When we first bought the land that would one day become Ivy Hill Farm it was a desolate February day, complete with gray skies and small pelleted snow. As we pulled away from the property we craned our necks to see what could be seen of the country neighbors and their yards. Long winding drives disappearing behind thick stands of trees, and snow-covered humps hinting vaguely at derelict vehicles or farm machinery were the only clues to be gleaned from two of the three properties closest to ours, the third being an obviously large and efficiently run dairy.
Coming from the city, as we were, we had a preconceived romantic notion of the country and the presumably salt-of-the-earth people that made their homes there. Country folk helped one another out. You could always count on your neighbor. You didn’t lock your doors. All these, and other homilies, were the sum total of our experience with country neighbors.
Ours was a landlocked property and as the construction began on the road we soon met many country neighbors. The term “neighbor” in the country is used much more loosely than that same term in the city. In the city, it describes the four houses surrounding you, and perhaps if you’re feeling expansive, the houses next to them. In a sea of people, the neighbors form very small islands beyond which the knowledge of the other people living are as blank as Terra Incognita on an old seafaring map. In the country, we’ve come to find, it describes everyone on the mile of road you’re living on (up to 5 miles or so) and an approximately five-mile square around you. The construction process is always an interesting one and in the first week of our being there we had met neighbors from the surrounding miles as they pulled up to greet us pleasantly and look around in frank curiosity.
The people who owned the quarter section to our west were an old, childless couple. Living in a tiny house with no running water and a twenty-foot deep, thirty-year-old hand-dug well, they seemed pleasant if not a bit quaint. We imagined they must possess cast-iron stomachs after having drunk such shallow water for years from a well so close to their sheepfold and runoff. When we stopped in to introduce ourselves and were offered tea that we happily accepted yet hoped the water would be boiled for longer than it was. We joked later that if we visited in the future we’d have to slip some iodine pills into the teapot. The time was spent pleasantly and we left feeling happy to have decent country neighbors across the way.
To the north of us lay a large dairy farm. With large green fields, a sea of black and white backs, red barns and neat rows of stacked round bales it was a joy to pass. Having unfortunately just been burned in trusting a stranger in a livestock deal, I was jaded when I first met this neighbor. He was selling donkeys and we needed one, so consequently, I was polite but not friendly. We struck a deal to purchase a yearling jennet (whom we would name Clara) to be picked up in a month’s time when the fencing was complete. When the time came for the exchange of money, because neither of us had thought to bring a receipt book (or indeed any paper as we were in a field), I got cold feet. Not wanting to trust a stranger (although neighbor) with a large sum of money for an animal I wasn’t taking home for a month, I expressed my concerns. He laughed, not insulted in the least, and said he’d keep the little jennet for me and I could pay when I picked her up. Coming from the city, I was surprised at his trust of a stranger and then spent the rest of said month worrying that he would sell her out from under me as I’d left him no deposit to guarantee I would return for her. A fear which turned out to be completely unfounded, and I cringe mentally when I think of how I initially mistrusted my finest country neighbor, a Paraguayan Mennonite named Ernesto.
Fast forward a month and with fencing completed, we had brought most of our animals home (including the jennet that Ernesto had kept for me, true to his word). We were waiting for one small group of cows with calves at foot. The day dawned on which these last few were to be delivered. I spoke with the man delivering them and he promised he’d be there before lunch. At 2:00, I phoned him again. He said he was on his way. At 4:00, I phoned again and the man, now sounding annoyed, said he’d be here shortly. I reminded him that we had no lights out in the pasture as yet, and no corral (our own fault, but being new we didn’t realize how important an oversight this would prove to be) and I had wanted the animals delivered during daylight so they could see the fence line. At 7:00 and dusk, I phoned him again to tell him not to bother delivering them as I didn’t want them delivered in the dark, but there was no answer. At 9:00 P.M., he showed up, trailer in tow. At that point, not feeling I could refuse delivery, we turned them out and watched as they jogged off into the darkness in a tight group. I said a silent prayer they wouldn’t go through the fence and went back to the house and an uneasy sleep.
The next morning I went to walk about in the pasture in search of the new cows. I saw our initial group of cows and Clara grazing calmly, but no sign of the others. As the pasture was almost twenty acres in size and I walked around searching for the newbies, it was perfectly conceivable that they too were circling at the opposite end and we would miss each other almost indefinitely. I went out three more times that day (cursing the fact I was on foot) and saw no signs of the new ones. By that time I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach and started to walk the fence line. Clara, having lost interest in grazing with her new herd, followed me and threatening to kick every now and then, just for added fun. At the very farthest corner I saw where they had gone through. Of five strands of barbed wire, only one lower one was broken, but the rest had been stretched out with staples having popped from the adjoining posts. The whole group had hit it running and barely slowed and now there was no sign of them. With Clara trying to bite me and then showing me her rump every time I waved her away, I managed to splice the broken wire back together and tie up the loose wires so it looked like the fence was intact. The last thing I needed was for the remaining herd to escape.
Fuming at my own stupidity for not having a corral and at the farmer who delivered them in the dark (to this day I’m convinced they wouldn’t have gone through in the daylight), I began making phone calls to all the neighbors, putting out an A.P.B. Most of my country neighbors had cattle and I expected my wayward bunch would turn up at someone’s place. As well, it was October and most of the vegetation in the woods and ditches had died off already, so they’d be hungry and sure to follow their noses to food and their ears to someone’s herd.
