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From Ch. 1 Holiday on Holiday Road

Orphan lamb

Man is free the moment he wishes to be ~ Voltaire

Horizontal rain lashes my face as I struggle to see the rescue helicopter in the gathering gloom of the evening. Floating in my yellow survival suit, I’m grateful for an illusion of safety as I catch glimpses of our sinking sailboat rising and falling with the mountainous seas of Cyclone Justin. Our survival dinghy is now upside down, tumbled by the breaking crest of a wave that pitched me into the sea, but I’m still attached to it by my harness. A dot of a man on a wire dangles beneath the helicopter battling to hover in 90 knot winds alternately rising and falling 15 metres with the waves to avoid being tangled in the sailboat’s rigging.

My mind blanks, and I drift from reality to a serene place: dreaming of a farm where the sun shines on cows, pigs and chickens—miles and miles away from any ocean.

~~~~~~

Orca, a 50 foot sailboat and our home for seven years, sank off the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Robin and I were winched from the sea by helicopter. In an instant our voyaging dream was over and we returned to British Columbia dispossessed, with a strange sense of surrealism; briefly the subject of TV news and front page stories in newspapers; filming for Discovery Channel; and the focus of radio chat shows, before our story swiftly became insignificant and I was left with a burning desire for the farm, the dream of which had kept me sane and focused during the nautical nightmare.

~~~~~~

Saturday is auction day and prominent on our calendar. We navigate our way through groups of farmers and peer over wooden hurdle pens to see the livestock that is to be auctioned. It’s very much a social event in this part of the Comox Valley; mostly elderly farmers joking and sparring with each other, smoking, and laughing; clutching polystyrene cups and scratching their caps on their heads. Some have brought their beasts to be auctioned, others have come hoping to pick up a good deal on additional stock. All are here for an interesting day out and the auction gets under way promptly.

Clustered together, several two-day old calves bawl plaintively for lost mothers; their soft uncomprehending eyes edged with white crescents staring from terrified faces. On our lofty bench above the auction ring we watch them huddle, their bony haunches sticky with carelessly daubed toffee-coloured glue, displaying paper squares with their lot number. The auctioneer’s gavel meets his lectern with a splintering crack and the head flies off. If the calves weren’t already scared witless, they are now. Nevertheless they have been knocked down to the highest bidder and a brown-coated attendant wielding two long poles hustles them through the exit as a further batch of bewildered calves is prodded into the ring. The auctioneer resorts to a makeshift gavel bearing a remarkable resemblance to a wheel wrench wrapped in rag, causing ill-suppressed mirth among the farmers.


From Ch. 7 The Novice and the Cow

Buttercup

All is not butter that comes from the cow ~ Proverb

Buttercup charges up the steep ramp behind Robin the Calf-Abductor, menacingly swishing her head from side to side. The gravity of the situation has occasioned her to loosen her bowels and with lashing tail she liberally splatters cow flop as she goes. The trailer walls and floor are generously decorated, as are our clothes together with those of several innocent inquisitive bystanders. The door is safely slammed behind her and we bed down Blossom in deep straw in the groom’s compartment, so the distressed mother can’t turn the trailer into a calf-blender as we journey.

A couple of hours later we reach home without mishap, unload them into the prepared stall and offer food and water to Buttercup, which she accepts graciously. I turn my attention to the trailer where the flop has set up like cement in the heat and steadfastly refuses to be hosed off, so must be painstakingly scraped away, blob by limpet-like blob. Now I understand why manure was used in days of yore to bind the straw for wattle and daub houses. Once the trailer is returned to its pristine condition, more or less, I no longer have an excuse to linger near the stall and after one more look drag myself away to allow them a quiet night. Blossom is sucking lustily as I leave.

