Every drop of water drawn from the taps this summer I have hauled into place.
I fill the bowser from the tap at the barn, pull it round to the basement at the west end of the bunkhouse, hook up to the alkythene pipe inserted into a hole drilled in the water tank enclosure and let it fill the system by gravity.
So every cup of tea, every toilet flush, hair/hand wash was made possible. Every shower prolonged pleasurably – was paid for in effort.
Every pot filled, garment washed, crock cleaned – was, in a sense, my artefact.
A pain in the water butt, in truth.
When the borehole pump failed first – I pulled it out for maintenance.
When the time came to replace it in the well with electrical connections reassembled, I tested it before dropping it down the 200ft shaft.
It didn’t work –
well, it worked if I stood in the dark basement like a cave-dwelling caryatid with my finger glued to it,
but it didn’t flow at the command of the float switch as it should.
So I run the quad up to the yard several times a day to handcraft the precious resource.
It has become a duty, like feeding the cattle in winter – a chore, literally, but one with a similar gift of routine. When I drive the quad round in the morning I take the measure of the day ahead, and, at night, take stock. While waiting on the twenty minute fill, I look for eggs, watch the ducklings, chop thistles and dockans, pull ragwort.
The Nog comes with me, joins the routine, noses through the silage pastures for pheasants, hares and partridge, also hunts out any hen’s eggs available for breakfast-(his breakfast)- races the quad, eats the chicken feed.
So this improvisation, born from failure and incomprehension,
has become embedded, a part of my day, of me
like a limp.
I must address this inertia.
Each day I aim by elimination to do some one thing to arrive closer to understanding the fault
One by one I have broken the electrical connections, and remade them, wired the pump to the switch in the basement, connected the dry run probe.
I suffer a teasing hiatus after clicking the trip switch – a moment of imminence- and then the light-
always red: always the stop light.
I had filled the pump with water when testing, but today I insert the heavy cylinder into the aperture used to fill the upper tank and submerge it – just in case there is some requirement for the pump casing to be immersed.
Flick the switch,
wait a half breath for the light to come on-
And this evening the heather has broken into full flower on the south facing slopes.
Yellow is being worn today.
Slow draining rivulets along the margins of the farm sport finery.
Peaty and filled with black mud that has clarted my boots many times on my way up the hill, these semi stagnant waterways obstruct hard paths around the farm.
I think sometimes there must have been stone bridges- there are old roads after all, winding their way around and between the townships that dotted the drier slopes above the river’s floodplain.
Today’s road shortcircuits the connecting loops that wander between habitations – at walking pace, at cart pace. The routes describe the journeys, mostly short and where longer, diversionary, topographic – one had to keep one’s boots dry after all.
The new road is far from arrow straight; the cliffs of Creag Dhubh are as unyielding as ever, the low ground as liable to flood as at any time, but the cars fly past on their way to somewhere else.
Watching them as I walk parallel to the road, I am looking not just from these woods separated by a few metres from the facilitating ribbon, but from an old time as if through an opening in a rotting stump.
Here hanged felons swing beside the highway as a warning,
and kingcups blaze above the slow movement of dark water.
I tag the last calf this morning –
old white Moira’s bull calf,
I coral him in a tight pen at the entrance to the race.
It confines him nicely, but the hurdle closing the entrance has no chain
to close it: being strong he could force it open by charging the bars
the way they do when frightened,
while I seek a tie.
I use my trousers,
restoring my dignity once the lad is released.
Logging the birth online,
filling Billy’s tag number as sire
for the last time
I see the animals in the field below the window
alert to something in the wood.
From the balcony I spot Moira being harrassed by the bullocks,
circling to escape their attempts to mount her.
She has come into season-
the first time after George’s birth.
She could be injured by these crude suitors,
incapable but only too willing.
I run down, divide them and shepherd her and George through the gate.
The boys watch her forlornly as they amble toward the other animals
She and her halfcalf are once more part of the herd-
and Angus Halfhorn is waiting.
is his now.
The void between the buildings is spanned by an oaken bridge.
The bunkhouse sits below the roundhouse so that the bridge leaves the roundhouse deck to strike the first floor at the other end,
10 foot off the ground,
and level with the bunkhouse eaves where the swallows dart.
I make the crossing to my office at the westen end of the bunkhouse
The prevailing westerlies hit the gable end of the office to curl round the mouth of the bridge and down its length.
Swallows make their homes here, housemartens adopt the round walls of my home.
This natural specificity is dictated by the respective build systems; mud and grass for materials –
but while swallows prop their nests on a ledge – maybe a downpipe elbow-
martens bracket their nests to a vertical.
They need purchase – choosing the dry head of my rough lime rendered wall.
Today I walk out onto the bridge and across to the wide platform
overlooking the bright growth of upper Strathspey.
A swallow brushes past my shoulder using the air as I use the timber deck.
The wind is strong enough for the birds to hold themselves up,
feathers fluttering, with a litany of chirrups and washboard clicks.
There must be a couple of dozen surrounding me,
within inches of my head,
Billy’s last journey is simple to trace.
Not for him quiet retirement under the trees.
He has his place – as master.
First he must cross the field.
He sets his head against the closed gate, hooking his horns under the bottom bar.
The metal buckles but the ropes hold and the hinges are strapped down.
No matter- he knows all the ways round the farm that he has owned contentedly for a decade.
He sashays along the fence seeking access to the wooded hollow.
This gate too is tied: a rope looped round a securely braced corner post.
He brings his horns down on the timber bars of the short ladder at the side, smashing them from the post.
The gap is too small for him to pass through.
