We built a temporary holding corral with poles cut in a nearby spruce bluff,
brought the herd up from the summer pasture and waited.
A family tradition established on our east-central Saskatchewan farm during the 1970s, was a visit to the beaver dam each spring. The dam had been built years before on the narrow creek which winds across our home quarter about half a mile south of the farmyard. We would watch the returning birds as they prepared for another season and spot the larvae and tadpoles in the water. Beyond, was the summer pasture where the cattle herd grazed with its ever-increasing number of spring calves.
After the visit, we continued over the homemade wooden bridge to the pasture, where furry bundles on scrawny legs stumbled behind their mothers. Some bounded across the grassy field and into the gullies as we approached.
“How many calves ya got now, Dad?” one of the kids asked.
“Well, maybe about 35,” his dad said.
I knew there was no “maybe” or “about” in his mind. He not only knew exactly how many there were, but which cows had freshened, when, what her lineage was, her age and her strengths and weaknesses. I knew too, that he had already decided which animals must be sold in the fall and which he would hold back for breeding. And as we wandered back home we were hopeful for the coming season. There was joy enough to last forever. But there’s no such thing as forever, not even in this humble hideaway of ours…
It was late March of 1987. Our children were growing up and some had already left home. My husband was sitting at the kitchen table sorting through some fuel bills one afternoon, and as he reached for the papers, his fingers refused to function. He got up slowly and with unsure steps moved down the hallway to the bedroom, where he stretched out on the bed. There was a persistent pounding over his left eye, he told me. “I don’t feel well. I think I’m having a stroke.”…
His recovery was slow and we all knew there were serious decisions to be made. The cattle would have to go. We advertised and buyers came and went, bargaining, speculating. Finally a deal was made. We built a temporary holding corral with poles cut in a nearby spruce bluff, brought the herd up from the summer pasture and waited.
It was a perfect summer day, clear and warm. Suddenly, the calm was broken by the rumble of a diesel motor and a brilliant metallic-blue cattle truck rumbled through the gate and across the yard. As the truck eased back against the chute, I realized that it would take with it not just the animals, but our entire lifestyle.
Covered with sweat and foam, the cattle jostled their way up the ramp. The manifest was signed, the back door of the truck secured and the driver climbed into the cab. As he manoeuvred around the barn and out the driveway, utter desolation and heart-rending silence settled over the barnyard. The only evidence now that the herd had ever existed was the torn turf, and the greenish-brown smears splattered over the ground by the frightened beasts. The bellowing, bawling, bleating, echoed in my mind as I stared at the empty corral.
At the beaver dam, life continues undisturbed. The birds return every spring and the tiny pond creatures dart across the water as nature’s circle of life goes on. In the pasture beyond, the grass grows tall, the wire sags and the fence posts are beginning to lean. Only the memories of the cattle inhabit the place.
I consider the significance of that fleeting moment we humans call a lifetime.
Peggy Looby writes from a farm near Bjorkdale, Saskatchewan