Caught by the River

Aurochs and Auks

20th October 2021

In this extract from ‘Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction’, newly published by Little Toller, John Burnside recalls time spent on the farm belonging to a partner’s family.

As idyllic as it was, especially in the springtime, when long chains of purple aubretias cascaded over the limestone walls, or on summer mornings, when swallows flitted back and forth from the main house to the low, stone-built dairy, I never felt altogether right in that house. This had to do, no doubt, with a persistent suspicion that, in spite of the agreeable grunts, I was decidedly persona non grata with the old farmer and his son, who had preferred my partner’s previous beau, a highly practical book-shy type from good farming stock. To them, I was a city boy with an interest in suspect literature and even more suspect politics. In that corner of the world, as in so many other corners of England, a man thought, did and – most particularly – voted as his father had done, which usually meant casting his ballot for the son of a well-to-do landowner or some retired military specimen. Conservative, of course. At my partner’s urging, I had been careful never to talk about politics on the farm, but it seems that, as soon as they met me, the entire family had concluded that I was, beyond a doubt, Labour. I can only imagine what would have transpired had they known my true affiliations. 

All of these were issues that we contrived to work around, but there was something else about the place that troubled me. I had felt it on other farms too, when I was obliged to go visiting – a vague unease, a sense that, even while those who lived there owned and worked the place, they didn’t really belong. Something else was in the house, something that had preceded them and wasn’t altogether ready to grant them living space. It was no more than a vague, close to subliminal unease that they felt, but I was certain that they felt it, nonetheless. Of course, everyone told ghost stories, but that was tongue-in-cheek, to amuse outsiders and children; they didn’t really believe. And yet, they did seem to be haunted by some presence or psychic weather for which they had no words. Maybe they felt there was some knowledge that they lacked, or some ceremony that they had failed to perform, a magic ritual whose omission excluded them from full occupancy. Maybe it was a dearth of cat or heron bones behind the chimney breast. Perhaps they knew, at some level, that they were ignorant of an antique wisdom that the old folk had observed, building something animate into the fabric of the place so that the house could be properly guarded against itself; perhaps they simply lacked the sense of entitlement that allowed their more powerful neighbours to swan around the village like they owned the place. Which they did, of course. 

Still, whatever the reason, I never felt that the old farmer was altogether comfortable in his own house. Which was odd because, at such times as he did grace the indoors with his presence, he was its undisputed lord and master, exercising total dominion over a unique throne-like chair in which nobody else was allowed to sit, as well as complete mastery of the television remote, which he used, not only to select his preferred programmes (the horse racing, Farming Today) but also to impose a soundscape on the kitchen space that, being partly deaf, he possibly didn’t realise was a torment to others. 

Still, this power notwithstanding, the old man never seemed fully at ease – and the unexpected consequence of his discomfort was that, whenever we were out of doors, he softened a little towards me. Not enough to engage in anything but the most desultory of exchanges (at times I suspected that the old farmer had never had a full-scale conversation with anyone in his life) but enough that I didn’t feel quite so much of an intruder in his world. To him, I am sure, everything I did to help was executed in the most cack-handed manner, but I think he appreciated the fact that I was prepared to get my hands dirty and muck in. He never asked for help directly, but on those occasions when my partner nagged me to go out and lend a hand, he would accept some degree of assistance, as long as it was purely manual. Anything skilled, of course, would have been beyond me – on that we all tacitly agreed. That day, however (which, as it happened, was Christmas Eve) I was permitted a fleeting glimpse of his world, when he led me across the snowy yard to where one of the cows, a huge, sad-looking Friesian, stood in the middle of a small, enclosed space, wobbling and swaying like a house of cards in a sudden draught, her head swinging slowly towards us as we approached, though it quickly became clear that this was as much movement as she could manage on her own. And then, as if to prove that point, her legs crumpled, and she fell, folding, concertina-like, on to the concrete floor.

