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Friday, March 25, 2016

Lucy and Linda the closet-eating calf

On Thursday morning the Farmer pointed out the kitchen window toward the thorn bushes lining the stone fence.
“Do you see that cow? She’s hiding from the heifer.” No, I did not see the cow. She was that good at this game. Then I saw the bushes move. Not a very comfortable place to hide, I’m sure. But the pregnant cow was anxious to get away from her year-old calf, who was nearly big as her but still suckling.
“That cow is going to calve today,” the Farmer declared. Sure enough, when I got home from work the light was on in the horse stable-turned-newborn-centre. The calf was big and healthy but the cow did not appear happy. She was bawling to be let out, probably because spring is in the air. She can smell the earth and wants to go for a wander through the meadow. But first she had a calf to feed.
The cow was nice enough to let the Farmer steal some colostrum, and this he fed to the new calf with a syringe because she didn’t seem to be interested in her mother’s udder. There was a lot of sidling up and nuzzling for comfort but no apparent feeding. The Farmer also gave an injection of Selenium with Vitamin E, as our soil is deficient in this part of Eastern Ontario. That shot usually gets them up and suckling. Not in this case.
And yet, the calf remained strong. The next day, we struggled to feed her with a bottle. She stood for us, then bucked and bronced her way out of our grasp. When we put the bottle in her mouth she didn’t suck. She just chomped and spit and drooled, wasting the milk. It was so weird.
The calf peed and had bowel movements, so we knew she got something, but from where?
“She must be suckling from her mother when we aren’t looking,” reasoned the Farmer. “But it’s really strange that she doesn’t have a sucking reflex on the bottle.”
I offered my expert opinion. “Maybe she hates the taste and feel of the bottle. And the milk replacer.”
When the calf was 48 hours old I went to the barn again, early morning. The calf stood to greet me, or to prepare an exit. She circled her mother and even sniffed under her at the udder but never latched on.  When the Farmer went out a few hours later he couldn’t catch her suckling either. He went out again after dark and snuck in quietly. The calf was under the mother. No feeding was happening.
The calf is now three days old and we have yet to see it eat. It’s the weirdest thing. I think we will have to keep it inside until we witness a feeding – although if the calf is strong enough to get up and walk around – it even bounced across the stall today – then it’s safe to assume it’s getting something.
Mysteries on the farm.
That’s four down, eight to go. So far, so good. All calves born are strong and healthy. And eating. As far as we know.
Ginger is about the size of a Mack truck so I assume she will be going next. She followed me around the barnyard today until I gave her the apple in my hand. She’s come a long way from the suspicious Hereford who tried to kill the Farmer when he tried to milk her once. She will eat right out of my hand now. The other day she was lying on a sunny pile of hay beside the feeder and let me pet her for about ten minutes. In previous years she would let me get within five feet of her, then bounce up and away.
Our three little calves that are already outside spend sunny afternoons curled up beside or inside the hay feeder. I sat beside the red one and put his sleepy head in my lap. He stayed there a few minutes until a bird call woke him up. Imagine his surprise to see he was sleeping on me. He jumped straight up in the air and took off bawling for his mother.
Spring is here and the animals are so happy they can walk the well-beaten path over the rocky terrain to the meadow. They pick the highest, driest and sunniest spot for their afternoon naps.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Ten years since Taiwan

