She left as suddenly as she had come. Lucy, a fiery, red-headed Jersey milk cow had become an integral part of our life over the past seven years – and now she was gone – not dead and gone, but sold and taken to her new life on another local farm.
The day she originally came, she was being dropped off with another cow from a friend’s dairy farm. They were downscaling their operation and the cows needed a new home. After talking with our friends who own the farm we live on – it was decided that they would purchase two cows – both pregnant. We would be the primary milkers eventually – but at the start we had no experience with cows…at all.
Being a late convert to rural and farm life I had grown up in the asphalt and concrete of suburbia. The closest I had come to experiencing farm life was visiting my Dad during the summers as I was growing up. My Dad was a Church of the Brethren pastor and always lived in rural areas with Amish communities also usually nearby. Fields of corn and mysterious, black-clad, bearded men in suspenders and straw hats, women in bonnets, and their attending children, served as a fascinating contrast to my hyper modern life of TV watching and latchkey kid isolation. The Amish became a part of the mythos of my inner narrative – a kind of revolutionary group that I always considered as a radical way out if I ever lost myself, entangled hopelessly in the satiation or collapse of my electrified world. I would become Amish – or something like it. Little did I know that the themes of intentional community and rural living would become central to my understanding of life and faith – both things I saw modeled from afar in the Amish.
On that first day that Lucy came – I stood aghast, wondering if the Amish ever had so much trouble with their milk cows. She was wild and unruly – and had no interest in being near or cooperating with us. My friend who owned the farm and I had watched Lucy rip apart a small corral we had built from metal farm gates. It could not contain her. She was tied to one of the gates – but would have none of it. In a show of force that bordered on suicidal, we had to untie the gate which laid on the ground still attached to her – one false move and the metal gate could have knocked us out as she went running. She might as well had been a wild stallion – fresh from the wilderness. I don’t remember if our neighbor just stopped by on his own – glancing towards the ‘cow gone wild’ as he drove by and then slamming on the breaks, or if we called on the phone in a pitiful voice saying: “Good morning neighbor. I was wondering – you have cows, do you perchance have any skills in cow whispering or even cow wrestling or taming?” He showed up with the positive force of his neighborly kindness and extensive experience with cattle. Lucy, unwilling to settle down, was only slightly persuaded after our neighbor ran alongside her – putting her in a headlock as she ran full speed down a grassy hill. He bent the beast to his will – and went to town for us to fetch a collar for her.
Lucy gave birth before the other cow and the once bovine hurricane became a calm, but protective mother. It was a miracle, both motherhood and the birth itself. I crouched in the pasture watching – camera in hand, as the calf entered the world. It was the circle of life. Then I watched her eat the amniotic sac and almost everything else that came out with the calf. I obviously was in uncharted territory. The romance of this farm-life moment burst in the stark light of animal instinct. Who knew that dry heaving and wonder could coincide in a single moment?
For me, growing up in suburban America – a cow was a mythological beast, especially a milk cow. And after Lucy’s calf was born, learning how to milk was like befriending a dragon. This once imaginary creature was in my memories as a kid – through fairy-tale-like books with cartoons of farm life, and plastic toys. It was fantastical though I knew somewhere it was real – just not in my world. In real life she was massive in size and could kill you at any moment – just like a dragon. But if you won her affection – she would share her golden treasure with you and you would be rich.
We learned how to share the milk with the calf – separating the mother and baby at night so we had first shot at the milk in the morning. Over the course of year’s we would eventually move to every other day milking. But in the first go around it was a crash course that we weren’t sure we were ready for. At the very beginning our friend and farm owner, who had grown up on a farm in Texas, handled the milking. I was an apprentice. And then the milking was left up to us completely. They were going out of town. It was up to my wife and I.
In those first milkings and for a long time – it was a race to see who would finish first – us or the milk cow. She stood in a simple milking stall in the barn eating alfalfa pellets. My wife on one side of the udder, and I on the other. Our kids were little at the time, so instead of leaving them alone in our cabin, which was just a little too far away and across the creek, we piled the kids into our van and parked them outside the barn. We frantically milked, weak hands and fearful hearts. As soon as Lucy was done eating her pellets she we would back up and walk away. If you weren’t watching close enough, the milk bucket would be spilled, the cow would be freaked out, and your pride would be bruised sufficiently.
