Walking with A Niece (Part II)
Onward, we hiked, somewhat following a deer trail; I led. Having Therese along with kept me from taking too many photos, but I did pause to take a couple, here and there – I just can’t help it. There are so many interesting patterns, textures, trees and rocks, I want to capture it all. Ducking under a boxelder tree, its upper trunk is more horizontal than vertical. Pushing past clawing buckthorn. Trying to avoid my hat being stolen by grabby, low lying branches. Sometimes taking a few or several steps to either right or left to find the least challenging path. Being mindful of not getting poked in the eye and yet also marveling in the beauty around us. We chatted as we walked. We crossed a washout, walking to our right, further up the slope before doing so, to cross where it was narrowest.
“ These washouts and ravines can be treacherous when it’s wet, especially in the spring. In May, I was across the highway, exploring the woods over there. I had crossed and climbed up a deep ravine. On the way back, I almost slipped and fell and could have gotten hurt. And I doubt I had cell phone reception, no one knew exactly where I was, just the general area. And yet, I found it a bit thrilling.” I paused to take in the brilliantly white clump of paper birch and a chunk of limestone just hanging out in the open. I love these exposed rock formations. Therese shared with me that there’s a spot in my Mom’s woods (her grandma) that she really loves. I agreed that was a pretty neat spot but that Mom’s woods just don’t have the scale of ours nor the exposed rock formations. We looked across the large ravine below, to the other hillside. We stopped our progress again, I couldn’t resist photographing a woodpecker’s hole in a tree.
Therese said, “Oh, I guess this is where the dead cows are brought.” We had stumbled upon the old cow graveyard.
“Yeah, but not anymore. Now Jesse composts them by the manure pit.” I dropped to my knees to photograph a skull. “Grandma [mom] says what makes my photography so great is I see things as beautiful and interesting and therefore photograph them when most people wouldn’t.”
“I’m sure most people would think the cow skulls creepy and gross but I find them fascinating.”
The sunlight illuminated this skull perfectly, I had to take advantage of it. I stood up and shifted position to get a different angle and closer shot. Bones sprinkled the area. I walked a few steps to my right and knelt down to photograph a long bone, probably part of a leg. “I like to photograph things with a different perspective so it’s hard to tell what it actually is,” as I spoke, I took an up close shot of the bone, so the photo could be of a stone, with the ridges and grooves. Next, I approached an upside down skull, teeth facing up to the sky.
Therese commented, “Their teeth are so different from ours, but they have to be because of what they eat.” Large and flat, for grinding instead of tearing.
“I always thought cow teeth were fascinating. When I was a kid, I would keep a few that I found in a box, along with feathers, rocks, a block of wood, and snake skin.” We’d continued walking.
“Like a treasure box?” Therese asked.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t always the same box.” A few feet ahead, we arrived at another washout, deeper and wider. This one wasn’t as simple as stepping across. It was a challenge to cross without slipping and sliding. I picked up a long sturdy stick to help stabilize my footing in the soft, crumbly dirt as I took a few steps down into it, a step in the middle and then a leap of sorts up the other side. (Perhaps only four feet or so wide.) Therese followed behind. I kept the stick as a walking stick, enjoying the way it felt in my hand, and providing a task for my hand, also momentum. We paused to take in another rock formation – the layers clearly visible, the pages of an ancient history book. We pointed out unique trees, individuals with character. We would halt and linger, just to soak it in, feel it course through us. – Peace and refreshment. I really need to figure out ways to spend more time in the woods even around a crazy, insane farm schedule, I always feel better, safer, at peace in the woods. And it would be good for Therese to come on more frequent walks with me. If only we didn’t have to rush back to milk cows. (It seems like over the past month my life has become just a countdown to the next milking, but we will get through this difficult time.) Rocks, uneven ridges stick up out of the ground, like spikes on the back of a sleeping dragon, completely covered in green moss. The trees in here are younger, tall and skinny. I believe this area had been logged – we’re not far from the man-made trail.
“It doesn’t seem like this is a huge bluff until you go down into the ravine in this area and then climb back up. It is much bigger than you’d think. The problem with going downhill is you have to come up again and that’s a workout,” I said.
“We could go down and explore the ravine but then we’d have to walk back up the hill.”
Neither one of us were too excited about walking back up the bluff. Our somewhat meandering walk took us downhill a little but not very far. We were getting close to the highway, our silence dissipating as we came nearer to it. I pointed out the man-made trail to Therese, and the gate at its head. But we weren’t heading that direction just yet. Down the slope many feet from it, two rock platforms rested. We each sat upon one, halting to take in the woods. I thought we just might pull out our journals or sketchbooks, but we didn’t. We talked, at least half of which was strictly between confidants, family stuff, some processing. I still had the stick in my hand and dug in the dirt a little with it. Then I picked up an acorn and rolled it around in my other hand, torn between just sitting and chatting or either writing or sketching. Just sitting felt too good for me to feel motivated enough to slip my backpack off my shoulders and open it, let alone to write or sketch – plus Therese and I don’t very often have much time to chat.
