ANDREW JOHNSTONE grew up on a farm, but now can’t even bear to visit the land that formed and informed him. A rumination about ruminants and rabbits.
Grandpa lived just down the road and would often stick his head through the backdoor of our house and say, “Want to come down the farm, E-Hoa?” (Maori for ‘my friend’). Of course I did, and after putting on my gumboots we were off. First stop was the cowshed where we would collect the shovel which he would heft onto his shoulder before making that long guttural sound that meant the phlegm in his throat was being loosened and prepared for the big theatrical ‘hoik’, a kind of exclamation point I copied for years after in my quest to be just like him.
We were on the lookout for rabbit burrows but along the way he talked about many things including one of his favourite subjects, trees. “That’s a macrocarpa,” he’d say, pointing up at one of the grand specimens he had planted decades before. “They come from the Monterey district of California near San Francisco. They’re endangered there but not here. Here they grow like weeds! We call them abortion trees because if a cow eats the green early on in her pregnancy she will more often than not lose the calf. Nothing worse than a branch from one of these buggers coming down in a storm and the cows getting at it.”
“See that plant there?” he’d say, pointing at a sprawling large-leafed plant with a pink flower that grew on the pasture margins all over the farm. “It’s called mallow, and the cows only ever eat it after they have given birth.” “Why is that, Grandpa?” I’d ask. “Well, can’t say for sure but I suspect this plant contains something the cows need at particular times. When they’re hungry for it they will do just about anything to get at it. Not even an electric fence will stop them.”
This would bring him around to his most treasured subject, soil. “We have very poor soils in New Zealand and lacking in just about everything,” he’d say, referring to minerals and trace elements. “See this one here?” (a white umbelliferous flower atop a feather shaped flower.) “It’s called yarrow and we plant it because it prevents scouring – diarrhoea – in calves. It’s also good at finding selenium in the soil, and New Zealand soils have almost no selenium so it’s a handy plant to have around.” He would go on to explain about white muscle disease in calves caused by selenium deficiency, and how distressing it was until they figured the cause.
Then there were the yarns. “Our neighbour was a grumpy old man and we used to tease him and one day he chased us up a tree and we couldn’t escape so we (siblings) peed on him. That got rid of him,” he’d chortle. I heard this story umpteen times over the years and it was never told the same way twice.
“Right, here we go,” he’d say, and sure enough in amongst the waving grasses he would have spied a bare patch. Bending down on his knee he’d scoop away the dirt with his puffy dairy farmer hands and explain that when the mother is away feeding she fills the entrance to the burrow so that it is hidden from predators. He’d urge me to reach down into the hole, and I’d always be a little hesitant, imagining that there might be something down there waiting to bite me or worse. Taking a deep breath I’d do it, and discover soft warm wriggling bodies lying on dry grass. A sweet musky aroma would lift from the hole. It always felt very comfortable and secure. When I withdrew my arm and Grandpa would take over.
Hauling the wee bunnies out one by one, he’d knock their heads hard against the steel of the shovel and toss them to the ground. The bodies would wriggle for a bit, blood leaking out their noses. When he was done he’d put them back down the hole and collapse the burrow with the shovel.
“Cows can break a leg if they stumble unawares onto one of these damned things,” he’d say without affection. I’d feel a little uneasy and wonder out loud if the mother will be sad when she returns to find her babies dead and home ravaged. “Can’t afford to think about those sorts of things,” he’d say. “Got to stay on top of them or they will overrun the place.”
Farmers can’t afford to think about animals in that way. It’s a fact of life. Once you do you are on a losing run to nowhere. Grandpa tells me the story of Laurie Discombe. The Discombe’s were an early settler family in the district and had a road named after them. Laurie was one of those strange breeds of dairy farmers who never married, just settled into a life of cows and remained that way. He was quiet and shy and a bit uncomfortable around people.
As he got older Laurie found it harder and harder to part with his cows once they reached the end of their productive lives, so he just started keeping them. Eventually, he had more retired cows than milking ones and then no milkers at all. He ended up losing the farm. That’s why farmers can’t afford to be sentimental about these things.
I was 22 when Grandpa died. He dropped right in front of Dad and me while we were down the farm one day and it was the biggest shock I ever suffered. I grieved harder than I had done when my sister was killed a few years earlier. He and I were close and I felt understood by him though more recently I had become aggrieved when he criticised my penchant for tight jeans, saying that I looked like a homo.
I was a musician and this was my uniform and I felt a bit miffed about the comment (I was also more liberal in my attitudes than he was) so I stopped talking to him for bit. He died before I could get past it. Now I realised there would be no getting passed it. I was a bit of a mess for a while after that.
Eventually, I gave the farm away. I was too sensitive and cared too much and felt ashamed for many of the cruel things I did because I did not know any better. I thought often about a story attributed to the prophet Muhammad I had read somewhere. Some boys plucked a baby hawk from a nest and seeing the distressed mother following them about, the prophet asked who was causing this mother so much pain? In the asking I imagined he was also querying if non-human emotions were any less significant than human emotions?
After some thought I realised that for me feelings were feelings regardless of the species, but I also understood the practicalities of managing land. Recently, I found a rat nest under a friend’s chook house and did exactly what Grandpa would have done. It was necessary, given what rats do on these islands. The upset mother camped about the wreckage and made herself vulnerable. The cat found her and that was that. Bloody tragic, and I am still struggling with it.
I sometimes drive past the family farm but never call in. I can’t. It’s all too painful, the place being the minefield of memories it is for me. I was supposed to take it on but was emotionally ill-equipped for the life and my rejection of the legacy caused a world of familial disappointment that still haunts me to this day. The last thing Grandpa and I did together was set about planting a dozen Algerian oaks he had grown from acorns.
I thought his evergreen tree was an odd choice, being the notoriously slow growers that they are. “They’ll take forever to be something,” I told him. He just winked, then set about winding up for one of his pointed hoiks. That was 35 years ago. These days the trees are quite something, and when I drive past I look at them and their magnificence and think about him and the lasting power of grief and wonder at life’s grey contradictions.