Tag Archives: cows

Ten Years of Rural Life

Ten years ago ago this week, Geoff and I were packing our belongings. We had bought a farm, sold our house, and were preparing to move to a place where we had no friends, no family, no connections, no jobs—a place where we had been only once before, two weeks earlier. I was eight months pregnant with our fourth child. It felt as if we were jumping off a cliff. We were so excited.

We wanted a place where we would be able to do our art, raise our kids, and grow our love in closer connection with the natural world. Sure, we were terrified, but that terror was tempered with intense curiosity. What would our new rural life be like?

It has been everything we wanted, more than we imagined, and far different than we anticipated. What we didn’t know would fill many books—some of which I have already written. Here are a few notes from the ten-year mark.

1. A place is not what you make; a place is what makes you.

As Geoff and I prepared to move, we had great visions of how we would make this farm our own. We would carve out a space for ourselves, put our stamp upon it, create it into the place we wanted it to be. Our home. Our center. Ours.

We quickly realized that this land and this farm had ideas of its own—existing structures, patterns of fertility and growth, vistas and views. And nothing we wanted to accomplish would succeed unless we paid attention. The garden would not grow. The water would not flow. The fence would not stand.

This place did not belong to us. We belonged to it.

We submitted. The place was too beautiful not to do so! It has made us into who it wanted and needed us to be—caretakers of its ongoing health and well-being. People who love it all the more for being so.

2. Perfection unfolds in time.

When we moved, there were so many things about the farm that were broken, run down, and just not quite right. At first we did not even think we would stay in the house for long. We would fix it up, and then build another house further up the hill, in the hayfields. We did not want to live so close to the road.

But the farm resisted. Who needs two houses? Why spoil the hayfields? Why abandon the lower part of the property? We contemplated selling this place and trying to find another piece of land in the area, but in the end, could not bear to leave this one. What were we to do?

Meanwhile, the septic system was failing, the front porch was falling off, the big barn was falling in, and suddenly, all of these glaring issues that had been nagging us for years came together in one glorious opportunity. We decided to do what we could to make the road not matter. We got some help, and took off the porch, took down the barn, built some fences, and opened up a soccer field on one side of the house and a barnyard on the other. We no longer wanted to live anywhere else.

3. The farm will provide.

Of course, once the big barn was down, the barnyard was a field of rubble. Trucking in topsoil was far too expensive to contemplate. What would we do? It was one of those moments that happens all the time: the farm provides.

While we did not have money for fine dirt, we did have cattle—to whom we feed large bales of hay cut from our fields all winter. So we put those bales on the rubble. Magic. Hay plus manure equals grass the following spring. Instead of feeling poor, we felt incredibly rich. We had what we needed.

4. We are nature when we work with it.

When we moved, we carried with us a certain romantic notion of the natural world—a back-to-the-land naiveté. I imagined walking through the fields, appreciating their beauty, feeling my connection to the earth, and then going to the grocery store for milk and cheese. I did not imagine that I’d be walking through nature while fixing a cattle fence, that I would be connecting to the earth by shoveling manure, or that I would be washing buckets and processing our own cow’s milk to meet all our dairy needs.

Humans do need to cultivate love for the earth, for themselves as earth, for sure. But humans also need to get their hands dirty, to sweat for the earth. In the daily work of taking care of particular animals and plants, and a particular patch of ground, we come to know how far from the natural world we really are so much of the time as we shop, communte, and surf the net.

Nature is work. Nature is always working, generating, creating. And we know ourselves as one with it when we allow it to work on us. Then we start asking questions that mean something to us. How are we spending our time? How are we spending our money? What are we planting? What are we raising? What are we creating?

5. No room for righteousness.

One of the challenges we set for ourselves after moving here was to provide as much of our own food as possible. It was fun. How far could we go? With milk from a cow, a coop full of hens, a fertile plot of land, a stove, a freezer, and some information, what could we do? We were well-trained to habits of eating branded, processed foods. So we took it slowly, food by food. We chose one and then another: what would it take to make this ourselves? Soft cheese? Hard cheese? Ice cream? Butter? Bread? Snacks? Granola?