I commented, “I feel like I should be writing or sketching, but I’m not feeling inspired enough – I mean, just sitting here feels too good.”
“Yeah, and I’m not sure how to describe this to capture it,” she replied.
Yes indeed, that is the challenge. Oak leaves and acorns littered the ground around our limestone seats. We were close to the highway now, so every few moments a car would go by, intruding on our silence – the only drawback to this part of the woods. Trees of various species march down the hill in no discernable formation. Funny thing, I would have been equally content there by myself as with Therese, I thrive on alone time with my tree friends. Of which, I haven’t had enough of this year. I need a whole day of no obligations, more than once a month (at least) to spend as much time in the woods as I want; field guides, journal, sketchbook, and camera to make the most of the opportunity and to learn. I am famished for learning as much about the natural world I live in as possible and then sharing that knowledge with anyone willing to listen. I desire to know everything there is to know about the inner workings of the forest on this bluffside, down to the tiniest microorganism and its relationship to the fungi, and the trees. How was it formed? How old is it? What sort of relationships are occurring unseen around me to form this ecosystem that has us awestruck? How do I go about learning these things? Where do I begin? I suppose a good beginning would be by reading every textbook on my shelf: biology, geology, and chemistry, and then narrow it down: ecology and botany and then a little more again. Now how do I set aside time to do so, around working on two farms, trying to keep up with writing and exercising, photography, family and friend time, household chores, and some down time? With deliberateness, I suppose.
With the deadline of milking cows and needing to eat before that, we reluctantly got up and resumed our walk. We climbed back up the slope a few yards to the man-made trail. “I find this dead tree fascinating; I have photographed it many times,” I commented as we bypassed the fallen tree in the middle of the path. Before the trail began to wind around the hill curving to the east, we departed it, going west and downhill.
“You have to see just how big that ravine becomes.” Minus the traffic noise from passing vehicles, I love this spot. Among young maple trees is a random stately eastern white pine tree. There’s a rocky outcropping below us, with a grand view of the ravine, we head for it. Standing on the overlook, my heart soars, I feel like I should be bursting into song, dramatic, profound, uplifting song. Therese was impressed, wonderstruck by the depth of the ravine and the height of the bluffs.
“We could actually just amble up the ravine, it would be a slightly more gradual climb back to the top of the hill. But not today,” I said. It would be adventurous, requiring some ambling over rocks.
We lingered there for a few moments. Then we tramped back up the slope; I was out of breath – I needed to get into shape I think. I didn’t notice if Therese was winded or not. My walking stick was quite helpful in the ascent.
We gained the trail and followed it around the end of the bluff, and walked into a maple forest, with a few oaks here and there. “The leaves are so thick in here, I’ve contemplated going barefoot.”
“Okay,” Therese said doubtfully.
She delighted in this tiny lane through the maples and was awed by the steep bluffside below us, nearly vertical. Another ravine, long ago, tore through the path making a good stopping and turning around point. Although we had no desire to leave the woods, it was time to start making our way back.
The trail took us to a gate. I left my walking stick in the woods and climbed over the gate. Therese, doubtful of the integrity of the gate, crawled under a high spot in the fence. We’d come into the pasture. With less distractions and easier footing, and no obstacles, we made better time traveling the pasture. However, unwilling to head back in just yet, we paused and sat down on a log and chatted some more. But we were rapidly running out of time to eat lunch before heading to the barn, so after several minutes on the log, we continued our trek. Climbing up the hill to the four wheeler. Situating ourselves on it. Turned around and headed back through the pasture. Stopping long enough for Therese to dismount to open and close gates. The cows were a little less interested in us. Then we took the gravel road back to the house, sadly ending the day’s woodland adventure.
The Life of this Dairy Farmer
Jan 2, 2021:
Thanksgiving day (11-26-2020). A knock followed by the voice of my father in-law sounded on the bedroom door – perhaps the worst thing while sharing a dwelling on the family dairy farm. Jesse had gone out to milk with his mom, Karin, a while ago. Lars at my door, waking me up, can only mean something bad has happened. As I came out of sleep, I comprehended what he was saying, “Karin is in the hospital with an infection [staph] and will be staying for at least a couple of days while the doctors try to get it under control.” And with those words Thanksgiving, which wasn’t going to be much anyway with COVID restrictions, was ruined. – It had already been ruined for the other three by this point. – It was 5:30 am. Sadly it was also one of the few mornings that I had fallen soundly back to sleep after Jesse got up. Regrettably my emotional response was quite selfish. I thought I’d be able to sleep in and then begin leisurely preparing food for the meal the four of us were to share, with time to go for a walk and perhaps read or even better, write; those plans have been altered and I must admit one of my biggest faults is being extremely cranky when my plans are ruined. Again, regrettably quite selfish – trying to grow up and be less selfish is ongoing with great strides forward only to have something set me back further than the progress made.
