"Milk." Pastel on paper, 2011. Alice Whitney
NOTE: If you want to read By Heart from the beginning, go to Archives, click on May 2011, scroll down to Prelude 1. Begin there and read up from there.
I’m happy and privileged to introduce an artist and poet to the blog today - my wife. Her pastel, “Milk,” appears at the top of the column. As well as Maggie, Brownie’s successor, one of her daughters appears beside her, as well as two of the barn cats, regular attendants at milking time. The chap on the milking stool is myself - at a younger age. The poem (with her pencil drawing), one of a series of poems intended for children (including grandchildren), memorialises one of Brownie’s more endearing tricks. Never think that cows have no sense of humour!
Beginnings are often more difficult to see than endings. And what we might think of as a beginning may in fact be the end of a long development and also at the same time another step toward a yet unforeseen beginning. Although the legal documents that made this place our own have dates that can be verified and so make a beginning of sorts, how those documents came to be, how this place came to be ours, how we came to buy a cow that had to be milked twice a day when we had never so much as been on a dairy farm, large or small - can all that, in any real sense, be explained? There are threads that run through our lives, threads that take us beyond complexity and into mystery, a mystery that will take us, if we are honest, all the way back to St Thomas Aquinas’s First Cause, God.
It was September of the first year we were here, having arrived in July fresh from the city. Between that beginning in July and that September I had, with the help of neighbours who had become our first friends, found a cow for sale not too far away. With the trees along the edges of the fields beginning to colour up and the nighttime temperatures beginning to drop into the 40's old style, we passed across the border marked by Labour Day and into our first fall here. Wednesday of that week our older children got on a school bus for the first time, to begin their school life down here. We parents were on pins and needles all day. How had their day gone? Would the contrast with the city schools be too great? Anxiously we awaited the return of the school bus! It seemed we had worried for no reason. All was well.
Three days later I paid the asking price and we became the owners of a milk cow. That evening, our cow, an elderly Jersey named Brownie, and I, began another educational process. The class, “How to milk a cow by hand,” met morning and evening. Brownie knew the ropes. I did not. I knew mastitis threatened if the udder was not milked out and, after considerable struggle, I had only succeeded in finding two quarts of the rich Jersey milk, and I didn’t think I had gotten all that was there. Sunday morning I got a little more, but still, I was sure, not enough.
A quick call to an elderly neighbour down the road brought an offer of help which I accepted with gratitude. That evening Harold got me to start milking and quietly offered suggestions: everything from how to sit against the cow so that if she happened to kick you were more out of harm’s way, to how to clean the udder before starting to milk, to how to reach under the udder to grasp the teats on the other side. Then, after I had struggled away with his encouragement, he sat down and finished the job. Four quarts. By the end of that week Brownie and I had come to understand each other and on the Friday our oldest daughter, Hannah, made our first butter from Brownie’s milk. It was a beginning.
In the Beginning . . .
We have had a number of cows over the years, of greater or lesser personality. Brownie, our first cow, was already well-advanced in years when she came to live here. She taught us a lot about cows in general and Jerseys in particular. She had to. When she arrived we had never milked a cow. Indeed, we had never had more than a passing acquaintance with a cow.
Experienced farmers, men who had farmed the small farms of this part of the world all their lives, had told us that Jerseys were “nervous.” The implication seemed to be that they were rather difficult and might give us trouble. What we discovered, in the course of 20 years of keeping them, was not nerves but intelligence. And Jerseys are “thrifty.” They could adapt to different conditions without trouble. They could adapt to a situation in which different members of the family might show up at milking time, and adapt even to milking times that could vary depending on the other obligations of the family. What they did have that fascinated us was their curiosity. Forget to close a gate into the pasture and a Jersey would go out to see what was on the other side. (Of course this did not mean that having seen the other side the Jersey would return to the pasture by the same route, if at all. We learned to be careful about shutting gates!
Our good neighbour, Harold Parlee, introduced us to the mysteries of milking as seen from the farmer's perspective. Brownie, a philosophical Jersey, endured the lengthy process without complaint although it was some time before she knew us well enough to be gracious about letting down the milk.
Brownie put up with a lot in those early days. It seemed that milking took hours, there were so many things to think about--how to sit, how to hold the bucket, how to reach under the udder to get the teats on the far side, how to squeeze. Every squirt of milk in the bucket was a hard-won victory. And this all had to be done twice a day! How did anyone ever get anything done, who had to milk several cows? Through it all, Brownie would munch away at her hay and occasionally swing her head around and stare at the perspiring milker as if to say, "Why are you making such a fuss about such a simple process? Why don't you just get on with it?"
Brownie had a sense of humour. She was not given to slapstick comedy but every now and then, when the mood was on her, she would do the odd little thing. One of her favourite gags involved her grain pan. We had decided that we had enough to do to learn to milk without having to pursue a cow who was moving around to pursue every last bit of grain we had put down for her. Finally we bought a dishpan and used that for her grain ration and it did help to keep her more-or-less in one place. Gradually we began to get the hang of milking and the process seemed to grow more manageable in extent and we learned how to adjust for the cow's movements. Then, one morning, as I was milking I was impressed by how nicely Brownie was standing, how quietly. I glanced up to discover her placidly chewing her cud, with her grain pan nicely upside down on her head like an Easter bonnet. How she did this trick we never knew. By the time we noticed it was already done. However it was done it seemed to be her way of letting the world know that she could see the humour in things too.
It was Brownie who, after we had all gotten to know each other and she had been here for a couple of years at least, suddenly one day gave us some anxious hours that we won't soon forget.
It happened when we decided that she was getting too old and it was time to get another cow. We finally found one we could afford, another Jersey, up near Fredericton, and we had borrowed a neighbour's truck and gone up to bring her home. Nothing of course had been said to Brownie who was out in the pasture when we left. As far as we knew we had not mentioned the purchase in Brownie’s hearing, but when we got back with the new cow Brownie had vanished.
There are cows who simply do not respond well to confinement, but Brownie was not one of them. For the whole of her first summer with us she had been on a tether and even that had not been a problem. But now, incredibly, she was nowhere to be found. It wasn't that she had found herself on the wrong side of the fence. She was just gone. Period. We called and called. Neighbours came over and helped us search. No Brownie.
We were all standing out between the barn and the granary, looking at the woods beyond and feeling anguished. Night was coming. There didn't seem to be anything to do. And then for some reason I turned around. Not five feet from me stood Brownie, looking straight at me. None of us had heard a thing. We never knew where she had come from.
Somehow, though, we felt she had expressed her opinion about bringing another cow into her barn. She clearly wanted us to know that, whatever we took it into our heads to do, she was still in charge of the barn. And so she remained, as long as she was with us, our first cow and the first of a series of Jerseys, the perfect cows, we found, for a small farm like ours. 14 June 1994
Our elegant little Jersey cow
With perfect horns has been endowed.
One graceful curve opposing t’other
Embellishes this gentle mother.
She, in her stall at milking hour,
Fresh from meadow grass and flower,
Stands quiet, proper, meek, and mild,
Not the least bit strange or wild.
But she’s not one to let stagnation
Stifle her imagination.
The orange pan her grain comes in
Is soon licked clean, then she begins.
A little maneuvering of her head
Back and forth and up ahead.
Soon, the milker, glancing right,
Sees a most peculiar sight -
Our Jersey, head up, methodically chewing,
Or doing a little gentle mooing,
While that orange pan adorns
Those very perfect Jersey horns