Over time I milked Lucy all by myself. My hands were strengthened by muscle memory and constant use. My heart was less fearful as Lucy learned to tolerate me – and, dare I say, appreciate the milking – only occasionally putting me in my place with a disapproving kick or a swift exit. As my two oldest boys approached their teen years they became my milking companions – switching off so there was always two of us. The rhythms of milking persisted through the freezing temperatures of winter, the greening of spring, the humid heat of summer, and the barrenness of autumn. Each time we came to the end of milking, her milk supply would dry up, and inevitably she would find her way, sometimes by what seemed like magic, through fences or gates – and make her way to the neighbors’ bull. And the cycle of pregnancy, birth, and coming into milk would begin again. All of this was inspired by our farming friends who made a life of farming. They themselves kept a small herd of Jersey cows. Fortunately we were able to lean on them for best practices, advice and consolation.
Lucy was my introduction into a life I never thought I could pass into. Having a garden was one thing, having chickens was another thing, but milking a cow somehow meant to some people that I was a farmer. Full time, large scale farmers would likely disagree. Having a family milk cow is a hobby they would say. For me it was not a hobby. It was a conversion – a learning of humility of heart. And an introduction into the Biblical concept of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ – but in this case it is the ‘farmerhood of all humans’. I do not claim the title farmer – possibly new agrarian – but farm life cannot be lived for the claim of any title. It is continual learning, and the unfolding vision of a life lived in an interlocking web of relationships – a cultivated interaction among humans, animals, pastures, trees – of field and forest – weather and human effort. This nesting of forms and functions cannot be controlled, only cultivated at various levels of intention. From the harvesting of milk to the slow making of rich, dark compost from straw and cow pies that enriched our garden, we were the beneficiaries, not the masters, of a beautiful ecology that proceeds from the heart and mind of our Creator.
I learned from Lucy that domesticated animals – and cattle in particular, are given to us to help us cultivate the earth, to make the land thrive, to help feed us, and we in turn are given to them – to protect them, care for them – and to learn from them – to learn that machines cannot replace their good work, that we (as humans) are not unaccountable sovereigns over God’s creation – but we are an integral player, a dependent leader, a humble servant steward, accountable in all things – who needs other creatures to make our Eden’s thrive. Lucy also taught me that I cannot out run a Jersey cow – but I can keep up on a mountain bike. More times than I can count – did she take advantage of poor fencing, to find a neighbor’s bull, other cows – or to go gallivanting in search of greener pastures. Reluctant to come home, my boys and I would have to chase her (and sometimes one of her calves) on foot and by bicycle across open pastures at the neighbor’s farm until she was carefully coaxed into returning through an open gate.
And now – I know, though she is gone, she will not return here. This time we do not have to chase her down. She is with a new family, with other cows and animals – exactly what she had been looking for all along. Hopefully she will balance her sass with grace a little more generously then she did with us at first. And hopefully, one day when we have our own farm, we’ll return again to the rhythms of milking.
Some final thoughts: Animals, and specifically I am thinking of farm animals are increasingly becoming somewhat of a mythology because they are disappearing from our lives. And while wild animals may disappear because of migration or extinction – farm animals disappear because we abandon our farms and agrarian ways that have sustained us through every human generation. A family milk cow becomes a novelty or a hobby or a children’s book fairy tale – when once they were a necessity. But is that necessity really in the past? No – it is true even in the modern, industrialized present. Still we depend on these farm animals – but like our dependence on the land and those who work the land on our behalf, our consciousness of them has been pushed to the margins – out of sight, out of mind. The proxies by which we live are invisible and we dwell in certain forms of ignorance because we choose this to be so. With every generation, farming is more and more mechanized – even automated, breathtaking in scale and scope, and more and more entangled within the hands of corporate monopolies. But no CEO, new machine, or scientific method can ever replace the good work of farm animals. A family milk cow is still the best way to turn grass into real, golden butter. And no level of effortless comfort or convenience can separate us from our dependence on land and animals alike. May we relearn the God-given wisdom hidden in the trials and virtues of keeping a family milk cow – and may we relearn our place in all that God has given.