The challenge wasn’t about adopting an ideal eating program and imposing it upon ourselves. It wasn’t about adhering to a principle or to the terms of contemporary debates over vegan, vegetarian, meat-eating, or other. It wasn’t just about the food. It was about being where we are—in this plot of a place—and learning how to participate in a workable system of production and consumption that would nourish both us and the earth.

Our cows are not just milk machines. They are living creatures who link us to the land in mutually life-enabling ways. The cows enable us to take care of the land and the land to take care of us. We move the cattle through twelve different pastures to ensure that the grass keeps growing for them. We give them year round food, shelter from storms, and lots of chin scratches, not to mention mountain views. The cows feed and fertilize. The milk they make that we take is grass we gave them, now nourishing us, so that we can keep caring for them.

In this search for earth-friendly ways, there is no formula. There is no model for all to follow. All humans are caught up in a vast cultural net that wrecks havoc on the natural world, regardless of what we individually do. People live in different places with different resources and requirements. However, we all do have experiences to share and insights to offer, as we strive to steer the trajectory of humankind in ways that will support the ongoing life of the planet.

6. Dance is everywhere.

It is not immediately obvious why someone would move to a farm in order to dance. What does pulling weeds have to do with working a plie?

For me the connection was sensory. The inspiration to dance wells fullest in me when I am moved to move by the movement of the natural world. So I sought it out. And in seeking it out, my desire to dance evolved. Soon dance was no longer about creating concert productions for performance in a black box—as valuable and rewarding as such endeavors can be. It was about tapping into a primal, kinetic creativity that funds every moment of my life—and writing about it.

On the farm, I have come to realize that dance is everywhere, in everyone. In this place, where it is impossible to ignore how everything is constantly moving, changing, evolving, the importance of dancing appears anew.

If movement is all there is, then how humans move matters. And if how humans move matters, then dance appears as something more than physical exercise or an optional art. Dance appears as a way in which humans learn to participate in the ongoing creation of what is. It appears as a way of cultivating a sensory awareness that can guide humans to create relationships with sources of wonder and sustenance in their lives. And it has always been so.

Life on the farm has helped me to appreciate, as I never could before, how fundamental dancing has been to the evolution of the human species, how important it is to the development of individual humans and communities, and how important it may be to our collective future. Dancing is human.

What will the next ten years hold? I have no idea. But at least I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

Kimerer L LaMothe is the author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming

Birth of B.B. (Baby Bull)!

I am trying to draft this week’s blog entry while playing legos with Kai when I hear the cry. Jessica has just returned from her garden where she went to thin the plant-threatening weeds. “Daisy! She’s up in the field, licking something small and brown on the grass!”

I leap into action. We have been waiting for this moment. I slip Leif into the sling, grab Kai’s hand, and with Kyra and Jessica, stride up the hill. Of course, Daisy picked the farthest and most remote corner of our hillside pasture.

I see them from a far, mother and babe! It is here! I had checked a couple of hours earlier. Daisy is fast! Lucky her.

We draw near. Daisy hovers protectively. Our other cows circle with interest. The steers graze calmly further down the hill. While Daisy is usually as sweet as her name, we don’t want to risk a charging cow. We stop yards away and gaze. You know how new mothers can be. Dasiy doesn’t need us, obviously. However, we do want to make sure the young one gets Daisy’s colostrum during those first vital hours when its stomachs (yes, plural) are extra able to absorb the early milk’s rich nutrients.

I send Jessica close. Bull or heifer? Can you tell? We want to know.

It’s a bull. A pang shoots through my heart. Ah well. Who knows what will happen to him. Breeder, ox, or meat? At this point we focus on his cuteness. He is so cute!

We watch as he struggles to his legs. Daisy circles him, placing her head between him and the electrified wires that bound their pasture. Good mom. Then, just as the calf starts heading for her udder, Auntie Precious comes along to give him a friendly nudge, and the calf goes sprawling to the ground.

