What I’ve Learned

The hide is coming along
The hide is coming along

Not so long ago, as part of my reporting on a story I’m working on, I attended a meeting in a community not far from here. At the end of the meeting, each person was asked to say something about what they’d gleaned from the gathering. Or about anything, really. A fellow sitting a few chairs down from me, dressed in classic business attire, said this: “I’ve learned that to be successful in life, it’s helpful surround yourself with successful people.” The crowd nodded its agreement.

The next morning, Melvin was up to breed not one, but two of our girls. It’s mighty convenient when milk cows synchronize their heats, one of those small rural blessings the overwhelming majority of the world will never be aware of (another of those blessings is to have a neighbor who’s attended school for the fine art of artificial insemination). Anyway, two cows in heat was a little much excitement for Snook, our yearling steer, and he’d busted out of the day paddock to accompany the ladies down to the barn for their date with Melvin.

As Penny and Melvin and I were standing in the barnyard chatting, I made a passing reference to Snook’s escape. Melvin looked at us in that way he has, which might best be described as a look of minor merriment at all the minor curiosities of life. “He’s not out,” Melvin said. “He’s just not where you put him.”

I’ve learned that to be light-hearted in life, it’s helpful to surround yourself with light-hearted people.

A couple days after that, Penny and I were up at the neighbors, moving our freezer out of their woodshed (more on this in a future post, as it relates to our decision to connect to the utility grid and all the ramifications thereof). It was an awkward move, what with the big step down from the shed and a variety of other factors too complicated to explain here. All of which is to say, we were struggling a bit more than I care to admit. Which is precisely when Jimmy happened by, on his way home from evening milking, on the tail end of a 14-hour work day, which is to say, at the end of average day for him. I saw his truck pass, then heard him slow his big diesel, then clunk into reverse. Without even asking, he was out of his truck and on the tricky end of the freezer and in a few almost effortless seconds we had it on the bed of our truck.

I’ve learned that to be generous in life, it’s helpful to surround yourself with generous people.

After Jimmy helped us load the freezer, we stood at talked for a few minutes about something unexpected that had recently happened in his life that meant he will need to think very hard about the precise future of his operation. It is nothing tragic, but it was not what he’d been expecting, and I can see that it’s thrown him a bit. “Oh well,” he said. “I can always pick up a couple thousand more taps and make more syrup.” He flashed a grin. “I love making syrup, anyhow.”

I’ve learned that to be positive and resilient in life, it’s helpful to surround yourself with positive and resilient people.

Sometimes it seems like the best teachers in my life pop up in the most unlikely places.



Moving Cows

The boys are so devoted to me, they follow me everywhere
The boys are so devoted to me, they follow me everywhere

Every morning, soon as it is light enough to see, I move the cows to a fresh paddock. We give the cows a new piece of pasture every 24 hours; this is known as rotational grazing, and it is essential to the good health of both the land and the animals feeding upon it. Owing to the marvel of electric fencing technology, it is not hard work, although given that our pasture is rather steep in places, it is not uncommon for me to break a sweat tromping up and down the hill with a fence reel in my hands. For those of you who have never greeted the rising sun with sweat beaded on your forehead, I highly recommend it.

I often think of chores as being something of practice for me, perhaps not unlike meditation or prayer is for some. And moving the cows is for me the core of this practice, at least during the six months I have the luxury of doing so (the other six months, I have the luxury of chipping ice from the animals’ water bowls, throwing bales of hay over their respective fences, and sweeping snow from the solar panels. Not bad, but they ain’t quite the same). Of all the daily chores I perform on this ground, moving the cows is the most graceful, the most like a dance. The cows gather at the corner of fence they know from experience will soon drop, shifting from hoof to hoof in anticipation, their watchful eyes following my progress. Cows are not terribly ambitious creatures – this is much of what I love about them – but the prospect of fresh grass stirs something in them. I suspect it’s not unlike the thing that stirs in me when Penny drops a batch of sourdough donuts into a pot of hot lard.

I like moving cows because I like cows, and therefore I like doing what I know is best for the cows. And I like moving cows because I like moving, and therefore I like walking back and forth across our pasture, the dew wet tips of grass grazing my shins, my feet sloshing in my boots. I need new boots something fierce; my current pair is full of holes, they’re like ships taking on water, destined for the river bottom. But of course they’ve been this way for two summers now and I’m doing just fine, which makes me wonder: Maybe I don’t need new boots, after all.

I like moving cows because it forces me to pay attention: Good grazing practices demand a particular focus, because the pasture is always changing, in accordance with the season, the weather, the length of day, and unseen forces that I am unlikely to ever fully understand. In June, the grass grows so furiously we cannot keep up with it; it is an ocean of grass, a tsunami of forage, and it is almost impossible to imagine that it will ever end. We think this will be the year we graze into November! But by August it is already waning, and we ration the pasture carefully, hoping for warm September rains to push along the season’s final growth. We think maybe we can keep the cows on grass until the middle of October! To move cows is to in some small way be held in the palm of nature. I can’t say why, but any time I have this opportunity, I am comforted.

I like moving cows because I like the way cows smell and I can smell them while I’m moving them. If you don’t like the way cows smell – and I’m not talking about their shit or piss (these are good smells, too, but are perhaps acquired tastes), but rather the simple, warm, contented bovine essence of them – you either got nose problems or there’s something more drastically wrong with you. The smell of cow in the morning is like the first flames of a fire on a cold winter’s day, and I sometimes think that even if I didn’t covet butter and cream and milk and meat, I’d keep a cow around just so I could smell the thing.

I like moving cows because there has yet to be anything wrong in my life that can’t at least temporarily be fixed by moving cows. This means that either my life is so good that nothing has yet gone wrong enough that moving cows can’t make me feel better, or that moving cows is so powerful that it can overcome even those things which are terribly wrong.

Which is it? Honestly, I’m not sure it matters.