Streams

Leonard Lopate Essay Contest

Top 4 Essay

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In the early 80’s I broke up with my cows. This is different from breaking up with a guy. You don’t watch a guy walk the plank into someone’s big cattle truck with those strangely delicate, vulnerable ankles, wondering whether he’ll ever get to go outside again or just be stuck in a stanchion the rest of his life, shaking his head back and forth, up and down, trying to scratch that place I always used to brush. You don’t wonder, usually, if anyone will ever talk to him softly again, whether anyone will play Garrison Keiller’s morning show for him, whether he’ll be yelled at, mistreated, or maybe, at best, be ignored except for the milking machine stuck on his udder twice a day, che- chook, che-chook, che-chook, morning and night. Ignored except for the indignity, the false forced intimacy, even an odd kind of rape in a way when the breeder sticks his latex- gloved arm up you-know-where with a load of bull sperm. No. These are definitely not worries when you break up with a guy. On the other hand, just like in a normal breakup, there you are, watching years of struggle, years of hopes and dreams and emotional investment drive down the road forever, away from you, knowing that what has been put asunder will not be made whole again. It was a bad moment, watching that truck lumber away down our rutty driveway with its load of living beings in the back, some of whom I had raised from birth, and now I was sending them away to an uncertain future. I was selling my children. The guy who bought them was just a normal farmer, friendly enough, to people anyway, but I had no idea what his setup was like. Farming is such a fraught activity, hardly anybody knows anymore about these kind of complicated attachments to animals who aren’t pets, animals that you’re using for your own purposes, that you’re feeding, and feeding off of, that you take care of and worry about morning and night, that you will eventually kill and eat. Or someone will. Farming isn’t cute and cuddly, it’s full of mud and blood and manure and medicine and birth and death and broken machinery and money down the drain and the awful and awesome perversities of the fates and weather and look at that huge dark cloud coming across a clear blue sky to rain specifically on my field where the hay has just dried to perfection which will now be ruined, good for maybe mulching the garden if anything instead of feeding the cows, and oh, god, I had HAD it with farming. I had looked in the mirror and the face looking back said, you are dying. I was barely thirty and my life was milk and manure, manure and milk surrounding, drowning me in a big roiling slurry of work, work, work. This was just after weaning my second son, after months of pregnancy and then nursing while immersed in the life of the great maternity ward that is a dairy barn. Funny how Americans seem to think of cows as males. There was an animated movie recently that depicted cows as smart-assed boys with udders stuck to their lower regions like some kind of obscene, deformed weenies. I so cringe when I see Americans being ignoramuses. Everyone should farm for at least a year, for a summer, something, just so they won’t be such idiots, such defiant know-nothings. So they’ll be just a little bit humbled by knowing something real. Like where their food comes from. So they’ll know why a cow has to be a girl: because of the milk. Get it? The cow gets pregnant, has a baby, her body makes milk for the baby but the clever humans take the baby away and feed it with bottles, yes, comically huge baby bottles, and then they take the milk for themselves which they drink and make cheese out of and all kinds of guava-mango-banana flavored concoctions so people just might keep drinking milk instead of metal cleaner oh, sorry, I mean cola drinks and the like. Back to the barn. We the people take all the cow’s milk except for the first few days when she makes colostrum, a thick yellowy substance full of good immune-system building stuff for the baby calf that most farmers throw away but that we saved in metal milk cans and fed to the babies. The helpful dairy magazine said you could feed colostrum to them even after it had turned to curds and whey and smelled and looked like old cheese, which it was. So we did, and they loved it, the babies, they sucked it right down, and it was very good for them. And when that ran out, they would get formula, no calves ever get any of their mom’s precious pure white secretions, that all goes into the bulk tank. And let me tell you, there is nothing better than milk that has just gone from body temperature to ice cold, no pasteurizing, no nothing, just the real thing straight out of the bulk tank after a day of hoisting bales in a sweltering haymow. Nothing like it. Of course, to get all this milk, you have to separate mother and child right away, otherwise the cow adjusts her body to what the calf needs, and that’s not what the farmer needs, he wants much more milk than any little baby calf does! Not that they’re are so little. A Holstein calf can be a hundred pounds when it’s born. A hundred pounds of cute-ness, befuddled and head-butty, that’s when farming gets warm and fuzzy for a minute or two, when the baby pops out feet first, wet like it’s been rubbed with Vaseline, then flops around until it’s up on a knee, then an leg, then two, then four, then right up standing on its wobbly splayed legs and the mother is making low short noises and licking it all over including its little rear end. At least we let the mothers lick, some farmers don’t, of course. But licking or not, then you separate them. Talk about a break-up! Some of the babies would bawl for days, and so would the mother, the world shaking with huge bellowing moans erupting from wide deep hearts and lungs, necks outstretched, heads up like asking heaven, please bring my baby back, oh great Hathor, have mercy on me, your humble cow-servant! The big low heartrending deep cry, mama blues, then the higher-pitched raw new hollow-sounding trembly cry, baby