Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

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Her Cowness

There were a few dozen who occupied the field
across the road from where we lived,
stepping all day from tuft to tuft,
their big heads down in the soft grass,
though I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty
as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions, waiting for rain.
How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

But every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal
that I would put down the paper
or the knife I was cutting an apple with
and walk across the road to the stone wall
to see which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

Yes, it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one, anchored there on all fours,
her neck outstretched, her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

Then I knew that she was only announcing
the large, unadulterated cowness of herself,
pouring out the ancient apologia of her kind
to all the green fields and the gray clouds,
to the limestone hills and the inlet of the blue bay,
while she regarded my head and shoulders
above the wall with one wild, shocking eye.
~Billy Collins “Afternoon with Irish Cows”

Most of my life I have lived surrounded by cows. I have great appreciation for their pastoral presence, and know well their nosiness and their noisiness.

There isn’t anything else that sounds like a cow in heat. Nothing. Especially in the middle of the night.

There is the fascination of following a meandering cow path through a field –where there is no such thing as a straight line.

And there isn’t anything quite as riveting to a cow than a human approaching the gate.

During our farm stays in Ireland and Scotland a few years back, we made a point to get to know the local bovines, just for comparison’s sake. At home we raised Scottish Highland cattle, so we felt we could speak their language, even if they were Belted Galloways rather than Highlanders. Sure enough, we were just as riveting to them as they were to us.

We have talked about getting a couple of furry cows again for the farm. It’s been awhile since we hosted some here. I’m nostalgic for their reassuring cud chewing, their soft flap of ear, their round transparent eyes, but most of all watching the acrobatics of a tongue that wraps itself around a clump of grass while grazing and can reach up and clean out a moist nose.

A wondrous creature — the bovine – true magnificence and mystery in their cowness.

Rise Up in Weediness

Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications

from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight. In these moments
of desperation, a sentence

serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define

one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where

your tired body will carry you.
Eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast

might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

~Adam Clay “Our Daily Becoming”

I can choose to fight the inevitable march of time with sighs and sorrows,
thus arm myself with regret for what is no more,

or pull myself through light to dark each day with soul-sucking fatigue, uncertain if I have what it takes to power through,

or I can flow passively for as long as I can stay afloat, apart and remote,
barely aware of the passage of all around me,

or I can smile at awakening each morning, no matter what is forecast,
reaching up to the sun I know is there, though hidden behind mist, fog and clouds,

grateful I’m given another day to work to get it right:
my opportunity to be fruitful, despite my weediness.

The Winding Pathway of Least Resistance

One day thru the primeval wood 
A calf walked home, as good calves should, 
But made a trail all bent askew, 
A crooked trail, as all calves do. 
Since then three hundred years have fled, 
And I infer, the calf is dead; 
But still behind he left his trail, 
And thereon hangs my mortal tale.

The trail was taken up next day 
By a lone dog that passed that way, 
And then a wise bell-weather sheep 
Sliding into a rut now deep, 
Pursued that trail over hill and glade 
Thru those old woods a path was made.

And many men wound in and out, 
And dodged and turned and bent about, 
and uttered words of righteous wrath 
Because “twas such a crooked path” 
But still they follow-do not laugh- 
The first migrations of that calf.

The forest became a lane 
That bent and turned and turned again; 
This crooked lane became a road 
where many a poor horse with his load 
Toiled on beneath the burning sun, 
And traveled some three miles in one.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet, 
The village road became a street, 
And this, before the men were aware, 
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.

And soon a central street was this 
In a renowned metropolis; 
And men two centuries and a half 
Followed the wanderings of this calf.

Each day a hundred thousand strong 
Followed this zigzag calf along; 
And over his crooked journey went 
The traffic of a continent.

A hundred thousand men were led 
By one poor calf, three centuries dead. 
For just such reverence is lent 
To well established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach 
Were I ordained and called to preach.

For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf paths of the mind; 
And work away from sun to sun 
To do what other men have done.
~Sam Walter Foss “Cow Path”


Each day and night fly by more swiftly than the previous.  It is as if minutes are exponentially more compressed than in the past, hurtling forward to an inevitable destination, but the estimated time of arrival is unknown.

I struggle in late middle age to keep perspective while traveling this road of life, looking back at where I’ve been, and hoping for the best about where I’m headed, and trying to stick to the winding path ahead without deviation.  My regret about this journey is that I haven’t stopped nearly often enough to simply take in the scenery, listen to the birds, smell the orchard blossoms, and feel the grass under my bare feet.

