A poddy calf is called that because of a sad thing that befalls them a few days after birth.
It may not be the same these days, and I hope it isn't, but this is how it used to work. A few days after birth, they were taken away from their mothers to join other poddy calves in a large pen.
That happens because you want milk in your tea and on your cornflakes, or cream on your dessert, and cow's milk is needed if you cook, eat real butter or feed your babies. Dairy farmers have to sell their milk to keep their farms producing what you want.
|Jersey calves - like ours|
The poddy calves were fed on a portion of the milk that could be spared. Often it was skim milk produced after going through the cream separator, so its food value was much reduced. Other things were added to the calves' rations to give what they drank a bit of bulk and protein.
You've seen undernourished kids in places where food is scarce. Often they have big pod-shaped bellies and are skinny as a rake otherwise.
So it was, all too often, with poddy calves. That's where the word comes from, though these days I expect they are treated differently and are healthier, because they get the right supplements that many farmers couldn't afford just after World War 2. The name 'poddy' for hand-reared calves has stuck.
Long intro, sorry, but you need to understand why, in those days at least, poddies were kept in small enclosures for quite a few weeks before they could be let out and graze and fend for themselves. They don't start eating grass straight away any more than human babies start on solid foods.
The point here is that they have no concept of a world beyond their little enclosure from the moment they're born until the first time they are let out into an open paddock. I can't help thinking that's rather like how Australians are if they never leave the incredible safety and security of this country.
When they're old enough, they are released, often one by one. It is then that a rather delightful thing happens. I don't think I've ever seen it not happen for any poddy calf, though I've witnessed these first moments of freedom countless times.
The gate is opened when the calf is close to it. Sometimes it has to be pushed out into the open. Quite often it is reluctant to go, because nothing seems to compute for it.
There are no barriers in front. No matter where it went in the past, there was always a solid fence. This could be dangerous. The unknown often feels that way....
It stands there motionless, blinking like an idiot, as if it had never been in sunlight. Finally, sniffing the grass suspiciously, it takes a few tentative steps forward as if walking on ice. The outside grass probably smells sweet after the little patches of kikuyu that might have survived in the enclosure only because they are so unattractive. Like most creatures, bovines can't abide the smell on the grass of what's on it that's come from their own stomach and bladder.
Then for another few moments, maybe longer, they stare at the vast world ahead. Some switch turns on in their heads, and they start to run.
It's the funniest thing, or we as kids used to think so. It's something you never forget. They'd race down the hill with every ounce of strength and speed they possessed, and pelt round the corner of the vegetable garden, up to the cattle yard gate - a frantic race with nothing, going nowhere really. Breathing heavily, they'd stop, as this was the first time in their lives they'd ever really stretched out, and what a feeling it must have been.
In a few moments, they'd start again, only this time it could last for five minutes or so, racing madly and joyously in wide circles, then straight up and down the hill, tails high in the air, sucking air in through their mouths.
Then it would be all over as the novelty of freedom gave way to curiosity. They'd start to explore this extraordinary new world; Narnia in summer, I guess, once out of the wardrobe.
Their world would never be the same again. They would return to the pen only with some reluctance, if they went back at all. Usually they were kept in at night for their own safety, not from dingoes but the occasional danger of feral and domestic dogs that might run amok.
I was going to use this story and the one about the little wild duck we reared in captivity as metaphors for how humanity might learn from these instinctive urges for freedom, as I don't believe we are all that far from our animal natures driven by the genes we share with our fellow creatures.
Physically, mentally, nothing has changed, except maybe for the worse. "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they."
Rousseau said all this so much better than I ever could, and it's truer now than ever. The social contract amongst humans as Rousseau explored it over two centuries ago has been sadly abused in my lifetime, and has spawned all the lunges for freedom we now see all over the world. All of these have been met with the naked display of repressive power and violence.
But I think I won't go into that after all. Either you get it or you don't.
The first tastes of freedom for our wild duck and the poddy calves really are about power, and on the human level, whether you have it or not over your own life.
I've learned, in the past two years especially, that this is what life is all about, and why people may be willing to die in search of it.