Tag Archives: food

The Meaning of Milk

IMG_3329As 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.

Also posted on: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-body-knows/201310/the-meaning-milk

Who’s In Charge of Me: You or Me?

“What does everyone want for lunch?” I turn to my kids one by one, making sure to ask Kai last. Kai is four. We all joke that his middle name is “I want what you’re having.”

If Jordan is having pasta, Jessica a grilled cheese, and Kyra oatmeal, Kai will want some of each. All together. Sometimes mixed. If there are five cereal boxes in the cabinet, he will want some of each, in the same bowl. If there are four cartons of ice cream in the freezer (our record is eight), he will want some of each. And if you refuse, you will regret it. It takes longer to quiet his response than to honor his obviously reasonable request.

Options on the table, I focus on Kai: “OK Kai, what will it be?”
There is much discussion these days about social influences on human behavior. Spurred by the publication of the book Connected, we are being asked to consider whether happiness is contagious and whether our friends make us fat (as in this NYTimes Magazine article). Books on the food industry by David Kessler, Michael Pollan, and others are teaching us how food is manufactured (with high levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fats), marketed (as the ultimate pleasure), and sold (in packages with promises placed at eye level) in ways that cause us to buy and eat more than we should of foods we think we want that are not good for us.

The message reverberates: you are being deceived, manipulated, or otherwise adversely influenced by others.

We greet the words with a measure of relief. It is not just me. For too long we have been led to believe that whatever is wrong is our individual fault. If I am fat, I should eat less. If my relationships don’t last, I should commit more. If I am depressed, I should pull myself up and decide to be happy. Yet, as the record reveals, in all of these cases will power doesn’t seem to work.

Now, however, given the new evidence, we can blame someone else. Perhaps more to the point, we can now turn to someone else to help us achieve the results we want. So we rely on the city council to ban soda machines from schools, or a pharmaceutical company to pop us a mood-altering pill. Someone else will take care of me.

Is it true?

No, but the answer is not to swing back to blame the individual either. For these strategies for curing a problem—whether targeting will power or external influences—are flip sides of the same coin. Both perpetuate the same way of thinking about our human selves that lies at the roots of the problems themselves.

How so? Both approaches assume that our minds—our thinking, judging, executive selves—are the strongest resource we have for getting what we want. Both assume that our minds are in charge, or at least should be. Both assume that our minds work by exercising a power over our bodies, mastering or controlling our desires for food, for sex, or for happiness. If our individual mind is not up to the task, then we can rely on a collective mind to limit our choices.

Whether we place our faith in the individual mind or the collective mind, the logic is the same: mind over body. Yet this logic itself is part of the problem. We have learned to think and feel and act as if we were minds living over and against bodies. In the process, we have learned to ignore what our bodies know. We have cut ourselves off from the sources of wisdom in our desires–wisdom capable of guiding us to make decisions that will enable our health and well being.
Kai looks at me. He pauses, feeling my question hanging in the air. He looks around at his siblings and back at me. “I want a grilled cheese with tomato.”

“Please,” I reply.

“Please,” he repeats. I smile. No one else asked for a grilled cheese with tomato. Kai is finally making his own request. He is learning to discern for himself what he wants: he remembers having it on a day when Geoff had one too. Now the desire is his.

I start making the sandwich and decide to make half. Even though he was quite clear in his request, it is likely that he will begin to eat the sandwich and then see something around him that he wants even more. I will have to remind him that this is what he wanted; and he will reply, “But Mommy, it isn’t what I want!”
Kai is teaching me about our desires—about how malleable, teachable, and ultimately creative they are. For the fact that we can be and are influenced by what surrounds us—however frustrating it might be for a meal maker—is precisely what enables us as individuals to discover and become our singular selves.

We are connected, and we are singular. We are singular because we are connected. For what defines our singularity is the unique mesh of bodily relationships we are and create with the people, places, and things that are supporting us in becoming who we are.

How then are we to find our way?

It is not by blaming ourselves, nor blaming the social influences upon us for our actions. It is not by revving up our mental will to master our bodies, nor seeking external solutions.

Rather, we need, as best we can, to open up the sensory awareness that the unique matrix of relationships that we are has enabled us to develop. We need to feel what we are feeling so that we can learn over time to make decisions that align with the trajectories of our health and well being.