Two days later, I was ecstatic when the old neighbor across the way showed up in his car to tell me he thought my cows were in his field. Adam (my husband) and I followed immediately after pausing to grab a bucket of grain. As we walked out to his field I saw my cows in the distance and was relieved (and surprised) none appeared to be injured and all were accounted for. Calling happily and shaking the bucket I approached. These cows, having only seen me for a total of four seconds when coming off the trailer days before, in the dark, obviously didn’t know me or The Pail. They lifted their tails straight in the air and ran off bawling. Every time I neared, they ran in a wide circle to escape me. As it was a forty-acre field, there was no way I was going to lead them back and no way I could capture them myself on foot.
Walking back to where my neighbor and his wife awaited with scowls on their faces, I asked them if I could set up a few panels to bait for them. This being October and the grasses dead, some nice green hay and a bit of grain would bring them into the makeshift corral in no time, from which we could load them. Imagine my surprise when the man’s face and voice turned ugly and he spat out a sharp “NO!”.
“Pardon…?” I asked, bewildered.
“You’re not putting any panels up on my field, and you aren’t putting any hay down; you’ll bring in weeds.”
“But, how am I supposed to get them?” I asked incredulously.
“They don’t know me! You saw, they don’t know the bucket and they won’t follow me, they aren’t dogs! What if I brought some horses and a few ropers, or–” here he cut me off.
“You aren’t bringing any people onto my land, you can’t take a quad out there, I don’t want horses and you can’t bait.”
“So how am I supposed to get them?!” I asked, getting angry.
“I don’t know, but if they aren’t off of my land in two days I’m shooting them all,” he scowled and grabbing his wife (who I imagined looked at me sheepishly from her downcast eyes) stomped back to their shack.
I couldn’t believe this was happening! The first thing I did when I got home was to phone the RCMP (in Canada, the rural police) and asked if he could do as he threatened. While the officer sympathized with me for my plight and said he would speak to the man and try and reason with him, he did confirm he was within his rights to shoot them all. Despite the fact I wasn’t being allowed to retrieve them in any realistic way?! To add insult to injury, I would have no access to MY beef lying dead in his field. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
The next evening the old man pulled up and stood on our steps arguing with my husband. I could hear snippets of abuse floating through the window. “You’re no farmer,” the old man jeered. He was right of course, but we were trying to be, and what had we ever done to him that he should behave so unreasonably? Again he said he was shooting them tomorrow if we didn’t get them off his property, but he wouldn’t allow us anything but one person on foot to try. As he stood on our steps facing up, one of our cats came along and began to climb his leg. Jumping and swearing an oath he pushed the cat off. Not to be deterred, the kitty tried again. As I watched through the window (I didn’t trust myself to speak) I saw the determined cat jump up and grab the sagging seat of his pants. He turned and stalked away apparently unaware he had a cat swinging from his behind. The cat realized in his feline brain he’d be sat upon and dropped down, just before the man plopped into his car scratching his butt absently.
The execution day dawned bright and with red eyes and a sense of burning injustice I went out to try to reason with him one last time. By Divine Intervention, before I left the driveway, Ernesto, my dairyman neighbor pulled in, coming to see how Clara was working out and how we were settling in. Unable to help myself I burst into tears and explained what had happened and that the old man was going to kill half of my herd and there was nothing I could do about it. Ernesto’s face hardened as I spilled out my story and after offering me a clean-looking bandana (gotta love those farmers) he said he was going over to talk to the old man.
“I tried, thank you, but he won’t listen to any reason! I can’t believe it!” I sobbed.
“Twenty years ago there was a fire that would’ve run through his land and I helped him plow a firebreak. He owes me a favor,” Ernesto said with his jaw set.
“No, thank you, no, don’t use up a favor on my account,” I said sincerely, but a glimmer of hope began to burn.
“Sue,” he said, looking me square in the eyes with his honest gaze, “I’m gonna get your cows back”, and off he drove.
I waited, pacing around the farmyard until he pulled back in an hour later.
“He saw reason,” Ernesto said, smugly.
I was astounded and gaped like a fish out of water. I asked what the plan was. Ernesto explained that they would set up some panels, make a temporary corral and bait with good hay and grain.
“That’s what I wanted to do and he wouldn’t hear of it! How did you convince him?” I asked in amazement, wishing I had been a fly on the wall for that conversation.
“It took some doing, but I shamed him. A new neighbor comes in and this is how we welcome them?! Everybody needs help sometimes. This time it’s your turn, next time it could be his. Shame on him for doing this to you,” he said straightforwardly.
“Ernesto, I just don’t even know how I can thank you,” I said astounded, remembering with uneasy shame how this had been the man I hadn’t been the friendliest to when I’d first met him, and hadn’t trusted him with a deposit without a receipt.
In the end, Ernesto took his own panels, feed, trailer, and a couple of his employees and caught my cows for me (it took only about 20 minutes, they were THAT hungry). He brought them back home to the new corral we had built in the few days since their escape, and there the “Jailbreak Crew” as that bunch were ever-after called, stayed for a month until they knew me and The Pail.
In the years since, Ernesto’s family has helped mine more times than I care to admit, but always with a willing smile. In return, we do whatever we can to help them (which isn’t much since they’re a “big fish” in the farming world and we’re a little homestead). Mostly they profit by their association with us in the form of baking, BBQ’s, and good company, during which we always have the best time. In them we have the true country neighbor we envisioned when we were still city jakes.
It takes all kinds, and most of them can be found out in the back roads of rural North America. What kind do you have? And what kind are you?