I believe a little background explanation of the situation with my still fairly new husband and his parents, and the farm is needed to understand my feelings and the utter disappointment to find out I have to milk cows when I thought I would have it off. Jesse and I married on July 21, 2019. In January 2018, a few months before he proposed, and after dating for seven and a half years, we joined his parents for a family meeting with a professional psychologist who worked with families trying to farm together (adult children farming with their parents in the idea of taking over the farm when the parents retire; an incredibly stressful and challenging thing to do given that the two generations have different ideas/directions for the farm.) to talk about the future and what Jesse and I wanted to do. Jesse and his parents were uncertain about my fitting into it given that I work for my mom on her farm and am quite loyal to her. Karin perhaps was hoping I would just take over for her so she could retire (and perhaps part of Lars was thinking the same thing to a degree). Jesse went back and forth on whether or not he wanted the two of us farming together; his biggest concern was money – he thought I could milk full time for them and make more money than working for my mom. I wanted to continue working for Mom, but perhaps scale back a bit and do some milkings to help out my new family as well. However, milking isn’t my thing, and especially not the way their set up is: a tie stall, where there’s a lot of up and down or bracing myself against a cow hoping she doesn’t knock me over or kick me. (Also their cows are huge compared to the ones I am used to at my mom’s and milking takes a lot longer.) So I told all present I would be more than willing to help with a few milkings a week as long as we had a parlor. (Side note: all four of them thought I was crazy thinking I could work on both farms – they were probably right to an extent.) Jesse also wanted a parlor, which would mean no more bending over/kneeling or squatting down to milk so there wouldn’t be as much wear and tear on the body, it would be safer without going in between cows since they would be milked from behind and below with a strip of metal to protect you from being kicked, the speed is incredibly faster and the cows would no longer spend most of their lives tied up in a barn but on pasture and in a barn where they can move about freely. So Lars and Jesse embarked upon a journey of research and visiting numerous parlors, most of which were built into existing tie stall or stanchion barns. But it wasn’t until June 2020, when Lars and Karin finally agreed to putting in a parlor. Inexperience, hesitation, finding the right contractors for the job and COVID restrictions further pushed the project back, added to the decision (perhaps for manure code reasons and satisfying the permit guy in that regard) to build a bedded pack barn before the parlor meant that though the parlor should have been and needed to be built in the autumn of 2020 it was not. The need for it being the increased herd size; we’d been milking 104 cows in an eighty stall barn which meant having to switch cows in and out costing a lot of time, and the numbers were continuing to grow, especially since there weren’t just cows to freshen (calve) but also lots of heifers too over the course of the autumn, winter, and spring. The other thing was Karin was scheduled to have surgery on her hand in December and it was just her, Jesse and I doing all the milkings which required(s) two people, which given how long each milking took wasn’t enough to get the job done without wearing ourselves out too much. We desperately needed the parlor completed before Karin’s surgery. However, with all the delays, the ground to prepare the site for the bedded pack barn wasn’t even broken until late autumn and wasn’t finished before winter set in pushing the project to spring. So, I was frustrated and sad the whole autumn with this going on and wishing they had gotten the ball rolling sooner on the project and had even tried getting Lars to ask if we could put the parlor in first and build the barn in the spring, to no avail. This doesn’t justify my selfish feelings on Thanksgiving Day but it helps at least set the scene.
The usual terrible human emotions that go along with such things welled up inside of me, reeling out of control – annoyance, frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, worry, fear, and of course, self pity. Beyond my own struggle with the unhappy turn of events, I was concerned about how Jesse was handling it. I rushed to the barn, arriving about ten minutes after that fateful knock. Overly dramatic? Perhaps but even so my world has been turned upside down because of it. (If you think I am being dramatic, consider: I went from putting in somewhere between twenty six and thirty nine hours of milking in about two – two and a half weeks time to just shy of fifty hours in a week and a half between Nov. 16th and 28th, and then in the following ten days fifty four hours. Doesn’t sound too bad right? Well at the same time I was also working on Mom’s farm. – Now I am not boasting or looking for pity but just wanting to explain. Also, milking cows in our tie stall barn is like doing three hours of hardcore workout without a rest. In addition, Thanksgiving marks the start of the down season. Instead of working sixty – seventy five hours a week it should be more like thirty five to forty five, providing time to rest up for the next growing season and to write (continue work on my book). (In fact, I had planned to push myself to write a lot over the weekend and go to the woods everyday, which was completely dashed. I had also planned to do a lot of writing for the next three weeks before Karin’s surgery.)
