Whooper

 

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I keep a few sheep and send their lambs to the freezer. They go to the tup in November, and this year I’ve been slow at fetching them back. So it was yesterday by the time I loaded them into the trailer, all red-arsed where the raddle’s rubbed them, and the tup gone dumb and glassy-eyed.

I stood for a half hour with a neighbour and watched the day pan out. Swans came up from the east and battled the wind. I saw them coming from a mile away against the blue horizon; rising and falling and hurling in a line. Even at that range, I could they were nothing like the roady swans you find in a town park, with their wings crisp and frilled as lace; nothing like the red-masked devils who can break your arm, they say. Not mute swans, but whoopers, with yellow jaws and a mutter like cold wind over a jar.

They passed precisely over our heads. We craned to see them, with white throats gulping in our collars. Eighteen swans, and the downbeat of their wings seemed to part our hair like a draft. We didn’t speak for ten minutes after that, watching the rain ride in from the sea in lank, trailing palls like steam from a straightened hazel shank.

If you like nice moments, there was one for you.

Wind

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It’s a mistake to let weather like this get away from you. I hate the wind, and I’m filled with spiteful rage to find it free and happy. Such a wind is hardly joking; having been given free rein, it tugs my cuff and sneers, saying “now what?”

It was a rough day to work cattle, but people were free to help and you can hardly turn down the chance to get a job done. So the wind ran through us all as we went to the pens; it rolled upon itself and bellowed in the beech boughs, turning hazel to hurtle till the catkins sang.

We brought all the beasts into the pens, with the smack of their hooves in the mud. We drew off the calves from their mothers and pressed the young beasts into a chute. Then we freed the cows to their field, although they hung around and bellowed anyway. With shoving and prodding, we drove the calves up into a gaping aluminium trailer where their hooves clattered and the vent flaps clicked like castanets.

Of course the trailer got stuck. Deep peely rinds of mud came spurting up in the tyre treads, and always the endless wind about us, fouled with birds and diesel fumes and a plastic feed bag fleeing. There were gulls low and idle about the land, and the sea all ribbed with racks of white foam. We waited for another tractor to rescue the trailer, and I slouched in the whinns and watched breakers smash on the granite shore.

Now the calves are home and pained by the lack of their mothers. It’s an endless moan, but here is a turning point for the spring. The cows have new calves to think of, and they can no longer afford to spend their milk on last year’s young. And the calves of 2019 must become stirks and heifers in their own right.

Escape

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It was after two when the bull rubbed a hole in his enclosure. I heard the rails fall away and knew that he was seconds from escape. Into the swirling snow I went, barelegged in wellies with the ice like a vest below my jacket. It was enough to set teeth on edge as I ran, and there he was, brawny as a stockpot and wedged in a gap, redhanded, the bastard.

The wind bawled and I recovered him with a length of plastic pipe, yelling “back, get back”. He humped and squirmed; a black shape, heavy as the world itself. Then he was round and I walked him out into the paddock where there are tall dykes and no chance to break them.

At that very moment, the wind seemed to slip below the fields by the marsh, pushing a thousand geese into the night. Rush and holler, and the shape of a clattering skein in the snowlight.

Even when I had returned to bed, the cold played around me for an hour.

Three Men

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I lie with my newborn son in the room where an old shepherd died. Light and night pass over the window; gulls ride out to sea.

This was the shepherd’s room for ninety years before we came to lie in it. How that time must’ve flown for him in a rush of business; he was a man of action and sound judgement, matching his labour to weather and chance. When he woke in the morning, the window showed him everything he’d need to know for the day’s work ahead. He could tilt his head from the pillow and plan accordingly. In sheep and life, there was always more to do.

But in his dying days, he lay where we are lying and felt slack water pooling around him. He was sick and bed-bound, suffering in his lameness. Hours slipped and work fell undone as he gathered news from the window, piling it uselessly in a list of missed opportunities. Drifting and dreaming, he waited for an outcome.

Now I lie in the same room with a child so unready for the world that his view from that window is meaningless. It could rain or blare down bright sunshine; my boy will bide indoors regardless because he is soft and the sky seems to baffle him. So he sleeps across my shoulder and his twitchy fingers pluck the unmarked hours.

Today brought a grand, beckoning view of hills which begged my son to come and see. But there is nothing for old souls and new but patience.

 

Twenty Years

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Twenty years have passed since I killed my first wigeon on a hill pond above the Breoch. That was a watershed for me, and I mark my days before and after. It was the last night of a cold season, and I went to stand with my father and his friends as the darkness came on. A fine rake they made in the old whin bushes, and how I swooned to have that first bird pressed into my hands by torchlight. And I’ve shot that pond or ponds around it ever since; every year without fail for two decades. It makes me dizzy to realise how the time has slid by in the pursuit of those age-old birds, but there’s no avoiding it.

Grown-ups often say how briskly the time flies. Ask them how long ago it was when the cow was lost or the hedge replanted and they’re always wrong. They say “three or four years”, even when it was treble that. If you remind them, they sigh and say “is that so?”, as if they don’t care to recall a number. As a kid, I used to wonder how grown-ups came to be so forgetful; as if time could ever be slippery and missable. My life was crystalline and definite; I marked every detail and recorded the days as if each one held tremendous value. A year was a marathon, and next winter might as well be never. But in marking this twentieth anniversary, I begin to see how time could rush by and gather steam.

