To Milk a Cow

By Jeanne Wilkinson

Not everyone was happy about the two new members of our commune. But I was. I was totally taken in by those big girls who picked their way carefully down the ramp from the cattle truck, their strangely delicate ankles hardly seeming strong enough to carry the weight of big angular bones, large heads, huge barrel bellies. They walked down our dirt driveway, udders swinging, taking everything in stride, lifting insouciant tails and shitting a brown steaming stream onto the ground whenever the mood struck. As they were led into the barn, I followed. We named them Violet and Clarabell.

I still don’t really understand it. Why did it feel so right sitting on an old wooden stool barely a foot off the ground with my hands pulling and squeezing, the high-pitched ting-ting-ting of milk hitting the side of the silver bucket, the sweet and musky smell of fresh cow manure threading its way into my brain while my head rested on the side of a huge black and white beast whose giant heart was beating, beating, beating only inches away from my ear…why did this feel like something I was meant to do?

I’d grown up in the suburbs, maybe visiting a farm once in my life. The city was where I’d recently come from, migrating to this eighty-acre farm tucked into the rolling hills of West Central Wisconsin, me and a bunch of idealistic back-to-the-landers, all of us feeling an overwhelming urge to veer society away from corporate greed and the galloping consumption that we saw as a deadly disease. In our case we’d save the world via that new-fangled organic gardening that wasn’t really new at all, more like how things had always been done before better living through chemistry became the agribusiness mantra. After months in the city planning our crops, we moved out to the farm and planted them in a four-acre field, selling at farmers’ markets and changing the world one organic cucumber, carrot, and corn cob at a time.

Cows hadn’t really been part of the equation. We’d had long, testy debates, steeped in philosophy and marijuana, about our right to own and use animals, lengthy discussions that took place during weekly communal meetings where decisions were (supposed to be) made by consensus. (Yes, that means we all had to agree before anything got done!) Domesticated animals were a sticky issue—dogs, chickens, cats: all or none of the above?—and, like many sticky issues, we tabled it until the next meeting. And the next. Then one of us came home from a local auction with two nonconsensual Holsteins, a fait accompli. He’d grown up on a dairy farm: two beautiful cows came up for sale, he raised his hand, they were his. Or ours.

After their arrival, the garden paled in importance to me. It felt kind of Biblical, this switch in allegiances, sort of Cain to Abel-ish. Maybe it was some kind of cross-species pheromone-type-thing, but from that moment on, I was cow-crazy. At the same time (speaking of crazy), I’d also fallen in love with a human, a young man who had grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, and he, too, was hearing the call of the cows. Or maybe it wasn’t cows so much as rural life itself with its small town taverns where there were pool tables, tap beer for fifteen cents, and farmers sitting around chewing their verbal cud, talking about milk prices and farm equipment, shaking the dice for the next round, eating pickled eggs and pigs feet. That place where everybody knew your name. And your business.

But our farm meetings grew more and more turbulent, especially after the original duo was joined by two gorgeous brown and white Guernseys and a Jersey named Mary with big brown eyes and long dark lashes…and, well, the tavern-lover and I ended up moving to another farm along with our first son and the cows, which we purchased from the commune via small monthly payments. Thus began our ten-year sojourn as organic dairy farmers.

We didn’t continue to milk by hand. But even with milking machines, we stayed small, barely reaching the status of hobby farmers statistically…a hobby that tied us down with day and night milkings, plowing, planting, baling, harvesting, barn-cleaning, equipment-washing, weather-worrying, cow-chasing, fence-fixing…wait, this was no hobby! This was a full-time job…wait, this was not just a job, it was a life, a 24/7 life of blood, sweat, and plenty of tears in that great maternity ward we call a barn. A life I couldn’t imagine being without. Because just when I was sinking down into that vast rural slurry of existential, sweat-soaked despair, I’d be lifted up by a moment of transcendent grace where everything glowed green and gold in this best of all possible worlds that fit me like a well-used glove.

Until it didn’t. All those discussions at the commune centering on the plight of animals controlled by humans didn’t prepare me for the vice-versa part, for being immersed, submerged, drowning in the trials and travails of feeding and caring for creatures under my not-very-experienced guardianship.

When I followed that Pied Piper pair into the barn, I never imagined it was the beginning of a love/hate relationship with farming that would change my view of pretty much everything: of animals and what we do to them, of land and what we do to it, of what it means to work your fingers to the bone at the bottom of the corporate food chain, of birth, death, and what lies between. I guess you might say that I was educated in a barn. Even now, years after I gave up farming to go back to school and get a degree in art—what else?—I think back to those big, patient, generous barn-girls and I thank them for teaching me the hard lessons, and for making me strong.

Musepaper Essay Prizes #15 | #35 | #46

Jeanne Wilkinson went “back to the land” in her youth, and is now a writer and artist in Brooklyn, NY and Madison, WI. Her work has been on NPR, in Columbia Journal, The Penn Review, The Write Launch, Prometheus Dreaming, and she is honored to appear once again in NMW’s Musepaper.

* * * Jeanne Wilkinson is a three-time Musepaper Essay Prize winner! * * *

3 thoughts on “To Milk a Cow”

  1. This quirky, lovely, story is a delight for all of our senses, and maybe some we’re not aware of. Sights, smells and sounds of rural memories aren’t simply introduced to the reader. They’re ignited with a smooth intensity and describe a vivid connection between humans, animals. simplicity and a journey into the unknown. This is some fine, cool, earthy writing!

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