Jesse was pretty upset too. And poor Lars was very concerned. I cried a few times throughout milking and internally cried out to God – why did this have to happen? Why couldn’t the pieces have come together such that the parlor and barn could have been built by now making milking a whole lot easier? I cried when I texted my mom and siblings later. I cried when I made the food (minus the turkey) for our Thanksgiving meal – finding myself in not a thanks giving mood but rather one of self pity. The uncertainty of it all was a smothering cloud wrapped about us. Two days later, when Karin had to have surgery to prevent the infection from reaching the bone which would have resulted in losing her finger, I was in an even sorrier shape – just a complete mess.
She came home the following Monday but what had started as a couple of days turned into a week, which then turned into five weeks thus far. (And the original surgery that was to take place on December 18th had to be postponed – she had to be six months without infection for the surgery to happen.) She had another weekend stay at the hospital in the middle of December with an allergic reaction to antibiotics for a fungal infection on top of the staph, which added nearly an additional month to her being able to come back to the barn. – She has a pic line in so being in the barn is dangerous for her right now. The past five weeks have been just one unending milking and a time of barely holding it together. Random tears still make an appearance unbidden. Jesse, Lars and I have been living in survivor mode. Thankfully, we received help almost immediately. Beyond milking cows, Karin was also feeding calves, the two combined was a bit more than a full time job – a challenge for us other three to even jointly take over (Jesse was already helping with nearly every milking and I helped with about four a week) because we each already had/have more than full time work. (We were also, with Karin’s help, sorely in need of another person milking about five times a week as it was.) Two of our friends, married to each other, helped milk a couple of times. A cousin feeds the calves now. My nephew is helping milk while home for winter break. And a high schooler from our church is helping until mid January.
In this struggle though, the cows that I had viewed as Jesse and Lars’ have now become mine. As help has come, I have worried about the cows if I am not the one milking them. A couple of nights, I have lain awake worrying if whoever is milking in the morning would take care of the cows with special needs – plugs, quarter milkers, manual. I find myself reassuring a cow who’s not feeling too hot, calling her dear, honey or sweetheart and gently stroking her hide. I have enjoyed some of the most glorious sunrises and sunsets I may have missed if I hadn’t been in the barn. Taken in the beauty of the frosty mornings in the waking sun. Jesse and I have had a chance to work together under extreme pressure, while we’re not at our best emotionally and survived, and without harming each other. We’ve had to struggle with whether or not we really want to keep milking cows – reassuring ourselves and each other the parlor will be built in the spring and after we and the cows are settled into the new system, milking will become much easier.
Dairy farming, with a small dairy farm, is not for the faint of heart and it doesn’t recognize holidays, weekends, overtime, and well laid plans. Things go wrong often: much relied upon and needed equipment (with no backup options) break down, calves die, cows get sick (struggle with calving, die), the animals escape their fences, etc. – I stood helplessly and hopelessly watching Jesse struggle against a cow in labor, arm buried inside of her, trying vainly to untwist the crooked calf, with hope of saving the calf and cow waning with every pressing moment. The one thing I could help with was running to the house to get his phone and run back with it so he could call the vet. And this at the end of evening milking on Christmas day. (I don’t mean to complain or whine about our circumstances or belittle the difficulties of other people. And some people would and have asked, if it is so very bad why not sell the cows and find another job? Selling the cows is like totally changing careers but is even more than that – people who dairy farm, particularly in this manner (keeping it small and in the family so the owners are actively involved) seem to have it coded in their DNA – giving up the cows would be giving up a part of ourselves.) A cow down with milk fever on Christmas eve. Three cows battling toxic mastitis and several more with less harmful strains. Frustrated that we have to work in this system – this isn’t exactly cow friendly. But we’ve come together as husband and wife to take care of our cows.