His way lies through the marsh.
The wired gate swings open under his weight.
He moves purposefully through the bog created by the blocked drainage channel.
His wide hooves carry his body weight squarely punching pockets in the soft ground that fill at once with water.
Where the land dries again, he skirts the fence bordering the vacant hay pasture.
The gate bulges and gives.
He is now on sweet new grass but his mind is not on grazing.
At last he reaches the paddock with the high fence where his females wander in the company of his son.
Angus stands there, responding to his challenge.
Billy tears at the grass with his front hooves, revealing black dirt that he grinds to paste with the front ridge of his skull, snorting and groaning as he does so.
He lifts his head to the sky.
At his trumpeting, rivals will quail, trees split, the earth will shake and walls tumble.
Mastery is his-
just one more gate.
He is ready
to break through.
Little Jess is delighted: the ducklings have hatched.
Mother duck is sitting still. There are eggs under her and three ducklings poking out from under her downy breastfeathers.
The long grass and stems on the island have been flattened by frost and rain, so the female mallard has no cover apart from her colouring that blends with the wintry vegetation.
She attempts to look like rock.
Once the rest of her eggs have hatched: her frenetic soot balls will find their true element on the water, and safety from predators.
For now she must sit- and wait –
while Jess and I hope for a good morning.
There is another young survivor on the farm road this evening –
Moira’s half calf, a quasi autonomous republic,
population of one
who watches his mother up to the yard to be fed and penned
and stays cropping the sweet grass at the base of the birches
for a good hour
up to the bucket of nuts I had placed there for him.
With just a litre of mother’s milk coaxed down his reluctant gullet,
he has made it up the road
Changeover day – new guests in: so house cleaning today – with the added complication of filling the water tanks manually since the borehole pump failed on Thursday, but first-
A calf who doesn’t like milk.
A calf who refuses everything suitable that I offer him.
A calf who is still standing.
I now split Moira’s feed into two buckets: I know he will compete with her, copy her, and she will make no concessions.
This gives him a few more precious mouthfuls.
He takes a few feeble licks from the mineral tub, sucks from the bottle of rehydration salts that I hold in his mouth for a good twenty minutes. I can feel his bones as I sit with my leg pinning him down in the hay.
He is building no muscle, no meat.
Tell the truth, he never will-
if he lives.
He follows his mother out of the yard and down the farm road. I catch glimpses of the pair at different spots during the day, much of it in the small clearing in the birches above the house. I haven’t seen them here before. It means they are foraging more widely.
The casual oberver would see nothing amiss: mother and calf moving steadily across the pasture, heads down. A stockman would immediately feel discomfort at this behaviour, the size of the calf, the cow’s swollen udders.
It’s not right-
and yet he’s there all day – moving munch by tiny munch – of thin untimely grass.
As the windy afternoon fades, he and his mother return to the yard, ready to be penned for the night.
The birches at the bottom are greening with tiny knobs of curled leaf: higher up the farm road they are skeletal still. The climb up the burnside after the Nog remains unadorned – though I almost know that it will change soon.
Yesterday the animals paraded through the open gate – then required shedding to their new homes: the younger cows to join Angus Halfhorn for his first season as stud bull.
I am concerned that, at three days old, it is early for Alice’s calf to cope with a sudden influx of older animals: but the opportunity to shift the animals has to be taken.
My choice: their time.
Single handed on the farm I have to work their way to do things my way.
The old bull,my darling Bill, has spent the day sitting by the fence looking down to where his son Angus partners cows that were with him last year. He is still there when I down last thing after my hill climb with the Nog. Alice’s baby is running in joyful circles with the other, larger calves.
She is fearless-
unlike her mother who, forgetting her cracked hooves, chases after her like a clumsy shadow.
Billy is now standing at the fence above, roaring, raking the ground with hoof and horn. Angus responds to the challenge. There are still two fences between them-
but as I watch Billy uproots a line of three posts and the connecting wires.
Angus is roaring his challenge from below. I chase him back to the girls: he flounces down the hill kicking his heels.
Billy is still knocking hell out of my fence; he has created a gap large enough to get through if he wants.
I reprimand him.
I hit him with a stick.
I spot a feed bag caught on the fence. He turns as I pick it up and follows me across the hayfield back to the calving paddock, where I close him in after rewarding him.
Staying there depends on him – a fence, a gate is mere suggestion.
Co-operation is best-
after all he’s bigger than me.
My first fear of the day is the state of the half calf.
Will he be breathing, standing?
He is standing.
Will he, following some unfathomable bovine epiphany, have sucked from his mother?
He hasn’t; he won’t.
competing with his mother for nuts.
These are for grown animals, finishing-nuts, suckling-mother nuts – but here he is with his head stuck into her bucket. When she leans into it to reach the dark grains, she wedges his head inside so he has to wriggle loose. Somehow this behaviour is reassuring though he is very feeble –
not growing and fattening like his brothers and his little white sister who is too busy running and jumping to get fatter.
Last night I watched the Nog gallop across the hayfield:
and her galloping after – looking to play.
So I am more relaxed as I quad the bags down to the boys on the hardstanding, and then to Angus halfhorn and Alice in the aspen paddock below-
and she’s calved.
I had forgotten to anticipate this- it has been so long awaited.
And suddenly it’s here –
wet and already nuzzling her mother’s stomach- her instincts are true.
Yes, it’s a heifer- since Alice was bought in from Dingwall mart, I will be able to breed from her in three years.
No time to enjoy her now- I left the gates open on the way down.
for all that-
Welcome, little one.
The day is kind for beginnings.