We're delighted to present an extract from Falling for a Farmer, the acclaimed new memoir from Maura McElhone.
Falling for a Farmer is one woman’s true life story of her journey from wide-eyed townie to full-blown farmer’s girlfriend. From pulling calves and wrapping bales, to being 'stood up for silage' and receiving the phone call that every farmer’s loved ones dread, Maura McElhone’s memoir chronicles the often humorous, sometimes sobering experiences that ensue when town and country collide.
Once inside the shed, the ewe wasn’t difficult to pick out. Laying on her side, she breathed quickly and heavily, straining to bring her baby into the world. A red number ‘1’ had been sprayed onto her yellow-white wool. Jack had explained the numbering system to me before, so I knew she was only carrying the one lamb. The concern now was that because she was a single, the chances of the offspring being big were greater than if she were having two or three little ones. The baby’s size may well be what was causing her to struggle.
Jack took the ewe’s head and instructed me to position myself at her back end. ‘See if you can get hold of the front legs,’ he said.
I eyed the area below the ewe’s tail where a little snout was beginning to appear. ‘So, I just put my hand in there?’ I said dubiously.
Jack nodded. Despite his best efforts to appear completely calm – for my benefit, no doubt – I registered the sense of urgency. I knew that the more I thought about it, the nervier I would get. There was nothing else for it; I bid farewell to my recently manicured nails and took the plunge.
I hadn’t a clue what I was feeling for, or indeed, what I was feeling at all. Jack instructed me to run my hand along the length of the warm, spongy mass that I could only assume was the lamb, and locate the two front legs. After a moment’s exploration, and a sensation that I can only describe as being something close to feeling for the wishbone inside the Christmas turkey, I was delighted to find one leg. However, when a few more minutes passed with no second leg to be found, now up to my elbow in ewe, I voiced my concern that this lamb may, in fact, only have the one leg to begin with. To give Jack his due, whatever he thought of me in that moment, he didn’t vocalise. He simply suggested that we swap positions. And so, while he began his search for the elusive other foreleg, I knelt gently yet firmly on the ewe and held her head. I also took the opportunity to whisper my apologies about the indignity of it all. Though worried for the well-being of both mother and baby, I found some small reassurance in the fact that Jack, the experienced farmer, also had bother finding the other front leg – welcome proof that I wasn’t completely inept.
It took some time but, eventually, he located the mislaid limb. We switched places again, the logic being that, with my considerably smaller hands and wrists, I might have more luck at freeing the limb from where it was bent back at an awkward angle underneath the lamb. I did my best, taking a hold of the leg and trying to reposition it to someplace more conducive to an easy exit, ideally alongside the other leg and both below the lamb’s head. But the force of the ewe’s contractions against my arm, along with the lack of room I had in which to manoeuvre and general slipperiness of the working environment made life difficult.
The loss of the lamb now a very real threat, I asked Jack to take over. But, instead of swapping places yet again and wasting any more time attempting to free the other leg, Jack decided we would work with what we had. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d pulled a lamb that presented with one leg back, although they were usually smaller than this one appeared to be. With only the snout and one foot visible despite a considerable amount of time having passed, it was essential that we get this lamb out. Jack instructed me to work my hand around the head and leg to ensure that they were free from any potential obstructions, and then pull. Terrified of breaking its one good leg, or worse still, decapitating the poor creature, I took hold and pulled – firmly, but gently. Nothing budged. I gritted my teeth and tried again.
‘Come on …’ I pleaded under my breath. Perhaps she heard me, who knows, but just then, the ewe somehow summoned the energy for one last push. I pulled, she gave an anticipatory shudder of relief and all at once the lamb – a great big brute of a thing – slid out onto the straw with a squelch: a steaming pile of wool, slimy substances and, much to my relief, legs – all four of them. Jack came around to clear the mucus from the baby’s mouth and nostrils, and to check that he was, indeed, alive. But the eyes, clear and bright as they adjusted to life outside the womb, assured me that he was. Not for the first time, I marvelled at the composure of the mother animal. She hadn’t let so much as a whimper out of her the entire time, and now, just seconds after delivering her baby, she was cleaning and nuzzling it, any lingering discomfort overpowered by her natural instinct to nurture and protect.
‘There you go now,’ said Jack, smiling and getting to his feet, ‘you’ve pulled your first lamb. He was a tricky one too. Well done!’
Perhaps I should have been more pleased with myself. Instead, I felt a little bit put out in those moments following the birth. It hadn’t been the seamless experience I had hoped for. I would have liked to have managed it by myself, completing, as I saw it, the ultimate ‘farmer’s girlfriend rite of passage’ without needing any intervention from Jack. However, the experience served as a reminder that plan though you might, mother nature follows no script.
If there was a job description for farming, ‘the ability to remain calm, and adapt and react to fast-changing situations, sometimes life or death in type’ would certainly be on there. And yet, to a farmer, this attribute was nothing special. Jack himself would be the first to play down the noteworthiness of what he’d done that day, what he and so many others do every day. When I considered the reputation and prestige attached to any other job that deals with so many uncontrollables, or with life and death outcomes, it reinforced what I’d recently begun to suspect: that farmers do not get the credit and recognition they deserve for managing the demands of a way of life that, more often than not, they are born into rather than choose.
I wonder if that’s the difference. Farming is not a choice in the way that medicine or veterinary science is. It’s rarely seen as a vocation. And so the results that come from a farmer’s toil and time are rarely celebrated. Because in this world, it’s no less than what is expected.
But I was not of that world. From my vantage point on the other side of the fence, I could recognise the little win that was the lamb we’d just delivered. That I hadn’t managed to do it by myself wasn’t important. Floppy-eared and still continuing his quest to stand, he was healthy and his mam had made it through too. He was a strapping new addition to the flock and, in a business that operates around the circle of life, that was all that mattered, really.
Jack headed off to do his rounds, but I stayed put for a few minutes longer. At this relatively early stage in the relationship, being a townie on the farm had its perks. Not only was I exempt from some of the more mundane yet essential tasks, such as cleaning and bedding pens and filling water buckets for the animals, but my lack of exposure to this way of life meant that I delighted in the little things that to a seasoned farmer like Jack seemed less than remarkable. Things like watching the lamb I’d just pulled scramble to his feet and take his first shaky steps.
Falling For A Farmer by Maura McElhone (published by Mercier Press) is in bookshops now.