Where I come from, there’s a certain kudos in seniority and endurance. Particularly in farming, where progress is slow and persistence is pitched as a proxy for progress. There’s a local ambition that as each year comes to a close, your resolution should be to do the same again but better. It’s a doughty, staid ambition which implies that advancement is linear; that each year is a springboard for the next. Wisdom is accrued simply by staying put, so it’s no wonder that we nod to old folk who did just that.

But the truth is that:

A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldez never lyk”

[A year runs swiftly, and never brings the same thing twice]

Time comes in a spatter. Struggle, fight and learn all you like, but don’t kid on that your labour leaves you better placed to face tomorrow. In this business, people don’t grow tall – they grow broad. Each new year will leave them freshly baffled.

I tell myself that I should be proud for having stuck at this work. In another twenty years, I might be entitled to comment on cattle and the crackle of hay. But really I wonder if there’s much to be said for standing still. When I think of what it might take to shut up shop and try something else, I wonder if I have chosen the easy option; stasis, and the illusion of learning.

Now time comes in clumps of months, and I’m strangely content to let individual days go by without note or comment. That would have disgusted me a decade ago, when I believed that every day had to be stripped to the bone. But now I know there will be other days, and I’m less panicked by postponement.

Perhaps that’s how years begin to slide. If I’m not careful, I’ll soon begin to wonder where the time went.

Red Fox

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A fox is easily seen on a bright summer’s day. His redness cracks like a flag in the sunshine, and I begin to think that his coat is a vanity – something saucy and provocative. If he suffers for being seen, then he was asking for it.

A red coat is striking to me in broad daylight, but look again on the edge of darkness. There comes a moment in the dusk when light has gone and the redness pales to grey. Spot a fox then – I challenge you.

In lying out for a fox last year, I made my bed at the bend in a long, dusty track. It’s a good place to wait and see, and a clear view to five hundred yards. Evening came and the light fell. I stared along the track and bided my time. Dimness and dimmer, with the western hills in durlish blue. It was almost time to use the lamp when I saw movement on the track – a squirmy little shape at two hundred yards.

It was too small to be a fox, and I brought the rifle to my cheek and stared down the telescopic sight. It made no sense to me, seeming more like a darkness in the wheel ruts of the track. I frowned for some time before I realised that I was looking in the wrong place. I had seen the shadow beneath a fox, and the squirming dance it made seemed to play across the grass as the prowler came nearer. Even at a hundred yards with a clear view and nothing to block me, I saw that fox as if he were an empty line drawing; a smirr like a spot of grease on a lens.

It’s wrong to scoff at the fox for his redness. He shines in the daylight, but that’s not when he’s meant to be seen. Find him in the final throes of sinking darkness and you’ll see how little colour comes into it.

Horses

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We burn our bridges as we go, as if nothing we used to get here will ever be used again. So we shatter the scythes and feed horses to the dogs, knowing for a certainty that life will never call for them again. Christ, there’s something to fear in that.

My next step is a horse, and I can’t take it. Thinking hard on reconnection, I reach for the heft and stench of Clydesdales, but they’re beyond me.

This is the road I’ve worked along for a decade or more. I find so much to love in the land and the birds upon it, but greater is the swell of belonging in a place; the standing squarely. I slow down for every aspect of this work and bide my time in the steady growth of cattle. I drive machinery that is forty years old and plan my labour as if nothing will ever change. My friends say that I’ve gone back in time, forgetting that there is a gear beneath this one; a world of muscle and training; heavy horses in deep breasted leather. It beckons deeply.

Yes, that would be a fine way to spend a life, and I’m under no illusions of romance or whimsy. Horses were lost because tractors were cheaper or faster, and faster is cheaper since time became money. I face the dream knowing that it would hurt, hurting already from the sacrifices I’ve made to move as slowly as I do. Think of it; dark, muscular shapes in the dawn and dusk to work and from it; praying and labouring with likeminded souls. I could make a quiet kind of peace with that.

I heard over the gate from a neighbour that Clydesdale horses used to be bred here. One was sold to great acclaim at the Highland Show in the days when this was real work. There are still horseshoes in the midden and racks for saddles and tack where the swallows nest. They say that the last horse in this place was sold to the knackers in 1963 or thereabouts. She was an old-timer called Bett. They kept her for as long as they could, then seemed to remember that a horse makes for a costly pet.

There’s no reason for me to reach for horses. I would love to hear my ground being ploughed; the huff and drift of wagons filled with summer hay, but those aren’t my memories. I’ve borrowed them from my grandfather’s generation, and I begin to wonder if horses drove beside us for so long that there’s some genetic imprint in all of us. In modernity, I’m convinced that we are reaching out towards some point of dissatisfaction. Part of it is horselessness.

So I’m ready for the cost and the labour – who knows what I’d give up to make it work. But I would never be wholly satisfied with a horse of my own. Because I know about diesel engines; I’ve seen the best of hydraulics and PTO shafts. I’m haunted by the fear that I’d work my horse well and lean heavily upon it – and one day I’d be tempted to cut a corner; I’d see the horse waiting for work and sigh, knowing that I could do my chores faster with a tractor.

And then the whole project would fall away as counterfeit – the ancient bond of co-dependence exposed as an eccentric hobby.