It was a leap of faith – one of those spontaneous decisions that could have ended in disaster. In the summer of 2018, I agreed to farm-sit for a couple I’d never met, in a location I’d never been, almost 1700 km from my home base.
Lucky dips have always appealed to me, but my desire for spontaneity, mystery, and surprise is often at war with my need to plan activities to the extreme – to ascertain every minute detail about an upcoming situation. I attribute this to an unconventional childhood which trained me to be hypervigilant. I learned not only to always have a plan B, but also plans C to Z. So it was with a combination of excitement and slight trepidation that I pulled into the driveway of the Ballarat farmhouse to meet Maree for the first time.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” I may have been taking a leap of faith, but Maree was entrusting her precious home to a complete stranger. This was her sanctuary – a private place of intimate memories with loved ones. She and partner, John, were also entrusting their cats, sheep, cattle, alpaca, and beautiful garden to my care. I was their lucky dip.
Have you ever walked into someone’s home and felt like it was your own – when everything is where you expect it to be and artwork, books, plants and ornaments could have been chosen by yourself? As Maree showed me around her home and garden, I experienced déjà vu. Perhaps it reminded me of a place from my early childhood or from a book, a movie, or my own vivid imagination. Whatever the reason for this sense of familiarity, any lingering fears vanished.
There was to be an interesting last minute complication to this farmsit. The couple’s heavily pregnant cow, Mabel, was now a few weeks overdue. Maree and John’s much needed holiday with friends had been planned well in advance and they had expected all the calves to be born before their departure. They were understandably a little concerned about leaving a stranger in charge. However, with helpful neighbours close by, easy access to a vet if there were complications, and my past experience with birthing farm animals, the risks were reduced.
And while new life seemed imminent, I was also told that another life could be coming to a close during my stay. Maree and John were expecting their ancient cat, Missy, to die at any moment as she had slowed down considerably in recent weeks. In preparation, John had thoughtfully pre-dug a grave on the pet cemetery island in the dam which could be accessed by a wooden bridge.
Maree warned me that Missy had never been an affectionate cat, “Missy hates everyone but will sometimes tolerate me picking her up.” I looked at Missy. She certainly looked grumpy and I resolved not to invade her personal space.
Being an introvert, I know what it’s like to desire solitude. Unlike Missy though, I have what has been described as an approachable demeanour. People tend to pick me out of a crowd to ask for directions or other kinds of help, and random strangers often tell me their deeply personal stories. Missy had the “Don’t touch me or I’ll tear you to shreds” kind of expression. On days when I am lacking the energy to interact or am hassled by a predatory character, perhaps a Missy face would come in handy.
Dumpy, on the other hand, was a real smoocher. Named Dumpy because she was a dumped cat, she lapped up any kind of affection.
Ellen was my first encounter with an alpaca. It’s easy to fall in love with those beautiful, long-lashed eyes.
That is of course when the wind blows her long hair the right way and you can actually see them.
I made friends with the many sheep, some of whom were highly curious about the strange camera-wielding creature. Others ignored the inconsequential human.
My appetite for all things historical was whetted by the number of relics on the farm. Old carts, a wagon wheel and a chimney set my camera clicking.
How many different views can one person take of a single wagon wheel?
In my case, many.
And don’t get me started on butterflies. While sprinkling the vegetable garden each day, I delighted in these flutterlings.
It seems Victoria is a lichen heaven. It grows everywhere. On the fence posts.
On the tree trunks.
On wooden palings.
It hangs from foliage.
And even blankets the trees. I wondered if it would eventually grow on me too.
In the garden, I delighted in eastern spinebills gorging on nectar and other smaller winged creatures quenching their thirst from the fountain, while a stone-faced Buddha stared benignly.
On wild windy days the stock animals took refuge in the long grass, as did I.
I often lay on my back in the golden paddocks, gazing up at the cloud patterns in the softer Victorian sky. I relished this chance as in Queensland I would not dare for fear of paralysis ticks crawling onto my head and delicate regions.
The colours of a typically dry Victorian summer contrasted with the lush green of my subtropical Queensland home in the north. In fact, golden is what I will remember most about my Victorian stay.
Every day I ambled to the mailbox and spied on nervous waterbirds inhabiting the dam.
And on my regular jaunts through the paddocks I often spotted familiar friends from my home state.
Despite the tranquillity of the farmsit, or perhaps because of it, one afternoon while appreciating a glorious sunset, I found myself being drawn into a deep state of melancholy.
Without the usual distractions of a busy life, sometimes those feelings we shove back into the deep recesses of our minds start to emerge. In my culture, there is such a strong focus on always being positive, on smiling, on being constantly thankful. Expressing melancholy can feel very wrong and elicit guilt, so we often bury our sadness, anger, and other unpopular feelings. Many of us also lock away emotions because we are simply too busy, or too exhausted and fragile to process them immediately.
