Cattle Drive

A couple of weeks ago we counted up the number of hay bales we had on hand and tried our best to estimate how far we’d get before we’d run out. In a good year you can turn your herd out on the fields by the end of May, giving you time to get a first cut before Summer grazing begins. The amount of hay that the herd can consume in a single day is based on a variety of factors; the quality of the grass, the average temperature, the age of the animals and how far along the cows are in their gestation. We had a good season for calves this year with a higher percentage of bulls to heifers, so there was that factor as well. Since we didn’t have 180 bales on hand to meet the estimated demand and because there was no way of knowing what the cost of late Winter baleage might be or even if it would be available when we needed it most, we had to make a decision about cutting the herd back. I made calls around letting people know that we had animals available but there weren’t any takers. After a few restless nights where I dreamed of cows, arrangements were made to auction off five feeders out of state so that we could be sure to get the rest of the herd through another Winter adequately fed. Selling livestock is not like selling cars. Each of these animals has a personality that I have come to recognize and while we can never expect to keep all of them, nor would it be possible, there is tangible sense of loss each time we ship one out even if it is a means of making ends meet. There is a never ending give and take in what we do and the balance is measured in gains and losses, weighed in the scale over a period longer than you can imagine. Selling bull calves now means less beef next Fall, but keeping them poses a risk of having to reduce the herd in the dead of Winter, or worse yet to compromise next years calving and a cash crunch at time when we could least likely afford it. In the end it all comes down to a calculation, risk versus reward. You could do it on the back of an envelope with a pencil and still have room to spare.

A friend of mine who owns a large stock trailer owed me a favor and agreed to make the drive down to Massachusetts with me. He showed up early so that we could load them and they clambered in together while the rest of the herd watched from the far side of the brook, anxious and bawling to their departing calves. Cows are not human and I do not project emotions where they do not exist, but they are sentient and there is a bonding in every herd that suffers the loss of its members. You would have to be a hard-hearted man not to recognize this, but my obligation to the greater good of the my family and the herd takes priority. We got in the truck and left the farm with a bag of apples between us and a five hour round trip with nothing to do but talk. My friend was a farmer before we moved up here and in a previous life he had been an architect specializing in 10-2-2 homes — 10,000 square feet for two people for two weeks a year. These were the massive custom places that sat perched on the ridgetops and lakesides all over the region we call home. Their property taxes allay any local jealousies and what they contribute to the local economy far outweighs whatever benefit they extract. These are the people who buy my filet mignons and maple cured bacon for their 4th of July cook-outs or their ski weekends and I am grateful for their business as I am certain my friend was when he designed their estates for them. At this time of the year they are long gone, back in other homes nearer the action I suppose, in Boston and L.A., Manhattan or Davos. As we drove we talked about a wide variety of subjects. My friend is older than I am and has been winding down his farming operation slowly due to his age. His children are not interested in it and the grandchildren are still too young so he has been debating the future with his wife and himself for a while now, his physical limitations dictating the agenda. He was kicked recently by one of his draft horses, Virgil, an amiable but overlarge Percheron and that injury and his recovery afterwards has had him rethinking his future with a team. He cuts hay and hauls logs with his horses and in the Winter takes people on sleigh rides complete with jingle bells around the hills and fields of his farm nearby. He runs a small maple sugar operation like we do and raises hogs and beef cattle enough to support his modest lifestyle, so we have a lot in common and enjoy our infrequent conversations very much. We talked about the weather and the crop year, our biggest wins and surprising losses. Apples and berries were at the top of the list and he said he did not expect to ever see such a crop again his life which tells you something about his expectations as much as it does about the fruit. We touched on the current events in Europe and the Capitol if only to demonstrate that we weren’t completely removed from our time, but after a short while our talk fell into bigger things that seemed to arch across our lives and leave questions hanging in the cold November air. We got into my past life as a comedian, something he had never heard me mention before and I tried to explain the technical aspects of it to him; call backs and tag lines, the rule of threes and how words sound affecting the way people respond to various cues. I explained to him how I got into it and how I got out of it and what I learned about people during that time. Making people laugh on command in a room filled with strangers is a manipulation based not so much on being funny, but on tricks and manipulations. That no matter how it might appear to the person in the seat, nothing was extemporaneous and off the cuff, but instead was the result of careful scripting and years of repetition and editing. A guy like Robin Williams may look like he was making it up as he went, but that’s because he was that polished at making you think that’s what he was doing. I equated it with his horses moving hemlock logs out of the forest. To an outsider it probably looks like he just threw some traces around their necks and started calling Haw! and Git! and that was all there was to it, but no one ever saw how many hundreds of frustrating hours went into that ballet of hoofed animals dragging timber across a bouldered hillside. I explained that modern politics was stand-up comedy without the laughter, a manipulation of carefully written words intended to provoke an intended response based on a little bit of truth and whole lot of fiction. Give them what they want and they’ll applaud you. I told him that stand up comedy led me to my wife and that was a big win, but it had also made me cynical and jaded towards people, their gullibility and mindless reaction when they’re part of a crowd and their ability to believe whatever they want if you can make them forget their troubles for just a little while. “Do you ever miss it?” he asked. “Not at all.” I said. “There’s nothing funny about comedy.”