Back to the cows that have special needs: a plug, quarter milker, manual, (or are just mean) for those cows we write that need on a yellow piece of tape and stick it on the vacuum line above them. I was concerned that people milking without me there wouldn’t know which cows were mean. So I thought maybe the mean ones needed tape too with a note, but there are degrees of meanness. Some cows are mainly just dancing around, and although it’s annoying they won’t kick you. Some lift their legs and even swing but aren’t aiming for you, so that if you’re mindful of it you can avoid their hooves. A small handful though will take aim and strike out at and collide with you. It is important to know the difference, it helps in avoiding getting hurt and being overly nervous or scared; she responds best to gentle confidence. There are also different types of kicks: one cow pedals, we call her bicycle cow. A number of them will do short, rapid, close kicks (I like to call them soccer kicks, which are hard to avoid especially since they’re often done by short or low uddered cows, and usually connect with your hands and arms – mostly irritating more than anything else but still painful). Perhaps worse of all in terms of force and therefore pain, the fast, hard, rapid swing, the full out strike; these are the dangerous kicks, they have the ability to inflict incredible injury, possibly break a bone. (It often takes weeks for the point of contact on my leg to fully heal so it is no longer painful and tender to the touch. – and some of them left me nearly limping for a couple weeks.) Now, if you know the cow is likely to kick in a certain manner, you can attempt to avoid being hit by standing up to milk her, trying to stay out of reach of that leg but still have a hand on her back, scratching her. The problem with that is you may not be able to stand out of reach and now that you’re further away if she does strike out aiming for you, the distance will give her more force thus hitting you harder and causing more damage. Jesse says it’s best to be as close to the cow as possible (your whole body) so that there won’t be much force behind the kick, and basically just take the hit. However, I struggle with getting close to a cow that I know is likely to kick. I’m not sure I am actually a good milker because I am scared of cows. Rule number one is don’t be afraid, that being said though, you must be aware of their size and ability to kill you and respect them – they aren’t pets; the most dangerous bovines are the ones people treated as pets. If you’re afraid, they are afraid, which means they get antsy or defensive. To write a warning though for these cows really wouldn’t work so well because I feel like I would have to write a detailed description of the way in which the cow kicks. The other thing is, some cows are choosy about who they want milking them – just because that particular cow kicks me, doesn’t mean she’ll kick you or anybody else besides me. But some cows are mean to everyone.
The other “rule”, as it were, to milking cows is know the cows. Each has her own personality (though some are bland, or not very noteworthy – like some people), knowing who you are milking and her personality will aid you in being a better milker – it’s good for you and the cow. If you know she is a nervous cow, give her plenty of warning you’re there, make sure she sees, hears, and feels you, and don’t make any sudden movements. Talk lovingly and sweet to her. Being aware of who the cow is and her personality can save both of you. The best thing for mean (or nervous) cows is having a second person there, scratching the base of their tail – this helps calm them down.
A cow named Fun seems to just enjoy life – eat, dance, and be merry. If she isn’t eating she wants you to stroke her forehead or cheek. She dances while you’re milking her but she won’t harm you. Now, 418, she is a crazy cow, either she’s trying to kill you or she won’t take any notice of you at all; she kicks, headbutts and even bites the other cows. 530 is gentle and calm; she just wants to eat and be milked. Fudge is a brown swiss holstein cross so she can be cantankerous at times but mostly just fussy – she will take whatever stall she pleases, whether or not it was already occupied, and she will make it challenging to put the milker on her but only sometimes actually strike out at you. Nadine is a beauty, another brown swiss, and is terrified of everything. She does more than dance, most of the time she will swing her entire backend around, all the way over to one side and then back again and keep going back and forth until you manage to get the milker on her. 373 may or may not hurt you, that depends on you and how you put the milker on; don’t squawk it and don’t be slow – she will stomp her foot though just as you’re about done putting the milker on, so be ready lest it falls off. 12 is patient, calm and kind; she only lifts a hoof to let you know her teat hurts but won’t strike. 310 is gentle and doesn’t pay you much mind…and so it goes, as I said, each with her own personality.
These cows are dear to me, even the mean ones. It is hard to see them sick with mastitis, pneumonia, milk fever, etc., or uncomfortable because of a stomach ache (generally a twisted stomach). I care about them; Jesse cares about them- their health, comfort, cleanliness, and quality of life. And not because they are the source of our income and milk, but because they are living beings.
It is interesting that of all my siblings, I am the one who is a dairy farmer. I guess you could understand why if you read my blog ‘Raised in a Barn’. A couple of years ago, Mom’s cows were all dried off at once, so we had two months without milking and it was great, there wasn’t the daily “drop what I am doing” to milk cows. However, when those two months were up and I was squatting down between them, I felt this is what my life had been missing – it is just a part of who I am and I can’t change it. I love and hate milking cows; life would be easier if it was one or the other. I know dairy farming is time demanding and challenging but it shouldn’t be this bad and won’t be this bad forever – just have to get through. ( I desire to milk half as many times for half as much time.
