three tries. I have another box--the top loader that my friends used to capture the kittens. After she has settled down from my first ineffective attempts, I'll give it another go--with leather gloves also provided by my canny cat-catching friends.

Button would be better off not being fertile; Wee Calfie would be better off being fertile. I have lost some sleep over this conundrum and shed a few tears along the way to learning how to accept the irony of farm life. Monday I'll try again to get Button into the box and send up another prayer that Wee Calfie can become a mother of champions.

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At 5:43 PM, Blogger Gabriel Harley said...

That's an apt description of calf-smell, I think. I especially like the "milk breath" bit. I've done a lot of "creative" writing over the years and the one limitation I keep banging up against is the lack of good olfactory words in the English language. There are some, of course, but not nearly enough. I often find describing smells as difficult as describing music: if you could effectively put either into words, then you probably wouldn't have to smell/hear those things in the first place, n'est-ce pas?

On another note, at least you're giving your calves somewhat respectable names (e.g. "Wee Calfie.") On my great uncle Don's dairy farm, the young ones often ended up with appellations like "Hamburger" or "Chopsteak." It an almost Tibetan Buddhist reminder of the animals' transient nature. Or would have been, at least, if the family hadn't been Baptists.

At 5:45 PM, Blogger Gabriel Harley said...

Um, make that "It WAS an almost Tibetan Buddhist reminder..."

Stupid verbs.

At 9:38 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

I think you're right--there is an inherent illogicality in trying to describe something in words, but I like challenges.

Buddhists and Baptists often have a lot in common--as in recognizing the transient nature of at least other creature's lives.


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