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My latest blog post is here:
As Geoff and I make dinner, Kyra (age 12) carries a stainless steel bucket in from the cow barn, bracing her small frame sideways against its weight. White froth laps at the rim, floating atop two gallons of milk, just pulled from Daisy’s udder by Kyra’s strong hands. I help Kyra lift the bucket onto the counter. She smiles. I smile. Well done! Milk! She goes back out into the evening’s dark, headlight on, to feed the chickens.
I pull a stainless steel pot from the refrigerator that is filled with milk from this morning’s chores. The surface of the milk is firm with cream. I grab a quart jar and our bell-bottomed skimming spoon, and begin to run the edge of the spoon across the yellowy surface. A thick layer folds in front of the spoon, buckling on top of itself, before yielding in a mass to the curve. I lift my arm, spoon the cream into the waiting jar, then return and repeat.
Suddenly, as my arm completes another arc of skimming and spooning, I feel a rush of tears. I haven’t skimmed cream in over two months. We had dried Daisy off before her due date, and had no other cows to milk. Then, on October 19, Daisy gave birth, and so here we are again—back in the milk. Here I am again—skimming—and crying?
Why? How ridiculous! I am just doing my ordinary chore! Yet, I feel relief. I feel gratitude; I feel joy. But most of all I feel love. A large love. A seemingly religious love. While skimming cream? What is going on?
I ponder this strange sensation as I continue to fill my quart jar.
Am I happy to be drinking raw milk again? Yes, I am. I believe in raw milk. I believe that pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria as well as enzymes that aid in digestion. I believe that homogenizing ensures that those dead particulates don’t settle into silt at the bottom of a carton. This milk is alive. It glows. But that isn’t it.
Am I glad to be eating locally? Yes, I am. This milk did not require any diesel-burning trucking or train-ing to get from cow to kitchen, and I appreciate that. But that isn’t it either.
Is it just that this milk is so delicious? True, it tastes so good. Everything we make from it tastes so good—the ice cream, of course, but also the hard cheeses (cheddar, jack, parmesan), the soft cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, queso fresco), the butter, yogurt, half and half (for Geoff’s coffee), and the skimmed milked itself. Everyone in our family agrees (though some are less enthusiastic about the sharper cheeses). Now we can make more of these goods again. But that isn’t what is making these tears well.
No, as pearly white milk shines from beneath the cleared cream, I realize that these tears mean something else. As I skim and spoon and stir and pour, making these simple bodily movements, this milk is for me a direct, living connection to the earth.
I helped my son buy this cow seven years ago. We have raised her, cared for her, fed and watered her; built fences for her and hauled bales for her. We have done the work together. Our kids have done the work together. Daisy, in turn, has spent countless hours munching grass from our hillsides and fertilizing the soil with her manure. Year after year she has taken that grass and given it back to us as milk, pulled and carried from barn to house by Jordan, Jessica, and now Kyra.
This milk is more than just milk. It is a one moment of an energy circuit streaming from sun to soil to grass to cow to bucket to child to cheese and back again—back through the movements those milk-fed children make in caring for the cow who fertilizes the earth that supports the sun-catching grass.
Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know. I am part of it. I am a mere loop in the chain, a small but enabling arc of this life-enabling circuit. Standing at the kitchen table, spoon in hand, I know myself as someone who is participating in this rhythm of bodily becoming, making it real, making myself real as an expression of it. And it feels like love.
This milk is just milk. Yet it is more than just milk. It nourishes our bodily selves. It nourishes more than our bodily selves. Working for it, with it, by virtue of its enabling calories, I am flooded with feelings of gratitude for the abundance—for the family, the farm, and the great green earth—that it represents. This milk nourishes spirit.
I pour the skimmed milk into half gallon glass bottles, wash the stainless steel pot, fill it with warm milk from Kyra’s bucket, and place the pot back into the refrigerator, where it will wait for 12 hours—until the next skimming time.
