The Deep End
On February 12 we co-hosted a beautiful honey and cheese class with a company I admire and deeply respect, Two Hives Honey. There was a chance of rain, but the sun shone bright all day. Kidding season started the week before, the barn was full of pregnant goats. It was also the day Jolene died. Three hours before our guests arrived.
I haven’t written here since November because during our “off” season I needed to unplug and reflect. My first season as a commercial cheese maker and dairy farmer was, frankly, brutal. It was ugly and dirty and painful and completely opposite from where I started years ago, clutching a silver pail, curled against my first two goats, milking them in rhythm with morning bird song. It was the opposite of all of that. So I fell a little out of love with dairy, and I raged against the machines I’d purchased to create cheese that had, for a while, seemed to twist something I loved into something I dreaded. Those that know me intimately grew accustomed to my reference to the dairy as a prison I had built. Off season was a necessary pause, just long enough that I started to miss the drudgery and shit and mud and milk. I really missed the milk. But I dreaded the coming kidding season that was either wisely or stupidly (depending on the perspective) planned to occur all at once.
Weeks before kidding season began, Jolene became ill and it was obvious some metabolic issues were causing her trouble, something that happened in her very first pregnancy nearly five years ago. She was a large doe – more of a pony than a goat – and her milk production peaked at just over 2 gallons daily. She was a dairy machine and either because I hadn’t given her proper nutrition in her late pregnancy to supply adequate energy for her enormous body and growing kids, or because she simply had recurring metabolic issues, she was sick. After weeks of pumping her twice daily with an assortment of minerals, vitamins, supplements, she got better and just at her due date I thought she was fully recovered. But on the morning of Feb. 12, as I was running between the barn and the classroom/workshop where our event was about to occur, I found that she was in labor, was dying. So I stopped doing what I’d planned to do that morning, and I lay down with her in the barn where she struggled for her last breaths. I talked to her, I held her, and then she died. Jeremy let me sit with her for a long time before gently reminding me it was time to move the body. It was time to clean up, prepare for the event, keep going. I watched as he lifted her enormous body with the tractor, and he sat patiently as I hugged her for a final time, removed her collar. Closed her eyes. Kissed her muzzle.
Then I stood up. Walked to the newly installed sink in our barn, splashed my face with cold water, washed my hands, got ready to receive visitors.
I’m writing this now for reasons beyond catharsis, although that’s part of it, of course it is. Since that day, I haven’t had the opportunity to comprehend her death, the firm and symbolic book end it slammed down behind the Before period of our farm life here. For many reasons, my relationship with Jolene represents the reason I fell in love with goats and dairy. But that period is over, the quiet mornings on the wooden milk stand, the raw milk cheeses I made with fresh milk in my kitchen. It was beautiful, and it’s a beautiful memory, but it’s not what we do here anymore.
Today is April 1, and I’m wading into the deep end of our second season already. Nearly everything is different than last July when I timidly crafted my first cheeses in our enormous, industrial cheese vat/pasteurizer that lives inside the dairy building that’s inspected and scrutinized by the state of Texas, by Travis county, by everyone and anyone. Because this is no longer just about me and the goats, it’s about what we produce for a larger audience, and there’s beauty in that too. But it was my love for an eggplant colored goat named Jolene that got me to here. I hope to never forget what she meant to me.
Later in the day, once the class ended, we invited our guests out of the classroom and into the barn to pet the goats and enjoy what became a lovely, early spring day. As folks spilled out into the barn, my farm intern Bekah pulled me aside to let me know that Rosie was in labor and appeared close to delivery. The class participants gathered quietly around her stall, iPhones poised and ready for pictures of what I hoped would be an easy birth. It was immediately evident that wouldn’t be the case, and I quickly intervened, pulling a mal-positioned, dead kid whose neck had broken in the birth canal. I quietly and calmly delivered the news to the captive audience before happily delivering two healthy kids. Someone clapped, another woman shouted “happy birthday!” as I toweled off the last baby, such a sweet exclamation that I quickly looked up for the first time in five minutes and noted nearly 30 people crowded around with bated breath. Phones snapped pictures, some people wiped tears, many with shocked expressions, gaping mouths. I had no time that day to process the earlier death of Jolene, but in that moment realized whatever Powers that Be that initially drew me into this lifestyle were at work that afternoon; a gentle, a powerful reminder of the cyclical way of things and the way I am so drawn right into the center of all of it. All of it. Even the parts that include holding a friend while she dies.
Here’s the deal, I will never be silent about this part of it. This is the farmstead aspect of the farmstead cheese we create. It is what makes any farmstead animal by-product so unique, so achingly lovely, so valuable. Today at the farmer’s market a woman asked for our price per pound of fresh chevre (which is priced reasonably within our local cheese economy) and gasped, “You’re kidding!” to indicate a sentiment of overpricing. I quickly responded, “It’s surprising, I know, since it’s worth nearly twice that at least.” I wanted to tell her about Jolene. I wanted to tell her about the day I brought her home in the back of my car, so jittery with an excitement I still can’t articulate, knowing that she and Pearl were The Beginning of something that I couldn’t quite place. I had a fire in my belly that day. I still do.
I’m so excited about this season and so much more at peace with the ways that this endeavor are a departure from where I started. I’ve still got that little wooden milk stand, still have the original pail that I used to milk my first goat – to milk Jolene. I’ll keep them both as long as they’re useful, reminders of modest beginnings, dramatic endings, and all of the sometimes mundane, sometimes spectacular middle parts that matter most.