Fugue for Elsie

I can hardly recall even half the animals that have been part of my life. Not even the domestic ones - the dogs, cats, horses - let alone the farm animals. It is almost profligate, this gathering of so many lives around one, only then to disperse them or watch them die. I recently remembered a small goat we had when I was a child, Elsie. I hadn't thought of her in years. But there she was in front of me, in all her liveliness, with her piercing light-brown eyes that seemed to implore connection. And what I felt about this memory, sudden and sharp, was guilt.

Animals have always been important, but mostly I have not paid them a lot of attention - I mean real attention. Only recently have I begun to take them seriously as living beings who are, as philosopher Tom Regan puts it, ''subjects of a life''.

People live without animals. Even I have managed to live without animals for brief periods. Yet for some of us, a society made only of our own kind feels thin, colourless. The variety of other species, their strangeness and comedy, the tantalising glimpses of commonality sometimes seen in a face or a movement, are an essential reminder of our place in the world; both the way we have dominated, but also the way in which so much that goes on in the natural world is hidden from us.

The fascination of them is largely the way they can be so transparent one moment and such a mystery the next. I can speculate on what an animal might be feeling, but can never really know. They are the ultimate mystery, made more so because they are so commonplace, so there. The cows in the paddock, the chooks in their pen, the bull surrounded by his little team of young steers. Each has a life with a shape to it and a meaning, and I believe each has a sense of being alive. We live side by side in overlapping bubbles.

They are my familiars - more familiar, if I am honest, than most of my friends. They are part of the rhythm of my days, like a musical accompaniment to my thinking self. I can't go so far as to say I have individual relationships with the cattle or the hens, nor do I need to. Each has a purpose and abilities that invest their life with meaning. If they are prevented living out that purpose, they can become frustrated, bored or neurotic, much as we do. They are on their life's path and I am on mine, but they run in parallel.

I sit on the verandah and watch the cows. Will the new calf, named Pushy Sheila, get a feed tonight, off her mum or someone else? Will she be OK until morning, when I go out with the back-up bottles?

This morning two of the cows were hanging around the farm vehicle, very curious and familiar. They rubbed against the side, chewed at the vinyl hood and inspected the tray at the back. I feel a special fondness for these two, Martha and Indi, because they were just small calves at foot when we bought our first group of Herefords. They are good mums and maybe they feel that I, too, am a good cow mum, now I am turning up every day to feed Pushy Sheila.

Of course, that is anthropomorphising. Such a sin! Yet when thinking about animals we have little choice but to use the tools of our own understanding.

We inevitably impose a human-centric slant on what we are observing. I am happy anthropomorphising if it means seeing animals as sentient beings with their own fears and feelings.

I sit on the verandah and watch the cows. I have become a farmer. I care for cattle, and I own them, and I eat them. Until recently, this husbanding of cattle was a hobby, a mere handful of cattle - hardly farming at all. But even then I still had to make decisions about their future lives all the time: how many we could feed through the winter; how long the steers could be kept.

At times I was tempted to retire our small group of cows, to not worry about breeding from them. I could retire them and let them die a natural death. But it wouldn't have stopped me eating meat. I would have outsourced the problem.

Raising beef and eating beef makes me complicit. I am forced to think about these things, forced to live with the consequences. When one has a farm there is many an uneasy bargain to be struck. Few occupations confront one so intimately, and so often, with the tragic sweep of life. The cows and their calves are not pets. I might spend extra money on a vet for a favourite cow. I might get to know her well and in all likelihood give her a name because she will be with me for some years. But the male calves I don't name because from the day they are born their fate is set - sooner or later, they'll be off to market and off to the butchers.

I sometimes think the reason Angus are the most sought-after breed of cattle, certainly for feedlots, is that they are all black: they all look the same. And when you are putting thousands of cattle on a production line that ends at the butcher's block, maybe it helps a bit if you can't tell them apart.

My cattle are not black, bar one or two. Each is distinct. They are mixtures of brown and black and white, with markings that allow me to tell them apart. Now we have moved to a real farm, when I look out at the paddocks I gaze upon a hundred head. Maybe a hundred souls. There are some animals to whom we are very ready to concede souls: ourselves, of course, and other apes, dogs, perhaps horses and other creatures with grandeur and individuality. Certainly, our donkey Lina has a soul, of that I have no doubt. Cows often look rather soulful, and I am easily persuaded that they might have souls. But does a sheep have a soul? We tend to think of a hierarchy of animals, and sheep do not figure high on that hierarchy.

Individuality seems to be key. And sheep have the misfortune to look very like one another.

Observing a paddock full of sheep, following one another in single file like … well, sheep, or running about in a phalanx, swerving and curving as if of one mind, it is easy to think of the flock as the unit. It is no accident that ''sheep'' is both singular and plural.

But on a smallholding, where a hobby farmer might have a cow and a couple of goats and a sheep, the individuality of the sheep is immediately apparent. She is herself. And no doubt her owner will attest she has a personality; in fact, that each of the animals are individuals.

Turn again to the paddock and its flock of sheep. And see this time a large group of individuals who behave differently when alone from when they are together. When in the flock they are in sync with one another, organised and secure. Alone, they are forced into another way of being, but they can adapt to this. In this they are not so different from us.

Looking for the soul in an animal is no more difficult than looking for it in ourselves, and no easier. It is linked to the idea of the sublime. And it is there in the light of an animal's eye, if we care to look.

When the lights go out, for animal or human - when the eyes that expressed so much are suddenly lifeless - it is much the same for all of us. Soulful eyes one moment, empty ones the next.

Animals struggle against death, against the threat of it. Fear, flight, fight: these are responses to the risk of annihilation. So they know about the threat of death. But what does death mean to them? To us it means the loss of any future time we might have had. We see time's arrow disappearing over the horizon and want to follow it, and death prevents that. It may mean that to animals, too, or perhaps it means something entirely different, something we can have no conception of. It may be that life is circular, rather than linear, to them. And the threat of slaughter disrupts that sense of completion.

Death is often at one's elbow on a farm, and often I find myself hovering on that uneasy terrain between hard-headedness and sentimentality.

This is an edited extract from 2013 Voiceless Anthology, which will be published by Allen & Unwin on December 1, $29.99. Ten pieces exploring the human-animal relationship were selected by a judging panel led by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee.

Now it's your turn to choose: who should receive $5000 as the readers' choice? Buy the e-book for $1.99 from online bookstores and vote at voiceless.org.au /readerschoice. Voting closes on November 9.

The story Fugue for Elsie first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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