Molly and Jeremy both came to the barn to watch us milk the cows that evening. Jeremy had milked goats before, so he was more interested in our set-up than the actually milking. He wandered around the barn and then outside to look at the small pasture.
I was seeing everything like I'd never seen it before. On the entry wall of the barn there was a sink and a rough counter. To the left, our saddles were lined up on a long sawhorse Dad had built. Bridles, halters and a harness hung on wooden pegs to the right. The smell of leather and oil blended with the fragrance of cedar wood sawdust from my shop. Once a week, after spraying out the concrete floor of the tack room and walk way, we sprinkled fresh sawdust on the floor of the barn to help absorb the animal smells.
At end of this Tack Room there was a ladder that led up to the loft where the hay and feed are kept. Jake was climbing the ladder, on his way to toss hay and feed down the chutes to each milking station.
Beyond the tack room, the main part of the barn was divided into two sides. On the right were the stalls for the new calves. The stalls had dirt floors, for the comfort of the animals, and had to be regularly mucked out and replenished with fresh straw or sawdust.
To the right were stanchions for each cow, plus a holding pen for cows that needed to be indoors for some reason, but still separated from their calves.
The sweet odor of grass hay filled the barn after Jake threw the hay down the chutes, and the fine dust of the grass made Molly sneeze.
At the moment, the barn was empty because the calves were in the small pasture, back of the barn. The cows were in the big pasture beyond that. The cows and calves could see each other over the gate, and even touch noses and lick each other, but the calves could not nurse.
When I opened the back door of the barn and called, the calves came running, knowing they would get milk soon. On long, awkward legs they bounded toward me like a group of children running across a playground, happy to be together. The miniature Jersey and Galloway cows stood at the gate bawling, impatiently waiting their turn. Ramona and Susanna separated the calves into their various stalls and shut the doors. Then I opened the gate and let the cows through. It wasn't a stampede, but they ran straight to their stanchions without hesitation, familiar with the routine and happy to get the feed.
The first bucket of milk was handed to Ramona who used it to feed the anxious calves. Their little faces peered at us through the cracks in the stalls, watching Jake and I milk Susie Q. Her back was turned to the calves, and she did not concern herself with their little moos and complaints. She was focused on her own dinner, and happy with the relief from the heavy load of milk she'd been carrying.
Susanna milked Tandy all by herself down at the other end of the barn. Once all the calves knew how to drink on their own, Ramona would join Sue again as her milking partner.
Molly followed Ramona to the calf stalls. The calves ranged from two months to one week old. The older ones knew how to suck their milk out of the pail, but the littlest one, Q-tip, was still getting the hang of it. Molly climbed the side of the stall and watched with wide, eager eyes.
“Oh, she's such a sweetie!” she cried. “She's so cute and awkward on those long legs. After you feed her, can I get in there and pet her?” she asked.
Molly was wearing a pair of Susanna's barn boots, and they were a couple of sizes too big. Her feet scuffed the ground when she walked.
“Sure,” Ramona answered over her shoulder as she straddled Q-tip and backed her into a corner. The calf was frantic to get the milk, just familiar enough with the process to know she was about to be fed. Her coat was a gorgeous red-brown but both ears were white-tipped, along with a white patch on her face.
“Come here, baby,” Ramona crooned. “Put your head down, here it is. . . that's it, you've got it.”
Mona dipped her hand into the warm milk, and stuck her index finger upward, out of the milk, to serve as a training teat for the calf. Q-tip pulled and sucked on Mona's finger, trying to lift it up out of the milk. Then the little calf thrust down suddenly, plunging her whole face into the warm milk. This startled her and she let go of Ramona's finger. Next, Q-tip turned and nosed Mona's thigh, looking for the milk-letting spout. Mona's coveralls got smeared with milk and she staggered, trying to keep her balance as the little calf struggled.
“Here it is, here it is!” she said, shoving her finger into the calf's mouth and leading her head back down into the bucket. “There you go. Keep drinking. . .”
“I've got to train her to drink without my finger,” Mona explained, with a darting upward glance at Molly. “She still thinks she has to have my finger in order to get the milk,”
“How will you teach her to just drink on her own?” Molly asked, leaning further over the railing.
Jake and I were milking Rosy, across and down from Q-tip's stanchion, but I could still see and hear the girls whenever the other calves were quiet for a second. There were four more of them waiting for dinner, mooing their little heads off in an effort to get it sooner. When the oldest calf mooed, the others would all join in, and then one or more of the mama cows would answer. When they fell silent again, I heard Ramona answer Molly.