I can’t stop thinking about this skimming moment from over a week ago. It was so unexpected! And the fact that it was so unexpected is itself revealing. My surprise was indicative of our cultural perceptions of pleasure, especially around food. I offer three thoughts.
First. Our processes of food production and distribution—from far away farms to supermarket shelves—have so narrowed our sensory experience of food that we associate the pleasure of food primarily with eating, and then again, with taste and amount. It is what we know. It is what we can buy.
Pacing the supermarket aisles, we are met by row after row of distilled substances pressed ‘free’ from the bran, the chaff, the skin, the seeds, the crust, the meat, the fiber, the bulk, and then processed with copious quantities of sugar and salt. Seeking more taste and larger amounts, we opt for foods that have been stripped and sliced, whitened and washed, juiced and refined, even already cooked and served.
Once these distilled substances blast through our sensory selves, we who consume feel full and empty all at once. Our pleasure is partial; we assume we need more of the same. And so, shopping and consuming, we become addicted to foods that train our sensory selves to ignore the spectrum of possible pleasures that making food can provide.
While grabbing a plastic gallon from the refrigerator compartment enroute to the checkout, we forget the pleasures of calf kisses, chin scratches, and fuzzy winter cow coats. We forget the sounds of milk pinging the pail, or of baby bleats and mama moos. We forget the smell of grass growing and cut, wet and dry; or the vivid splashes of sunset and sunrise.
When pulling a block of cheese from one shelf and a carton of frozen dessert from another, we forget the resilient stretch of a newly made mozzarella, or the melting sweetness of freshly cranked ice cream.
Sure, there is muck and mess to remember as well. Cows poop. Calves slobber. Buckets topple. Milk sours. Cheeses mold. Ice cream clots. But somehow, having a personal experience of everything that can go wrong serves to amplify and expand that feeling of pleasure when it all goes right.
This line of thinking pulled into view a second. The sensory training to taste and amount that we receive not only teaches us to forget the pleasures of the food-making process, it teaches us to forget that pleasure itself requires a process, else it does not fully engage and satisfy our capacity for it.
Pleasure is an arc, a rhythm—not a one-stop shop. It unfolds in time, over time, through the movements we make, and especially in relation to food. The waiting. The watching. The growing. The picking. The making. The baking. The bonding. The stopping. The beginning again.
Finally, as our experiences of buying and eating food narrow the range of known pleasure, it become possible to imagine that pleasure, even as a process, exists for its own sake, for personal use. It does not. This idea is an ecological hazard.
What is lost when pleasure narrows to the question of personal satisfaction is not simply sensation. We may actually experience quite exalted states from our refined food substances. Rather, what is lost is an internal array of sensory experiences that can guide us in making earth-friendly decisions about what to eat, when, where, and how.
We forget that food is our primary connection to earth. We forget that food is earth making more of itself. We forget that we too—in how and what and when and where we eat—are part of that process through which the earth becomes what it is.
Alternately, the channels of pleasure we can open through our participation in the food making process provide us with the surest guide we have for giving back to the sources of what pleases us. Pleasure points us and propels us to do what we can and must to enable its sources to grow and thrive. In so far as we know that the pleasure of food comes from participating in the earth’s bodily becoming, then, we will do all that we can to give back to the earth what it needs to continue giving to us.
We come to want the health of the soil and water and air; of the animals and plants, of our children and of ourselves. And we are willing and able to persevere in pursuit of it because we know what that health feels like.
Am I saying that everyone should own a cow? No, of course not. But everyone can find some point in relationship to food to cultivate sensory awareness of how he or she is participating in the ongoing life of the earth.
Does having a cow protect our family from making choices that addict us to unsustainable resources? No. We are not immune. But it is my hope that, because of our milking connection—and the pleasure we feel in nurturing it—we will be more apt to notice what we are doing, more likely to be troubled by our own actions, and eventually, more willing and able to make a change that brings those aspects of ongoing life in line with what we are learning matters most.