blues. Back and forth, over and over. Sometimes the barn would rock for days with that big sad song, depending on the temperament of the mothers. Some got over it sooner than others. Smart farmers, i.e. big farmers, have a whole other space for the calves. But we were small. Laughably small. Our farm was considered a hobby farm, funny how you could have a hobby that began early in the morning and ended, hopefully, twelve hours later, washing up the milking machines in the milk house, tired to the bone literally because in between you shoveled manure or plowed fields or put up hay or got feed ground at the mill or waited for the vet to come and see why Violet’s milk was all clumpy, or some combination thereof. And if you had kids, well, there was all that, plus a garden and a house. Most hobbies are not so grueling. But our farm didn’t register on the proper farm-size scale, we weren’t even big enough to qualify as a family farm. Embarrassingly small, we had maybe thirty head at the top of our game, and that included all the young stock, heifers that weren’t milking yet and the odd steer or two that we’d raise for meat. (Yes, we raised our own meat, and let me tell you, there’s nothing like the nutty, rich flavor that came from an animal who had been brushed and scratched and whispered to and thanked.) Not that having thirty head was less work that three hundred. Or three thousand. Especially when you brush them. Anyway, back to the big breakup, the cows and me, parting forever. It was odd, but I felt like, in a way, they had really broken up with me. Or maybe, the farm, farming itself, had pushed me away. I went at it whole hog, as it were, for ten years, and in the end, it broke my heart. I’d grown up first in Duluth and then in the western suburbs of Minneapolis until after dropping out of college in the late sixties to go back to the land as many were doing, you know, all that idealistic, well-meaning, soul-yearning blah, blah blah stuff of the counter-culture, don’t-call-us-hippies-we-are- workers-of-the-world types. (Funny how that generation got a reputation for self-indulgence and frivolity when so many of us were absolute maniacs for digging up crazy-hard tasks, like farming with horses, or spending a Wisconsin winter sewing people’s pants with a treadle machine in a sod hut with no electricity, or raising dairy cows with no experience and no money.) Anyway, yes, I wanted to save the world, at least do something useful. Not that all my comrades agreed that dairy farming was useful, some thought that hunting/gathering was the human peak, that the whole agricultural revolution was a big mistake, the beginning of the end environmentally, leading inexorably to the grevious practices of current corporate agriculture, the extinction of untold species with the proliferation of a few chosen domesticated breeds, huge pollution problems, etc. A lot of these people ended up going back to the city. I’ve come to think that the Neolithic Garden with some hunting/gathering options still available was the prime stage of human evolution. But in the 1970’s, I had fallen in love with milking cows, and I believed my chosen path to saving the world was via a small dairy farm. What I didn’t count on was the world not wanting me to save it. Kind of the ultimate rejection: the fates, karma, universal forces all lining up, Job-style, against me and my well-meaning farming aspirations. The world, frankly, not giving a damn. Or maybe that’s what farming has always been like for everyone, (which would help explain the heavy-handed tyrannies of modern-day factory farming) and in my idealistic cloud- headedness, I hadn’t a clue. Of course having virtually no money didn’t help. I still don’t know how we did anything. I guess bank loans, mostly. And my then- husband eventually had to get an off-farm job, leaving me with the bulk of the tractor work along with most of the milking. Anyway, back to the fates. The way dairy farming was supposed to work, was that you bought cows and then those cows would replace themselves with more cows, in other words, at least half of their offspring would be females, heifers, who would get bred when they were about two years old, then they would become cows after they freshened, a strangely quaint dairy way of saying gave birth. Then, in the perfect dairy world, every 12 months thereafter, each cow would have another baby, and freshen again. But that didn’t happen in our barn. In our barn, rarely did cows have calves every year, the first or second breeding didn’t take, or we missed them going into heat in the first place, usually evidenced by the cows humping each other, but sometimes you didn’t catch the barnyard action, being busy running back to the house after you let the cows out to make sure your child was still safely in his crib, and when the cows DID have calves, it was 2 boys to every girl, at best. Bull calves, as any dairy farmer knows, are more trouble than they’re worth. Males don’t give milk (duh) , and the modern farmer gets his bull from a catalog. I’d heard some farmers would just bonk the boy babies on the head and drag them out to the back forty to go back to nature. We would ship them, and get, what, maybe ten, twenty bucks? Oh my god, how sad was that? Seeing these cute little things scramble up the plank into the yawning back end of the truck. As mentioned before, a couple we saved from this dire early fate by raising them for meat, turning them into steers rather than bulls with a rubber-band kind of deal where their scrotal circulation gets cut off and eventually, uh, things just kind of drop off and fade away. If that’s not warm and fuzzy, I don’t know what is. Anyhow, our cows regularly gave us these discomfiting choices, as they mostly refused to bring forth females. However, there was one breakthrough, a beautiful mostly white heifer resulting from the union of our best cow and an expensive catalog bull, via the breeder, of course. I raised that baby so lovingly; I watched her grow, such a wonder, she was, and in time we had her bred to another pricy bull. She was big, strong and bright-eyed