It’s high time to get busy in the veg patch. We borrow a machine rather like this one to turn ours over (though we don’t usually bother with the fancy get-up) and already the onions, shallots and radishes are up and running.
Man (and woman) have been tilling the soil since time immemorial of course, and very soon cottoned on to the idea of getting some four-footed assistance.
However, inspiring obedience and co-operation from the workforce is clearly not always plain sailing, as these Roman mosaics from Sicily illustrate. So we were interested to see how Michel, one of the last farmers in France who still works with teams of oxen, manages his beasts. The comité des fêtes organised a showing of “le Dernier Paysan” last Saturday. It was a wet and windy afternoon, not conducive to gardening, so we went along.
The hall was packed and the documentary was highly appreciated by a well-informed rural audience who kept up a running commentary on the action. Markus said it was like being at a football match! We learned a great deal: for example that he shoes his oxen himself, with nifty little half-hoof slippers which are nailed, cold, onto the outside of the hoofs of the forelegs only. It was fascinating to see how a pair of animals were yoked together, in strict order of seniority, using a prescribed number of turns of the leather strap – three times round the right horn, once round the head to hold the fronton and three times round the left horn. It’s a laborious job and one can imagine the success that this invention for speeding things up probably must have had. On the other hand it looks less comfortable for the animals.
Then leather fringes were buckled on to protect them from the flies and wire mesh muzzles to prevent them from snacking whilst on the job. All this before harnessing up the two pairs and attaching them to the cart or plough or reaper-binder, depending on the task in hand. Michel invariably talked to his animals in Auvergnat patois, and always had a pat or a friendly slap on the flank for them. It was clear that they were content with their lot, well cared for and highly valued.
The next day we asked Roger whether his family had used oxen for field work in the past. Oh no he said, very few in Arlebosc could afford beasts like that. They were the equivalent of a BMW – expensive to purchase and expensive to keep, on account of the amount that such massive and powerful animals need to eat. He could only recall two establishments (known locally as châteaux) which kept oxen. The rest – his family included – used teams of cows, the disadvantage being that they would tire easily and could only be used for two hours in the morning and again for two hours in the late afternoon. He said his father bought their fist tractor in 1970 and from then on no longer used la traction animale.
He does love cows though and it’s so good to see that his cousin appreciates their therapeutic qualities at this time.
One of the pair that arrived ten days ago has had her calf and I met her on her way back to La Mouna where she lives. Meanwhile another four have been turned out into the field below Roger’s kitchen window and are happily chomping away at the spring grass and dandelions – comparatively speaking, enjoying a life of idle luxury.