The Swing Set

I re-visited my childhood swing set this morning. I live within easy walking distance of it, so it was not a long pilgrimage, just a brief stroll, ideally in gumboots, from the back doorstep of the family home I grew up in and to which I have returned.

Once a central star in the social constellation of childhood scenes, the swings have retired to a forgotten corner of a tiny paddock, which, with the exception of the rare afternoon when the hungry hoofs of cows trample in, acts a grassy thoroughfare between the farmhouse and the rest of the farm. The insignificant field is a place of passage, not of destination, and as a result the swing’s final rusting place in the south-east corner by the old chicken-pen attracts few glances, and even fewer visitors.

On this fair to middling autumn day, my week-end stride (which always involves more upward and outward looking than it’s week-day counterpart, and is therefore necessarily slower) was employed in the service of a minor household mission.  I was going to retrieve a blue plastic bowl from the front paddock near the house, taking the long way around to prolong the pleasantness of the autumn morning task, appealingly physical after a week of cerebral efforts.

Two weeks earlier, I had traipsed the same path on a reverse mission, carrying the blue bowl which had been hastily snatched from the kitchen and filled with water.  It was surprisingly hard to carry due to the rubbery, annoyingly mobile plastic of the bowl which warped and wept in my hands with every step.  The awkward journey was motivated by mercy, by anxiety, by concern for a weaner calf who had fallen on difficult times.

I had noticed her vaguely from the car during my morning departures the week before, solitary and sitting, always sitting, in the front paddock.  By the time my morning mind reaches my car it is already in commute mode, busily preparing itself to enter the day, but while my attention was diverted, my years of working on the farm had honed an instinct for animal welfare which must have registered at some deep layer of my city psyche.

It was the calf’s solitude that tugged at the periphery of my consciousness. Calves grow up together. Taken from their mothers, anywhere from 3 hours to 3 days of being born, they are driven, along with the rest of the day’s yield, to their new home in the communal calf-house. They cry for the first day, or until hunger helps them learn to drink their mother’s milk from human hands.  They soon master the art of drinking en masse from a large blue plastic tank sprouting up to 50 artificial teats which is delivered to them each morning. It’s a poor substitute for the warmth of their mother’s udder, but they know no better. 

Each generation of calves, from their first blinking encounter with their colleagues in this enterprise of farm-life, grow up together like a year group of school children, going through all the same milestones at the same time, bonded by their mutual crossing of social thresholds. Thrown together by fate, they develop the comradeship of orphans, chasing each other around the pen, frolicking at sunset, ultimately un-grieved by their unnatural start in life.

Aloneness, in the calf world, is an aberration. When you see a calf alone, you know something has gone wrong.

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