I tiptoe around the house in the morning these days because the Farmer-turned-Real Estate Agent doesn’t always have to be up early. Except today.
“Why did you let me sleep in?” he asked, looking rather bleary and rumpled.
“Wha? You always sleep in…”
“Not when I have to be at a training session in Ottawa. In an hour.”
I had just been out on the porch placating a bunch of bawling cows. Their feeders were empty and I wasn’t strong enough to drive the tractor. The Farmer has to put everything he’s got into stepping on the clutch – I tried once. It didn’t budge. Stupid ancient old machinery, its headlight eyes held on with duct-tape.
The Farmer did a quick shower and change and zipped past me on his way out the door to start his truck. Then he noticed the lineup of cows at the fence.
“Gah!” I watched as he stomped over to the shed, climbed up onto the tractor and closed his eyes as he turned the key. Luckily it was mild last night and the engine decided to turn over.
The cows seemed to sense he was in a hurry because they stayed out of his way. Usually they accompany him to the hay store and back to the feeder, running just out of harm’s way, nibbling at the loose bits of hay on the bale in the bucket. Today they stood back and watched until he filled their feeder and returned the tractor to the shed. They mooed softly as they gathered around the bale. He will have to put the second one up tomorrow.
The demands of life on the farm. Some are flexible and will wait ‘til you get home. Others will not. We don’t want to risk a mutiny resulting in the cows jumping the fence and heading down the road, in search of hay. We are still waiting for the other nine cows to give birth this season. I hope they are pregnant, or the bull will be given his walking papers. These concerns are on my mind in March of 2016.
Ten years ago this month, I was living at a friend’s apartment in Taiwan, sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor. My bags were already packed and I had my ticket home in my backpack. I was equal parts nervous and excited, for what the future would hold.
Every morning I got up in the mist and climbed to the roof, where I did some quick stretches beneath a potted banana palm. Then I showered and dressed and walked to the subway, which I took to work in the middle of the city of Taipei. Most of the route was suspended above the city, and I watched the busy streets crammed with buses, taxis and dozens of scooters passing beneath us.
Outside my office building I bought my favourite breakfast: a tuna dan bing (crepe with egg, tuna and peanut butter inside, drizzled with oyster sauce) from a street vendor. I ate it at my desk as I worked on the articles in that month’s edition of the English-teaching magazine that I was editing. Lunch usually came in the form of a Bento box and dinner was Thai or Indian food on the way home. Sometimes I went to the gym, especially if it was a bad day for smog. My favourite hangouts were the movie theatre and the bookstore. I spent a lot of time alone, not making eye contact or engaging anyone in conversation. It was pretty easy, because the locals didn’t want me to challenge their English. It was a rather silent, insular existence when I wanted it to be.
A few times during that last month as I lay trying to sleep my brain would fantasize about my homecoming. My sister and I had planned to surprise my family, and I wondered how my daughters would react. I had been gone three years.
On my last day in Taiwan I left my gym membership card and subway pass to a colleague. Several friends gave me a good sendoff (known as a “leaving do”) and helped load the small suitcases that contained my life into a taxi headed for the airport.
I had no idea what awaited me at home. I couldn’t even imagine what life would be like in ten years. The decade has gone incredibly fast. I find myself wondering what blessings and sorrow the next will hold.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sneaking out in the middle of calving season

The problem with feeding a bull apples is that now, every time I head into the barnyard, he thinks I’m bringing him another snack. He has always been very tame but now that he is fully grown I don’t dare trust him. Not wanting to disappoint, I head back to the house to cut some apples into wedges and stuff them into my pocket. There are a few beasts looking for treats today.
I put myself on the other side of the big hay feeder and reach over to offer the apple slice to the bull. He gently reaches out his tongue and pulls the fruit into his mouth. It’s hard to imagine him being aggressive but I am careful not to challenge him in any way. I won’t pat him on the head like I did with the ram once. I might not recover so easily from that.
Two of the new calves are already out in the barnyard, as the weather has been mild and they are over a week old. Mocha finally had the calf the Farmer was watching for when he locked her in the barn last week. She waited until he gave up and let her out again, but she returned to the barn like a good girl and found a quiet corner in a sunbeam to birth her baby bull calf. By the time we discovered them, she already had him dried off and fluffed up. She was looking a little worn out, lying beside him and softly mooing. I brought her a pile of sweet hay and fed her a couple of pieces of her favourite food. This girl has been known to break out of the barnyard and trot down the road when the apple trees are heavy with fruit.
This mild winter has been exceptionally easy on us compared to last year. A year ago we were praying for our water to the barn to open again. It froze up and forced us to feed a dozen head of cattle with a garden hose. It was quite an exercise. Carefully unwind hose and stretch from house to trough. Fill the trough, then carefully fling the hose over a barn rafter (don’t let the hose come back and hit you in the mouth; I learned that lesson the hard way) and slowly drain all the water out of it before winding it on the floor of the barn for the next day. More than once we discovered if you leave a bit of water in the hose, it freezes and cracks. We gave up on décor and let the hose defrost in the house.
As I write this, we are once again packing for a trip to the sunny south. We have two daughters and their men coming to care for the farm in our absence. One pair is experienced at cattle farming. The other pair can look after the house and the handful of cats. It’s hard to say which task will prove more of a challenge. I am trying not to worry about what might go wrong while we are away.
The Farmer is already in vacation mode. He is very good at turning off the worry track in his brain. I wish I could relax like he does. Something tells me when I’m on the beach with nothing but the sound of waves and Bob Marley for distraction, however, I will find a way to chill out.
Our granddaughter Leti is three months old now. She has started smiling and laughing and it makes fools of us all. We practically stand on our heads trying to get a reaction out of her. We were going to take a longer vacation this year, now that the Farmer is retired from teaching. But I can’t imagine going more than a week without seeing our littlest girl.
Next year at this time, maybe her parents will be ready for a winter getaway, and we can babysit. That would be truly awesome. Grandpa is a fulltime realtor now, so when I’m at work he can look after her. I imagine the two of them in a nest of pillows on the couch, bowl of popcorn between them, watching Fox and the Hound.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Grandma Leeson celebrating her 93rd birthday with the fifth generation, her great-great granddaughter Leti