It’s the way of life. Very busy and crazy at times and yet quieter and more peaceful than other jobs. I enjoy the communion with the animals. The rhythm and flow of the prepping and milking process: dip twice, massage into the teat, strip the teat to squirt the milk, three squirts will do unless there is mastitis or a blood clot, dip again, wipe with a towel, hold the milker claw with one hand, with the other carefully slide the inflation onto each teat. The comforting, steady pulsating and wishing of attached milkers. We take care of the cows and they take care of us. Being able to work with family, especially my husband and nephew. Having to be more in tune with nature’s rhythms. Putting your needs and wants aside to meet those of the cows’ first. Watching the successful delivery of a new calf. Observing contented cows grazing in their new pasture. Pouring milk on your cereal that came from across the yard by your own efforts, you personally know the cow nourishing you. Teaching others in the local community how to work and care for other creatures. It is hard physical and spiritual work, back breaking, knee injuring, sometimes spirit crushing work that is also rewarding. And the decision to sell a cow is never an easy one; you always want to give her another chance. But sometimes, actually almost always, it is better for her to send her away. We are filled with sadness, even when it is an infamously mean cow, because that is another life, a sacred thing. Our cows are far more to us than mere means to an end, they are fellow beings, comrades even. (I don’t know why, but I often refer to the cows as people when I address them.) We have a mutually beneficial relationship. I believe dairy farming, small family owned and operated, is one of the truest forms of farming. Animal farming completes the nutrient/energy cycle. The best farming is dairy, with a garden, chickens and pigs. (We don’t have a garden yet but we do have an orchard – it’s easier to get food from Mom’s gardens right now.) It’s a sticky truth but society (civilization) needs farming; without it we wouldn’t have the means for culture.
Postscript: The construction of the bedded pack barn began in late April, three weeks later than promised, and due to continuous revisions to the manure system and the delay in installation of gates wasn’t completed and ready to use until mid-September. Starting in May, with the coming of each month, we thought for sure this would be the month the parlor is built. And with the final day of each month, still no parlor, we were completely crushed. The contractor told us he would for sure get to it in December, so we thought ok, we just have to make it through until then. Karin came back to milk in late February and a young woman milked five times a week for us, so although it was far from great, at least we had some help and Jesse and I were able to have a few Saturday nights off together. However, this ended when the woman was offered another job; we knew we had been lucky just to have her for a few months but it was still a loss. (A cousin had started doing some morning milkings in August but was absent in the fall for harvest and then sick with covid at the end of November.) Jesse and I have felt like we aren’t really living, just merely observing other people living, from a distance. On November 28th, when we thought Lars would be telling us they’d put in the parlor next week, he said it was put off until March. Jesse said, “It is like we’re inmates in a prison and our release date has come. We’ve just been handed our belongings, standing in front of the gate, waiting for it to open and just before it does, an officer rushes out and tells us another four months has been tacked onto our sentence.” We’re dangling from a cliff, losing our grip, down to a fingernail holding on, and just when we think we will be rescued, the would be rescuer turns away. Karin had surgery on her finger in December. Thankfully, my nephew came and helped out with a few milkings while home for winter break, otherwise we were totally on our own. A gal has been coming to milk Sunday nights, which is amazing. And the cousin is back to about four milkings a week. Which we are incredibly grateful for, however, it isn’t enough, and we’re still barely holding on. Hopefully, the parlor will be built in March and we won’t be disappointed yet again.
But March has come and gone and not even the demolition for the parlor has been undertaken. The only task toward the construction of it is that the pipeline was moved on Tuesday in preparation for demolition. (I promise the next few posts will be more fun and back to nature; these past two are more or less to explain my long absence.)
An Escape to the Woods
November 7, 2020
Wow, it’s been awhile since I have written anything in my journal or otherwise. Crazy might be the best word to describe the past eight months! Unlike most people, aside from March – May, the COIVD-19 virus shutdowns and restrictions had very little to do with it. However, March and April were much more chaotic than usual due to the pandemic; food scarcity was actually a blessing for us with a vegetable farm. Our hoop houses were full with beautiful produce and people in desperate need for food with no access to it meant we were extremely busy harvesting, washing, packaging and delivering vegetables (what made it really crazy was packing for pre-orders because we had never done it before and had to work out an efficient system.) It was the most profitable time ever for our business but we’d put in sixteen hour days to accomplish it. In addition, I was working part-time milking cows on Jesse’s, my husband’s family farm as well and trying to work on my book (a never-ending project).
As we rolled into May, a woman, Isaiah’s girlfriend (who was more like a sister to me than just a friend – the whole family loved her) brought her two daughters to Minnesota and was planning to marry Isaiah in August but left before June and never came back and cut all ties with us – breaking all our hearts. Also in May, I switched from helping run our stall at the Rochester Farmers market to Mill City Farmers market which makes for a longer day but has been easier on my social anxiety. In June, while my heart was still trying to mend, a dear aunt of Jesse’s died. (There was also the riots in Minneapolis which affected us since we know a lot of people from there and we do business there.) We spent the summer trying to catch up on the gardens and greenhouses but never got there until the close of the season.
