Yesterday morning I milked in a misting rain, the low-slung sky easing open, my shirt slowly wetting through to my back skin. I like the wet earth smell of the barnyard when it rains, the shit and hay and soil and maybe even the rain itself, though I guess I’m not sure exactly what rain smells like. I know it’s subtle and somewhere on the scale between leafing plant and just-sanded metal. I know it smells like something.
I milk pretty fast. I’ve never timed myself, but I’m guessing it takes me ten minutes, maybe a dozen tops, to fill our two-and-a-half gallon bucket. The bucket’s big enough, but by a only a whisker; sometimes, the layer of foam that forms atop the milk actually rises above the bucket rim, and I think today will be the day it runs over. But it never does. Or at least it hasn’t yet. There’s always tomorrow.
One of the reasons I like milking is because I like rhythmic tasks that through repetition have become like an extension of my body. Not a task anymore but a piece, if that makes any sense. Stacking wood. Splitting wood. Loading a hay wagon. That sort of thing. I don’t necessarily mind work I have to think about, but truth be told I’m a bit of a daydreamer. I like to wander in the head, think about random shit, notice random pieces of my little world. Like the smell of rain. Like the ravens wheeling overhead, the air so still I almost convince myself I can feel the beat of their wings.
I can’t feel the beat of their wings.
Or I remember strange things, little snippets from my life. Yesterday it was remembering the cabin I grew up in, how my father rigged a hand pump to draw water from nearly a half-mile away. Uphill. He was mighty pleased. And from there, with no apparent connection, how ten years ago I had to shoot the first milk cow we ever had, Lily, after she broke into the grain bin and gorged herself. Blew out her liver on all that fermenting feed. We nursed her along for a couple days with the aid of our neighbor Melvin and the vet, but it eventually came clear she wasn’t going to recover, so I shot her. I loved that cow something fierce. It was the hardest thing I’d done in my life to that point and I cried for days.
Truth be told, I’ve done harder things since.
15 thoughts on “I’ve Done Harder Things Since”
Sorry about Lily, Ben. Poor old thing. Felled by her greed.
I think dull tasks like the ones you mentioned grease the memory-release centers in our brains, allowing things that we haven’t recalled in years to come spilling forth. At least that is what happens with me. As long as there’s no fear or physical pain involved (like, bruising your hand on the log-splitter, as I did a few weeks ago during a splitting session: pain stops up the memory-release centers). I usually keep a little notepad in my pocket, to jot down little memories that come forth at such times. My mind is so busy the rest of the day, usually: too busy to reminisce.
I look at repetitive tasks like mantras. The mantra drones and the mind, like a monkey, wanders all over the place. Peace comes dropping slow. If I may quote somebody I forget who.
Oh I know.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow…
– WB Yeats
Anyway, repetitive tasks are like a mantra and the mind settles. Thoughts arise like bubbles from the bottom of the pond.
Thank you for sharing Ben. The raw honesty in your voice echoes through the words this morning as the sun rises at my back. I appreciate your story.
I’m heading out to milk the goats in a minute. Reading why you like milking makes sense… and I bet your family likes drinking the milk, so you have even a bigger reason to milk. Satisfaction. Two out of three of my kids don’t like goat milk, so lately I’ve been sitting there while milking, resenting the task.
We do like the milk. And the butter/kefir/ice cream, etc.
You make cheese, right? They must like that!
Yeah, I make lots of cheese, and yeah, four out of five members in my family like it. One of them seems to be allergic to it. Cheese as well as chocolate give him headeaches. God. The son of a chocaholic and cheesemaker. Go figure.
Ah, yes, the ‘zen’ of ……what ever you’re doing.
Working the body can free the mind in many ways for many reasons.
In case you’re interested in the science of the smell of rain:
I’ll check it out, thanks.
Great post Ben. I do not question that you have done harder things since; I am guessing though that slaughtering animals is one of the harder things you do. I hope it will never be easy for me.
I used to find that rhythm in my old job, working with my hands. I know what you mean. Weird things used to happen too. Good weird things….or those buried memories would surface. Why are cows so damn cute? I love their faces, and I want to hug and kiss their big gentle heads. I probably won’t find myself ever killing one directly, I can’t imagine. Poor Ben….
I like how your firewood makes a natural wall and backdrop to your picnic table. Once I had five cords of wood stacked along the back corner of our in-town lot. My neighbors started joking around with us saying that it looked like we were building a wood stockade… The privacy and smell of that wood corner enclosure made it a nice place to sit in the evenings until winter fell and the wood pile dwindled…
I’ve never had to kill anything that I wasn’t mentally prepared for. Butchering and slaughtering animals is not easy, but with that work one has set their mind to the task and the death has purpose. Killing an animal that was not raised for the larder is different even when mercy is the task. Even that is difficult, and is something I have done… but what you described in combination with relationship you had with the animal must have been awful. Farm life is not the pretty picture people often imagine.. still born calves, uterine prolapse and what that often brings are things most will never experience. They are experiences I have had and would not wish them on anyone, but they are a part of a life rooted in animal husbandry and the closeness some seek with the land.
Just wanted to express that there are others who empathize.
Yes in truth
Posts like this are why I’m a subscriber and almost always read
The sad experience with Lily, along with others related to me, makes me second guess having any animals and the responsibility that goes with it. My husband can handle these things gently, with respect and dignity. I get a little more emotional, as do my girls- so this is an ongoing planning-discussing part of our building our mountain home. At least you admit it was hard, painful.
Every year, when the first rains come, my kids and I rush outside to smell and feel it. It is ritual. And much of why we homeschool is to free up lotsa time for those random thoughts to form or bubble up to the surface. We have golden Eagles above our home, and we can predict where the coyotes are by sound. Without the time to slow down, we might have never even noticed the changes in seasons or the presence of these creatures….We’d have been speeding along in our car or busy at the shopping maul or God knows what else.
Slowing down and noticing is really living. The rest is to fill that empty place that never gets full enough.
Thank you for posting.