Next morning our own vet visits to check over the new arrivals and confirms that mother and baby are in rude health. Won’t it be lovely, I think to myself, to see them strolling around in the sunshine instead of being penned in. So when the vet leaves I open the half door and invite Buttercup and Blossom to step out. They waste no time escaping the stall and look magnificent in the pasture as I joyfully skip back to the farmhouse. When I check half an hour later, to my dismay they have vanished. My heart raps a tattoo. Robin’s gone to town and I’m alone. His final words are replaying in my head. “Now don’t do anything silly while I’m away.”

I know our peripheral fences are a bit ‘slack’ in places and feel convinced that she’s marched straight off the property. What will I tell Robin? My heart rate increases further as I run to the workshop for my mountain bike, regretting bitterly that I’ve not kept the tires pumped up. I set off along the perimeter track, with the pancake tires dragging along the gravel. In frustration I fling down the bike and start to run. But what will I do if I find them? I double back to the barn grab a rope and set off again at a gallop or, to be more precise, a laboured trot. My chest heaves, my lungs burn, and I sweat profusely in the hot August afternoon sun.

An initial check reveals that they have not taken the easy route along the driveway. My unfit state forces me to temper my pace and I’m now really concerned about the swamp. Our year-round creeks bring sparkling clear water straight from the Beaufort Mountains not only for the house and farm but also supply the generous bands of swampy land bordering the farm. The ground stays wet in patches, even in the driest of summers.

Earlier, when I told the neighbour that we were having a cow, he gleefully regaled me with horror stories of a previous owner who’d invested in 20 feeder calves that took off, disappearing into the swamp and dropping dead one by one, until none was left. He also said that a huge Charolais cow wandered into the swamp, foundered, and her carcass had to be lifted out using a crane. It is the same smug neighbour who formerly owned our farm and I really shouldn’t listen to him. He has a mean streak and seems to delight in the discomfort of others.

Beset by these mental images I rush on.


From Ch. 12 The Midwife’s Tale Part II

Whitey

You are never strong enough that you don’t need help ~ Cesar Chavez

At 9:00 p.m. before I go to bed I feed all the piglets again then take Whitey her penicillin. As she’s recumbent I jab my syringe into her rump as usual. It needs to be a quick forceful jab because the skin is very tough. The needle has only penetrated 2 cm when, with a deafening roar, Whitey rears up and spins round on the spot. Could this possibly be what the vet was alluding to regarding her letting me know when she’d had enough? I’m ecstatic to see her so active but now she’s glaring at me with her beady black eyes blazing, the syringe still sticking in her rump. She’s positioned between me and the piglets, grinding her teeth and frankly, I’m scared. I can’t possible leave the hypodermic to fall out on its own into the bedding with the babies running around and I’d never find it again in the straw. I have a dilemma: I daren’t try to pass behind her for the syringe because she’ll think I’m advancing on her piglets.

“OK, Whitey, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, I promise.” I speak in what I hope is a low soothing voice and not the terrified shriek I hear inside my head. I thrust my hand into a pocket and bring out a couple of chocolate chip cookies. (Never be without treats.)

“Hey, Whitey, would you like a cookie?” She takes one from me and it disappears with a mighty crunch. I’m glad to see her appetite’s returning and that I still have fingers. The second cookie, though, I throw onto the floor half a metre away. She has a very good snout for cookies and, as anticipated, she steps forward and picks it up. I have just enough time to whip behind her and pull the syringe from her ample rear.

“That’s definitely the last time for any injections I swear,” I tell her as I bolt from the sty.

