Thursday, 28 January 2010

Passing the Same Trees

from, John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket.

One July evening this summer, I went up the highest field, high above the farm, to fetch Louis's cows. During the haymaking season I often do this. By the time the last trailer has been unloaded in the barn, it's getting late and Louis has to deliver the evening milk by a certain hour, and anyway we are tired, so, while he prepares the milking machine, I go to bring in the herd. I climbed the track that follows the stream that never dries up. The path was shady and the air was still hot, but not heavy. There were no horseflies as there had been the previous evening. The path runs like a tunnel under the branches of the trees, and in parts it was muddy. In the mud I left my footprints among the countless footprints of cows.

To the right the ground drops very steeply to the stream. Beech trees and mountain ash prevent it being dangerous; they would stop a beast if it fell there. On the left grow bushes and the odd elder tree. I was walking slowly, so I saw a tuft of reddish cow hair caught on the twigs of one of the bushes.

Before I could see them, I began to call. Like this, they might already be at the corner of the field to join me when I appeared. Everyone has their own way of speaking with cows. Louis talks to them as if they were the children he never had: sweetly or furiously, murmuring or swearing. I don't know how I talk to them, but, by now, they know. They recognise the voice without seeing me.

When I arrived they were waiting. I undid the electric wire and cried: Venez, mes belles, venez. Cows are compliant, yet they refuse to be hurried. Cows live slowly - five days to our one. When we beat them, it's invariably out of impatience. Our own. Beaten, they look up with that long-suffering, which is a form (yes, they know it!) of impertinence because it suggests, not five days, but five aeons.

They ambled out of the field and took the path down. Every evening Delphine leads, and every evening Hirondelle is the last. Most of the others join the file in the same order, too. The regularity of this somehow suits their patience.

I push against the lame one's rump to get her moving, and I felt her massive warmth, as I did every evening, coming up to my shoulder under my singlet. Allez, I told her, allez, Tulipe, keeping my hand on her haunch, which jutted out like the corner of a table.

In the mud their steps made almost no noise. Cows are very delicate on their feet: they place them like models turning on high-heeled shoes at the end of their to-and-fro. I've even had the idea of training a cow to walk on a tightrope. Across the stream, for instance!

The running sound of the stream was always part of our evening descent, and when it faded the cows heard the toothless spit of the water pouring into the trough by the stable where they would quench their thirst. A cow can drink about thirty litres in two minutes.

Meanwhile, that evening we were making our slow way down. We were passing the same trees. Each tree nudged the path in its own way. Charlotte stopped where there was a patch of green grass. I tapped her. She went on. It happened every evening. Across the valley I could see the already mown fields.

Hirondelle was letting her head dip with each step, as a duck does. I rested my arm on her neck, and suddenly I saw the evening as from a thousand years away:

Louis's herd walking fastidiously down the path, the stream babbling beside us, the heat subsiding, the trees nudging us, the flies around their eyes, the valley and the pine trees on the far crest, the smell of piss as Delphine pissed, the buzzard hovering over the field called La Plaine Fin, the water pouring into the trough, me, the mud in the tunnel of tress, the immeasurable age of the mountain, suddenly everything there was indivisible, was one. Later each part would fall to pieces at its own rate. Now they were all compacted together. As compact as an acrobat on a tightrope.

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