Friday morning was balmy with the southwestern air flow, the kind of weather that makes you feel like you ought to be getting something done at the time of year when maybe you actually ought to be visiting somebody that you don't see as often as you'd like. Or maybe just enjoying what you already have gotten done instead of trying to make something better. My three boys all wanted to walk down Lambert Lane to the Pic-N-Pay to purchase some fart bombs, party snaps, and beer, they said.
“Go ahead,” I told them. “Tell them you're getting the beer for me.”
“We can't do that,” said my youngest, who is four. “They'll put us in jail.”
“Okay, so maybe we'll stay here the rest of the morning. Anyway, the commercial fart bombs you get at the store aren't half as disgusting as the rotten eggs in the hay stack.”
Our hay stack began in late April of last year with the barley, then more than a thousand two-wire bales of meadow hay were stacked over the course of months, some still tarped off on the sides of pasture and awaiting my lazy ass to retrieve it. The barley hay turned out to be the sweetest, so I emptied the back corner of the stack first, leaving a gap. The stack has migrated as it dwindles, and the chickens occupying it have abandoned nests in the face of catastrophes that for them were the equivalent of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Every now and then we pull down a bale covered with a dozen or so cannisters of putrid sulfur, baby chicks in various stages of development.
All three of the boys ran off for the hay stack as if soldiers on a mission. I was kind of hoping to spend the morning working on the greenhouse, getting ready for planting starts, but this was also the day we were separating a cow and calf, so both were bellowing back and forth across the fence.
“What are you going to do about the calf?” Diana might have asked me. Something like that. It was hard to hear anything with the calves and the puppies, the boys hollering from the hay stack.
The reason she was asking was that I wasn't sure. Earlier in the morning, I'd tried taking a bottle of fresh warm milk out and coaxing the heifer to me, but she'd run off. She was born at Christmas and was now two weeks old, shy and well able to elude me. The first year of milking cows I'd separated the calf after maybe two days, stuck it in our stock trailer as a pen, and bottle fed it since. Everything had worked until April of '08 when I had the brilliant idea of purchasing a few unwanted bull calves from a big dairy farm for $25 each and feeding them the extra milk. Of course they'd all developed scours — extreme squirts of diarrhea, and then this gorgeous heifer calf from one of our own cows had caught the scours from them and died on my birthday, in spite of all efforts to tube feed her with electrolytes. I blamed myself for having separated the cow and calf, felt like a real jerk. Friends from Mexico said they remembered the calves always got the shits if they were bottle or bucket fed, but that they just leave some milk in the udder and let the calf nurse after the milking in the morning or evening, everything was okay. No sqirts.
So I tried everything besides bottle feeding after that horrible experience with the heifer. I tried letting the calf nurse on the cow until it was taking five or six gallons and was growing about ten pounds a day, it seemed like, at which point the calf would be wild and difficult to manage. I tried bringing the calf in and out after milking in the mornings and evenings, but it was too often a circus.
Then we'd gotten this three titter cow from a homestead near Willits, and her left rear quarter had abscessed and was so disgusting that I didn't want her around our milk cows, so I tried separating her from her massive calf and substituting it with the one that was just born. That way, I thought, this otherwise ruined cow might be able to serve us. She could be a nurse cow. However, she'd kicked the new calf away for a day so I'd given up on that idea. A week or ten days later, and now I was trying again with the same results. To the apprentice it probably appeared that I didn't know what I was doing, when really I told myself I was just exploring the options. It was hard to do much mental exploration with the cow and calf bawling, though.
I heard my six year-old son screeching from the hay stack where evidently he'd tripped on some baling wire and fallen on a pallet. We stacked the hay on pallets to keep it from wicking up the ground moisture in May and June, but now the hay was gone and it was just pallets.
The screaming was mostly from the perpetual conflict between the six and twelve year-olds, not any injury, but Diana couldn't help noticing that here was a covered space that would be perfect for keeping the calf in so we could tame it down.
“I usually use the stock trailer for that,” I said, staring at the pallets covered with baling wire strands and loose hay that would make perfect bedding, and at the roof overhead. Meanwhile, the cow and calf were lowing like the world was ending.
“Oh.” Stock trailer, I thought. “But you know we could use those pallets, wire them together, kill two birds with one stone.”
The materials were all right there. In a matter of minutes we had a sheltered 15 x 30 area, and we'd cleaned up a god-awful mess. It was the perfect calf pen. Job done, except for sending the calf in — probably a piece of cake.
There is a basketball goal mounted on a post at the end of the hay barn, and Diana picked up the ball, couldn't resist taking a shot. The next thing you knew, my boys had joined her on the court which is sort of the thing the people at the local natural building community, Emerald Earth, call “cob.” It's like adobe. They mix clay and cow shit and straw, stomping it barefoot. We stomp ours coming down from the rebound and dribbling the basketball. All this time I'd been trying to keep a professional relationship with Diana, but here they dragged me into the game, and what was a little awkward for me was that she was actually playing. I mean most of the time around here, these days, all people do is shoot around. They don't try to go for rebounds or block shots, or anything. Actually boxing out for a rebound was a little more intimacy than I was comfortable with, but there was no way to back out of it. Basketball is considered a contact sport, and this was barnyard style for sure. It was hard to say whether I was sweating more from physical exertion or blushing.
By the time we were exhausted from shooting hoops, the cow and calf had quieted down. Somehow the calf had managed to find its way under the woven wire fence and was now nursing. It was pastoral tranquility but there would be no milk in that cow tonight.
When the chores were done, Diana and I sat around the fire and shared a bottle of wine. She told me about how her parents had met at this Halloween party at a Lutheran church in Detroit back in 1982 or '83 or something. Evidently they'd both been dressed as Ronald Reagan, complete with the suit and tie, the rubber masks that were popular back then, and they'd first danced to a tune by Kool and the Gang. She told me her dad had been a cab driver so he'd worked nights and weekends and she'd hardly ever seen him, especially after her parents split up when she was seven. Her mom had been a nurse and worked sixteen hour shifts and wanted to sleep and watch television on her days off, but her mom's parents had sort of a produce farm east of Michiwaka where she'd spent the summers and gotten experience with crops like apples and strawberries.