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A blind Christmas adventure

Christmas 2006 found me escaping the Dublin din to Cape Clear, a wind-swept island off the Irish south-west coast. I visited the goat farm of Ed Harper, who like me is blind and has been a goatherd for many years. On my first day, he INTRODUCED me to his goats and I was taught how to milk one. Ed said that some of the goats were pregnant and expected to kid any day. I hoped that this would happen during my stay, so that I could get a chance to feel a baby goat.

During the next couple of days, I explored the island and walked up and down its steep lanes, buffeted by wind and occasionally pelted with rain and hail. To help me navigate the island I used a GPS software for blind people called Loadstone. It can be used on mobile phones that have speech output software installed on them. Having entered the farm house as my main reference point, I entered forks or crossroads as I went along. With the help of these electronic bread crumbs I could find my way back or revisit a place later. Such a point entry would for instance say: “first switchback east of goat farm” or “beginning of South Harbour road”

On St. Stephen’s Day, I proceeded to explore the field in which the goats were kept. I had expected this to be a walk over slightly uneven grass land, the sort of field which cows are kept in. I soon found that navigating the field presented a considerable challenge. To say that it is rough terrain would not do the land credit. There are steeply sloping terraces of grass, partitioned by piled up rock-splinters, which felt like so many over-sized shards of pottery. The landscape inspired me with awe of the forces which shaped the earth, when its surface was still rippling with movement. One must find gaps in these forbidding rock barriers in order to get to the next patch of grass land. Again, I entered these gaps into Loadstone, calling them “gap 1”, “gap 2”, “gap 3” and so forth, so I could follow the numbers in reverse order when I returned.

Negotiating this sort of capricious terrain with a cane requires a lot of careful prodding and probing, because one never knows what change of landscape the next step might reveal. Eventually I reached the very bottom of the field, the final bit descending so steeply, that I slid down the wet grass on my backside.

Having rolled about like I hadn’t done since my childhood, I decided to make my way back up to the farm house. After I cleared the first rocks coming from the bottom, I heard a feeble cry, almost like a baby’s. I thought that it may well be a baby crying, if not a human one. It certainly sounded much younger than any of the goats I had heard so far. I heard it again, about 10 or 15 meters away from me. I concluded that one of the goats must have given birth in the field and wondered off afterwards. Ed assured me later that this was not unusual. Given that it was already dark and the fierce night was setting in, her instincts had probably made her seek the shelter of the goat house rather than staying out in the open. The kid would certainly have died of exposure, even if the mother had stayed with it.

I called Ed on my mobile and reported what I had heard. Not being familiar with the land, I could only tell him that I was one level up from the bottom of the field. He told me to stay where I was, he’d come. I waited for about 5 minutes, during which I heard the baby goat struggling in the high grass. It then occurred to me that I wouldn’t hear Ed calling for me unless he was very close, since I was right next to a bluff. I decided to go to meet him. Before I left the kid in the field, I entered the site as a GPS point. Then I climbed up to the next level and went in the general direction of the farm house, occasionally stopping to listen. At last I could hear him very faintly, shouting my name in the distance. I cupped my hands around my mouth and bellowed through the stormy night.

At first Ed couldn’t hear me, as I was down wind of him, but then he got closer. We shouted at each other until we finally got to within talking range. I then managed to bring us to the kid, following the directions given by Loadstone. When we reached the spot, Ed asked me to make contact. He made his guide dog stay put and then followed me down the bluff.

The kid was still bleating intermittently. I put my hands on it and felt it struggling to get up and away, but its legs were yet too week to support it. The little creature was still wet and slimy from birth and its ears were all crumpled. When Ed reached, us he picked the kid up, promptly pronounced him to be male and tucked him under his oilskins. Then we scrambled back up the sloping grass and across the sharp teethed rocks.

At the goat house, Ed spread out fresh hay in a Penn, while I used some of the hey to rub the kid dry. All the while he was seeking my fingers with his little snout and tried to suck them. Finally, Ed located the mother among the heard which had assembled at the goat house and brought her into the pen. He put the kid’s snout to her teats and soon we heard it sucking greedily and noisily.

It being the 26th of December, I called the little fellow Stephen.

© Copyright Robbie Sandberg

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