‘We have to get her up, and keep her on her feet,’ the old farmer said. This was the most intelligible thing he had ever said to me, in all the time we had known one another. 

I felt a surge of scepticism running through me. How the hell were we, an old man and an incompetent, going to achieve such a miracle? It seemed altogether unlikely: and yet, raise her we did, so that she managed to stand for a time, quivering and swaying but making not a single sound – until, all at once, she fell again, so abruptly as she had done before, in fact, that it was like watching an action replay. At this, the old farmer gestured vaguely to me, and we began to raise her again – and then, when she fell yet again, to raise her once more, until, for one long moment of seeming success, she seemed capable of standing by herself, lifting her head a little and gazing at the old man with something like hope in her eyes. Feeling heartened by this, I also turned to him, awaiting further instruction – and this was when the cow chose to fall again, not directly, but just slightly hefting to one side. My side. 

I am not sure, now, what I saw, or how I knew she was falling in my direction, but I must have sensed something, because at that very moment I stepped back. Not enough to move clear of the falling beast, but enough, nevertheless, that no bones were broken. Had I remained still, she would have taken me down with her, probably crushing my pelvis, or breaking my thigh bones at the very least. As it happened however, the backward step I had taken meant that she fell on to my lower legs, trapping me against the concrete floor, but doing no real damage. By some fluke, I had stepped back and turned slightly, which meant that, as I hit the ground, my head took a knock but, the fact that I was now trapped under what felt like a dead weight notwithstanding, my luck had held. 

That was when I looked – really looked – into the face of the cow for the first time. I had noticed her expression before, I had sensed the mix of hope and dismay she had shown at the old farmer’s approach, but now, as we lay pinned to the ground – she by her infirmity, me by her dead weight – I caught a fleeting glimpse of a look that I had never seen before, a look that might have been called haunted, if that were a less hackneyed term. But haunted really isn’t strong enough, for there was something else going on that, even now, I can’t quite find words for. I think that, when she fell again, the sick cow had understood, at some bone-deep level, that the old farmer wouldn’t be able to save her, and my falling with her had probably confirmed her growing suspicion that these humans, these masters in whom she had placed so much trust, were nowhere near as omnipotent as she had been led to believe. We had, in fact, failed her – and as that knowledge hit home, she turned her head slightly and looked out through the entrance to the enclosure towards the nearby hedgerow, where something seemed to catch, and then hold her attention. Whatever that something was, it seemed to draw her in and, for a few seconds, she seemed illuminated, rapt. All of this happened in a matter of moments – and almost immediately, the old man somehow got me free and I struggled to my feet warily, half-expecting my legs to give way. The farmer looked at me and I saw for the first time that he had decided the cow was beyond saving and that he wanted me to know that I wasn’t to blame. And I think, now, that I probably imagined it, but at the time, I thought that the old man was sad, not for the financial loss, but for the beast’s sake. Or perhaps not sad, so much as sorry. Of course, he was too different from me for either of us to find some form of words, or even some tacit means of expression, that would have meant very much at all – and yet, for that one moment, I wanted to say something that might bring comfort to us both, whatever we were feeling. I wanted to make an effort at speech, even though I had been given to understand, implicitly, that in this neck of the woods, any form of articulacy was a sign of weakness, a character flaw that, where it existed at all, was confined to persons of dubious character. Maybe it was this knowledge that left me speechless, but I’ll never know for sure, for at that moment the old farmer’s son and another man appeared at the entrance to the small enclosure. The son looked at me, and then, at the fallen cow, his expression clearly implying that there had to be a connection between my obvious incompetence and her state of collapse. Then, working in complete silence, all four of us got the cow back on her feet and, though her heart was clearly not in it, and the old farmer had clearly decided that there was no hope of recovery, we went through the motions for what felt like a long time, only giving up when the animal’s utter helplessness became too heavy to bear, at which point we went indoors so the old farmer could telephone the vet.


‘Aurochs and Auks’ is out now and available here (£13.02).