Days follow each other seamlessly at Hoekiesdam. As I sit on the boardwalk overlooking the signature dam, listening to frogs and night birds, I reflect on the comfort of routine and the easy joy of repetition. We see a rut as a bad thing, but fail to realise that we are equally uncomfortable with constant change. We are programmed to rhythm and cycles and as long as they remain productive and the tune changes every now and then, it is our preferred state of being.
I spent a day planting trees in the pastures, to mark the heart centre of the farm, another one collecting vats from an organic wine farm, stopping for lunch at the local fish-and-chips shop (and had the truly South African pleasure to eat real slap chips – not the crispy Americano-French things we are served at fast food joints – but those really dangly, squishy, vinegary, finger-lickingy things) and another day fixing pipes in the milk room. Different activities, but all punctuated by the ceaseless rhythm of a dairy farm – milking cows. Milking is the metronome driving the pastoral symphony.
I came here for a working holiday and realised that the adage holds true – be careful what you ask for. Clichés are clichés for a reason. I asked for a bit of direction, some work and many answers before I left Jozi, and the universe is doing her best to give me all – and more – than I wished for. Between discussing the future of organic and agro-ecological farming around the supper table at night, meeting with movers, shakers and activists in downtown Cape Town and devising grand plans before bedtime, I am also having a taste of farm life.
Coming back from the meetings in Cape Town, Louis (an ex-dairy farmer, organic activist and cheese maker) and I were met by a concerned Aletta. Lulu the cow has been in labour the whole day. I accompany Louis down to meet Lulu – and she seems ready to calf, but too tired to try.
Louis goes into obstetric mode. He commands me to cut two pieces of nylon rope and look after Lulu while he goes for warm soapy water and some other midwifing equipment. Lulu looks particularly unimpressed with the fact that this city boy is left to mind her. A few moments later, I find myself telling Lulu to be calm and breathe, girl, just breathe, and not to bear down until Mr. Delivery returns. Louis eventually appears with the water and two sturdy pieces of broomstick.
He touches Lulu tenderly and reassures her while instructing me to tie the ropes to the sticks and loop the ends. These loops, he explained, would go around the calf’s front legs, and he and I would gently coax the calf to the outside world. Moments later I find myself tugging on the broomstick, convincing a recalcitrant calf to move from his comfort zone to our world. After a few minutes, the calf complies. He is a lovely little Afrikaner bull, and I feel like a proud father for the third time in my life. Within minutes, he staggers up and greets Hoekiesdam with a plaintive cry. I find myself tingling and holding back a tear or two.
Every few moments, a cow or a child is born into this world. It happens so often that we forget the significance of birth and the life that follows it. We are as blasé about one as we are of the other, except when it is our own. And we fail to recognise the significance of life outside of our own orbit. I look up into the twilight skies and see Venus waiting for a waning gibbous moon to join her in the sky. I quietly thank my muse for getting me here to witness this event. Not just the birth of a calf, but the understanding that love is not an emotion connecting us to one thing or one person, but to all things and all people.
The calf will spend four months with Lulu, and will then be sold into an unknown fate. That is just how it is. We are all born into a life we cannot predict or direct with any certainty. That is just how it is. But we can control how we interact with nature, the world and each other. Collectively we can give direction to how this planet and all her children will exist in the future. Collectively we can ensure that our children’s children and Lulu’s great-grand calves enter a world where they can still experience a moon rising over a life-giving planet. Where they can still hear frogs clicking and weaver birds weaving and waterblommetjies doing what waterblommetjies do.
If we halt for a moment, witness life happening all around us, we will become aware of how special, unique and fragile life actually is in this universe. And we will be much more circumspect when we have the choice to destroy it or not.
Later in the evening, we are hanging out yoghurt to drain, and discuss the calving. The little Afrikaner is named Ditto. A very significant name to me, even if the word is seen as an expedient way to indicate repetition. Ditto’s name indicates an event that is repeated every day, every minute and is dismissed as just another birth. Ditto means acquiescence and agreement, and ditto means endorsement.
But it also signifies rhythm and cycle, reassurance and permanence. And, if we remember a tear-jerking movie of the Eighties, it also means love. And it would serve us well to understand that even the birth of a little cross-bred calf in a pasture in Wolseley is an expression of love. Lulu expressed it when she gave of herself to bring him into the world. Louis expressed it when he took of his jacket to rub down the shivering calf, and I experienced it in witnessing the event. Lost for words, I could only say “ditto”. By saying “ditto” and affirming “ditto” we are committing “ditto” – becoming aware of the sanctity of life, the power of love and the importance of continuing the cycle and rhythm of it in deference to the universal energies that drive us and it.
We have to affirm that our actions should be ruled by more than reason or expedience. We have to affirm the power of love, insight and compassion. Not just for our fellow human beings, but for all beings around us.
Life is so much more precious than we could ever understand. The birth of a calf or a son or a daughter momentarily gives us a glimpse into its wondrous nature.
Do yourself a favour and experience it. And when you do, just say Ditto.