Friday, January 12, 2007

On That Farm They Had a Cow (5)

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In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next few weeks. And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.

Cattle were another story altogether. Even as a child I had a sense that the horses, though alarming, were random, flighty and without malice. David sported wild cattle that had nothing but a malicious streak in them and were to be avoided at all costs. David had a Suzuki 125 which was a dodgy machine to be riding in the first place. I was pillion. We had ridden up through a recently ploughed and scarified paddock and the earth was soft and loose to a significant depth. The mission – a foolhardy look at a wild cow which had recently calved. A white and red long horn, she was a massive thing that crashed through his fences and had on a number of occasions been considered for .303 target practise. We approached very close and at the point that she lowered her head and started pawing the earth David swung the bike around and presented my back to her (So far, I had derived some small comfort from the fact that David was between she and me. I also completely failed to understand the point of the exercise.) At which point the rear wheel bogged and the engine stalled. In what seemed like an unhurried couple of kicks David tried to get the thing started. I refused to look but I could hear Madame Bovine thumping up behind. At the last moment the bike kicked and reared, we shot forward to crash up against a fence. The bike conked out again as we did so but we were already evacuating it and tumbling over a very scanty fence of only four saggy and loose wires. Tumbling over and rolling away from the bike as quickly as we could. She head butted the bike a few times while we lay still and waited for her to walk away. She would not, so we snuck away through the matagouri thorns trying to not draw any attention to ourselves. David retrieved his bike at some other point. He never spoke about it – I think it must have put the wind up him. It sure put the wind up me. After the event I had bit of a laugh to myself when I recalled my primary worry as we went over the loose and low fence was that this fence was hardly going to slow her up at all, given she had a reputation for ignoring even David’s best fences. Of which there were few! Fortunately she tried to take things out on the bike.

Other cattle were much more benign and I have a Streeton painting in my head of David milking a cow. I watch him wander out across a frozen, frosty, flat, white paddock, back dropped by a white muslin fog through which the arcing silhouette of a bare branched willow is faintly visible, and breath steam misting and drifting behind him in lazy coils. The cow looks up so slowly you would swear it was being careful not to crack in the cold. Squatting on his heels David tucks the bucket between his bare feet, tips forward until his head is leaning on her flank and balances there, and in a half sleepy torpor he swishes the milk into the bucket in slow steady streams. I stay under the eiderdown, curtain corner lifted enough to watch and my breath being caught by the cold glass and turned into flat icicles. David has earned himself the scoops of warm cream from the top of the bucket for his breakfast and none of us begrudge him that.

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