Chaos and Careful Counsel
The vet came out this week to drain abscesses that exploded on Clementine’s jaw line nearly overnight. In my panic-driven frenzy of Google searching, I (mis)diagnosed her with a variety of ailments, some minor, most deadly. I called the vet nearly strangled with sobs who listened before stating with a sniff, “Sounds like a basic abscess. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Sure enough, after separating cattle and leading Clem into the squeeze chute, the vet explained the cow had fallen victim to a bit of spear grass from our hay bale. It lodged into her face and burrowed under her skin, likely because of the halter she wears daily. Grotesque swelling protruded from her face that the vet lanced, drained, and flushed. “Your hay is total crap,” she declared – something I realize now should have been obvious once I saw the cows were all dotted with spear grass since the day we gave them the new bale. I felt like a fool, having been duped into bad hay that eventually hurt my cow, having made it worse by keeping a halter on that rubbed the wounds. It’s not the first hay-related mistake I’ve made. It will hardly be the last. We were both slathered in a thin layer of manure by the end of the visit, and Junebug worked up enough courage to approach us timidly, lick a hand and then skip away, bucking as she ran. “You’ve got a really good job,” I said to the vet as she wiped blood from her forehead. “I know!” she flashed a smile and loaded equipment back into the truck, then bumped off down the road towards her next adventure, to some other farm whose problem she could solve, just like that. I bet she sleeps well at night, I thought with genuine jealousy before walking inside to wash my hands.
I came back out for a quick visit to the goat and pig pasture, a place that will soon be free of goats to give the always-starving-never-satiated pigs the ability to terrorize only each other. They were an afterthought addition here, the type of livestock I always vaguely wanted but never carefully researched. I was certain we would have pigs as a source of excellent milk and whey-fed meat and knew our forest provided perfect pig real estate. But anything else would be learned on the job. And what I’ve learned is that pigs have a voracious appetite, despite the amount of food they’ve been given. They also adore being wet. And they crave affection. Constant, uninterrupted attention. This means that once I enter their pasture, should I have the misfortune of alerting a pig to my presence, it will come squealing with delight from the woods – and 100 pounds of swine hurtling towards a person is frightening. Once the pig is within spitting distance it will sink slowly onto its knees, will collapse on its side, and come to a rest across both of my feet so that I am trapped beneath its weight. Then it will grunt gently as a slow smile spreads across its porcine face. A prisoner beneath the pork, I am forced to scratch bellies, chins, ears, until I am surrounded by pigs in hog heaven, their grunts and snorts a chorus of pleasure.
The goats gather in frustration just beyond the pig pile, since my hands are too occupied to scratch them. They burp and chew cud between insistent screams. The rooster violently chases a hen through the legs of this goat circle. Wind blows dust and manure across my clothes. And the cows moo angrily through the other pasture fence, the one I’ve just left. It’s at that moment, usually, buried beneath several hundred pounds of pig, the weight of so many jealous goat eyes bearing down steadily, that four separate Great Pyrenees paws take turns scratching at my legs. I sigh softly. Such is the beginning of a typical morning.
Except soon it won’t be the beginning of a typical morning. Progress on the dairy building is slow but it’s steady, and I pace the floor of our house until the building crew leaves so I can inspect daily changes. Every step forward is a pull closer to the inevitable: soon I’ll have to get to work. Like, really really get to work. Work I’ve never had to do before. Countless conversations from seasoned dairy folks and cheese makers have had one common theme – your work is your life and your life is your work. There’s not much distinction. I sip a beer to steady my nerves on afternoon walks through the dairy building and across what will soon be the milking parlor. I brace myself.
I have mentioned before my great good fortune to be circled with an army of good will in the form of mentors to help with animal husbandry, general dairying, and cheese making. One friend in particular has been a gentle, constant voice over the past year, dropping sage wisdom into casual conversation so that my breath stops momentarily. She is a shoulder shaker without causing any shaking, and from her I’ve been given much more than can ever be returned. Today I sent her pictures of the dairy, mentioned that it’s hard to see progress in the midst of the chaos. “Best to make friends with chaos,” she wrote, “she will be staying for some time.” The sort of quiet reminder that’s offered with an encouraging smile, to adjust those expectations, dig down into the looming commitments and frustrations. They are coming. Now more than ever I need these gentle nudges and sound advice sprinkled into daily conversation to silence the screaming that surrounds – and is within – me. If you ever venture out into the deep like me, I’d like to offer some advice of my own. It’s the very best I can give and summarizes absolutely everything I’ve learned: Surround yourself with supportive mentors. Swallow your pride and ask questions. And listen to their very careful counsel.