Daisy steps daintily and firmly between her calf and Precious. A few minutes later, he is up again, and this time an eager Dandelion, Daisy’s first child, swoops in from the side to see, and again he is tumbling, legs like tossed pick up sticks. The steers are now approaching, sniffing with curiosity. Daisy moos persistently. Her udder is so full that her teats are sticking out sideways. I am sure she can’t wait for him to nurse.

I decide that we have to help. Jessica hikes back to the barn for a lead rope, bucket and bottle. We loop the rope over Precious and tie her to a nearby tree. I hand the Leif-laden sling to Jessica and take the bucket. Daisy is sensitive at first. Every time I touch her udder she swats me with her hind leg. I finally hold her leg back with my left shoulder while pulling on one front teat with my right hand. Slowly slowly the stream begins, so golden that it is practically orange! (Someone has to explain to me how the beta carotene in bright green grass makes milk peach-y.)

Daisy settles down and lets me pull. She obviously feels the relief. Meanwhile the calf is nibbling at my side. Not me, little one! I want to be the missing link.

The bucket begins to fill. When I have more than I want to lose, I stop, grab the bottle, and begin pouring from bucket to bottle. Colostrum spills over the edges and every which way, thick and sticky.

Finally the bottle is half full—a quart. I begin feeding the calf as Daisy noses the empty bucket. He is sucking! I hand the bottle to Kyra, take the sling from Jessica, who then takes the bottle from Kyra, to feed the (still unnamed) baby bull (hereafter “B.B.”) the last few drops. Bottle empty, we begin again. I give the Leif-filled sling to Jessica, take the bucket and start milking.

I laugh. How is it I am here?

We give B.B. a second quart. He is getting the hang of the bottle.

We hear a car in the driveway. Geoff and Jordan are finally home from school (the rest of us are home schooling this year). Jordan! Daisy is his cow. I stride down to greet them. Daisy needs water; she is thirsty. Jordan fills two large buckets and we walk together back up the hill. He is walking with those heavy buckets as quickly as I am. “It’s what you call love,” he says.

A moment later I watch as Jordan’s face explodes into a smile at the sight of his calf. He scratches B.B. under the chin, and then goes to work. He is the milking expert. Minutes later he has another bottle going. Lucky calf!

I return to the house, smiling. Time to finish my blog.

Today B.B. is steady on those peg legs. His large brown eyes gaze expectantly, waiting for all the sticky sweet things life has in store for him. We are waiting too!

By next week, we’ll be “in the milk” again, and I’ll post what I was writing earlier.

Animal Update

So how are the animals, anyway?

As with most matters of life, there is good news and bad news, and the two are intextricably entwined.

Beginning with the bad news: our birds. A couple of weeks ago, one of our hens mysteriously disappeared. We could find no signs of struggle or disease, and assumed she was safely nesting somewhere. A couple of days later, the rooster was gone, and our duck, Pikey. Then we knew. A fox had found our feathered friends.

Pikey was the saddest loss. She was our oldest bird. She had already endured the trauma of losing her partner (after quacking for 12 hours straight), and survived an earlier weasel attack. She could not outfox the fox.

Good news for the fox family.

Several days later, further down the road, someone’s car found the fox. Good news for our remaining birds.

Also in the good news category, our neighbor had an extra rooster. Too many roosters in close quarters and you have a problem, and he did, penned as the birds were to protect them from the fox. So he brought his extra rooster over in a grain bag. When the rooster emerged, a blast of shiny orange, Kyra instantly named him Sunset.

“Don’t you want to name him Sunrise?” I asked. No, she was sure. That orange was the color of sunset. The artist knows. The irony is that of all the roosters we have had, Sunset is the only one who crows when roosters should: first thing in the morning and then only.

We like this rooster, so do our orange-red hens. Good news for us all, though we wonder why. Our hens wanted nothing to do with Brewster, our white rooster. They would scatter as he approached. Sunset seems to have the touch. Or the right color. Or maybe it’s that the hens’ fear of the fox is working in his long-taloned, big-breasted favor. Good news for him.

