Two days ago our first calf of the season hit the ground. The cow was carrying when we brought her to the farm in early winter, bought from a neighbor who’d simply gotten too old to maintain her herd through another New England winter. She’d had several calves before, and she was a big girl so we hoped for the best. The calf was a heifer, the largest we’d ever had, close to sixty pounds, but there was something wrong from the get go. The mother was especially defensive, not unusual when you haven’t raised a cow from birth, but more so because of the conditions, heavy snow and bitter cold, so we watched them from a respectful distance. The calf had trouble getting up on her own, the back leg joints looked especially large and she was tender on her legs when she did get up. I never saw her nurse, but she passed enough waste by the afternoon to let me know she’d gotten some colostrum, so I took that as a good sign. By first light yesterday she was lying on her side, never a good sign for a ruminant. I fed out some bales from the back of the truck and waited until her mother joined the others out of sight and got the calf up in my arms and into the front seat of the truck. One ear was almost solid from the cold so I turned up the heat and drove out of the barnyard with her next to me. In the past we’ve pulled young calves unresponsive from snow drifts and brought them into the mudroom for a good shot of warm milk and some close attention only to return them to their mothers an hour of two later in fighting form. I hoped we’d be able to do the same with this one.
One of the lessons I have tried to impart to my children is that in order for any living thing to survive, another living thing must die. This is an ineffable rule for the young, that they are themselves responsible for death in the very act of living. My daughter tries on occasion to argue that carrots do not follow the rule, but I explain to her that even vegetable matter is indeed alive. I use the maple trees to expand upon that thought and ask her if she believes that simply because they are a plant, that their ancient lives, at least to us, are not in fact a testament of sentience. They reach upwards towards the light, their branches interacting with the surrounding trees, looking for a place, like a herd at the water trough, while their roots dig down, grasping onto boulders like gnarled hands, feeding on the soil with myriad mouths of mycorrhizae. She chews her carrots slowly with this dawning realization, but she continues to eat. Last summer the children followed me into the woods to slaughter a goat. My wife has objected on grounds that were based on a life we no longer lead. I had always been respectful of this request until the children began to show an interest in whatever I was doing. This particular day they decided to tag along and I reminded them of what I was about to do. They’ve seen animals in various states of slaughter before, hanging to cure in the milk house cellar where it is cool and dark, chickens and turkeys hung from killing cones with their heads cut off to bleed out, buckets of viscera fed to the hogs or dumped in the compost piles. My oldest son and his friends have helped with this for years now but the younger ones only watched from a distance, noticing, but not involved. On this morning they came in close and watched as I bled the kid, saw how it reacted, experienced the sounds and the smells. I explained to them the process of dying and as we disembowled and cleaned the carcass I used the moment to illustrate the various sytems of life itself — the digestive, the circulatory, the reproductive, the central nervous, the muscular and the skeletal. They stayed with me almost the entire time, losing interest after an hour or so and drifting back off to play, but both of them asked questions later and told their mother all about it that night over dinner, what they’d learned and how it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was. My wife did not eat any of that goat, but the children loved it, grilled in cubes skewered on sticks.
I drove my youngest son to school and as we made our way the the calf rested it’s head on his lap and out of the corner of my eye I watched as he stroked its head with his little hands. The big eyes looked up at him, framed by long lashes and it bleated softly a couple of times. We talked about the fact that it didn’t seem to be thriving, a word he understands quite well since we use it as a baramoter of what goes and what stays on the farm. When he got out of the truck he looked back at me and smiled and petted the calf’s head again and then went inside the school. When I got back home I took the calf into the mudroom and made a pallet on the floor from old feed bags. I mixed up a quart of colostrum in a bottle and got down on the floor with the calf and fed her. She took it, slowly, but you could see that her jaw was working on instinct, the eyes lolling back in her head, throat lifted up to the bottle. I stroked her side to stimulate her nursing like the cows do with their tongues, and she felt warm, but her breathing was labored. I’m not a vet so I couldn’t tell you for certain what the problem was, but something wasn’t as it should have been. Maybe she was too long in the birth canal, maybe she was just too big, but you could tell that she wasn’t where she was supposed to be and after a while she sighed and gave up on the nipple so I let her head down and she fell asleep.
There was a job my friend was working on that needed a second set of hands and a couple of errands I had promised I’d run for another friend, so I finished up chores and headed out. The day was overcast and the temperatures never really warmed despite the hour and by the time I got back home to pick up the kids from the school bus, it was back to where it was at dawn, cold and nearly dark. I looked in on the calf and tried to get it to take the bottle again, but by now it was clear that this was not the outcome we had hoped for. It slept, it’s chest rising and falling rhythymically and the children looked in from the dutch door. I left a note for my wife who had not come home yet and took the children to the library and then to the barber. We came home in the dark with neatly trimmed hair and a stack of books and when we walked in you could smell dinner throughout the house. Near bedtime, after everyone was simmered down and looking sleepy my wife said she would try and phone her mother to check up on her. She lives in Hawai’i and had recently had a small stroke from which she has recovered, but the distance and the day made it feel important for her to reach out again and when they start to talk it usually goes long. We said our goodnights then and I took the kids up with me. In the mudroom there was a plaintive moo from the calf and then it was quiet.
I had troubled dreams last night. I was trying to fix some carpentry work I had done for someone that had gone to rot. I remember blowing on the trim work and the pieces all coming apart with my breath, exposed nails sticking up, rotted wood falling away. Someone was watching me from behind and I could tell they were unhappy with my work and I felt a sense of guilt for not having used better materials, not finishing what I had done properly and every time I tried to make a repair, more of it fell apart. I woke up more than once but I never got out of bed, instead I listened for the sound of my wife’s breathing in the dark and then my own before falling back to sleep.
I was up at five and after I brushed my teeth I came downstairs in the dark. Outside the dogs were curled into tight knots, sleeping in the snow. There was a fresh layer of soft flakes covering their fur and when I flicked on the light their heads rose in unison and looked in at me. The calf was stretched out fully on the feedbags and I watched for a few seconds to see if it’s chest rose or fell, but it didn’t. The eyes were closed, those long white lashes standing out in contrast to it’s red orange coat. I stepped back into the kitchen and put water on for coffee and then dressed, layer upon layer for the morning and made my peace with the loss.
Some things thrive and some things fail. We spend a great deal of time and effort, great expense and human energy trying to fix things that cannot be fixed. We are wedded to ideas and to philosophies that seem good or based on what we believe to be right only to see them fail again and again. That, I suppose, is part of our nature and is as immutable as the changing of the seasons. I have tried to fix my sights on those things that seem to me at least, to be in accordance with what is possible and what is natural and maybe that is shallow and unfeeling in its own right. I do not mourn losses the way some people do and that makes me seem distant and cold I suppose, but it doesn’t mean I am unaffected. That calf represented nine months of expectation, of labor and care. Had it lived she would have brought us fifteen to twenty calves in her lifetime, or meat enough to feed my family for a year. She was part of our wealth and our future as a family as much as she was to her herd, but she wasn’t strong enough to thrive on her own and that’s just the way life goes sometimes. We have so much to be grateful for each day of our lives and most times we fail to realize the multitude of our blessings. The ground is too cold, the compost piles frozen too hard to bury the calf so I will place it on a burn pile in the back forty and burn it’s remains so the coyotes don’t get to it. In a way she will nourish the soil, her ashes returned to the soil where her mother will graze come spring. This is just the way things are, whether we want them to be or not and sometimes we take our losses just to pay for our gains. Outdoors the snow is falling softly on the ground, three feet deep with what was already there, white, like new.