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.
December 12, 2020
Last Friday night, Therese came over to spend the night, staying until after evening milking on Saturday. She had come to help milk; her presence casting a warm glow on a gloomy situation. Between milkings on Saturday though, we went to walk in the woods. To provide more time in the woods, we decided to drive the four wheeler as far as the woodland edge. Thus our adventure began with the four wheeler. I remarked, “I hope it has enough gas.” We climbed aboard. I turned the key while holding the break, it fired to life. “Well, the gas is low, just one square left but I think we have enough. At least I have my phone with me in case we need rescuing.” I spun the four wheeler around and followed the gravel drive between the end of the barn and shed, and round the corner of the shed. I looked again at the gas gauge, all of a sudden even the last square was empty. I informed Therese.“We better turn back and put gas in, better not to risk it.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“Now we have to figure out how to put gas in it. I haven’t used that gas barrel before.” I spun the four wheeler around again, retracing our progress and then a bit further beyond, to the gas barrel. The four wheeler jerked a few times as we approached, as if it were struggling to move forward. I think we’d totally run out of gas just as we pulled up to the barrel – good thing we hadn’t tried to go further. We disembarked from the four-wheeler and began searching for the gas tank, an embarrassingly dumb moment. After practically circling it, Therese exclaimed, oh it’s right here, pointing to the front of it, just above where I’d been seated, below the steering. We laughed at ourselves wondering why it took so long to notice it. We felt dumb but grateful no one had been watching us.
Laughing still, I said, “now I have to figure out how to pump the gas. Jesse showed me once but I forgot. Well first I’ll pull this out,” I grabbed the hose. “I think it was something to do with this lever.” I flipped the lever up and a motor whirred on, that was easy. Unscrew the gas cap, insert the nozzle, squeeze the trigger and there. We continued laughing at ourselves.
“It’s a good thing no one was watching us,” Therese said.
“Yeah, Karin’s the only one in the house, nobody else is around.”
“She could have looked out the window and seen.”
“Yes, but it’s unlikely. She’s probably resting on the couch in the living room.” I screwed the cap on, held the lever down and placed the nozzle back where it had been. “Alright, now we are ready to go.” I climbed back on, throwing one leg over the other side but remained standing to give Therese more room to get on and swing her leg over the other side as well. “Ready?” With her affirmative, we continued ahead, leaving by the other driveway, past the house. I paused at our dead end gravel road, “which way would you like to go? Down the road or through the field?”
“I don’t care, either way is fine with me.”
“Okay, let’s go across the field then, give you a chance to see more of the farm.” At first, I began following the contour but then I realized I didn’t need to and we could get there faster if we didn’t. We saw a large bird sitting in a tree in the woods along the pasture edge. I pointed it out and she asked, “What do you think it is? A crow perhaps?”
“I think it is a crow.”
We remarked on the difference between my driving and Jesse and Malachi’s driving; I was much slower, still not very comfortable with driving ATVs. Well actually, I am not comfortable with driving anything really. As we followed the hill around, I pointed out the trees along the pasture fence line, telling Therese what we owned, or rather in some areas that the property line was in there somewhere but it’s a bit wonky. I also explained how all our pastures wrap around the farm and connect, even though there are four separate systems.
Partially cloudy, with the temperature hanging between cool and warm, made the four-wheeler ride cold. But the clouds began to clear on our drive. We reached the corner of the fence and began turning back the other direction, just following the contour of the hill.
“Oh, I just remembered there isn’t a gate over here and we can’t really scoot under the fence. I guess we’ll have to keep going.” Now we were headed south, back in the direction we had started out from. I was going to take us to a corner gate, somewhat in the middle of the pasture but was stopped by the temporary, winter fence for the beef cows. “The beef cows are let out onto the fields for winter so that they don’t wreck the pastures,” I explained. “I forgot it was here. I guess you’ll see even more of the farm. We probably should have taken the other direction.” I followed along the single strand wire fence feeling a bit foolish.
“I don’t mind,” replied Therese.
“There’s no gate in the temporary fence, so we will have to keep going around.”
Therese exclaimed, “The beef cows are so cute”.