“Once I can feel her really sucking in the milk around my finger, I start pulling it out of her mouth slowly, making it shorter and shorter. . . Keep drinking, baby. You don't need me—oh! You little rascal!”
Q-tip suddenly thrust her head into the bucket of milk again, this time with so much impetus, the milk splashed up and all over Ramona's face.
Jake and I laughed, and I slid the second bucket of milk out from under Rosy and carried it past Q-Tip's stall.
“How's it going in there?” I asked Mona, who had not been able to wipe the milk off her face yet, since one hand held the bucket and the other was still in the calf's mouth.
“Fine,” she said, grinning up at me. “I'm feeding the calf and doing a facial at the same time.”
“You have a milkmaid's complexion,” I agreed, and passed on to pour some of the new milk into a bucket for one of the older calves.
This calf was a little heifer named Rain (because she was born on a rainy night) and she had already mastered the technique of drinking out of a bucket all by herself. She shared a stall with Sunny, who had been born two days later, on a sunny day. I held the bucket for Rain, so she wouldn't turn it over, and she slurped down a half gallon of milk in less than a minute. I pushed her away, and she turned eagerly to the grass hay I tossed into the stall.
Sunny was waiting, running around and trying to shove Rain out of her way. I lowered the bucket again and Sunny drank the rest of the milk. Then she joined Rain at the pile of hay.
“Do you know where that saying came from?” I heard Ramona ask Molly. “A milkmaid's complexion?”
“No, where? Is it because raw milk is good for your face?” Molly asked, following Ramona to the next stall, which held a month old heifer named Fancy. She was spotted in a unique pattern. So far this Spring, we'd had four heifers and one bull calf. There was only one cow still pregnant, and she had a couple of months to go.
“Back during the 1700's there was a plague that scarred people's faces,” Mona answered as she bent over to feed Fancy.
“The Smallpox?” Molly guessed.
“Yes, that's the one. Cows would contract the pox too, but their bodies could overcome it easily, and carried a natural immunity to it. The milkmaids would catch the pox from the cows, along with the immunity, so their skin stayed clear and unscarred.”
“That's interesting,” Molly said. “I knew that the vaccine for smallpox came from cowpox, but never put that together with the milkmaid saying. I bet milk is good for your skin too, though.”
“You want some on your face?” Jake offered, lifting his bucket teasingly in Molly's direction, as we joined her by the stall of the last calf. She glanced at him with surprise and confusion, unaware he was teasing.
I frowned at him behind her back and shook my head warningly.
Jake muttered, “Just kidding,” and left us to look for Jeremy. He left two buckets of milk next to Susanna, who was still milking Tandy.
“What's this little one called?” Molly asked me, as we watched Mona hold the bucket for the month-old brown calf to drink his half gallon of milk.
“T-bone,” I answered, wincing inwardly as I searched for some way to change the conversation.
“Why did you name him that?” she asked curiously.
“Uh. . . because we're. . . going to eat him when he's grown.” I answered, glancing at her sideways to see how she would take that news.
“Really?” she asked in a small voice, glancing at me pleadingly, and then back at T-bone again. “He's so cute.”
He was cute. T-bone had big, dark eyes fringed with long lashes, and furry, inquisitive ears. At that moment he raised his head from the bucket of milk to look at us. His chin was white and dripping with milk. He turned his head to lick Mona's cheek briefly, and then thrust his head back into the bucket, slurping the milk with gusto.
“He'll grow out of it,” I assured Molly. “He'll be a big, ornery steer in another eighteen months. Naming him T-bone helps us all remember he's going to be steaks and burgers someday.”
A very small part of me wanted her to be sad and reject the idea of killing an animal for food. If she decided farm life was “cruel” it would be easier to let go of her. Grandpa says, “people with opinions that don't come from looking at nature are like dusty wind; you better turn your back and walk the other direction.”
But Molly didn't say anything. She got down from T-bone's stall and walked back to Q-tip.
“Can I get in and pet her now?” she asked. Molly was dealing with the idea of butchering; she left T-bone, the steak, to grow up without her special attention, and went to spend her affection on Q-tip instead.
“Sure. Need a hand?”
“No,” she said and dropped into Q-tip's pen. The calf jumped in surprise, ran in a little circle, and then came back to see if Molly had more milk for her. Molly held out her hand and Q-tip nosed it, licked it, and then latched onto a finger.
