Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Cow Book, by John Connell

Staff review by Chris Saliba

John Connell describes six months on an Irish family farm, raising calves. An intimate portrait of rural life, its triumphs and heartaches.

After years spent working in Australia and Canada, twenty-nine-year old John Connell decided to move back to his parents’ farm in his native Ireland. The family have been farmers for generations, raising cattle and sheep for sale at market. The Cow Book covers a six-month period and reads like a series of short, freewheeling essays on farming life. Interspersed with the essays is a potted history of the cow, from myths and legends, to how the cow helped colonial expansion, and finally today, to the horrors of factory farming, where cows live their entire lives in brutal feedlots.

Raising calves for sale is hard, messy, dirty work. The book opens with a full-blown description of a calf being delivered. The author’s arm reaches into the cow’s passage and rummages around for the calf’s feet, then pulls it out, trying not to kill the calf in the process.

The calves are grown to about 14 months old, then sold at market. When the calves are young, they must have their horns removed. The normal practice was once sawing them off, but now they are burnt off, which is deemed more humane.

There are dangers involved in farming that city dwellers probably never think of. Cows produce a lot of excrement, which is kept in slurry pits. When the excrement is removed, it has to be stirred up first. One farmer and his two sons were performing this work when their dog fell into the pit. The father tried to rescue the dog, but the powerful methane gas knocked him out and killed him. The two sons died in the same way, trying to save their father. They had no hope against the noxious fumes (no wonder they are so environmentally damaging.)

Despite the subject matter, full of so much death, disease, excrement and bodily fluids, John Connell has written a beautiful and moving memoir. The descriptions of the cows, their personalities, intelligence and ability to remember, induces great respect for these wonderful creatures. At one point Connell wishes that he could communicate with the cows; at another he rather whimsically describes the cows in the field “eating and singing to one another”. Of the family's prize winning bull, Eric, Connell writes, “And so, golden and strong, smelling of rose petal and hibiscus, we took Eric to the show.”

The central drama of The Cow Book is the difficult relationship Connell has with his father. The two often fight, or when they’re not fighting, there are simmering tensions. The son wonders whether he will keep on with the farming life; if he does, he’s committed to producing organic meat. (Interestingly, Connell refuses to eat pork because of ethical concerns he has with the way pigs are farmed.)

The Cow Book is written in beautifully simple, sing-song like prose. Both engaging and instructive, this memoir of farm and family is an eye-opener onto rural life.

The Cow Book, by John Connell. Published by Granta. ISBN: 9781783784172 RRP: $29.99

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