Saturday, January 16, 2010

Girl Meets Herd

Today started out foul. I woke up still tired from the manic week and proceeded to be draggy and groggy all day. Not even a nap helped. So when my husband volunteered to check Dad's cattle this afternoon (He has a baby--I mean, calf--with pneumonia) and asked me if I wanted to accompany him on the four-wheeler, I agreed, partly to be with him and partly in the hope that being outside would perk me up.

One of the great surprises for me since falling in love with a farm-raised man is that I like riding on that four-wheeler with him. Before being around one in use, I associated them with what my husband calls redneckery (muddin' and tearing up land) and accidents (the local hospital helicopter crew called them "donor cycles"). But snugged up to my new love while flying across the pasture on our first official date, I had to admit that it was fun and, well, kind of sexy. In those courting days, I would rest my head on his back or gaze around at the gracefully draped hills and wonder if I'd found my destiny. The answer was and is yes.

Although it was good to be out in the fresh, above-freezing air on our growling metal steed with the good memories attached, that wasn't the reason for our mode of transportation. Now that all is a "river of January melt" (I just quoted myself!), we needed the ATV to get to where we were going. Even with it, we didn't make it up the hill to where the cattle were clustered around their hay. We began spinning into the mud and had to back down to the bottom of the hill and park there.

One of the missions of the trip was to try to encourage the cattle to move away from that muddy hillside, so My Beloved called to the herd and spread some grain treats on the ground near the parked ATV. When that didn't entice everyone in our direction, most notably the sick calf and its mother, D informed me that he would have to walk over to the remaining cows and I should just wait there, since I hadn't worn my mud boots.

Here is the part where I started feeling like the city girl I was born and making many observations about my new life. I confess that I never got off the four wheeler. I felt safer staying astride the machine during my thoughtful time. Besides, it was muddy, remember.

My first thoughts were about mud, in fact. I found myself thinking "I have to get used to mud," while carefully removing a flipped clod from my boot using a stray leaf that had stuck to my laces. I won't be able to avoid the stuff when we have our own farm with our own animals, nor be delicate about dealing with it. The mud entrance in our new house will be literal, so a zen acceptance of mud must be achieved.

After the mud check, I just watched and listened to the cows from my escape vehicle (Well, it would be if I knew how to start it). I was struck again, as I first was, by their size. Cows are big. I mean BIG. Hundreds of pounds of potentially dangerous flesh. And we puny humans are supposed to tell them what to do? My husband suddenly seemed small off in the distance compared to the crowd of bovines surrounding him, but he wasn't scared. He knows cattle the way he knows family: He may not have seen them daily in years now, but he remembers how they are. He has the confidence of familiarity that I will have to acquire.

I was relieved when the bull of the herd had his fill of grain and wandered off. I really fear--I mean, respect--them. That left just cows and a couple of calves close to me. I took the same tack with these cows as I do on a busy city street: Make no eye contact and look like you know what you're doing. They went on about their simple business, and I relaxed a little, listening to their
munching and lowing and puddle-slurping sounds that punctuated the country silence. (Love that! The silence, that is.) I also heard a bird call, a treat in winter, especially after being indoors so much lately watching bird-feeder TV with no sound.

While trying to be inconspicuous to my new neighbors, I noticed something caught in the bottom of the carrying crate strapped to the front of the four wheeler. It was a tiny stuffed tiger, the Happy Meal toy kind. Where father-in-law found it I don't know. If it was on the farm somewhere, how did it get here?
I had no answer to that question, only a tiny mystery to ponder while I kept the little toy in my hand just because, I sheepishly admit, it made me feel better.

About this time, I began to feel that the cow to my right with her nose buried in a puddle was watching me without watching me, just as I was her. It was weird to have the same knowing and avoiding in a field with a cow that I've had on subways with city people. Maybe she was the decoy, because right about then I noticed that one of the larger calves was moving in behind me for closer inspection. I made some kind of universal shooing-off gesture with my little tiger in hand, which took care of that curiosity.

Now, when my husband left me, he had instructed me to just "shoo off any nosy cows." At the time I wondered exactly how that was done, but decided I would rely on instinct if the need arose. Instinct worked. It turns out that humongous cows respond in pretty much the same way as dogs or cats. Good thing for me.

With the harassment issue settled, I could again turn my attentions to my husband and the herd on the hill. I got to see for myself today some things he's told me about. Like how cute new calves can be. And how fast such a big animal can move when it wants to--say, when it hears the grain bucket rattling. And how when one starts running others do, too--just because--which is disconcerting when it's toward the nervous city girl left alone at the bottom of the hill they're pelting down. Not that I was in any danger. It's just, shall we say, impressive when hooves start pounding and movement begins spreading through the herd right in front of the uninitiated.

Basically, the rest of the visit was awkward but uneventful. I remained an observer only, because I'm a greenhorn and because I am not an animal-loving person. Why I want to be a farm chick is one of the mysteries of the ages. Maybe I'll be the kind of farm wife that my mother-in-law is, ruling the house and only visiting the farming operations. (Ironically enough, she swore that she would never marry a farmer until she fell in love with one--52 years ago.) Or maybe I'll get past the awkward stage and come to love caring for animals in ways that I could never have previously imagined. I'm aiming for chickens. I'm bigger than they are.

Watching my husband moving gently among the cattle, checking on each and every baby, enjoying his time outdoors with them, I agreed with his father that My Beloved would make a good farmer. I don't know about me. The truth is that all our dreams and ambitions could painfully and expensively flop. There is undeniable risk in any new venture. But there's only one way to know. When I'm an old lady in my rocker, I want to know, not wonder about what might have been.

So next time I'll wear my rubber boots (even though they're cutesy, girly ones ). I'll get to know cows and mud and chickens, mortgages and gardens and barns, and see how it all suits me. I'm trusting my inner voice that hasn't steered me wrong since I started listening to it. We'll leap and hope that a beautiful green net appears.

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