It is happening–the change–when summer yields to fall. Things fall down, fall away, and fall apart. Like the rate at which the grass grows. The charge on the electric fence. Our plans for trapping rats and feeding cats. And yes, the leaves on the trees.
When the grass stops growing, the cattle don’t stop eating. Soon enough, the grass on the other side of their electric fence looks greener. And they are right. Meanwhile the fence’s charge has dropped, due to undue weed contact grounding out its pulse. Thus the fall challenge: escaping cattle.
Earlier this month, I heard a rustling at 3 AM, only to find our steers in the raspberry bushes. Within minutes, Geoff and I were out with flashlights herding them back. A few days later the phone rang at 5:30 AM—kindness of a local farmer who had just spotted our cattle in a nearby field. Geoff, Jordan, Jessica and I were on the case within minutes.
Then two weeks ago came the dreaded knock in the middle of the day. I was alone, working at my computer. The man drove a NYSEG electrical truck. “Your cows are out,” he smiled, “Down by the corner.” I thanked him, grimacing. They were about a half mile away. I couldn’t drive to get them, because I couldn’t quite fit them in the trunk of the car. I would have to herd them back on foot. Where would I put the car? I grabbed a couple of rope halters and started jogging down the road.
I got to the corner. No cattle. I kept going over a small rise. No cattle. Finally I saw them, a couple hundred yards in front of me, standing right in the middle of the road: Bright, a two-thousand pound steer; Dragonfly, his one year old Jersey pal; and Dandelion, one of our milkers. Bright, at least, has been trained—by Jordan. But would he listen to me?
“Stand!” I bellowed, huffing and puffing along. “Stand!”
Bright, to my surprise, stopped and turned his head. The other two did too, following his good example. They looked like frozen statues—right in the middle of this county route road. “Stand!” I kept yelling as I kept jogging, hoping to hold them in place with sheer force of will. But I needn’t have worried. I could tell what they were thinking: “What is that crazy creature waving and bellowing and flapping along?”
I drew near—but not too close. I didn’t want them to bolt. I circled them and started to walk from behind. “Time to go home now.” Luckily, cattle prefer a path. The road counts as a path. Unluckily, they do not recognize a double yellow line as a sign not to pass. Luckily, there weren’t any cars. Unluckily, any cars that would come would be traveling 50 miles an hour. I jogged along, up and down the line, keeping the three close to the shoulder, feeling somewhat like a sheep dog.
When I finally got them back into the fence (the halters came in handy for that), I realized that I would have to walk the pasture perimeter to find out where they had escaped. They had been in the uppermost field. I strided for ten minutes straight up hill and walked the perimeter, eyes hooked on the wire. When I got back to the beginning, having found no breaks or popped insulators, I took a deep breath. My gaze, released from the fence, floated up and then fell into one of the most gorgeous views on earth. Red, yellow, orange leaves, floating and falling, with blue mountains behind. I sat down. I savored it. I thanked the cattle. Bright stood there watching me.
The next day, Jordan took two hours to walk around all of our pastures with a machete, chopping any plant that touched the wire. The charge came back, and the cattle are now staying in, dreaming of greener pastures. They will come.
Speaking of furry creatures. Fall is a time when the rats scurry about looking for winter homes. They seem to prefer ours. Every October we hear a tell-tail scratch coming through the walls, a scrambling overhead, and a rustle in the basement.
We tried ignoring the rats, until they began to chew holes in our new PEX plumbing. We have tried traps, but the rats manage to steal every chunk of cheese, peanut butter, or potato without so much as a snap. We have tried cats outside of the house and inside of the house—we now have five. But we need cats that go between inner and outer house.
When all else fails, we resort to “feeding” the rats bright green poison pellets, until the pitter-patter pats stop. Inevitably, however, we suffer rat revenge. Inevitably, one of them gets stuck in the wall, and reeks for a week.
Speaking of furry and fragrant creatures, we seem to have attracted a family of skunks. They like cat food. Who knew?