August brought another blow to my heart (our hearts) Grandma Benike died suddenly; which hit me harder than I thought possible (more on that in a later entry). Faith, my niece (Jonathan’s daughter; my brother who lives on the farm with Mom and Isaiah, working there around his full-time job) was returned to us after her mother kept her away for roughly fourteen months, only to be ripped away again. (Custody of Faith was finally granted to Jonathan, first in December 2020 on an emergency basis and then permanently last autumn. – Faith is the family sunshine; she puts a glow in all of us; we were all devastated with her absence and worried about her safety and well being.)
September was a race to get things done: harvesting fall crops out of the garden before the first freeze, while at the same time getting greenhouses planted for winter. I slipped in a visit to Thelma in September (and October), my surrogate Grandma. I had the task of securing a combine ride for my nephew Leo, wanting to be an awesome aunt (combines are his favorite thing) but botching it when I didn’t get a photo of him with the combine. Mom and Isaiah also had a fourth greenhouse constructed. And yet another emotional blow, we were told Grandpa was dying (I visited him a few times in October and Mom and I picked the rest of his apples despite our crazy schedule). – I was struggling with his looming death, especially so soon after losing Grandma.
Life was in turmoil at Jesse’s farm too (I guess it’s my home too – still wrapping my head around that). There was a promise of a new milk system but hadn’t happened yet because of high lumber prices, apparently, and so many hoops to jump through for the permitting. Jesse’s mom, Karin will have surgery in December and yet I can’t replace her but somehow will have to do just that. Although the election doesn’t affect me too much (at least emotionally or what have you), it added more stress and strain to relationships I think – well it mattered more to other people and I didn’t like seeing them so divided. I also have been trying to schedule a hayride with Aleesha’s (my sister) family since we haven’t had a chance for them to come hangout as a whole family at my new home. (I have been trying to be a beekeeper, writer and photographer on top of all that – oh and a wife! I am a woman of too many passions I suppose. – I want to draw too and of course read more. At least I discovered audiobooks on my Ipod through the library (I am technologically impaired), which has been a Godsend; it has helped me through really long, busy, sad days. I’ve really been getting into Steinbeck – introspective – hope I can write at that level, with the philosophy: “Nearly everyone has had a box of secret pain, shared with no one…” – this just fits too perfectly. Pain is a good word to describe May 30th through the present. I wonder how I can handle any more pain this year, beg and cry out to God to let Grandpa stay here longer, another year or more and to recover his good health.) The last eight months in a nutshell.
Today was my first Saturday off since the middle of April – a gift from Mom (and Jesse since he didn’t ask me to milk tonight) and a much needed break. I thought I’d have the day to myself but spent an hour and a half with Jesse late into the morning (we didn’t eat breakfast until 10:00 am) and I helped him for an hour outside, opening and closing gates and hooking up and unhooking wagons while he fed cows.
At 3:00 pm, I headed out for a walk, exploring the woods, armed with a camera, water bottle, journal, and sketch pad. I wasn’t sure if I was going to take my bicycle, the four wheeler or walk to the woods. While I was deciding, I became sidetracked by Jesse greasing the manure spreader and hooking it up – I like to watch him at work. (Watching anyone perform a task they are especially good at so it’s like an artform, is one of my favorite things.) It’s a twenty minute walk to the woods so I wasn’t keen on walking, preferring to spend more time in the woods. Jesse said we had only the one four wheeler right now, so I went in search of my bicycle. Karin had moved it; I found it in the lean-to on the old barn. Tires were low. Fortuitously, Lars was putting air in the grain drill tires. I asked him if he’d do my bicycle tires too. And while I had his attention, asked if he’d drive the tractor for a hayride tomorrow. He said yes to driving. With full tires, I set off on my bicycle. As I pedaled beyond the protection of the buildings, I was nearly blown over by the gusting wind. But undeterred, I cycled up the driveway to the other farmstead, and down the lane to the pasture. The gate was closed though cows are nowhere near this pasture – rule of the farm, close every gate you open just to be on the safe side. Bicycling along the eastern top edge of the hill, traveling uphill, was quite the workout – long time out of practice.
Leaving my bicycle behind, I walked down the hill towards the woods, snapping photos along the way – just in time for the golden hour. I ducked under the fence where it was high, at the mouth of the ravine. Pausing ever so briefly to take more photos. I feel like a kid – although, anxiety aside, I rarely feel thirty one. A light feeling sweeps over me, a great weight lifted; entering the woods always feels this way. (The day was warm, seventy degrees Fahrenheit, sunny, the breeze kept it from feeling hot.) Inspired, I desire to explore, play, draw, write, photograph. I walk a few steps and halt, fascinated by a large, fallen tree. I sit down and begin to write.
