I don’t remember the bull’s name, but I know he liked red clover.
He was huge, thick through the neck and shoulders. The bull lived in a pen that was built “horse high and bull strong,” enclosed by heavy oak planks bolted to posts of re-purposed railroad ties, creosoted to a thick sheen and sunk three feet into the rocky ground.
Whenever he could smell a cow in estrus, which was most days, the bull attacked the fence, hurling himself against the thick planks with his heavy shoulders. The wood was gouged and splintered where he’d dug into it with his blunt horns that curved outward from a massive, granite-hard skull.
He was a Guernsey, because my father, the dairy farm manager, had convinced Dr. Wood, the dairy farm owner, that even though every other commercial farm in southern New England had switched over to high-production, low-butterfat Holsteins, our farm should be promoting the Golden Guernsey brand.
I don’t know why. This was in the early 1950s, and there are many questions from that time that I cannot answer.
I do know that my father tended to hang on to the past, that older method of farming that kept a bull, instead of employing the veterinarian to arrive with his flexible thin hose and bulb syringe and arm-length rubber sleeve to perform A.I. procedures. (That’s artificial insemination, not artificial intelligence, though farms these days have plenty of both.)
The bull wore a heavy metal ring that pierced the cartilage of his sensitive nose, nostril to nostril. He was not easy to handle, and moving him around often involved several men, some wielding pitchforks. To restrain the bull for veterinary attention or the occasional bath, a farmhand reached through the fence and clipped a bull pole—a long wooden stick with a snap on one end—to the ring, pulled the bull to the fieldstone foundation of the barn, and chained the ring to a heavier iron ring set in the concrete.
“Don’t ever go in the bull pen,” I was instructed before I could even walk. I never went in there, until much later when the bullpen was empty, after he was sold or slaughtered—another unknown thing—but I often fed him clover and fresh grass, poking the stems and leaves through narrow spaces between the planks. Nearly every day, the summer I turned five, I watched his amazing pink tongue, strongly muscled and long and pointy on the end, so very adept at curling around the stems of red clover. His breath and shoulders and horns were just inches away, on the other side of the fence boards. Sometimes he would rub against the fence, scratching a giant shoulder or his hard bony forehead against the oak-planked fence, making it shudder.
The bull stood by the fence each morning and looked for me, of course, because I was the bringer of what must have been the second most interesting thing in his life, right up there after a beautiful Guernsey heifer in full squatting estrus.
Even at five, a farm child knows things that other children do not. We understand, for example, that all the milk, meat, fruits and vegetables—all the food that must be raised and ripened and harvested and sent to market—all of it depends on fecundity and nurturing and, later, harvest. Which, in the case of animal flesh, means death.
Five or six years later, a different bull was part of my farm-based sex education curriculum, when it was suggested by my parents that I attend the insemination of my hand-raised dairy heifer, a pretty Brown Swiss-Jersey cross named Swiss Belle. (That incident is recounted in the story Lizzy Baby, though the girl in that story is a year or two younger than I was, and there was no creepy cousin in attendance.)
Some farm children are made callous and cynical by these experiences. Others flee as soon as they can. Some—most, I hope, or we wouldn’t have many farmers—learn to embrace the cycle of birth, growth, sex, birth, more sex, sowing, reaping, and death.
In the midst of all that, however, there are still opportunities to simply feed some clover to the bull.