The other night, our cat Zelsha came to sit on my pillow at 3 AM. If I have forgotten to put her out, she does so, asking for food. I got up to get her some food—she will sit on my pillow purring loudly until I do—and then went to put her and the food outside.
I cracked the side door. There, on the stoop was a skunk. I closed the door. I looked again through the window. There were actually two skunks, parent and baby, trying to drink from a milk bucket we had left out there that had a few inches of milk in the bottom. I almost thought, “Cute!”
I decided to put Zelsha and her food out the front door, and then went back to the side door to see about the skunks. They were gone. I paused, and then went again to the front door. There they were, eating the cat food, with Zelsha looking on helplessly.
How did they get there so quickly?! How do you chase away a skunk? I didn’t want to provoke it!
I decided to rely on musician-farmer Geoff’s proven method: the trumpet. I, however, am not the one who usually blows it. I cracked the door and blew as hard as I can. Where is that big blast? All that came out was a long, low, flat whoosh. Great. The skunk didn’t move. It was inches away from me. I closed the door and reassessed my options. I decided to try again. Once, twice, blowing a trumpet at a skunk at 3 AM in the morning. Finally, I got a small toot, and then another. I was panting. The skunk waddled away. Slowly.
I went back to the side door, ready to get the milk bucket. The baby skunk was still there, perched on the bucket’s edge, trying to get the milk its snout could not reach. As I watched, the baby fell into the bucket. Great! I thought. Baby skunk drowns in milk pail! As I worried about how to rescue a splashing skunk, I watched as it made its way out of the bucket and waddled down the walkway, painting a long wiggly white trail with its milk-soaked brush of a tail.
I gave Zelsha her food and went back to bed.
Garden production has surely fallen. We are now harvesting three crops: broccoli, chard, and kale. It doesn’t take long every evening to snip a few greens. We waited all summer for that broccoli, wanting some for our salads. And now we have salads with nothing but. Call it the broccoli balance.
The kale, meanwhile, is the best ever. When it was growing so quickly, we picked the largest leaves, leaving the smaller ones to grow larger. Now, every night, the leaves we cut get smaller and greener and tastier. Even the kids love it.
Last week, our three-year old son, who happens to be called Leif, and whose favorite color happens to be green, gave himself a new nickname. “I am a kale boy!” he announced proudly.
Really, I thought, it could be much worse.
Family Planting is a book about relationships—the human relationships without which we would not be who we are. Every human is born completely helpless. In order to survive, an infant must create relationships with the people, places, and elements that will support her or his life. This fact never changes. Humans need other humans in order to be human.
Family Planting is about three kinds of relationships: those with the people who care for you when you are unable; those who you choose to accompany on life’s way; and those for whom you choose to care. Parents. Partners. Progeny. Regardless of whether we marry or have kids, all humans find themselves in relationships that allow—or require them—to exercise these depending, bonding, and caretaking energies.
Family Planting offers a unique perspective on these relationships, one fed by the FARM, my interest in PHILOSOPHY, and my love of MOVEMENT.
FARM. My family and I moved to a farm in July 2005, all hearts set on living a dream we had of moving to the country. For Geoff and me, it meant a place to do nature-enabled art. For the kids it meant space to raise animals.
We fell in love with the land—96 acres of rolling hills, meadows, forests, ponds and a winding stream. Along with the land came a farmhouse in severe disrepair, and a seemingly endless supply of tumbling down barns.
We got to work. As we did, however, Geoff and my sense of why we were there began to unsettle and shift. We found ourselves pulled to farm, as a way to participate in the beauty of the place. How was this urge to farm related to our art? What was going on? As we helped our kids realize their dreams of cows, horses, and chickens, we began to understand the importance to our art of cultivating relationships with each other and the natural world. As I write in the book:
“What we were learning took us beyond what we had read in the homesteading and environmental literature; for the challenge we humans face in developing an ecological consciousness involves more than learning to interact in life-enabling ways with plants, animals, rocks, and streams. We must also find ways to move in our relationships with other humans that support us in becoming people who can and do live that proximity with the natural world. The two go hand in hand. One enables the other.