Other news in the (mostly) good column is that we are expecting again–our cows that is. Precious, our Houdini heifer, is now finally and indeed pregnant! The Vet told us so. She is due in February, around Geoff’s birthday. It will be a great gift for him–a night spent in a cold dark barn, waiting for Precious’s calf to drop.

Daisy, our two year old, is also pregnant and for the second time. Good news, yes. However, in preparation for her approaching September due date, we have dried her up. No more milking. No more milk.

We are going through serious withdrawal. We miss the milk of course–the gallons of life-enabling elixir a day. We miss the butter, cream, ice cream and cheese we made with it. We miss the rhythms of milking that paced our days. And though I am reluctant to admit it, we even miss washing all of those buckets. Remind me in February, when we are milking Precious too.

Meanwhile our youngest human animal is growing like a weed. Seven weeks and a day, he is smiling left and right, up and down, beloved by all. Before we know it he’ll be chasing the chickens, milking the cow, and maybe even washing buckets.

Back to the Farm: About Love

We aren’t waiting any more, at least, not for what we thought we were waiting. The vet stopped by last week to steer our bull calves and we had him examine our Jersey cow, Precious. The news stopped us in our tracks.

“No,” he announced, after reaching his plastic-gloved arm into her body up to his elbow, “she isn’t pregnant.” We all stood there, silent.

Of course Precious was pregnant! We had seen the signs! We had waited and hoped and planned and prepared—for nine months! We had believed! But no, the expert evidence was in: she wasn’t pregnant.

Jessica was visibly distressed. She wanted that calf. We all did. She wanted to name it, love it, and milk its mom.

The swelling presence, moments before, of what would be was now a gnawing absence of what might have been. We all felt the pain of thwarted desire.

April is the cruelest month.
I just returned from a conference at Syracuse University on the Politics of Love. Philosophers and theologians, a political theorist, an historian, and a psychoanalyst, from Europe and America, were gathered to ponder common questions. What is love? What is politics? Might we develop a politics that is guided by love? That expresses love? Or that at least encourages love among concerned parties? Are love and politics even compatible?

As the papers unfolded, participants discussed concepts of love (as union or separation, public or private, eros or agape, miracle or gift), practices of love (as reconciliation and forgiveness), and various critiques of love (as masking, justifying, and even requiring violence). The discussions were animated and provoking, even passionate. It was clear: these people love their work.

Still, it seemed to me that something was missing—something that I moved to the farm to find. What?

I moved to the farm to learn about love by living a life that would enable me to do so. Yet the conference discussion seemed to assume that love simply is—that we can know it when we see it, choose it when we want it, and apply it whenever to wherever we think it is needed.

Is it so easy to get into love, or get love into us? How does it happen? Do we fall in love, grow into love, erupt with love, or will ourselves to it? Is loving simply a matter of deciding and committing? Or rather, could it be a matter of learning to discern the wisdom in our desire?

Our ability to live in love, as I have come to believe, is a matter of cultivating a sensory awareness of the movements that are always already making us. It is what our bodies know.
The day after the vet visited, Precious was showing signs of heat for the first time in months. Perhaps it was his muscled arm that stimulated her sensory space of want. Regardless, it was obvious: she was wanting. She was popping up on Daisy and Dandelion, heedless of their common sex; and when Jordan did the heat-testing trick of jumping up on her back, she stood uncharacteristically still.

The sperm doctor we called arrived hours later in his semen-bearing white truck. This time around we chose a bull named Echo. “She has an extra curl in there,” he confirmed while administering the dose, slowly and steadily. “She might need a bull.” He told us of a prize-winning Jersey not far from here. “A few weeks with him,” he said, “should be enough to get things going.”

For Precious, getting life started is a job best left to mother nature. And a bull.
How do we get love started?

Love is a primal force. Yes, it can sometimes be irrational and destructive, but the fact is, we could not and would not exist without it. Love is essential for human life—not necessarily to start life, but at the very least, to keep it going. We are beneficiaries of love long before we can debate its merits, given the gift of being carried in the womb long before we can think what a gift might be.