and I spent a lot of time getting her ready for her upcoming milking experience. The way it went was that heifers would freshen and then have that crazy milking machine stuck on their virgin teats, sucking and pulling at them , che-chook, che-chook, and some of them didn’t take to it, getting all jumpy and spooked, kicking the machine off and maybe slipping and sliding their back feet into the gutter so their udder would drag on the ground and get manure on it or worse, injured, what a mess. Some farmers would have certain cows they’d have to hobble at milking time. But my strategy was, to avoid all that chaos and stress, about a month or so before they freshened I’d slowly brush their neck and back and head while whispering sweet nothings in their ear, which they loved. I’d talk to them and their necks would relax and heads fall down but they’d twitch their ears back to catch every word, and my husband would be at the other end of the animal messing around, feeling them up, so to speak, getting them used to someone being back there where the milking machine would eventually go. This worked like a dream with other heifers, che-chook, che-chook, no problem. So anyway, this was one be-loved creature. She was going to freshen early fall, maybe mid- September. It happened that my tenth high-school reunion was that August, so my husband and I decided to finally take two days off, find someone to do the chores and we’d drive to Minnetonka to attend this momentous gathering. Which we did, and we had fun, except for me not being able to drink alcohol because I’d just found out I was pregnant with my second child, and most of my high school relationships had been forged while partying big-time, so the whole thing was a bit more flat than I might have wished, but we got away from the farm for a night which was a real rare treat. That night there was a big storm that ran through the area, lots of thunder and lightning, one of those major mid-western crash-and-boom events. I worried, of course, because cows and worry go together, and because our pasture was hilly and when it rained our small herd, sensible animals that they were, would go to the highest hill to find a nice big tree to lay under so they wouldn’t get wet. But when we got back to the farm it seemed like everything was okay, until I noticed that our nearly eight-months pregnant beauty wasn’t around, so I walked around the pasture until I found her lying at the bottom of a gully where she had slid after being hit by lightning, and of course she was long dead, along with her calf. So the next day, there I was, walking out to meet the truck which somehow managed to get up the rocky, bumpy roadless hill slippery with long grass and fix a tow-rope around her and pull her up from the other side all floppy and limp and leaking, oh god, what a grim and sad, tragic mess. It was hayfever season and because I was pregnant I couldn’t take any pills so behind my flip-down sun-glasses my red and itching eyes were hot coals in the middle of my blotchy crying face. The burning sun beat down on our heads and lit up her beautiful white coat all stained and besmirched and they lugged her up into the truck and hauled her away for, I don’t know what, maybe mink-food or something, and I had never felt so bad in so many ways as I did that day. I began to feel kind of, I don’t know, haunted by animal deaths. I had a favorite barn-cat, pure white with a stub tail like a bob-cat, a local Manx strain we inherited with the barn, who would jump on my shoulders from the barn posts. She’d lightly leap and then wrap herself around me like a furry, purring white shawl and stay there, just hanging out and singing in my ear while I milked. These were warm and fuzzy moments that I cherished. But then one day she got kicked by a cow, running too close behind one who just stuck her leg out instinctively, and the cat crept away into the crawl space where she lived and then she died, I pulled her out all stiff the next morning. We had the worst luck with cats in that barn, they’d cuddle up next to a cow who would shift during the night and the cat would wake up dead, as the saying goes, literally flattened like in a cartoon, or they’d get in the way of the tractor tires or chewed up by the jaws of the hay-bine. The last cat, a soft shining pretty silver thing, had this weird hacking lung condition and I even brought her into the house to live to see if that would help but she didn’t particularly understand the house, and one day she disappeared and never returned. We had a dog for a while, one we thought was perfectly nice, but he chased the neighbor’s cows, viciously grabbing onto their noses and pulling, and we couldn’t control him so we had to put him down via the local vet, or he’d have gotten shot by an irate farmer. And then my husband cut his arm badly while butchering a chicken so I had to do all the haying; me with a tiny baby But that’s enough for now. You get the picture. It just wasn’t working out. Farming and me, well, something was happening that was bigger than the both of us. Or something wasn’t happening. Eventually I ended up as an artist in Brooklyn, what else? I remember the cows with fondness, and I think about them sometimes, like when I see boys-cows with udders and get all annoyed and disgusted with we Americans and our ignorance about the way things work. Or don’t work. I’ll always be grateful to Violet and Clarabelle and Mary and Curly and all the rest, I thank them in my heart for what they gave me, for their sacrifices, their big-heartedness, patience and humor, and I hope they had good rest-of-their-lives and okay deaths. Which is what I feel about anyone I’ve broken up with, human or otherwise, at least ultimately I wish that for them, since most of the guys I went with are probably still around somewhere. Anyway, for the record, I really meant all those sweet nothings I whispered in their ears. But like people sometimes say about breakups: in spite of our best efforts, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

© Jeanne Wilkinson

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