The routine of a smallholder’s life

Even if you don’t love it, everybody ~ animals included ~ appreciate a set routine. Some routines are long, like the routine of life: birth, childhood, adolesence, adulthood, old age and death. Others are no more than a day: Awaken at 6, ablute, breakfast, work or school, lunch break, work, commute home, dinner, television, bed. Some are even shorter: in what order do you perform your morning ablutions and get dressed? Do you brush your teeth before, or after, you have shaved? Or don your socks before, or after, your shirt?

And any parent knows, or will soon learn, that one of the skills of raising offspring harmoniously is to provide a set routine based around mealtimes, school time, playtime (or, today, more likely television or computer time, more’s the pity) followed by supper time, bath time and bed. For (in case you haven’t learned this lesson) the quickest way to raise a crabby, badly-behaved little brat who throws tantrums in supermarkets is to allow it free rein when it comes to a daily routine. Bed time should be at a set time, sufficiently long after a proper meal for the child not to develop indigestion in the night, but sufficiently early to provide the requisite eight or nine hours of sleep, not as and when the kid starts to droop with fatigue following hours of gawping at some mindless drivel on the television.

And who can relate to the annual routine that some Vaalies used to follow in our childhoods? The year would end, or start, with a summer Christmas, complete with splashing in a pool on Christmas Day, often with cousins one might not see otherwise, followed by the dread of going back to boarding school in late January. Then the Easter break of a few days at home, including Easter eggs and lots of churchgoing. And then of course, the bliss of July, when we all trooped off to the Natal South Coast (or, in our case, the Transkei), sometimes just our family, sometimes with cousins and aunts and uncles, for a couple of weeks of frolicking on the sand. Followed, inevitably, by more school and end-of-year exams, all of which, from about Standard Five, led to the inevitable purgatory of Matric.

Pets, of course, reliant as they are on their owners, also require a routine. Lest one risk accidents in the house they need to be let out to pee at a regular time in the morning, and taken out for a late night constitutional before going to bed at night.

And anybody who keeps any form of livestock knows how important it is to maintain a strict daily routine. With poultry it entails feeding and watering and collecting eggs. With sheep it entails checking them for worms and ailments and letting them out to graze. With cows it involves feeding and milking twice daily, and with horses it involves feeding, grooming and all the other tasks without which the animals lose condition, become crabby and develop potentially serious ailments such as colic.

And these routines are inviolable, day in and day out, week after week, come rain or shine, not only for the health and wellbeing of the animals, but simply because one cannot explain to one’s horse or cow, or apologise for, a lapse in routine. “You don’t speak horse,” I used to frequently tell my kids when they wanted to cry off or delay their chores around their ponies, thinking that the latter would understand.

But for me, after three decades on a smallholding, the most important routine of all is the routine of the seasons. For me the year starts not in January, but at the start of the rainy season, after the weather has warmed up and one is hopefully prepared for the first growth of summer.

For by this time one should have ploughed and fertilized and should be anxiously scanning the sky each day for the build-up of large, dark rain clouds. Every day is a day of hope. Will the rains start today?
And when they finally do start begins the frantic, but hopefully well-planned and enthusiastic, cycle of planting. A stage that is followed by scanning the ground daily for signs of life. “Beans are up” or “mealies are up” are often heard self-congratulatory springtime statements in our house when one or other of us spots the first green shoots.

And then comes summer, with its hopefully bounteous harvest of fruit and vegetables, which require bottling, pickling, drying or freezing to see one through the winter to follow.

And then comes late summer, when one is inevitably beset by every weed and pest known to man.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To my mind spring and early summer are a time of year as good as it gets in Gauteng, rain or shine. The beauty and vividness of the first shoots of green and the way in which plants burst back into life is invigorating, even to the weariest old cynic. Particularly given the promise of the bounty to follow.

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