For without a loving touch we cannot grow. Our brain cells will not fire. Sensations of openness and pleasure will not unfold to guide us along our way. Without attention from our caregivers, we cannot learn to create the relationships we need to support us in becoming who we are.

It is not that we receive all that we desire from our caregivers. We rarely do. But if we survive, we have received enough— enough to know we want more. Our sense of it is stimulated. We want more of that pleasure we feel when becoming who we are. More of that love.
Back on the farm, I remember. This is why we are here: to create the conditions in which love can thrive as the most important thing, horizon and guide of every moment. So too, this process is a bodily one. Love is sensory. We can think it and analyze it, but “love” is not what it is unless we also feel it, move with it, and allow it to move us.

We learn to love when we open the sensory spaces that allow us to respond to each moment in ways that create the mutually enabling relationships with ourselves, each other, and the world we need to thrive. Family planting.

Echo’s sperm weren’t able to surf the curl. It looks like we are going to need that bull.

Celebrating Eostre

We are waiting, as we have been for the past two weeks.

Jessica’s Jersey cow, Precious, is due to give birth—over due. At first, we were expecting a calf around March 25. Then we realized that we had misremembered the day the deed was done. Replacing the incorrect June 19 with June 25, we recalculated: back three months, forward five to seven days, and arrived at a new due date, April 1. We also realized that the “normal” gestational period for a Jersey can expand from 283 days to 291, taking us through the first week in April. Up to now.

So we are really ready!

Precious, however, seems to have other ideas.

Is she pregnant at all? It seems so. She has not come into heat regularly over the past nine months, and if you palpate her belly alongside her ribs, you can feel the lumps of what must be curled limbs. And they move.

On the other hand, her udder is still small—not yet bursting with the milk that her calf will need right out of the chute. The muscles of her tailbone have not yet sunk. She walks comfortably, munching the greening grass. As our farmer neighbor says: If she isn’t trying, nothing is wrong.

Is she waiting? Or is it just we humans who are drenched with anticipation?
Sunday will be Easter, and I have been researching the pagan threads woven through this most important of Christian holidays. A spring celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection dates back to the second century, when it was primarily a ritual of baptism. Those seeking to join the Christian community would undergo a 40-day period of isolation, education, and prayer before being born again with the sun/son into the body of the church as a member. This ritual of new beginnings wasn’t called Easter, however.

The name Easter, or “Eostre,” dates to the seventh century, when Christian missionaries purportedly subsumed the spring celebrations of an Anglo Saxon goddess by the same name within their own Paschal rites. As Venerable Bead (679-735 BCE) writes, the month of April, or “Eostremonath,” was named after a goddess of fertility (think “estrus” and “estrogen”), spring, and the dawning of a day (think “east”). The newly-converted Anglo Saxon Christians, Bede claimed, were now borrowing this “time-honoured name” to describe the “joys of the new rite” the missionaries had introduced.

Whether or not there actually was such a goddess is difficult to verify through other means, though few suspect Bede of lying. What is clear is that the Christian missionaries to England had been instructed by their pope, Gregory, in a letter of 601 BCE, to allow the “heathens” to continue worshipping in their own temples and practicing their own rituals as long as those temples were purged of “idols” and those rituals redirected to the Christian God. Bede may be confirming, then, the continuation of pagan practices under the auspices of a spring celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, now named “Easter.”

There are no bunnies in the Bible. No colored eggs or hot cross buns. But there is evidence that Anglo Saxons considered the hare an exemplar and symbol of fertility; that they decorated and exchanged eggs in celebration of the vernal equinox (as did many cultures), and that crosses on sweet breads may have represented the horns of a bull honored—or sacrificed—in the name of a a god or goddess, like Eostre.
We are not interested in sacrificing any bulls this Easter. (Come on, Precious! Give us a heifer!) But it is hard not to celebrate the new beginnings sprouting up around us. There is a sense of irresistible relief and joy that comes when the grip of cold breaks and new life peeks out from its hiding places.

At the same time, however, that joy is woven through with a sense of tremendous yearning for all the things yet to emerge. Spring is a time when desire wakes up—the sap runs, fluids flow, and we want what will be.

