Friday, June 12, 2015

The Desoration Go hit Utrecht

My half Mexican, half Columbian wife Raquel and our Ukrainian Israeli friend from a village in Japan met our Dutch friend and his Japanese wife in a bar on the streets of Ultrecht. Only they didn’t know Raquel and I were coming.

We sat quietly giggling while Alex talked to Eric on the phone.

“Yes… yes… ok got it. Ok We’ll be right there.”

We’ll?Raquel and I gasped, “You’re going to give away the whole surprise!”

The three of us piled into a cab, eager to surprise them yet all quite convinced we’d already ruined the show. We were driving past the bar when I spotted Eric hanging onto a door frame, grinning like a fool.

Stop the car!

We all piled out. We had a plan, and we almost stuck to it. Alex went off first, muscled his way through the crowd, and greeted Eric with a big hug and a bigger exclamation of, “Oh Eric so nice to see you!” We lifted our newspapers up and approached.

Alex still swears we botched the surprise, because Eric and Nolico didn’t actually see our newspapers, but everyone else on the street did. Dutch men and women poked and prodded at the two Americans pushing through the crowded street reading newspapers by the light of a streetlamp. One particularly bold Dutchman even tried to light my newspaper on fire. Hardy-har-har!

Despite the Dutch’s murderous sense of humor, we managed to get next to Eric and Nolico without being seen. Now, the plan was for us to simply wait there, reading our papers at 11:00 at night until Alex said something like, “if only, if only the young Americans were here!” then voila, we’d drop the papers and grin, but adrenaline was coursing through my veins, and I had no patience. So instead of waiting the ten to fifteen seconds it’d take Alex to say the line, I dropped my newspaper to the ground and threw my arm around Eric’s shoulder.

“What the fuck?” he managed to say before his mouth seized up and contorted back into that foolish grin of his.

“Nolico, look what Eric got for his birthday,” Alex said and Raquel dropped her paper and exposed her winning smile.

I once thought that I had experienced joy. Certainly that Christmas when against all odds my dad got me a playstation2, or when my darling wife walked down the aisle into my arms, but after seeing Nolico’s reaction, all of this falls short.

She began with a high pitched scream that silenced not only the patio, but the people inside and at the bar next door, then moved in to an amazingly acrobatic series of jumps and mid-air twists before squeezing Raquel so tight I thought she’d pop. This accomplished she grinned at me and began to repeat “un-fucking-believable” until this overwhelmed her so much she dropped to her knees and we had to drag her back to her feet.

I will remember her reaction to that surprise for the rest of my days, and I’m sure the rest of the bar will too.

They certainly remembered us that night. Indeed, it seemed we’d been marked. We moved on to drinking Dutch beer and J├Ągermeister, an explosive mix if there ever was one. We got to chatting, we hadn’t seen any of these people in months after all, but the bartender was none too pleased with our excitement.

“No shouting, you can sing, but no shouting,” he said and hid behind the bar.

Alex and I looked at each other as only enraged drunkards can.

“No shouting?” Alex asked.

“No shouting,” I replied.

“But we can sing?” Alex asked.

“But we can sing,” I replied.

“Then we will S-I-I-I-I-I-I-INNNG!” Alex belted and Raquel and I cackled louder than any of our previous shouts.

Each time the bartender came by Alex would ask for further stipulations on this no shouting rule, “What about yelling? Can we yell?”

The bartender was not amused.

So displeased was he in fact that when Nolico ordered the third round of J├Ągermeister, he brought waters instead. I think Nolico’s hair was about to burst into flame she was so furious.

“Never in my life! Never have I been declined a drink!”

“In Holland anything can happen,” Eric said from behind that foolish grin.

I giggled enough to wake up from my nap, but after all the excitement, I was actually relieved to have a reason to leave the bar. We had a day in the Netherlands to prepare for, and I was going to need my rest.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wwoofing in a Herd of Goats

Its hard to get past the goats on Glean Gabhra. There were over a hundred of them, a hundred and fifty if you counted the bleating kids who wanted nothing more than to be constantly fed either hay, kibbles or the sweaty end of my shirt.
Our jobs, really all jobs with animals, really only involved two basic concepts: food in, shit out.
Each morning we had to measure out portions of the equivalent of kibbles and bits for goats into planting trays (for the goats would destroy anything else less sturdy), serve the most delicious hay (the stinky silage was for the older goats) and give ‘em all fresh straw. I was amazed at how much the little creatures could eat. We’d feed them at 9:00, and by 10:00 their food all be gone.
I brought this to the attention of Dominic who told me to start ratcheting up their food intake. The sooner they get up to weight, the sooner they can get off milk, the sooner we could put them all in one big pen instead of 8 smaller ones. They were kept in smaller pins for two reasons: one, the slats in the pallets they had for walls could actually contain them, and two, if they were to all stay in the same one, it would be impossible to give them all milk.
We were also especially eager to get them all into one central pen because then we wouldn’t have to water them all by hand. There was no hose nearby, so the only way to get them all water was to fill up two buckets, one for each hand, and carry it to them. This quickly became my least favorite chore.
“Entire cities have risen and fallen because people didn’t have to carry water!” I’d rail on, while Raquel would grunt and fill another bucket for the goats. But I understood why we couldn’t mix them, they were always so voraciously hungry. One pen was so monstrously excitable one of them managed to snag her ear on the handle of the bucket and rip her tag clean off! And the little monster didn’t even mind, she just kept slurping away, her bloody ear painting half of her face like the goat version of Rambo.
My favorite of the little goats though, was one of what Dominic affectionately called the Gremlins. The Gremlins were the free range goats. There were about six of them, and they’d all come to be Gremlins for different reasons, some were born early or late so were too big or small to mix in with the others, some hadn’t been dehorned, but they were all equally adept at escaping their pens.
I spent an entire afternoon rounding up gremlins. Well, not exactly. To concentrate on catching a goat that knows you want to catch it is to concentrate on finding the end of a rainbow. Ain’t gonna happen. So instead, whenever Raquel and I were deep in conversation, or Dominic was asking me to do a new task, I’d lunge out and snag a gremlin. By the afternoon they were all penned up, until the next morning when I discovered that five of the six I’d worked so hard at catching had escaped. One even seemed to like the game. She followed us everywhere, and responded to any grabs by snuggling. We named her Peggy Sue, and we love her.
Another day I had to try my hand at wrangling adult goats. 17 of them were Dominic’s herd, and the other 80 or so were all recently purchased, so he kept them separate because  that was about the size of a milking batch. This all worked great until Tato (His finest and goatiest goat) managed to open her gate and lead her crew to mingle with the goats from Holland.
Dominic asked if I could round them up, and to my credit, I got about a dozen of them. I chased them down, cut them off, cornered them and finally corralled them away from the herd and back to their pen. I was sweating, tired and angry that a bunch of animals whose big questions about the universe can be answered by chewing on it, had managed to out-maneuver me! I simply didn’t have the emotional fortitude or the physical energy to chase the rest down.
So what did Dominic do? He all but looked at the last ones and they walked over.

“Its in the eyes, see.” He tells me.

I guess that means I fall somewhere else on the food chain, but I still think he was messing with me. He’s got those goats trained to show city-kids how to break a sweat, the only ploy I should’ve seen through was Dominic’s.

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.