Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wwoofing on Glean Gabhra

Between the goats, the cows, the garden, and the liters of sweat, milk and pus, it’s hard to measure time on a farm. To sort time on a farm chronologically is an impossibility because each day is not a day unto itself. The tasks blend together. The time spent in the garden can be condensed into watching the tomatoes grow, while hours passed milking flow together as surely as the milk of Glean Gabhra’s one hundred some odd goats.

I have to sort my memories by subject, for then the two weeks seems a time of growth and learning, of beginnings and middles and never-endings, instead of what it was: a non-stop rollercoaster work, fun and farming.

The first thing I noticed on Glean Ghabra was a cow. She had no name, but her two sons, Hamlet and Henry were strong and healthy. Dominic had the mind to raise them as oxen to pull carts in the movies. The only problem with these two beautiful calves growing fatter by the day was that their mother wasn’t the least bit interested in eating. It takes grass to make milk, and without it her calves had turned her into a skeleton.

I met her shortly after being asked if I would go twist the cow’s tail. Thinking this was some kind of Irish expression for good old-fashioned fun I headed outside with a grin on my face. What I found was Dominic wrestling the cow into a paddock of fresh grass.

“Move!” He bellowed.  

But she didn’t. Not an inch.

Here she was, ribs jutting from sunken flesh, standing in front of a paddock of lush grass, and she wouldn’t go in to eat. So Dominic told me to twist her tail.

I grabbed her thick ropy muscle of a tail, thinly veiled in hair, and gave it a half-hearted tug. I mean, I didn’t want to hurt the poor girl. Dominic frowned and asked if I understood the concept. She wasn’t going to go in for pleasure, so we had to try pain. I stared at this man I had just met as if he’d asked me to throw a box of kittens into a volcano.

“Harder,” he said, and I obeyed. I twisted a bit more then a bit more and before I knew it I’d forgotten all about the cow’s feelings. I just wanted her to move, Move, MOVE! But she wouldn’t. I twisted with both hands, I tried different parts of her tail, but nothing. Finally I drew my hand back, like I’ve seen cowboys do in countless movies, but Dominic stopped me.

“Don’t hit the cow,” his eyes were ice.

Dominic went behind her, grabbed her tail, and bellowed in an angry mixture of Flemish, Irish and English. Whatever it was, it was terrifying, and it got the big girl to move. She did a lap or two around the paddock then stopped and stared at us.

We went in for dinner, and afterwards I watched Dominic sip his cup of coffee and watch the cow.

“Do you understand how bizarre this is? A cow does not stare. A cow is either eating grass or chewing cud.”

I found myself wondering how could this man who’d been so willing to inflict pain on this poor defenseless animal care so much about her. He watched her every move, every twitch of muscle, all the while mumbling under his breath, cursing, begging, and praying that she would eat.

And I realized I had no conception of what a cow is or what a cow does. I didn’t know how much they ate, or how often they drank or why an electric fence is better than barbed wire. I didn’t know how long ago she calved or how a normal cow behaves. All I knew was that this man cared deeply for the health of this animal, and that I had a lot to learn.

But not to worry, livestock have a way of educating even the most urbanized of us brainless humans. For my adventure with Henry and Hamlet’s mother was just beginning. For it was time to put her to bed.

It was 10:00pm, and nearly dark, and Dominic wanted to get her back into the barn for fear she’d break the fence. I, for the second time in an hour, doubted the wisdom of this man who’d been farming for a lifetime. After all, I’d vaulted the fence earlier, and it hadn’t so much as jiggled, but I followed him out to meet the cow.

She wandered around the paddock, away from the door.

“I was afraid of this,” Dominic said and motioned for me to cut her off.

Perhaps too many Nature documentaries of hunts on the saranghetti have duled my brain, for I figured stealth was my best option. I hid behind an old chicken coop while Dominic led her around the far side. Right when the cow was about to round the corner and discover me I popped out and reached for the rope dandling from her face.

She did not like this.

She did not like this at all.

She liked this so little she obliterated the fence that I’d so recently hopped. But obliterated isn’t the right word. One second, there was a fence, the next second, the cow was where the fence was and the fence was no more. I was frozen, my mouth hanging open in stupefied horror at what I’d let happen. Dominic didn’t have time for that though.

“Don’t let her get into the field!”

She was heading for an open pasture that even my city-borne senses knew that if she made it into it she’d be impossible to control. Adrenaline surged and some ancient herdsmen instinct kicked in and I took off to block her. I made it to the entrance, spread my arms, tried not to close my eyes, and prepared to be trampled to death.

Somehow, perhaps realizing she’d have to dirty her hooves, the cow changed direction. She headed off towards the barn, where Dominic was able to corral her back to her two young calves.

She quieted down, and Dominic sent me off to bed.

She got a visit from the vet the next day. The consensus being her rumen wasn’t working, so I was tasked with holding this 1500 pound animal while Dominic squirted, not one, not two, not three, but four batches of the grass-digesting bacteria down her throat while he clamped his fingers in her nose to keep her head up and mouth open. Again I found myself somewhat revolted in this barbaric behavior. Here I was, allowing this man to pour liters of foul-smelling bacteria down her throat. Clearly the cow didn’t like it. You could tell by her face that she thought it was all yucky!

How could he do this to such a poor creature? She was much happier with the hay I gave her once Dominic left. She liked it so much that she spit it up and ate it again. After the previous night’s encounter even the sound of her broad teeth masticating grass sounded powerful to me.

I told this to Dominic, that maybe she just needed to be hand-fed and he looked at me like I’d just spoken Japanese.

“She’s eating?” he managed to ask.

I nodded.

“And you saw her chew her cud?”

I nodded and Dominic almost burst into tears. And for the first time on the farm I felt I understood but a fraction of this enigmatic man.

If she didn’t want to eat, he knew that he’d have to make her or she’d die.

Over the next week I watched in amazement as this skeleton of a cow returned to health.

Dominic later confided in me that the farmer who’d asked him to care for the cow didn’t think she’d last another week. And all I could do was smile and do my damnedest not to let him know how close I had come to opening my fat mouth and telling him not to hurt her or force her to eat and to just leave her be and let her starve, because at least she’d be happy.
City kids. We know nothing.  

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