My favourite Anglican and fellow East Anglian Ronald Blythe reads the Book of Lamentations during Holy Week. It’s his set text and he writes that he’s ‘thrilled by the grandeur of its sadness’. Over the years, I’ve tried to emulate his sense of purpose, but I get worn down by the sorry state of Jerusalem and the relentless misery. I never make it to the grandeur of the sadness.
It’s a phrase that came to me on Easter morning, when I went out to the front field to check on my Shetland ewes, baby lambs and Red Poll cows. Holy Week was a worrying time on this farm. Two ewes, both pregnant with twins, succumbed to a mysterious illness. Their symptoms don’t fit the Schmallenberg virus and the vet reckoned it was ‘twin-lamb disease’.
One death I take in my stride, because I believe that the well-being of all farm animals is extremely tenuous, but two ewes collapsing within 24 hours, requiring the vet to come on Maundy Thursday to put an end to their misery, shook me. Guided by gloom, fear and legal requirements, I loaded them into the back of the pickup, covered them with feed sacks and drove them to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Bury for post mortems.
Beatrix Potter, a sheep farmer, observed that ‘every lamb that is born, is born to have its throat cut’, but my ewes know a different fate. They’re born to procreate, to grow the flock and, until 2003, they lived here all their natural days and were buried with dignity in the woods. Now, when these creatures, Christianity’s most tender symbol, reach the end of their lives, they are designated ‘fallen stock’ and moved from the farm at the shepherd’s expense for a disposal that lacks reverence and ceremony. But on Easter morning, I found only healthy lambs and ewes looking maternal and relaxed.
As I walked towards the cattle, however, I saw a small congregation outside the open-sided barn. It was standing around my 20-year-old cow, called Norah. Matriarch of the herd, big as a Bentley, humble as a labrador, sensitive to weather’s moods, gifted at keeping young heifers in line, and fond of apples, massage, hymns and me, she lay on her side, her soulful eyes wide open.
When something as big as a cow dies, it feels like a natural catastrophe. Sorrow as sharp as a snakebite is stalled by the pressure of a houseful of people eating toast, drinking coffee and waiting for me to set off with them for the 10am Easter service. The urge to administer a benedictory final rub to her vast forehead is lost in the thought that, in the afternoon, families will come to watch the lambs, to cross this meadow on the way to the woodland walk.
The only fabric large enough to cover the lifeless bovine vastness is a roll of hessian from the grain store. I think of Christ lying in the darkness before His Resurrection as I attempt my shroud, but Norah is more like the boulder that seals the tomb. Her daughters and grand-daughters surround me as I work, subdued mourners who seem bewildered by their loss. I put a sign on the gate that says the walk to the woods is closed due to lambing, change boots for shoes and leave for church.
In the car, I think of John Donne’s poem Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, on his way to visit the brother of George Herbert.
He feels guilty because he’s facing west, geographically turning his back on that ‘spectacle of too much weight for me’. A recent study showed that fewer than a third of all Christians on this planet believe in Heaven. Even fewer believe in Hell. I’m also sceptical, but when you surrender belief in the afterlife, you relinquish certain grand expectations. Although I’m wary of a Heaven filled with folks who voted for George Bush, I’ve always found the idea of a Heaven filled with good dogs and holy cows consoling.
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