Tracing our roots in Kemptville

On a hot summer day, the doors of Kemptville’s Grahame’s Bakery are left wide open to let some of the heat escape. The aroma of bread baking in a wood-fired oven escapes too, and wafts through the neighbourhood to where I grew up, on George Street. That could explain why I don’t really appreciate baked goods from anywhere else – they just aren’t as substantial and authentic as Grahame’s donuts and pies – and the scent reminds me of my early years in my hometown. But it turns out my connection to the bakery runs even deeper than that.
To get the facts straight, I interviewed my grandma Mabel Leeson, on the occasion of her 93rd birthday. She has the family tree documented carefully on paper, but she doesn’t really need it. All of the names and dates are still easily retrieved from her razor-sharp memory. It frustrates me that my memory is so bad. I suggested Mabel’s mind was still sharp because of her long career in finance with the federal court. Mabel put herself through accounting courses after her two sons were born, and had her fees reimbursed because her marks were so high. The only woman at the boardroom table in the 1950’s, she earned the respect of her colleagues and a reputation as a very tough manager. Grandma says my memory is likely bad because I fill my brain with too many other things. She could have a point there.
Mabel’s Uncle Burt and Aunt Esther Frisby owned Grahame’s Bakery in the 1930’s. In 1939, a young man named Leonard Grahame began working for Burt, learning the techniques of baking in the traditional wood-fired oven. Leonard worked very hard, and showed a keen interest in the business. When the Frisbys retired twenty years later, Burt found a way to sell the bakery to his protégée. Leonard’s son Ken took over the family business from his father and now the grandchildren, Rick and Debbie run the bakery together.
It’s interesting to trace the history of a place, or a family, and fascinating to learn how many of our families started out with one person travelling across the ocean to land on a dock in Canada. Many of these first branches of the Canadian family tree came over as home boys. They were sent over from orphanages and other facilities in the UK to live and work on farms in Canada.
My grandfather Garnet Leeson’s family comes from Ireland. As there is a Leeson street in Dublin, I imagine our roots are there. Guess where I would like to visit someday? Grandma Mabel was a Costain, and her tree branches back to the Isle of Man, a little island in the sea between Ireland and England. There is a rich history there tracing back to the Celts and the Vikings. That might explain the fighting spirit of the Manx lineage. Their emblem has three legs: no matter how they fall, they always land on their feet.
You don’t have to trace your family tree back too far to see where it began in Canada. A young child, in many cases an orphan, endures a long, hard journey at sea, which ends at a port in Montreal or maybe Nova Scotia. Many of those youngsters were ‘adopted’ by farmers in Eastern Ontario. They began their lives in Canada taking care of animals on a farm, or working in the lumber yards. These children were often given their meals and left to sleep in the barns as well. There is a home boy at the top of the family tree in both my family and my husband’s family. It was a rough start for many of our families. Look how easy we have it now.
Grandma Leeson, in her 94th year, has had two sons, seven grandchildren, fifteen great- grandchildren and one great, great grandchild. The branches of this tree are long and its roots are firmly planted.
Happy Birthday, Grandma.