July turned out to be one of the coldest of its kind on record — locally, especially in Anderson Valley. The air flow patterns raged in frigid breath from the Gulf of Alaska after one of the most shivering springs in memory, and hot weather crops such as tomatoes, melons, and peppers that are marginal for this Valley to begin with really stagnated in the breezier fields such as those at the old Boont Berry farm. It was a good year for cabbage and potatoes down there.
The tomatoes looked so behind the times that when our somewhat collectively-owned herd of cows and sheep managed to squeeze open an unlocked gate earlier this month I decided what the hell, let's see if they eat the morning glories and pigweeds before the tomatoes. A little science experiment.
I'm not sure what the herd mowed down first because I was doing child care with the two boys doing target practice with the good old Daisy BB gun, shooting beer cans they'd dipped into a bucket of water. With the strong breeze this summer the only way to do target practice is to fill the cans with water before they blow away. This is a dual purpose approach, central to the theories of good farming, as the strategy both encourages the boys to egg me on to drink more beer, and they have the fun of seeing the wounded can piss water where the BB penetrated the aluminum skin. Not to mention a third benefit, that the water in the can slows the BB so a couple days later they can pour the captured ammunition back into the reloading chamber.
A fourth benefit of target practice with spent beer cans is that I can sit in the shade and read while the boys fire away. Last week I was enjoying the short stories composed by the Russian wizard, Chekhov, when he was only twenty-six years old, circu 1886 or so. He's got this one about a peasant on trial for stealing nuts from bolts on railroad cars to use for fishing weights, a script that could have made prime time as an act on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970's. The peasant expostulates on his fishing theories in the courtroom to the exasperation of the judge — he'd only stolen one nut, for crying out loud, and they were trying to say he was attempting to cause a train wreck and murder hundreds of people.
I was reading Chekhov when one of my boys hollered that someone was apparently at the farm to pick up some cows. They were pulling a stock trailer behind their truck.
Good Lord, I thought, setting the book down. I knew who it was. They'd called the day before when I'd been reading and preparing for the afternoon siesta.
“I received word from [my ex] that you're evicted from the farm and selling the cows,” this guy had said. He was calling from a Hindu commune that had started a cow share program somewhere in the hills around Anderson Valley.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Are you interested in selling milkers?”
“It depends. I mostly want to make sure they're taken care of. I'm married to them.”
“You sound like you're not sure, like you could go EYE-ther way.”
Eye-ther, he'd said. That set me off. I probably need meds. Anytime somebody says something like “Eye-ther,” I go nuts. I go straight vernacular. “Shit, man, I got this one critter that these other Hindus dumped on me cause they couldn't take care of it. Didn't have no pasture, so they sent her to me, skin and bones. But they don't want me to chop up any of her bull calves or nothing. What the hell am I supposed to do with a bull calf? I bet they'd rather y'all took her, if they heard you was a bunch of Hindus.”
Damned if the Hindus didn't show up the next day, with the Swami himself telling me they were going to pick up Rohini. I'd met the Swami before. The very persona of humility with shoulders and head hunched forward, tufts of graying hair cropped short but disorderly like grass pasture recently tugged by herbivore molars, the previous summer he showed up at the farm posing as a potential cow share member. He asked about a hundred questions and cringed when I swung open the freezer packed with wrapped beef, and insisted on obtaining a copy of the contract that my ex had gone to great lengths to procure from an attorney. When I asked if he wanted my phone number, he replied strangely that it wasn't necessary. Weeks later I saw posters around town advertising RAW MILK.
“Yeah, she's out there,” I said, pointing to our herd which was pretty much mowing down the tomato crop. I never would have thought they'd eat tomatoes before pigweeds and lamsquarters, but I guess the tomatoes were more lush and green. “Just a minute.” Feeling the orneriness pulsing in my veins, I led the Swami and his loyal minions out to where the herd was trashing my already abandoned hopes, leaving every gate open behind us, and bringing our cattle dogs. Once we had the whole clump of bovines and sheep stampeding down the chute, I had to ask whether any of the Hindus had stayed behind to play safety as they do in American football.
“Nope,” said the Swami.
“Well, we're in for quite a rodeo,” I said.
About a dozen cows, calves, and a small flock of sheep bolted past the gates, stampeding through. The animals were excessively agitated by the time my eager dogs had turned them around and headed them back into the ramshackle old greenhouse that I converted into a hay shed. With some effort, the Swami's minions managed to fasten two ropes on the halter of the cow they were after before she and the rest of the herd bolted through my gardens into distant pastures, pulling the four-footed fellows on ropes over dirt clods like recreational weekenders on waterskis.
Swami hung back with me next to the hay shed where I was shooting baskets, on fire.
“Seems like you're a little agitated,” he said. “You know we're not trying to run you out of business.”
“Well this cow just calved a month ago. She's my biggest producer right now. I got people depending on her milk. Anyway, you weren't exactly honest when you showed up at the farm last summer posing as a cow share customer.”
I kept shooting baskets on an uncanny hot streak. “Sorry, don't mean nothing to me.”
“Well, we all have our moral flaws. I'm sure you're not the epitome of moral perfection.”
“What the hell are you trying to say?” I asked, tossing the basketball to the Swami. It was soiled with fresh cow shit after the little rodeo.
“Nobody's perfect.” He was compelled at that point to attempt a shot at the basket. “I didn't mean that personally.”
I took the rebound, as it were, and fired the ball back at him. “But you said specifically that I am not the epitome of moral perfection.”
“I guess I — I wasn't trying to pinpoint you.”
“Look at this,” I said, holding up a nearly empty can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Right here on the can it says this beer is UNION MADE. I drink union beer! That qualifies me as a saint in my religion!” With those words I was losing my anger, magically. Some people lose their temper when they get drunk. I lose my anger.
Now I watched the Swami grip the slippery basketball awkwardly, pushing it with zero arch in the general direction of the goal, and it hit me that this guy bore a striking physical resemblance to the old farmer in Orland who'd sold most of the herd to me. A wave of compassion swept my heart. “Okay, man. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have messed with you guys like that. Anyway, I'm a Lutheran, and in my religion if you'll shoot baskets with somebody you must be okay.”
So we walked through the cow chute to the pastures where Rohini the Hindu cow-goddess was kicking up dust, lowering her head and charging at the dancing minions.