We arrived at the auction yard and unloaded the cattle in the back. The young man who registered us said “Nice looking animals” and I took that as a good sign. We grabbed a cup of bitter coffee at the office while we waited for the paperwork and after a last look at the bulls calves being shuttled into a pen, we headed back home.

Traffic was light and we talked some more, about pyramids and civilizations, Francis Parker Yockey and The Decline of the West. We saw one farmer cutting hay in a field on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River and our jaws dropped- cutting hay in November? He told me about his recent vacation with his wife down to Savannah and Charleston and how on two separate nights they had eaten in two different restaurants, both with jazz combos that had both played versions of the same Patsy Cline song. We saw a seagull as we drove through Newport — 60 miles from the coast — and I did an impression of it using an iPhone, bitching about Siri giving him the directions to the wrong Newport — “Now I’m going to be late for the jazz festival.” There was a pause and I told him the joke would be funnier if the seagull was humming a jazzy version of that Patsy Cline number and he laughed. “That was funny.” he said. “But it wasn’t comedy.” I told him. We talked some more about event horizons and the distractions of modernity and how for some reason every time we speak with old acquaintances from our previous lives they will pronounce that we — my friend and I as agrarians — don’t live in the “real world”. We both found that to be funny enough to laugh at, but then we got to talking about what that means, what exactly is the real world? I don’t text and will likely never learn how and that fact always provokes a raised eyebrow when people discover it. He found my reference to people who use Twitter as Tweeple amusing, but said that he didn’t really understand what that was all about either and probably didn’t want to know. We decided that we might not live in the real world, but we did live in the natural one, where seasons and daylight hours dictate activities and schedules, where money is far less important than being dependable and how human beings and the natural world are entwined on a level that most people will never understand because of their disconnection from it. Every once in a while we’d lapse into a silence broken only by the sound of two old men eating apples. When he dropped me off we shook hands and I thanked him again and he asked me to give him a call when I slaughtered lambs because he wanted to get a leg and some Merguez sausage and I told him I would.

My wife told me last night that she was proud of me for taking the animals to auction, she knew it was hard for me to give them up, but I said it wasn’t a problem, we’ll make more next year. We had fish for dinner with potatoes and spinach and after the kids finished homework I turned in early finished up a biography on Hamilton I had been reading. I was at the part when he was bleeding at the foot of the cliffs at Weehawken, Burr already rowing back to Manhattan with Van Ness across the flat, still waters of the Hudson and I thought how refreshing it would be to have some of our current politicians resolve matters in that way without having to erect a multitude of new offices and send out swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance, then chuckled at the thought. For the first time in a long while I felt like I had talked myself out and that the things I had been pondering that never quite come out right when I sit down to type them into essays had come effortlessly in a simple conversation. My friend and I do not share the same political views, although to be honest they never came up and I can’t say we have ever talked about them except in the most peripheral of terms, but it doesn’t matter. Neither he nor I expect to agree on all things any more than we would expect to do the same kind of farming or raise our children in the same way, but we respect one another enough to be able to have a discussion based on our past experiences, on our ability to rely on one another and to come through when we say we will. I wonder if I do live in a world that isn’t real because it is out of touch with whatever the latest development or alteration, but it doesn’t bother me if it is because there are more things in life than the newest gadget or distraction. I prefer the way that we have chosen to live because it satisfies something that no amount of applause or laughter ever did. And even though I told my wife that I was good with it, I will miss those animals when I go out to visit with the herd this morning and I hope that they find their way to a farm like ours.

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