After awhile, the sun fades and is gone, I will have to chase it by going higher up and further in. I am mindful of hunters – the one blot of exploring the woods at this time, I am sad to share them. I haven’t been to the woods since May, so I desperately needed it. – The best medicine for my tired, sad soul and my mental health, and spiritual health too. This is where I belong – creativity and childlike wonder and abandon can flow. Thought I’d draw but I think it is too late now – hopefully in a couple of weeks I’ll come back. Trees creak in the wind. Leaves rustle, retained only by oaks. Getting cold now that the sun has moved on, I set my pencil down to chase the last bit of it before I must head back to beat the dark.
I had sat too long writing, the golden light for good photography had gone. But it was only 4:40pm so I walked through the woods, pushing back tree branches and ducking under others, trying not to get caught on buckthorn. With the fading light, I took less photos than I otherwise would have. I find what I think is a dried up oyster mushroom on the boxelder tree I like to use to get over the fence. I yank it free and immediately smell it; and then put it in my pocket to take home and if I remember, to show Mom. I continue on, stepping over branches, sticks, and stones. Hear a few gun shots. Constant background noise of the neighbor’s corn dryer. The ground is blanketed in gold and brown leaves. My footfalls are obscenely loud. I approach the old stone foundation and can’t resist taking some photos. (I watched the golden sun rays shrink away, retreat northward, and then fade away while I sat.) I ran a hand along the stone before I walked away; surprisingly it was quite warm. Again, I think about how it would make a perfect childhood fort.
I walk onward, touching a few trees here and there, ducking, crouching, and stepping over forest debris. I somewhat follow a deer trail, sometimes a very definite trail and at other times it is less obvious. I zig-zag through the trees, searching for the easiest path. The soft uneven ground turns my ankle and my feet have been slipping around inside my shoes, creating sore feet. I also bruised my shin trying to climb up on the log earlier. I cross the first ravine at its narrowest point, the second one is a bit trickier. It strikes me as odd that I haven’t heard any bird sounds. Leaves on the ground, several feet away, rustle, either a passing squirrel or deer. Strange how animals of vastly different size make about the same amount of noise. I pause briefly by the big limestone rocks – I just love them. Along the top of the hill is the fence and soon I am near the gate, which had been my destination and yet I am not ready to quit walking; I just started. Why hadn’t I come out sooner? Well, I’ll go a little further. I step onto the man made trail – follow the yellow leaf road. I imagine it had been carpeted for me: a nice, soft, plush layer of golden brown maple and oak leaves – such a delight to walk on, very noisy though. I have a burning desire to walk barefoot, but don’t. Down and around the hill I mosey, wishing the sun wasn’t disappearing so I could keep walking. I amble along the side of the hill, marveling at the graceful, slender maple trees. (I should take off my shoes and socks and walk barefoot in the leaves, really feel a part of it, but again, I don’t.)
Now that I was walking in the woods I really wanted to keep walking. However, I don’t want to get caught out in the dark, so I stop and turn back at the gaping ravine that puts an abrupt end to the path. On the way back, I walk more quickly. I follow the trail all the way up to the gate, climb up and over. Down on the other side I walk through the pasture, up the slope and along the top, following the fence line, unable to resist taking a few more photos, as I return to my bicycle. I didn’t realize the easy bicycling was over, almost entirely downhill on the way out, meant that bicycling back would be challenging. I don’t get very far before I pause above the pond to photograph the sunset. But now I have to give it all I’ve got to get up the hillside.
I pause again, and then with considerable effort keep going up and around the pasture hill, and then a short, gradual decline to the gate, I am careful not to wipe out on the deep tractor ruts on the hillside. Since I have to stop to open the gate to get through and close it again, I take a few more photos. I throw my leg back over the bicycle and stand to pedal up the long incline of the field/pasture driveway, proud of myself I don’t have to get off to walk my bicycle up the slope. Finally, I pull up on to the main driveway, connecting the two farmsteads to the highway. I thought it’d be easier going being gravel instead of dirt and grass, not so. I groan inwardly when I remember the gravel road has a slope too, yet another long challenging incline – just half a mile away now. I struggle up this slope too, standing to have more leverage. Around the group of maple trees by the bend in the road and soon I am finally going downhill again. It is almost dark when I cycle between the shed and dairy barn to the old bank barn near the house, on which the lean-to was built where I’d found my bicycle. I struggle to get it back in but manage the task.
I lay down in the grass under the yard light, across the driveway from the barn, worn out. It may be the last time this year to lay in the grass, so I linger. That was a good exercise – I need to ride my bicycle more often. Unfortunately, I may not get another opportunity with winter fast approaching and the uncertain weather of November; and it may very well be Thanksgiving weekend before I have another chance. My backside is sore but surprisingly my legs are not. I long to have more free time to exercise and to write.