“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “She is sucking my finger so hard it hurts! How can a cow tolerate that?”
“I guess cows are tougher than. . .” I hesitated, and got hot around the collar. Farm talk isn't awkward around my sisters, but with Molly, it was just a little odd. She didn't look up, and I decided I'd better join Jeremy and Jake.
Sue was done milking Tandy. She stood up to open the stanchion as I walked past her.
“You guys are faster than me,” she admitted with a little shrug. Jake and I had milked four cows in less time than Susanna had needed to milk one. To be fair though, when two people are milking as a team, it seems like the cow lets down her milk so completely it practically streams into the bucket without any encouragement.
Jeremy was standing at the back fence, looking over the valley and the big pasture. Jake was leaning on the gate next to him, and they turned around when I joined them.
“What do you see?” I asked, looking over the valley as well. A misty cloud had settled into the low areas, and the tips of the pines rose above the fog. The sun had gone down and the colors were muted. The valley was silent for only a moment, and then the frogs at the lake began to sing, and their song was so loud, we all laughed in surprise.
“They sing for joy,” Jeremy chuckled. “Such a song must be loud.” Then he glanced at me. “There is much potential for this place, Will. It has everything Mother Nature provides.”
“Not to complain,” I agreed. “It is wonderful—but we have everything except enough rain.”
“How much?” he asked.
“Around 12 to 16 inches a year,” I answered. “And most of that runs off into arroyos.”
“Exactly!” he exclaimed. “With the right land management, every drop of that water can be captured; there will be no evaporation, and no run off. This will double, perhaps triple, the benefits of rainfall. It will be as though you had as much rain as places where it rains 30 - 40 inches each year.”
“That's hard to believe,” Jake commented, shaking his head. “How should we start?”
“Right here,” Jeremy answered, turning around to look back at the small pasture. It was about two acres of mostly dry dirt. There were a few stubborn patches of dry grass eaten down to the roots.
“Make a small paddock with electric fencing and move it every three days. Your calves will restore this little pasture.”
“Dad would love that,” I agreed. “This used to be the most fertile patch on the farm.”
“Let's do it!” Jake said. “What do we need?”
“Electric fencing,” I answered. “Dad bought some used stuff last week. It's in the shop. Let's go talk to him.”
We went back through the barn and discovered the girls were gone. They had carried the buckets of milk with them. The cows and calves were contentedly munching hay in the unlit barn as we passed through. When they had finished the hay, the cows would wander out to the small pasture to bed down for the night, occasionally wandering back into the barn to check on their calves.
Night had fallen while we were in the barn, and as we walked toward the house I saw yellow rays of light appear and shine through the living room windows, falling on the ground beyond the porch. Kerosene lanterns gave the house a warm glow that was neither harsh nor bright. It was just enough light to aid your vision, but not enough to drown out the evening.
The house must seem dark to them, I thought as we walked across the open space between the barn and the house.
“I love it!” I heard Molly say as we walked up the porch steps. She was standing beside Susanna at the kitchen table, watching my little sister light each lamp, and carefully replace the glass chimneys. “It's so beautiful and old-fashioned,” she added as we came through the door.
Does she really love it? I wondered, feeling a surge of hope that was tempered with pessimistic doubt.
As I reached the table and paused beside her, I looked down into her face and asked bluntly, “How much do you love it? Enough to live this way?”
Even before I finished the question, I regretted the words. I was asking too much, too soon. How would she take it? Thankfully, Jake and Jeremy had stopped in the living room to talk to Dad. Ramona and Mom were straining the milk in the kitchen, and Susanna seemed to take my question at face value.
She looked at Molly curiously and repeated my question,“Would you live this way, Molly? Or would it be too hard?”
Molly was staring back at me with her mouth slightly ajar. She blinked, looked away, and shook her head. The lantern light reflected in the shining curls.
“I have no idea how to live this way,” she answered with a helpless shrug. “I don't even know if it is hard or not. I just meant the lanterns look pretty. That's all.”
I was thankful for the dim room, knowing my face was probably red and strained. I nodded and turned away, leaving Susanna to tell Molly how “easy” it is to live without electricity if you have everything set up the right way. Molly was quiet and seemed a little disappointed, or sad.
Had I scared her? I wondered. I keep making an idiot out of myself.
“Sweet Potato pie20 anyone?” Mom asked, entering the kitchen with a large tray containing two pies and dishes. She lowered it to the table and smilingly waved me away. “I've got it, Will, thank you.”