If we are to connect with this planet in life-enabling ways, we must learn to love one another. If we are to connect with ont another in mutually life-enabling ways, we must open ourselves to the sensory experiences our movement through nature provides” (8-9).
The challenge was clear. To be the dancer and writer I wanted to be, inspired by nature to move, I would need to cultivate relationships with the humans in my life. In this task, the farm was its own character and catalyst, providing us with the opportunity—by making it necessary—to learn what love can be.
In the book, our experiences on the farm form the narrative arc for each chapter, within which the challenges of nurturing relationships unfold.
PHILOSOPHY. The stress of living on the farm was significant. So much was such a mess, and so new. The pressure on my primary relationships opened tiny cracks of unhappiness that were not easily healed.
I found myself at an impasse. So much relationship advice is addressed to individuals, written for individuals, assuming that we are all individuals, who need to compete, compromise, and sacrifice our way to happiness. Yet this vision of the human contrast sharply with the ecological, relational vision I was coming to appreciate as necessary for the health and well being of our planet—and for my art. How were we to create an earth-friendly family?
My fourth son, Kai, gave me a clue. Age two at the time, he whizzed a toy truck at his older sister, Kyra, nearly missing her ear. Though I was ready to explode in a chorus of “no’s!” something stopped me, and the idea of an impulse to connect popped into mind. As I write, remembering the moment:
“Kai is not upset or vengeful. He is not trying to tease or annoy or frustrate. He is just doing with his toy what he sees me do with a washcloth into the sink, or what Jordan does with a ball. He is feeling the thrill of releasing matter into space. He wants this pleasure, and he wants to share this pleasure with this sister. Look! I can do it too! He wants above all to connect. He wants the glee of it, the shared laughter of it, the surge of white-hot vitality. I am alive! Don’t we all?” (177)
In that instant, I began to wonder: what if we humans are nothing more or less than an impulse to connect, born to live in love as the condition that enables our best becoming? What if we are who we are by virtue of the relationships we create with those who support our living?
I started to think about each human in my life, including myself, as an impulse to connect. Everything shifted.
For one, I saw that the challenges of our relationships to parents, partners, and progeny are all bodily. In so far as we succeed in connecting with these people, our bodies do and must change. We grow independent; we bond; we extend ourselves in space and time. As a result, the moves we make to establish and nurture that connection must also change—and just at that point when we think we finally have it all right. For we are not who we think we are.
Further, I realized that the need to keep evolving registers as those familiar, unwelcome feelings of irritation, displeasure, disappointment, boredom, frustration and the rest. When suffering such feelings, it is easy to think that the relationship is a problem and that the best way through is either to shut down or ship out.
Yet once we realize that it is our impulse to connect with this person—our desire to connect more deeply in more fulfilling ways with this person—that is causing us to feel these feelings, we are more able to act in ways that align with what we most want: that connection.
Family Planting demonstrates this dynamic again and again. In relationships with parents, partner, and progeny, I narrate those moments in which I learned to recognize, affirm, and move with my own impulse to connect, when experiencing my own aversive emotions or those of another. Each time, I struggle to find a way through that gets me what I want—more love!
MOVEMENT. In the course of narrating these encounters, Family Planting offers a final unique twist: I demonstrate how practices of bodily movement can help us find in ourselves the freedom to discern and move with the impulses to connect arising in ourselves and in others.
In some sense, this is the book’s most unique offering: the path to better relationships with each other and the natural world lies in cultivating a greater sensory awareness of the movement in and of our bodily selves. As I write:
“We humans can’t stop moving; we can’t stop creating relationships; we can’t stop wanting to connect with what will enable us to unfold who we are and to give what we have to give. The question is simply how” (208)
Family Planting offers an answer: an earth-friendly vision of what love can be, and an account of the sensory awareness that makes it true.