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The Milk House: A manifesto on fire

Ryan Dennis Published on 28 February 2013

Several years ago, my friend brought me to her house in the suburbs. I can’t recall the rows of houses we passed to reach hers, only that it seemed indefinite because I couldn’t tell them apart.

Her car navigated the streets like a mole through rows of corn, and even from the passenger seat I had a sense of the rectilinear arrangement around us.



We pulled into her driveway and her family greeted me with handshakes and questions, leading me in a procession behind the house.

My initial impression was that these are some great people. I looked around me, at the grass at my feet, and expanded my reaction: These are great people with a nice lawn. It was dark and unburdened by dandelions or tree debris. It was groomed, tidy and closely cut.

Here, at my friend’s house, I imagined a suburban father loosening his tie after work in the office and circling the lawn with a Cub Cadet – worse, a John Deere lawn tractor – and making a point of calling it a lawn tractor.

There comes a point when I’m not sure what I imagined, what my friend told me and what I remembered from prior conversations with other city people.

Somewhere I heard that the quality of a lawn is a state of grace, that cutting grass on the weekend, even if it has barely grown, makes for relaxation.


That the smell of cut grass gives them severe pleasure. I concede that the smell of grass is nice. But why does it bother me when it means so much to others?

They brought me around the corner of the house where they told me there was a campfire. Without seeing it, campfire seemed like the wrong word for what was going to be a small, calculated pit in the corner of a manicured lawn.

It is natural to compare every macaroni salad to the ones you grew up with. The curved, inlaid bricks around the fire were more stylized than the tractor rim at my family’s pond. They used fire-lighters and lit them under carefully teepeed blocks of wood they bought at a gas station.

They stacked small twigs and called it kindling. They poked at it with concern. This is what I measured it against: broken-up slab wood, old two-by-fours and splits of locust we chunked up after milking and threw in a pile.

“I am a master of the fire,” someone at the party told me. “I am too,” I didn’t say. “I dump diesel on it and drop a match.” It is my understanding that man was quite elated when he discovered fire.

It changed his world. Yet, what he has done to it since, with his grooved bricks, seems terrible. It’s a condemnation on himself. It’s a violation of an old metaphor. Even fire, it seems, has been urbanized.


My friends are good people, with a nice lawn, and they treated me well. I make the distinction between farmers and city people and talk about the latter in tones of judgment.

I can’t find a better term for them than “city people.” I have no doubt that such prejudices originate in fear.

The pressure of the urban lifestyle encroaching on agriculture is felt in many ways, but it is certainly felt. Residents of Buffalo and Rochester buy lots around our fields and slowly build cabins and garages. Hills that were quiet with narrow dirt roads now have steady traffic climb them.

Every time another field gets a house or another farm disappears, even though I am already born and my childhood is in the past, it feels like one more chance that I might not have been born on a farm, and that I might have driven a lawn tractor instead of a real one. I might have talked about wholesome ways of living and not known the irony. PD

Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family still dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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