“I always found them a bit scary; they look scary and are more wild than the dairy cows. They’re quite interested in us because people on ATVs or tractors usually mean something is happening, like more food. I am glad the bulls were sold a couple of weeks ago.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We turned again, downhill toward the gate, almost there. Then I turned the four-wheeler to our right and finally we arrived at the gate, once again facing north. I stopped and I asked, “Can you hop off and open the gate while I drive through? And then shut it again.” I stood up to give Therese more space to pull her foot up over the seat.
“Okay.” She slowly got off the four-wheeler and opened the gate. I drove through and stopped to wait for her to shut it again and climb aboard. Some of the cows moved closer to us, thankfully though, they didn’t mob us. Once Therese was settled in place and holding on, I drove forward, parting a black sea of cows; they moved at the last possible moment, comically darting out of the way. A few moments later, we stopped at another gate. Again, Therese slid off to open and close it after I drove through. Now we were finally in the pasture, which separated the fields we had been driving in from the woods. I drove along the slope, a bit nervously, skirting the large pond. I explained, “If it were up to Jesse and I, we would sell half the beef cows, get the herd to about 40 animals and then construct, perhaps temporary/moveable fences in each pasture to divide them up into several paddocks so that the cows no longer overgraze, destroying the pastures each year. The grass runs out by August. By having lush, healthy pastures, we’d be able to graze well into October, maybe even November and cut down on feed costs and labor to feed the beef cows.” The pasture in its current state looked sad, barren of any grass in too many places, with lots of signs of erosion – it’s actually a bit embarrassing, but one project at a time. (Get the new barn and parlor built for the dairy cows and then we’ll talk to Lars about cutting down the beef herd and intensively managing those pastures for better health and erosion control.) We began climbing up the hill, above the pond and soon past it.
“Now, I need to decide where I am going to leave the four-wheeler,” I said, just as much to myself as Therese. A little further up the hill and northward, by the fence on the upper side of the pasture, along the field edge, “This is good.” I stopped the four-wheeler and cut the engine. We disembarked. Each of us had a backpack filled with a journal, sketch pad (just in case we were inspired), and a bottle of water. We both had cameras. “So how would you like to enter the woods? We have two options. Either we can walk down that way [pointing southward to the pond] into the washout and go under the fence or we can walk over on that boxelder tree?” I pointed to a tree laying across the fence – the route I most often choose.
“Well, it’d be challenging for me to crawl under the fence, and I don’t feel like crawling under.”
“Over the tree it is!” I exclaimed, leading the way. More sunlight began to filter through, the clouds scattering for the time being, so the woods glowed warm with the low hanging December sun. I stepped onto a branch resting on the ground, starting at the top of the nearly horizontal boxelder, walking down the trunk to the base. “This is one of my favorite ways to enter the woods. I found oysters on this tree.”
“I’d like to find oysters. So far the only mushrooms I’ve found were Dryad’s saddles.”
“Those are easier to find.” I struggle to pass over the myriad small water spout branches that nearly cover the trunk. “Let me through,” I managed to break off a couple of dead ones. “The problem with boxelder is all these water spouts, but the nice thing about it being a boxelder is that I can prune them off…”
“Without damaging the tree,” Therese added.
“Precisely. And more will just come back.” The trunk gradually widens as it goes down to its base, or rather tapers off to the top. I stepped around a much larger limb. A few more steps and I am at the bottom and hop off, Therese is close behind. “A lot of farmers don’t like boxelders because they grow along fence lines and grow rapidly, often falling on their fences. But I like them. They are native and are pretty cool looking. They serve a purpose.”
