Someone wiser than me once said, “Two things in life never seem to come soon enough. Wisdom and spring.” Today, I’d settle for just having spring.
Eight months ago I moved from downtown Toronto to Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan (pop 295) to serve as a minister for the United Church of Canada. My first winter on the prairies has been an education. I had no idea, for instance, that there was such a temperature as -43C. On days like that, as I walk the few hundred steps from my house to the church, my teeth freeze. An elderly neighbour advised, “Perhaps you should try to keep your mouth shut until May.” I believe she meant it kindly.
The long chill has allowed me to participate in some of the traditional activities of a Canadian winter: whining and complaining. But I must admit I was delighted when, last week, I finally encountered a sure sign of spring. I was at our village store joining in a lively debate about whether ice, snow, frozen snow or frozen slush is more annoying to drive through when one our local ranchers, Cindy Boon, announced, “Well, I have to be going. I have a cow in the bathtub.”
Eight months ago I might have found Cindy’s comment surprising. Now I thought, “Of course Cindy has a cow in the bathtub. Likely half our community has livestock in the bathtub. After all, it’s March.”
Many people think that rural Saskatchewan is just a vast, sweeping plain filled with nothing but grain. This is so untrue. We also have cows. And, a sure sign that spring is on it’s way is the beginning of calving season.
The problem is, calves, like spring, don’t always come when you’d like. One rancher noted, “If cows had to hold off till it was warm enough to give birth, some years they’d be waiting forever.” So, calves and also lambs born on a day when winter is still winning out, are often bedded down in a toasty farmhouse kitchen or heated sun porch. Some are popped into a warm bath. I’m not sure how long they’re kept there. Maybe until someone needs to shower.
Local sheep farmer Enos LaBar has solved the cold weather problem by snipping the arms off long-johns and slipping them onto his new lambs as warm cotton coats. Calves are sometimes outfitted with leather ear muffs, complete with Velcro straps to keep their mothers from pulling them off. At least one local woman makes hand-knitted “ear-cosies,” brightening her farmyard with bright red and blue spots.
Trudging home from the store, through streets locked in snow, I realized that what I needed to get me into the spring spirit was to see a calving. I’m eager to experience everything in the country that I can’t do in the city. That includes, “taking a deep breath” and “being able to park my car.” Now, I would add “seeing a calf being born.”
I put out a “cattle call.” Four kindly ranchers agreed to keep my number on speed dial.
I waited. On day four I complained to Linda in the post office,
Me: I really, really want to see a calving. Isn’t there some way to know when this is going to happen?
Linda: You’ve had kids, right?
Finally, yesterday, Duane Ayers called. His wife, Darlene, had spotted a cow ready to give birth. I was in the car in seconds.
A bitter wind blustered over the prairie, but the sheltered yard at Ayers farm was bathed in late afternoon sunshine. The expectant cow wandered restlessly among the new calves in the yard. “She’s seeing if one of them is her’s,” Duane explained. “She knows there should be a calf. She’s hoping it’s already come out.” Having given birth twice myself, I could relate entirely.
The cow wandered, she moo-ed. Duane and I watched patiently. She lay down. She stood up. She relieved herself in many ways. Again, I could relate.
Suddenly, two small hooves and a nose appeared. I shrieked. The cow lay down, pushed, and out popped a slick, black mess. The mother instantly set about gently and efficiently licking off the afterbirth. Two small ears twitched. A nose reached up. A tiny moo. I wept.
Sharing supper with Duane and Darlene, we talked about how exciting it had been. “I always cry,” Darlene admitted. “And I’ve been seeing it for years.” I drove home through early evening light. Across the frosty fields I spotted a few new open patches of brown. Soon, our back roads will melt into mud. But then, spring is like birth. A bit messy. And you have to wait for it. But it’s a miracle. Every time.