We need options. We need information, and we need to be willing to participate consciously in the process of finding the wisdom in our desires. It is the process of doing so that yields the greatest possible pleasure.

Make Hay When the Sun Shines

One of our first tasks when we arrived here in July of 2005 was to find a local farmer to hay our fields. There were two reasons. Not only are those acres of rolling green hillside absolutely gorgeous to behold, there is money at stake. Taxes. To secure an agricultural discount, worth lots of dollars, we must either rent our fields to someone who does $10K of farming business a year, or do that business ourselves. Renting was our better option.

We soon met Farmer Larry who lived across the way. The stories that tailed him were legendary. He let his dangerous bulls wander onto everyone else’s land. He milked his cows when the cows felt like it—or not. He would give you the shirt off his back. Fact was, Larry told better stories than anyone ever told of him. And he was happy to hay our fields.

To hay a field is the farmer’s equivalent of mowing the lawn. Hay is grass—cut and dried and bound into bales. It can be alfalfa, timothy, orchard, fescue or any mix and match that grows. And this basic grass is the foundation of the whole farm economy. The grass feeds the animals who work the land, give meat and milk, and fertilize the soil again. It is a solar-powered cycle interrupted by the use of fossil fuels–as when farmers use tractors to pull their mowers and grains to feed the cows. Still, if you trace that fossil fuel back in time, it all comes down in some time and place, to sun-fed grass.

This year, for the first time, we realized for ourselves how crucial hay is to the farm family. All it took was imagining ourselves in the dead of winter, staring down our four thousand-pound beasts, and trying to explain to them that there was nothing left for them to eat. Our milk production, not to mention our well being was at stake.

As May ripened, so did the stalks of grass. Walking in the fields, I was up to my armpits, swimming through heads budding pink. It was time to hay. The sun was shining high in the sky. Where was Larry?

All the good weather was making me anxious. When the grass is grown, it needs to be cut, else it starts shedding nutrients, preparing to die and be reborn. When the grass is cut, it needs to dry, spread out on the field, else the balls or boxes into which it is baled start to mold. When the cut grass is drying, it needs a good 24 hours of clear sky to do so at least, for any rain that falls washes its nutrients right into the ground. The sun was shining. Where was Larry? I was feeling like a farmer.

Larry, we heard, had stopped worrying about the weather long ago. Where other farmers had internet connections to follow the satellite forecasts, Larry hardly even looked at the sky. You hayed when you could. You took your chances when you did. It would rain or not. And by the time winter came, whatever hay you had to offer your animals, Larry said, would be better than a snowball.

Then we got the news. Larry had died, in a logging accident. He had been out in the woods, doing what he loved, and was quickly felled.  The sun was still shining. It was tragic. We missed him and still do. We miss his unfailing smile, his generous ways, and the stories he told at our kitchen table of wild moose and rangy bulls and the pony he used to ride to school. The line of people waiting to enter the funeral home for his calling hours in this rural town topped 800 people. We had thought we were his only friends. He was buried in the most beautiful cemetery I have ever seen, at the foot of a pine tree too big to hug. What would he think, I wondered, looking up at that tree?

Our hay was still standing. The sun was still shining. We talked to Larry’s sons who agreed to hay for him, as they had been doing with him, for years. In their hay days growing up on the farm, they processed over 10,000 bales a year. We would have several hundred.

Then it began to rain. Day after day, one week, two weeks, three weeks. You can’t cut hay in the rain. There was nothing to do but wait. June seeped into July. The grass thinned; its buds darkened red, and we waited some more. Those snowballs were looking pretty good.

Finally the sky cleared. Finally the hay was cut, rained on, turned and combed again, baled, and loaded safely into our barns, still green and crispy good, despite it all. Smells delicious. Our animals love it.

Make hay when the sun shines. In general use, the meaning of the words have softened into something like: take advantage of your opportunities when you can. But we have learned they mean far more than that. To make hay is be the link in the farm economy that enables the life of every member. To do it when the sun shines is to honor your obligation to let others live, by aligning your actions with the productive, creative work of the natural world.

To make hay when the sun shines is to do what you can and what you must to be a life enabling link in the universal rhythms of bodies becoming.

Our hay finally falls to the tractor, rake, and bailer. This winter, as we feed our beasts, I know I’ll be thinking of Larry and taking heart that whatever we made, no matter how long we waited, is better than a snowball.