these brown hills

Saturday, March 3:

Isabel is in heat, proving, if we needed proof, that she is open – in cow talk, she is not carrying a calf.  This is bad news, but not unexpected, since she has given evidence of heat this winter twice already.  A cow which is not with calf will not freshen in the spring, and her milk production cannot be expected to stay high in the second year of her lactation.  This is less dire news than it might be.  Isabel is in a sense an invalid cow, one which would not have survived her own inanition without help, and knowing this we have a young cow in the wings to take her place.  Baby Belle, our stand-in, was bred to a sire which throws small offspring, which we hope is the reason she doesn’t look very fat.  Yes, for those who are wondering, we could palpate her to find out for sure if she is bred, but we can get the same information by being patient, and Baby is a little jumpy.  Anyone who starts groping around with an arm up to the shoulder in her interior might just be asking for a dislocated shoulder.

Another hen has been making a nest in the laying boxes, so we have put her in the suite under the first broody hen and given her a small trove to hoard.  Her clutch will not hatch for twenty-one days, but her sister upstairs will know the results of her labor at the end of the week.  We have small expectation of this first effort, since we did not candle the eggs we gave her, as we should have done after a week of incubation.  This omission is typical of our efforts; we are steady of application, but our attention to detail lacks something.  We began this life without training, as a pleasure and a defiance of the modern wisdom that it could not be done.  Now we believe in it as a fact of nature, the permanent substratum over which our national industrial and economic house of cards is built. When that blows a gasket, or comes down in a prevailing wind, the land and the animals will still be there, to bear a cooperative living to whomever is still there to steward it.

Fine snow is sifting down on the brown forest floor and on the choppy, muddy pasture where the cattle are wintering.  The walk we were about to take is postponed – indefinitely.  Friday, in contrast, was a clear grey, dark, bare hills humped like shrugged shoulders surrounding the stark architectural beauty of the steel mill.  When we came to the Beautiful river twenty years ago, the mills seemed to us tangles of rusty iron oozing toxicity.  Have they changed, or have we?  Jolting down route seven in our old American-made four-door with the brown hills overlooking us like tolerant giants, overlooking with the same tolerance the modern sculpture of the mills, we feel less inclined to judge.  On this day the mill appears quiescent, its mists blowing the other way, and the side toward the river blazoned with the name of a company headquartered in Germany.  When we have completed the list of our errands, combined and truncated to conserve fuel, we will come back up the river to park our rusty chariot on the farm’s gravel drive, and the quiet of the brown hills will close around us as it has closed over centuries of mankind in this valley.  Who are we to name the tenants of the hills?

White snow falling thickly carpeted the hills as I wrote; blizzarded, thinned, ceased.  Now the pale sun shines from a blue sky onto snow already melting.

Maybe we’ll take that walk after all.

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