Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: exulting in life

The dearth of original material here recently is due partly to lack of time and partly to lack of inspiration. But whenever I'm lacking the latter all I have to do is pick up anything by Wendell Berry and my juices begin to flow again. Honestly, other than Holy Scripture, nothing inspires me more than WB. So, if this blog becomes nothing more than Wendell Berry's greatest hits -- well, there are worse things. I'm pleasurably working my way through the collection pictured, and a few nights ago I came to "A Few Words for Motherhood" (1980).

The motherhood Berry is primarily concerned with here is the kind involving four-legged creatures on the farm. For the reader unfamiliar with these rites of passage Berry describes the all-encompassing preoccupation that grips a farmer in "the season of motherhood." At bed time, in the middle of the night, and before the sun comes up, the farmer drags himself to the barn to "see what nature and breeding and care and the passage of time have led to."

Then there are the times when the mother needs help. Berry recounts a time when he and his wife and son helped a heifer give birth to a calf. After hours of labor the poor cow had only managed to deliver a foot. After interventions requiring string, sticks, and much huffing and puffing on the part of human and heifer the calf was born. Weaved throughout the account are Berry's musings on the primal intelligence of creatures we often call "dumb brutes."

Berry ends his story with a joyful peroration.

The heifer has stood up now, and the calf is trying to stand, wobbling up onto its hind feet and knees, only to be knocked over by an exuberant caress of its mother's tongue. We have involved ourselves too much in this story by now to leave before the end, but we have our chores to finish too, and so to hasten things I lend a hand.
I help the calf onto his feet and maneuver him over to the heifer's flank. I am not supposed to be there, but her calf is, and so she accepts, or at least permits, my help. In these situations it sometimes seems to me that animals know that help is needed, and that they accept it with some kind of understanding. The thought moves me, but I am never sure, any more than I am sure what the cow means by the low moans she makes as the calf at last begins to nurse. To me, they sound like praise and encouragement—but how would I know?
Always when I hear that little smacking as the calf takes hold of the tit and swallows its first milk, I feel a pressure of laughter under my ribs. I am not sure what that means either. It certainly affirms more than the saved money value of the calf and the continued availability of beef. We all three feel it. We look at each other and grin with relief and satisfaction. Life is on its legs again, and we exult.

Quotes from pp. 196-9 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

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