Gathan Beaga

jesse & roxy

When I was a kid our house cows – we usually had two – were Jerseys. They’re a funny breed, Jerseys: for all the placid and demure nature of the cows, the bulls are notoriously ill-tempered and hard to handle. Anyway, we had Jesse, a charming young horned cow with big eyes and lashes, and Roxy, a polled cow who’d been pensioned off a dairy farm on the Taieri.

Even back then, real life was intruding upon my life’s trajectory towards total geekdom. Inevitably, in the middle of Captain Kirk saving the day, I would be rousted away from the TV to get the cows in for afternoon milking, who of course would have picked this moment to be grazing at the very top of their three-paddock range about a kilometre away.

The most annoying thing about that was the need to walk them slowly back; apparently to make them run put them at risk of mastitis. This is every bit as ugly as it sounds, as any nursing mother will tell you. And Jesse and Roxy never seemed to want to walk very fast anyway, even though the pressure on their udders must have been unbearable. They obviously preferred to wind me up instead.

Either my mother or my father would milk the cows by hand into a zinc-coated bucket. My father would demonstrate the two styles of hand-milking, inviting me to have a go. But between my ceaseless whining at the injustice of being asked to do anything useful, and the not entirely feigned total incompetence at doing it, it was always easier for my parents to just do the job themselves than ask me (or my brothers) to learn.

The milk was beautiful and thick and yellow, and would taste of whatever the cows had been eating. If they’d been down by the river stripping the leaves off the willow trees it wasn’t so good, but mostly, and especially when cold, it was divine stuff. I could not, and still cannot, drink the milk warm.

We had a mechanical separator that we could use to get the cream off, but we’d only use this when both cows were milking. Otherwise my mother would sometimes carefully skim the cream off the top after it had settled overnight, and using a beautiful kauri butter churn she’d make butter.

I didn’t like the butter. It was hard and strangely pale. Given the effort that went into making it we’d have to use it until it was all gone, which meant that towards the end it wasn’t always the nicest tasting. Sometimes I had guilty longings for store-bought butter.

Sorry. I’m overdoing the nostalgia thing, I know. But sometimes I wonder about all those great country experiences I had when I was a kid that my children will have limited exposure to. Things are different here and now for B₂ and R₂, separated by 30 years and 800 kilometres of mountains and water, from the child I was.

Different, but neither better (probably) nor worse (I hope).

So all this was what I was thinking about when I was looking at Sarah’s pets.