“Fresh whipped cream!” Ramona announced, following Mom with a cream charger in one hand and a stack of teacups in the other. “Will, would you get the kettle from the stove?” she asked, pausing at the table next to Mom.
I left the room to get the tea kettle from the porch wood stove, and paused to breath in the cool evening air and clear my head. I was too wound up. I needed to just relax and enjoy my family and friends like I always had.
Just chill, I told myself.
At that moment someone patted me lightly on the arm from behind and I jumped and spun around in surprise. Grandpa was seated on the bench behind me, smoking his pipe and watching the evening fall, as he often did. It was so dark in the shadows, I had not seen him.
“Ho! Watch out, I might bite you,” Grandpa chuckled and reached out to grip my arm.
“Sorry Grandpa, I guess I'm jumpy tonight,” I said, sitting down beside him. I tapped the bench nervously with my fingers.
“Look at the night,” Grandpa said, and passed the pipe to me. I smoked the Navajo tobacco21 briefly and looked out at the darkness, blinking to help my eyes to adjust. The woody taste of mullein and osha was comforting and I relaxed a little as I handed the clay pipe back to Grandpa.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“The frogs singing?” I asked. He shook his head slightly and lifted his chin with his eyes closed as though listening intently.
“The bugs? The coyotes howling?” I guessed again.
Grandpa shook his head again and smoked his pipe, in no hurry. He turned away, as though to catch the sound from the north. I listened as hard as I could for whatever it might be that Grandpa had heard. His ears were accustomed to the forest.
“The wind up high above the trees?” I asked, but this time Grandpa didn't answer.
“The pines bending in the wind. . . moving with it?” Still no answer, but a little smile tugged at the edges of his mouth. I was quiet for a while this time, feeling like maybe Grandpa was testing me. I tried to focus and became as still as I could.
“I hear us breathing,” I said at last. “And the family talking inside. I hear the kettle letting off steam. . . and a log falling inside the stove.” Grandpa nodded encouragingly and passed the pipe back to me.
“I can hear the tobacco burning,” I commented in surprise, looking down at the glowing embers in the bowl. When I looked up again, Grandpa was smiling at me.
“It helps, doesn't it?” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“To listen,” he answered, and took the pipe back from me, staring out into the darkness again.
“Will, you were supposed to bring in the kettle, remember?” Jake called out, sticking his head around the screen door. “We're all waiting for tea. What are you doing?”
I realized that my heart beat was steady and my hands were relaxed for the first time in a while. I stood up and took the kettle off the stove.
“I was listening,” I answered, and walked to the door.
“Wait for me,” Grandpa said, rising from the bench. “I like sweet potato pie.”
I held the door for Grandpa and carried in the steaming kettle. Susanna was delivering small plates with generous wedges of sweet potato pie, topped with a high crown of whipped cream to each person in the room. Oil lamps on the tables around the room lit up each face.
“Would you pour it in here?” Ramona asked as I brought the kettle to the table. She pointed to a pitcher with fresh peppermint leaves in the bottom. I poured the boiling water over the leaves and watched them swirl and surge in the waterfall. The water began to turn a golden brown as the heady, clarifying scent of peppermint drifted upward and opened my head like all the windows on a house.
“Ah, that's great,” I sighed. Ramona leaned against me for a moment and I put my arm around her shoulders and hugged her to me.
“How are you?” she whispered. “How's it going?”
“Okay,” I whispered back. “How are you?”
“Fine,” she giggled. “I'm not the one trying to sell farm life to a city girl.”
“What are you guys whispering about over there?” Jake called out.
“Do you think we could drive him crazy if we kept this up?” I whispered again, just loud enough for Jake to hear this time.
“Hey!” he protested. Anna came running over, holding her soft hair back away from her ear, which was tilted up toward me.
“Whisper in my ear!” she said, grabbing me around the legs with her free arm. I set down the kettle and picked her up and carried her to the couch with me, whispering in her ear the whole way.
“Very, very good!” Jeremy announced, finishing the last bite of his pie. “Like pumpkin, but better! I didn't know you could make pie with a potato.”
“It is good,” Molly agreed. “Can I have the recipe? Is it hard to make?”
“No, it's very easy. And yes, you can have the recipe,” Mom answered. “Susanna made these. It's one of the favorites around here.”
“It's not my favorite,” Grandpa asserted, “but I'll have another piece anyway.”