So what are we celebrating? And why?

We are celebrating the seeds. The return of desire, the return of hope and promise for what is not yet.

And we celebrate the seeds for there is work to be done. Hard work. We must plant and protect, warm and water, and watch vigilantly for signs of sickness. We must, in short, wait, and we will need all the good will and determination, all the patience and attention, that our celebration will stir in us.
Perhaps it is fitting that my book, What a Body Knows, is out just now, on the eve of Eostre’s festival. For this book is all about desire—and about how we deal with our own. The book is not about “getting what you want” as much as it is about how we sense and respond to the sensations of longing that surface in us.

There is work to be done here, and it is the work of opening a sensory space where we can feel our desires, and welcome the feelings of frustration that so often signal their arrival as guiding us to move in ways that will align our pleasure and well being. It is the work of waiting for an impulse to move, and following it through.

We are waiting. Waiting for Precious to calve. Waiting for spring to come. Waiting for What a Body Knows to make its way into the world. Waiting to be born.

Perhaps we need to celebrate Easter so that we will have the energy and focus to wait for the harvest, the birth, the becoming. It will happen, we remind ourselves. It will happen. The spring we thought would never arrive has finally come, and so will the birth we desire.

Come on, Precious!

Yoking, Yearning, and Yoga

Kyra is drawing explosive, volcano flower sunbursts.

Jessica is plotting plant patches for her garden.

Kai wants to ride one of the puffy white clouds that dangle in the blue.

Jordan is training his bull calves.

As I move through the postures of my yoga routine, the thought forms: it’s all yoga. Yoga: the Sanskrit word for “union,” and a root form of our “yoke,” means to join or connect, to form a bond. In yoga, a practitioner breathes into bodily shapes that draw our sensory selves into the present, so we can unite with ourselves, unite with what is. In all these activities too, these kids are joining and connecting, creating the relationships that will support them in unfolding what they have to give.

Isn’t this what life is about?
It is not easy to form a yoke.

In order to train his bull calves, Jordan first had to make one: a crossbar pierced by two semi-circle bows that would embrace the calves’ heads. Choosing a slice of birch, he carved a curvy bracket with his draw knife, drilled four holes, and began a regime of linseed oil application. A yogurt container stuffed with an old rag lives by our sink.

Then for the bows, he needed a special kind of hard but bendable wood. After a couple of scouting trips around the farm, he found the perfect shagbark hickory tree—big enough that he needed help felling it. After he and Geoff lopped off the limbs and dragged it back home, Jordan split the log into sixteenths and took out the heart to make two four foot lengths of one-inch chunk. It was hard. Would the wood bend?

We devised an apparatus for the top of our wood stove: on top of a water-filled spaghetti pot with vented lid, we placed with an upside down funnel, on which sat a PVC joint holding a five foot length of PVC piping. It looked like the stove had sprouted rabbit ears. Into the pipe went the bow. After a steamy soak, Jordan took out the wood, held the ends, and bended it like licorice around his knee. One bow bowed, the other quickly followed. Minutes later the bows were as hard again as the wood they were. After drilling some more holes and gathering the proper pins, Jordan’s yoke was ready to go yoking.

At first, the bull calves weren’t so sure about the yoke, but they liked the attention, the nose and neck scratches, and the walks around the yard. By now they seem quite comfortable, pleased to play this pulling game for a few minutes every day. Jordan guides them around the yard with his stick yelling “Gee!” to go right, and “Haw!” to head left. Then he says “Whoa!” and stands in front of them to block their way, his stick a wall. Good thing they are only calves.

The smile on his face when he came in today says it all: “Oh they were so good today!”

Kai agrees.

A yoke is the piece of wood, carved and shaped.

A yoke of oxen is what the calves will become when they pull as one.

To yoke is to join or connect these independent powers in the service of a common goal—becoming one force for action.

The questions arise: What kinds of yokes are we creating for ourselves? With what or whom are we joining? What kind of relationships do we want to create?

What are we yearning to do?

These kids seem to know.