It is the conundrum of following the cow path laid down before me, traveling the well-worn pathway of precedent.

Nevertheless, as with all cow paths, there may have been no greater reason for the bend or curve than a patch of tall appealing grass at one time, or a good itching spot on a tree trunk or a boulder obstructing the way.  Still I follow the curve, dodge the boulder, tread the zig zag. My path may appear random without focus on the destination and that’s okay:   I need to stop once in awhile, settle down for a really good nap, enjoy a particularly fine meal, read an insightful book, or play a lovely hymn.  It is not which path I’ve traveled to my eventual destination but the quality of my journey along the way.

I enjoy the twists and turns of life if I take the time to appreciate them.  Just maybe – I’ll throw in a few curves of my own for those who are following behind me.


Every Green Moment

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Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
~Ted Kooser “A Birthday Poem”

 

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Right now
all is green~
every square inch
and every misty mythical moment.

So I feast while I can,
knowing soon the darkness descends
and I too am called
to come home,
the bells I bear
swinging and ringing.

 

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Dreaming With Wide Open Eyes

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photo by Kate Steensma

 

The cattle crouched round them in soft shadowy clumps, placidly munching, and dreaming with wide-open eyes. The narrow zone of colour created by the firelight was like the planet Earth – a little freak of brightness in a universe of impenetrable shadows.
~Hope Mirrlees from “Watching the Cows” 

 

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Sometimes I feel I am dreaming awake with wide-open eyes.  There is a slow motion quality to time as it flows from one hour to the next to the next.  Everything becomes more vivid, as in a dream — the sounds of birds, the smell of the farm, the depth of the greens in the landscape, the taste of fresh plums, the intensity of every breath, the reason for being.

The rest of time, in its rush and blur,  can feel like sleepwalking,  my eyes open but unseeing.  I stumble through life’s shadows, the path indiscernible, my future uncertain, my purpose illusive.

Wake me to dream some more.    I want to chew on it again and again, like a cow it’s cud, savoring.

 

 

 

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Yet One Rich Smile

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Yet one smile more, departing, distant sun!
One mellow smile through the soft vapory air,
Ere, o’er the frozen earth, the loud winds run,
Or snows are sifted o’er the meadows bare.
One smile on the brown hills and naked trees,
And the dark rocks whose summer wreaths are cast,
And the blue gentian flower, that, in the breeze,
Nods lonely, of her beauteous race the last.
Yet a few sunny days, in which the bee
Shall murmur by the hedge that skirts the way,
The cricket chirp upon the russet lea,
And man delight to linger in thy ray.
Yet one rich smile, and we will try to bear
The piercing winter frost, and winds, and darkened air.
~William Cullen Bryant “November”

 

The window of richness is brief these November mornings,
enough time to feed and water animals,
watch the geese fly overhead,
capture the light and fog in soft vapory air
before it dissipates back to
just another ordinary day.
This blessing of light is
beyond my understanding,
beyond my ability to preserve,
beyond any gratitude I can offer.
It is freely given with a smile
and I delight to linger…

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How Could I Explain Anything

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

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The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light

faint stars and the silver leaves
of milkweed beside the road,
gleaming before my car.

Yet I like driving at night
in summer and in Vermont:
the brown road through the mist

of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw

the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.

I stopped, and took my flashlight
to the pasture fence. They turned
to me where they lay, sad

and beautiful faces in the dark,
and I counted them – forty
near and far in the pasture,

turning to me, sad and beautiful
like girls very long ago
who were innocent, and sad

because they were innocent,
and beautiful because they were
sad. I switched off my light.

But I did not want to go,
not yet, nor knew what to do
if I should stay, for how

in that great darkness could I explain
anything, anything at all.
I stood by the fence. And then

very gently it began to rain.
~Hayden Carruth “The Cows at Night”

All my life I’ve lived near cows,
sitting on a bony Guernsey back
while my father leaned in close to a warm flank
to rhythmically coax milk into a metal bucket.
I’d teach a tail-switching calf to drink from a pail
by leading its mouth, sucking my fingers,
down to the milky froth.

There were always cows out back,
or in the woods,
or across the road,
or on the road,
or following the winding path
or eventually in the freezer,
their great heads bobbing and curious,
ears waggling, tails swiping,
their sand paper tongues
licking clean each moist nostril.

So much is simpler for a cow~
a meadow of dewy grass, and full udders
awaiting the relief of the calf or the milker’s hands.
Maybe this is why I ruminate on life
chewing my cud on what was and is, just
waiting for the next thing to happen.

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