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 How Then Brown Cow

This morning when I took a carton of skim milk from the fridge, I realised how far removed from the cow I had become. As I pondered the treated liquid muddying my cup of coffee I thought for a moment about reports of some city children who didn’t know milk from a carton had its origins in some far flung udder.

In the early 1950s, I grew up on a farm in Tasmania on the outskirts of New Norfolk in the Derwent Valley. I had first hand experience of where milk came from. The array of billy cans hanging from letter boxes and gate posts on the main road was an indication that nearby, some Jersey or Friesian was supplying a livelihood for a dairy farmer and a basic necessity for a local community. It was the time of jugs and muslin. There was little evidence of the household fridge.

In our house an enamel billy can draining on the sink was evidence of its daily use to receive and be emptied of whole milk. Although berry fruits and hops were our principal source of income, most farms had the mandatory house cow.

I remember my grandfather, a cross between Winnie the Pooh and a wombat, waddling and puffing up the Hill Paddock. ‘Come on. Come on,’ he called. If it were school holiday time, this was a cue for me to be both the ‘carrier and bringer’ of the billy.

My grandparents lived on a hill surrounded by sheep and a couple of cows, while my immediate family lived below on the river flat in the middle of a paddock of raspberries.

As I made my rattling way up a track through blackberries rigid with frost, I could see my grandfather with a walking stick, pole-vault himself up the steep incline. He would only venture a short distance.

Primrose and Tiger, dewy and distended, knew this familiar sight meant it was time for a bit of ‘white relief’. If they were slow in reaching their destination, a Smithfield sheep dog would ‘bring ’em on’ at an ungainly gallop to a cowshed.

The cowshed, an all timber construction, was ready to collapse. The roof sagged in places and it appeared as if the supports of the three milking bales were all that kept it standing. A couple of battered apple cases, used as stools lay on the floor. Looking in the manger as I always did before the cows went in, I’d find a broody hen or a Muscovy duck ready to fly at the unsuspecting sponges which dribbled clover cud into their space. There was no room for ruminants.

I helped my grandfather lock the cows in the bales, felt sorry for Primrose as she shied away from the chook which later flew off in chaotic protest and then stood back to absorb a ritual.

‘Come on shit tits. Shift your foot,’ he said to Tiger as he washed and scrubbed the warm comfort from a cold night.

‘They’re not silly you know boy. They know how to keep their extremities from getting chilblains. Only thing is it takes as long sometimes to clean the buggers as it does to milk ’em.’

Once scrubbed and rubbed with the same old rag that had hung previously stiff with frost from a support beam, the washing water was tipped out and the bucket rinsed with clean water from another bucket. It was time to start.

‘You always go in with the bucket in front of you, so she can’t put her foot in it,’ my grandfather said as he moved in on Primrose.

‘Come on. Set your foot now.’

Then he’d lean his body up against the pot-bellied Jersey until she moved her near foot back, exposing all. With the bucket to his right, he’d then sit on the apple case and further manoeuvre the cow and himself into mutual comfort.

I expected one day, I would engage in this same ritual. The marvel of the unity of man and beast. The synchronicity of sound, smell and image. It was a time of contemplation. The rhythmic squirt of milk accompanied the chew of cud. I’m sure I made a mantra out of mastication.

I stood far enough away from Primrose so as not to cop a stray foot in the guts. I’d seen an uncle who had a small dairy across the creek leg rope all his cows. But this was never the case with Primrose and Tiger. My grandfather had a way with animals. Seated on the apple case, he trusted the boundary created between cow hoof and human thigh would be respected.

‘Pity about the rain,’ he said as he squirted a white needle into my face. I ducked to avoid the tickle, but the hows and whys about the froth swelling in the bucket was what interested me. I was captive to the entity growing in the aluminium bucket.

I looked at my hands and those of my grandfather’s. His were pork sausages, mine were threaded macaroni segments. I didn’t realise Tiger was discerning enough to know the feel of pork sausage. I leant across and touched her gently on the bag. She knew instantly that it was a different touch. Her flanks flinched as she felt my hand. She lifted her leg and lashed out. I’d never be able to milk a cow if this was what they were going to do.

When both cows had given their ‘white-all’, I let them out of the bales. Slowly they backed out. Grandfather made his way down the hill to the ‘dairy’.

The ‘dairy’ was a shed in my grandparents’ garden. It had a rough wooden bench onto which the base of a hand separator was attached. Out of a jumble of metal filter cups, milk and cream chutes, a metal float regulator and a large bowl, the separator was assembled. As with milking the cows, this was done twice a day. Grandfather emptied a bucket into the bowl. (I had come to collect the milk for my family, so some of this was strained into the billy). Then sitting himself down on a stool and grabbing hold of the handle of the separator, the old man started turning. He tapped his foot on the floor and chanted words and gibberish to keep in time and to ensure his audience of one was totally engrossed.

‘Bob, bob, two bob, two bob,’ he’d say in time with the tap of his foot, allowing the rhythmic speed of the separator to crank into action.

‘Put the basin under that one boy.’

I placed an enamel basin under the cream chute and turned on the tap on the bowl.

‘Bob, bob, two bob, two bob.’

A new froth emerged stripped of its cream. The latter was to follow in a much smaller quantity. This disparity in ratio of milk to cream was always disappointing.

‘Better be off to your mother now.’

I carried part Tiger but mostly Primrose down through the blackberries. I had a jar of cream with me as well. Its warmth took the chill off the inside of my hand.

When I reached home the billy was placed in a shallow dish of water on the stove to be scalded. The cream rose to the top, was scooped off and left aside to promote a series of high cholesterol activities such as bread and jam sandwiches, generously adhered with scalded cream.

And as there was no fridge the milk skimmed of its first cream, cooled under muslin to grow another skin.

Now as I place the skimmed milk of 2001 back in the fridge, I reflect on the increasing gulf between cow and consumer and how the fridge and the carton represent convenience on the one hand and a disappearing world on the other.

Ah. Yes. Of course. It’s the fridge door. As it seals shut it reminds me of Primrose. . . setting her foot.


© Robert Moore