Anyone who tells you that milking your darling animal at 5am is idyllic and wonderful – is lying. Straight up.
I can think of a lot of incredible ways to spend those graceful hours between 5am and 7am, where the world is wrapped in a dewy blanket of early morning. When all the littlest things are out creeping and wandering. When the moon’s passed completely over the liquid midnight hours into the haze of earliest morning and just about anything, anything is possible on this new day. The most incredible way I can think of spending those tepid hours is, frankly, asleep. Tucked into my cozy bed and snoring through a dream about sprouting wings and flying over hills or drinking cups of liquid chocolate.
It’s untruthful to paint images of skipping forth from the house in pigtails and checkered blouses, your rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes glowing at the prospect of living on a farm! Oh yes! Lucky you!! Clicking your heels as you approach the tidy barn where the animals bleat happily and smell like furry little roses.
That’s a lie, again. Straight. Up.
Let me tell you how it really works, because if we’re not keeping things real, then we’re doing a disservice to the true beauty of the situation. Once the alarm smacks you into wakeful dreaming and after you have rolled over to fumble through the dance of turning the damn buzzer off, you will lie on your back momentarily, rubbing your eyes with the forlorn reality that yes, actually, you must wake up. Stumble through the darkness, if you didn’t have the foresight to lay out the dirty farm clothes the night before. You must trip over the snoring labrador who, frankly, has no plans to accompany you on your morning rituals (“man’s best friend,” my a$$). As you are nearly blind without spectacles, you must grope across the inky darkness of a black room in the wee hours and feel around for clothing, stubbing your toe on the bed for good measure, just to re-affirm that you’re alive and still feel pain. If you’re very lucky, the new precious angel-puppy, not yet house-trained, has left a gift for you smack in the middle of the floor. A present deposited in the deepest hours of night, when you were dreaming of flying and chocolate. When the notion of 5am wakefulness was a distant reality.
Somehow you dress. Falling into the hallway, your toe still throbbing, you enter the living area and lean against the wall momentarily where it’s possible you might crumple into a pile and take a nap. Suddenly, above the snoring dogs and hum of the refrigerator, you hear a bleating sound waft through the woods that shroud the house. Then the high and steady call of a whippoorwill. The haze that clouds your vision is thick, but it’s clearing, and as the bleating outside gets louder – more frantic – you remember why you’ve gotten this far into the hallway. The ridiculousness of your situation gaining some semblance of meaning again. There are little animals out there who, because of your planning and scheming, are pacing with bags full of milk. It’s your fault, and only you can fix it. This propels you out the back door.
Emerging outside, damply matted bed head, sticking off your scalp in right angles, it’s likely you don’t fit the bill of a precious dairy maid – the vision that may have played into your decision to get this far in the first place. Animal husbandry and farming look sort of like this: matted hair, dirt crusted in your nose and the corners of your mouth to match the sleep crusted up in your eyes, mismatched clothes not washed in a week, and a manure and milk splattered jacket. Not your sexiest moment, but also somehow, your sexiest moment. It’s confusing.
Now you’re striding towards the barn, carrying the empty pails, sanitized overnight, silver and gleaming. Maybe there are bowls of dog food gripped in the other hand for your guard crew. Maybe a bottle of milk for the animal babies still on the bottle. You glance out at the view, suddenly caught by the enormity of the beauty that’s just – there. Just sitting out there all night long, revealed in these early minutes of morning. The resentment you felt when the alarm screamed and the pain in your toe, and the sleep in your eyes start to turn a little – just a little – into tiny pangs of gratitude. You push through the mushy feelings and busy yourself with the work of chores. Filling the trough of the milk stand with feed, arranging your towels to clean the udders, tucking away the dog bowls so they’re ready for feeding when you’re done milking. Hang the pail. Stretch the fingers.
As you lead the first animal from her pen, probably the herd queen, given first rights to the milking stand – clarity starts to settle in. The whippoorwills sing from nests at tree bases, the hoot owls gossip all around you. A coyote barks at the pond. The animal is now settled into the stand, eating her grain happily. It’s cold still, and you rest your head into her side where the smell of the beast rises up and warms you in that familiar way that maybe smells like childhood – depending on how you grew up.
That’s the moment, every morning now, when I’ve shut my eyes and milk by feel, with the sound of a rumen working against my ear, the dusty scent of musk and hay consume the senses – that’s the moment. It’s like taking the sacrament there, on the little wood stand, bent over an animal, your hands work like machines cranking, the levers spinning, the milk hitting the pail with a steady hiss – you are connected to thousands of others crouched over their creatures in worship at this very moment. United in this solitary endeavor that, inexplicably, forced you from the comfort of your covers at an unholy hour to complete such a holy and ancient act. I can’t articulate why we do it. Does the milk taste good? Sure, it’s great! But I can buy it from a store. There’s no point dissecting what’s sacred to each of us, so long as we recognize it’s sacred. You complete the task, go back inside, clean the equipment, take a shower, get on with things for the day until it’s time again – 12 hours later. Rinse, repeat. Every morning, every day; a routine that’s not a burden but a blessing for reasons I can’t explain and won’t attempt to decipher.