I’m not attempting a 3:00 a.m. visit and intend to sleep through the night. Robin will be home tomorrow afternoon then he can take charge of his pig and do what’s necessary. She likes him; he hasn’t tortured her as I have.

~~~~~

Two weeks later when the vet is visiting to dehorn a calf, I proudly show him our piglets and ask why he could never manage to come to see Whitey.

“I make it a rule never to get into a pen with a sow and her litter. Even if they’re pets they can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable.” He smiles wryly, “actually we rarely ever attend full-grown pigs. Strictly phone advice only.” He picks up his kit, gives an exaggerated wink, and saunters off.


From Ch. 16 The Milkmaid’s Tale

Jersey milk

Cows are among the gentlest of breathing creatures ~ Thomas de Quincey

“It would be great if we could use the milking machine,” I say to Robin, “Buttercup has so much milk and this is really hard on my hands.”

“Would it take much to finish the installation?” I ask wistfully. I have a mental picture of drifting into the parlour with a serene cow, barely needing to replace my glamorous evening dress before clipping on the equipment and waiting till it’s all over.

In the evening I hand-milk another ten litres from Buttercup and again first thing next morning. Robin is succeeding well feeding Betel with warm milk straight from Buttercup; he has more patience for this than I do.

All next day Robin works on the piping and plumbing for the milking machine, finishing with installing new food-grade hoses. Next he flushes the system several times and sterilizes it.

“It’s all hooked up,” he says proudly, “and everything’s working fine; do you feel like trying it this evening?”

My honest answer should be, “Not really, I’m dreading it.” Instead I say, “Oh yes, let’s give it a go, we’ve got to brave it sometime.”

I have a number of invaluable skills when it comes to farming. Training a novice cow to the milking machine is not one of them. I try not to project my inner turmoil onto Buttercup. I smile at her, for heaven’s sake, as I secure the stanchion and she inclines her neck to eat grain. First I wash, dry and sterilize her teats. Robin already has the vacuum pump running and it’s making soft sucking noises in the background. We’ve decided to attach the cluster of suction cups, or ‘claw’, as a joint effort—Robin will take the port side, and I’ll do the starboard. Amazingly, with beginners’ luck we manage to get the nipples sucked into the cups and the milk starts to flow—for a few seconds. Then Buttercup, realizing something is amiss in her udder region, perhaps realizing that she doesn’t have four calves simultaneously feeding, lashes out a foot and we lose suction.

The contraption clatters to the floor of the stall and she promptly clamps off her milk supply. Ribbons of residue milk dribble from the suction cups. I continue milking by hand for a few minutes until she relaxes a little and lets down her milk again while the vacuum pump still makes its slurping noises in the background. When things are going well I call Robin to help me try again. Alas, it is rather less than successful and Buttercup manages to flop four times in the process. We are splattered and the stall is slippery with partially digested green matter.

This isn’t going well. If she’d behave then the milking would take only five minutes instead of twenty. How do we get that through a bovine skull? It takes us a further hour and tanks of hot water to wash down the stall, and wash and sterilize the milking equipment. When it’s all finished Robin says, “it was a good decision to put in that water heater, so we have instant hot water!”


From Ch. 22 The Cougar Chaser

Baby Cougar Chaser

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog ~ Mark Twain

When I go outside Cricket is agitated, skipping and darting around my feet and keeps running behind the house and barking up at a fir tree. I assume he’s found a squirrel—the cheeky things always excite him when they chatter from the branches of the trees and throw bits of cone down at him.

Eventually I humour Cricket. “OK, boy, what is the matter?” I follow him to the rear of the house. There, on the ground behind a fallen tree at the edge of the forest, just 7 metres from the back of the house is Liam, lying on his side looking peacefully asleep. He’s dead, of course, and only recently so, still warm and supple with no apparent damage. I praise Cricket and call Robin. We pick up the lamb who weighs about 60 lb. and manoeuvre him into a barrow for a closer inspection.

“There’s a small hole in the back of his neck,” Robin says, “but I can’t see anything else.” He fires up the tractor to dig a pit so we can bury Liam. Farm life is full of sadness as well as joy.

