I love love (love!) the woodchop, and how utterly impossible it is to pick a winner - the big bloke with all that weight to add to his swing, or the nuggety wiry bloke with muscles gnarled after a lifetime in the high country? Will the bigger bloke's cardio endurance let him down, or will his giant's swings outmatch the fitter, leaner man? The young bloke with all the zinging hormones of youth, or the old bugger with experience and a deep knowledge of wood and how to sing to it?
I love the handcrafts pavillion, full of crochet like lace and icing like cobwebs. The 'one person's work' display boxes; the children's cake decoration full of spiders with jelly snake legs and licorice feelers; the traditional scones and fruitcakes cut from the tasting; and the under-7s vegetable animals.
I get strangely misty about the restored agricultural machinery, purchased from farms all over Victoria, dug out of dirt track graves in the middle of the bush, brought back to life by enthusiasts and now running perpetually with beautiful paintwork and chug chug chugging away.
I love (cue elitism, privilege, snobbery) watching the bogans and the country folk and the bikers and the many kinds of people I do not see in my normal day. Sometimes I snicker and I know I shouldn't, but you know you do too sometimes and I won't tell anyone.
But this was my first Show as a vegan, having missed last year's as my family were overseas and unfathomably I couldn't convince anyone else to come, and it has left me with a small heartbreak.
It began when we were still on the road, with new estates edging further and further away from Melbourne and creating a continuous highway of housing all the way to Whittlesea. I saw the Mernda Saleyeards, grey wood runs to hold cattle as they are passed through for sale by the kilogram. It was a financial reminder that this is where animals and bought and sold and die, and it's a community where this is as it is.
Inside the Showgrounds I was struck at the centrality of animals to country life for work, play and livelihood, they way they are so much the backbone of living, yet how easily and thoughtlessly their needs are put aside.
There are the showjumping ponies, brushed to gleaming, manes and tails plaited and ridden by small children who no doubt love them dearly. When they are outgrown, the saleyards most likely await despite the declarations of love and best-friendship and all the ribbons hanging above the bed for when the pony dutifully jumped and trotted. There are the prizewinning sheep, after being penned next to the stage where a cover band plays so loudly that you can't hear the person next to you. And at the other side of the stage are the small animals, the rabbits, rats, fowl and birds put on display by their Associations, some for sale and some cosseted in their owners' arms. The rabbits are trying to stand with their soft paws on wire netted cages, while the rats (who I suspect are loved dearly as companions rather than hobbies by their humans who have had to fight so hard for the recognition of their rodent friends as more than scream-worthy vermin) snuggle in hammock-papooses, offering them a warm dark sleeping spot in their travel cages. The fowl and birds sit in their small cages, unable to fly, songs silent.
Around the back, behind the old tractors, is a small enclosure where a number of sheep and one lamb huddle. I can't see any food or water and I don't know what they are there for. As I approach them they skitter as far away from me as possible, and even through I crouch quietly for a while, they gain no courage and still fear me. They are freshly shorn, with the tracks of clippers punctuated with blood on their soft bodies.
I don't go into the baby animal enclosure; it's hot and crowded and even though I like to see children getting to know animals, I think they must be a little distressed with all the hands and squealing and patting.
Around at the cattle pens a small Angus bellows and tries to move away from the fence where he is tethered in the sun. Next to him are signs like this:
and to his right this stall:
The link between farm and fork is not hidden here, which although in general I think is a good thing, here seems starkly cruel and heartless.
A small boy tries to jab at the eyes of a bull tied up to a paling fence. Buzz says: "Don't do that" in his best telling-off-little-boys voice. They boy says: "But it's a bull!" - yes, we must get it before it gets you!
The cattle have rings through their noses as well as halters. They are led around by both. Parents bring their small children up to pat the cattle.
I suppose what really makes me sad is that people trek around admiring some animals - so cute! so soft! so big! so strong! - and will go home to their sausages or roast chook or chops without thinking that the living, breathing, feeling, creature that they so readily admired and patted today had any right to kind or considerate treatment let alone to its own life. Maybe to them an animal is worthy of looking at, patting, perhaps holding, but that this doesn't change that animal's suitability as food.
This troubles me more than if I think that people are simply blithely oblivious to what ends up on their plate and how. If a person makes the connection between farm and fork, my cherished (although admittedly totally unlikely) hope is that they make the link between the lamb that their daughter cuddled, the calf that their son patted, and that they see the connections between life. However, if they make the connection but see that nothing hangs on it, then this is a bleak realization for me and things are more hopeless than I would like to think.
Perhaps they would be more willing to agree that the meat on their plate should not be (too) cruelly treated before it is held down and slaughtered. This is where a welfarist position can make some gains. But if they cannot agree to that or translate any agreement into buying (controversially named) 'humane' meat, then it remains that they don't particularly care and it is an even longer road to the recognition that to that lamb, that calf, that chook - their life is as valuable to them as mine is to me and yours is to you and we should not take what we cannot restore.
I know that a country community resolves around animals as workers and livestock. I know that the odds of me ever seeing a Vegan Country Show are precisely the same as me fulfilling my childhood dream of running a fish'n'ship shop during the day and being a ballerina at night. But today I feel very confronted by the way in which animals are seen so much as things, not creatures; as objects not subjects; and as either not needing or not deserving treatment which recognises that they feel and fear as we do. I do not believe that farmers are the real animal people; that they know what animals are like and what they need and what they are good for. I do not believe that they are cruel people or stupid people. But I do believe that there is longer to go that I thought.