Now that we were in the woods, we paused to soak it in. So quiet. It was a rare day of no wind, not even a whisper of a breeze. The trees were motionless and silent. No birds sang, which made me sad – hopefully it was just because it was in the middle of the day and December, not because there weren’t any. Even the squirrels were absent. Despite the seeming absence of wildlife, I reveled in the quiet, in the silence, it was a soothing balm to my weary, at breaking point soul. I had desperately needed this and had planned to spend time in the woods each day over Thanksgiving weekend before my world came crashing down Thanksgiving morning. (Read https://bethanybenike.com/2022/04/03/the-life-of-this-dairy-farmer/) – I had been looking forward to this writing and wood walking filled weekend since the first Saturday in May kicking off summer farmers market season, being the first weekend without a market since. Sometimes it is still a challenge to not be upset with these turn of events, especially since December is supposed to be a time of getting caught up on sleep and writing. These days I have to push through heavy eyelids that just want to close, force myself to write a bit or edit stories for my book, between milkings and on days I don’t go to help on my Mom’s farm, and then hope what I have managed to write is decent and worth reading. But, I don’t want to just complain, vent, rant, whatever nor dwell in misery. Everyday is a struggle to keep going, combating extreme exhaustion and depression, beating it back and trying to keep it from taking hold – especially with no light at the end of the tunnel as far as when Karin will be able to resume her former role of main milker. And yet I try to grasp ahold of joy and hope, letting them lift me up, and acceptance; this is my life right now and I just have to live it with a positive attitude and make the best of it. Such as my weekly pay more than doubled the last few weeks; even though it’s working hours, I spend more time with my husband right now (and we’re getting through together). Also, I am not sure Therese would have been able to spend the night and then the whole day here if it wasn’t for our desperate need for help milking cows. And if she hadn’t been here to spend the day with me, I wouldn’t have gone to the woods despite longing to do so, rather I would have lounged on the couch between milkings. So yes, the hush of the woods quieted and soothed my heart. And sharing my beloved treasure, my spot, with Therese was a bonus healing salve for my soul, especially since I know she’d cherish and love the woods too.
Therese was awestruck and enchanted by their beauty. Awed, she remarked, “it is so beautiful in here.”
I turned to her and then back to the trees around us gesturing to them, “This is my special spot,” sharing a secret, unbarring part of my soul to her. (Funny, I am her aunt and yet I often feel like we are peers and best friends despite huge differences in personality, worldviews and religion. Despite being seventeen years older than her, I often feel as if I am younger than her, aware of how much more advanced she is than me – I am thirty one going on not fifteen but a lot of times ten or so and Therese is fifteen going on thirty. Much of that is probably due to my traumatic childhood and a personality that’s terrified of everything.) In addition to the silence that brought me peace, I marveled in the sunlight streaking through the naked tree branches, highlighting the woods. I remarked, “One thing that’s great about the shorter day lengths in December is the directional light of the early afternoon sun, perfect for photography. In the middle of the day in July it would be too bright.” I lead the way to our left, heading southwest, sharing, “These dead trees are my bridges; I have crossed the ravine by walking on that one.” One of my favorite things, I’ve always enjoyed walking across fallen trees.
”I am too scared to try. I worry it wouldn’t be able to support my weight,” Therese replied.
“That makes sense.”
She was interested in exploring the ravine but we got distracted. We’d walked closer to it as I talked about crossing over, however, we then turned back to look at the slope we’d come down. “I love that oak tree over there. It has so much character.”
“Yeah, it’s lovely.”
We walked back up the slope part way and turned northward. “It seems like this would be a good place to find edible mushrooms, especially morels with all the dead trees, but I haven’t found any in here.” Then I said, “Wild garlic mustard covered this area in the spring”.
Therese touched one of the dead plants that remained standing, “There must have been a lot of it.”
I explained, “Larry said that there’s too much here to try and eradicate but in a couple of years it won’t be as prolific.” Garlic mustard is a nonnative invasive plant. We continued walking, avoiding tripping over fallen branches and such.
“Is that the ruins you were talking about?” Therese asked, pointing ahead.
“Yes it is. Cool, huh?” leaves crunched under our feet. Walking around dead trees and moss covered rocks, we approached the old stone walls. “This is my spot.”
“This is so neat. I can’t believe this is on your farm,” Therese sighed.
“I know, it’s so awesome. Jesse often says we should go to Whitewater to hike, but I tell him we don’t need to, we have our own woods. Although Whitewater is really great too; but here we have the woods to ourselves.”
We both couldn’t resist taking pictures of the stone walls. As always we speculated whether it was a house or barn.
Therese commented on the large window. “It looks like there had been more on the other side.”
I took her around to have a look, “see that looks like it had been a wall.” She agreed and was fascinated. The woods seemed to stir Therese’s heart like they did mine.
“Isabel said trees without their leaves are ugly. I disagree. Without their leaves, their shapes and forms can be seen – it’s a different kind of beauty.” Branches become more scraggly at the top. The sky above is so blue. Still a few green plants alive and well. Dried leaves carpet the ground. There isn’t much color left and yet there is beauty in the nearly dormant woods.
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.)