Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Not Just One of the Herd

Cow Herders Really Do Say "Yee HA"

     Living in an isolated part of West Cork is idyllic most of the time. It does have its complications of an unexpected nature. Having lived through a close encounter with a stampeding herd of cattle I realize how important it is to be able to rely on help from others. It's so important to reach out and connect rather than live in isolation.

     I'm lucky enough to live slap bang in the middle of nature. Apart from the birdsong and the occasional moo of a cow there's very little noise to disturb or distract me in my daily doings. There are also very few people who I can disturb with my own experiments playing Tibetan singing bowls and making music. Part of my musical adventures currently involve preparing for a few performances I have to make coming up in July. For these I'll be playing the concertina or ukelele and singing with a group of shanty singers. I'm not new to performing or singing but I am new to shanties. This means I have to practise for a change.

     I'm not complaining. I love making music and in some ways I love practising to make that music even more. There's something about the repetitive nature of practice and the conscious attention to detail that makes it into one of the best meditations. Practising whilst living in the country with the door open, however, can have its complications.

     As a former townie I am constantly amused by the passing cows, horses, wild cats and chickens outside my house. I was delighted to discover that cow herders really do say "Yee ha" when ushering their cattle up the lane.

     But it seems that I am as much of a curiosity to the cow herders as they are to me. On hearing me playing the concertina one of the local farmers called in to me and started asking me questions about my "squeeze box". Willing to oblige I stepped outside and started giving him a demonstration, just as his companion arrived at the top of the lane with a herd of cattle stumbling along in front of him. He was, of course, crying "Yee ha!"

The First Hurdle

     My lilting tunes on the concertina seemed to jolly them up a bit. The first half of the herd increased their speed to a trot as they came thundering down the lane. The second half was led by a rather angry looking heifer. She took an instant dislike to me (or the concertina, I'm not sure which) and instead of following the herd she immediately bolted to the left and jumped a hedge into a field.

     The remaining cattle followed her without a moment's thought. The poor farmer couldn't split himself in two and his companion was far too interested in what I was showing him to notice. As I watched this disaster unfolding over his shoulder he simply prodded one of the buttons on the concertina experimentally. It was only when his mate started using words very far removed from "Yee ha" that he snapped out of it.

     Luckily the Dunmanway accent is hard to decipher at the best of times. The colourful language used is best left to the imagination, in any case.

Follow My Leader

     I felt partly responsible for this catastrophic turn of events. It was explained to me that not only are cows very sensitive creatures who get upset by strange sounds (such as a concertina) but they're also very jumpy around strangers (such as me). How was I to know this? I've spent many happy afternoons standing at gates, fences and hedges in these parts singing to the cows and they've never seemed to be bothered. But as a friend who knows these things explained to me,  that's fine as long as the cows are secure in their field. Sing a sea shanty to a cow out in the open and apparently the song becomes as threatening as a sniper rifle in the hands of a special ops agent.

     Understandably, I was recruited to help roundi up the cattle. This free thinker, the heifer who had jumped the gate, became a fugitive rebel leader. I was positioned at a fork in the road to usher the approaching herd down the right lane when they could eventually be persuaded to rejoin the less radical members of the herd. The rebellious heifer had other plans. For a good twenty minutes I observed cattle in various formations charging over the horizon with the wildly gesticulating farmer chasing them. He was shouting some words I care not to repeat! Reinforcements were called in and soon enough there was a white van blocking one of the bandit herd's less desirable exit routes from the field.


     On further analysis the farmers came to the conclusion that my presence was stopping the cows coming down the lane. On the other hand, I was needed to stop the cows taking the wrong fork in the road and organically rotivating an otherwise perfectly delightful neighbour's garden. It was unanimously decided without my consent that I should hide behind a jeep. This seemed a peculiar measure to me at first but it was also explained to me that I should jump out and make suitable cattle ushering noises to scare the cows into taking the desired route.

     When the farm hands succeeded in rounding up the cattle and sending them in my direction I had a sneaking suspicion that revenge was on their minds. My job was to scare the cattle and yet the thundering sound of their hooves was doing a pretty good job of scaring me. At the appointed moment I burst out from behind the jeep. It was only at that point that I realized that I don't actually have a repertoire of cow ushering sounds.

     In the absence of such a vocabulary I stared at the rapidly approaching heifer, jumped up and down, clapped my hands and shouted "That way! That way!" My vague and desperate hope that she might understand English appeared to pay off.

     Much to my relief I saw her consider her options for a moment before hurtling past me down the lane towards the meadow.

Brief Encounter

     Many things happened during this brief encounter. Some of them pleasant and some of them distinctly not so pleasant. The main things that impressed me were that there were two opposing forces operating here.

     That strong minded heifer had made a pretty successful bid for freedom. Her lunge over the hedge not only secured a few moments of wild galavanting for herself but also for the rest of the herd who literally followed her example.

     There was also the connection and combined efforts of the experienced farm hands. When we'd completed the whole operation successfully my friendly farmer chums were very happy with the way I'd handled the situation. Much to my relief they didn't direct any blame at the concertina lying on the ground in the garden. No one even mentioned that the farmer who'd been so interested in the concertina had not paid attention at the critical moment. In fact the whole origins of the incident were forgotten in laughter and acknowledgment that this is the way things get done in the country.

     No blame. No recriminations. No lingering feelings of resentment. Just a delightfully warm and fuzzy feeling of connection and significance. Sometimes bad things happen and you just have to do whatever it takes to make them right again.