Next evening just as dusk is gathering we’re sitting at the dining room table sipping a Shiraz and looking out over the cows’ field when we witness a bizarre sight. On the brow of the hill the cows are galloping across the field towards the band of second-growth trees. As we peer into the failing light we notice that there’s something in front of them and they are actually chasing it. Robin grabs binoculars and says, “It’s a cougar, and I think the cows have treed it.” Bluebell, who came to us along with the butter maker is near to calving and at times like this the herd, although only small, is very protective and aware of the vulnerability of one of their kind. Robin grabs his gun and ammunition and we race outside, through the fields to the base of one of our taller trees—a 30-metre Douglas fir. Cricket races along with us; whatever it is we are doing, this is his work and he should be involved.

“Be careful,” I tell Robin, as I shine a powerful flash lamp high into the branches. All we can see are golden disks of light from two reflector-like eyes to prove the cougar is actually there. Cricket is tense, one foot trembling, waiting for something to happen and ready for anything. He doesn’t bark despite his agitation. He can detect the scent of the cougar although we can’t. The cows have retreated to their field now that there is no longer any imminent danger to the herd.

Our gun is intended for predator control, and we always hope we’ll never have to use it but in our early farm days Robin enrolled us both in a gun-handling course so we could gain Possession and Acquisition Licences, and I could learn to use firearms. He learned to handle guns when he was enrolled in the army cadets at school. However, Robin can’t just kill a magnificent wild animal, this is the cougar’s territory too. Instead, he fires a warning shots to startle it. Cricket’s shaking with suppressed excitement as the cougar slips down the tree, metre by metre, using its claws as anchors. As it gets closer to the ground I call Cricket to come back to me well out of the cougar’s reach. He ignores me. 


From Ch. 25 Strange Bedfellows

Piglets, Eagle & Raven

People must help one another; it is nature’s law ~ Jean de la Fontaine

Four of our piglets are being raised in a new area of the back forty to give them full advantage of the vegetation while doing some ploughing work and fertilizing for us. They’re nine weeks old and are usually eagerly awaiting my noontime visit with their meal. They live in a custom designed, no-expense spared, precision-crafted log house fashioned from existing trees, logs and old barn boards in their one-acre of woodland and swamp.

As I approach their log cabin, there’s not a piglet in sight. Very strange, have they escaped? They’re good time-keepers when it comes to food, pushing and jostling each other to be first in line. I stick my head through the doorway and the piglets are squished together at the back corner of the house, eyes wide, darting terrified glances from me to their strange bedfellows. Spread-eagled (now I understand where the term comes from) on the straw beside them is a large brown juvenile bald eagle with a wingspan of about two metres. It’s motionless, its beak pointing down towards the straw.

I immediately retreat a few steps, then cautiously edge towards the entrance to take a second look. The eagle is breathing and the piglets appear unharmed although frozen with fear. I circle round to the back of the hut to peer in through a gap in the logs. It’s an astonishing sight. Beneath the eagle’s head is a large raven lying on its back. It has its left leg stretched up and backwards towards the eagle, its foot encircling the eagle’s beak with two of the claws digging into the eagle’s nostrils.

Stalemate. The raven can’t let go, as the eagle will kill it. The eagle can’t move as it’s snared and anchored by the heavy raven. Catch 22: locked in deadly motionless combat. Only a matter of time before one or the other will succumb. It could take hours, or even days. I can’t leave them like this with no way out of the impasse.

At Oak Tree Farm, odd situations like this only ever happen when Robin is out of town. Action must be taken, but what can I do? I swiftly dismiss my first impulse to get in there and separate them. Stupid idea. Raven talons and beaks are hard and cruel; eagles’ are deadly. I have a gun and a licence, and have taken a gun handling course but I feel woefully lacking in what’s required to fire a gun at a creature.

“Hold on!” I say to the piglets as if they understand me and hoping the familiar tone of my voice is a little reassuring for them. “I’ll be right back.” I run to the house to telephone a good neighbour a few miles down the road. Fortunately I catch him just before he leaves for work.

“Have you got a gun, Rod?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says.

“I’ve a bizarre situation of life and death.” I explain the dilemma, adding, “Can you help me?”

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 © Maggi Ansell 2015