As I reflect on that afternoon now, I am reminded of The Abbey, a series aired on the ABC show, Compass, many years ago. Women from many walks of life and varying belief systems stayed in an isolated abbey in Australia. They were all searching for some kind of answer or direction in their lives. Without the usual distractions or escapes provided by mobile phones, computers, radio, and television and with the Abbey’s focus on silence to encourage self-reflection, most of the women found it extremely challenging. They felt stripped bare and raw painful feelings they had not processed surfaced. However, many left with a new understanding about themselves.
And so, despite the perfection of that dazzling sky, I suddenly craved companionship. I felt very alone on my bench. Too alone with my emotions.
As if reading my mind, the grumpy human-hating Missy appeared out of no-where and leapt onto my lap with an agility I didn’t know she possessed. Shocked, I sat perfectly still. She began kneading my lap with her front paws while emitting a helicopter purr. How could one small ancient cat emit such a loud hypnotic drone?
Eventually, she fell asleep sprawled across my lap. I was too afraid to move in case I startled her and she dug her claws into my thighs to gain traction. Just as my back started to stiffen and my legs began to cramp, Missy woke, slid off, and wandered away languidly without even a backwards glance. She’d worked her magic though and my spirits lifted. It is comforting when a person or animal offers you their quiet presence so unconditionally in your time of need.
The next morning I woke to find she had vomited and was unwilling to leave her bed. This was highly unusual as she was always eager to explore the garden after a night shut inside. Had she had a heart attack or a stroke?
I found myself strangely emotional and burst into tears despite having witnessed many deaths before – in my childhood, while working for a vet as a teenager, and during my years on farms as an adult. I’d been required to help hasten death on numerous occasions and never shed a tear. I sat on the floor and warmed her gently in my lap.
I was about to call Maree to ask if she wanted me to take Missy to the vet, when she suddenly opened her eyes, got up and returned to her normal grumpy, mobile self. It seemed she would not be making the journey across the bridge to the pet cemetery island just yet. I cleaned up her vomit and smiled. Had she read my mind? Was a dreaded visit to the vet enough to kickstart her heart?
I also kept a close eye on big Mabel who looked ready to burst. Like so many heavily pregnant cows in my past, she teased me with signs of imminent labour – a tight swollen udder and the dropping of her bulging belly. She was eating normally though and stayed with the herd so her time had not yet arrived.
Then came the morning when there was no mistaking what was soon to come. Mabel had separated herself from the group and was walking in circles, urinating, and pawing at the ground.
Luckily, I have an excellent zoom lens on my camera so I was able to carefully observe the progression of labour without disturbing her and also share the experience with you. I hoped all would go well but had my phone ready to make an emergency call if necessary.
I wasn’t the only interested onlooker during these proceedings. The other cattle and Ellen the alpaca had access to Mabel via an open gate but they chose to watch from the other side of the fence.
It wasn’t long before the mucus plug dislodged…
And the bag of waters appeared. With relief I could see the front hooves and a little nose tip through the translucent membrane. The calf was in the correct position.
Next, she lay down in the long grass and pushed out the calf.
Thankfully, it was a rapid final stage without complications and Mabel was up and licking her calf almost immediately. I wish I’d recovered as quickly after pushing out my three big babies.
The torn umbilical cord dangled while she licked her calf clean. Eventually, the placenta slid out. While it may seem unpleasant that a mother often eats the placenta, it provides valuable nourishment and fluid, and also reduces the risk of predators and scavengers being attracted to the scene.
Eventually, the little brown calf made shaky attempts to stand. It’s hard to describe just how frustrating it can be to watch this process. The attempts are partially thwarted by vigorous maternal licking. Just as bub made it up on all four legs, mum’s rough tongue-cleaning had him toppling to the ground again.
The search for the teat can also be a painfully long process to watch and even though I’d witnessed it end successfully on numerous occasions, I still sighed with relief when he finally reached his target. Occasionally, things don’t go to plan and while I’ve always been able to help sheep and goats on my own, cattle usually require much more physical strength and an extra pair of hands.
Little can compare to the thrill of watching a successful birth. I’ve viewed it many times and my wonderment has never lessened.
And so ended another adventure, albeit of a slightly different flavour. I’d been lucky enough to witness a birth and thankfully there were no deaths on my watch, although for a while, Missy the cat appeared to hover somewhere in between.
When I said goodbye to the cats, Missy still displayed her permanent evil eye. I’ve missed her grumpy, non-intimidating presence though and often wondered if she is just a consummate feline actor.
I’d like to thank Maree and John for being so welcoming, and for trusting me enough to care for their private sanctuary. Thank you also for giving me permission to share my farmsitting photos and story.
Some lucky dips do end in delight.