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The Milk House: The mind of a body

Ryan Dennis Published on 31 December 2012

Milk flashes into the claws, crashing against the plastic windows in steady pulses. The inflations squeeze each teat that they hold, gently, and then release them in perfect unison. Yellow hoses shake along the pit. The vacuum is the unseen force that drives it all in a deafening throbbing sound that you, if you didn’t know any better, would assume was your own heartbeat.

It pulls milk from the cow, from the parlor and to the bulk tank at the other end of the barn. Its airy whispers are relentless.I descend into the milking pit.



There, below the cows, the pulsing is louder, surrounding me, stifling the radio. I grab a dipper and fall in line with those already at work preparing the udders. My boots slide across the rubber mat as I move from cow to cow, dipping each teat in succession, working swiftly and automatically.

When I reach the last cow I turn around, walk the length of the pit and step in line again behind the person wiping the teats. I put the first milker on. I do not hesitate from one udder to the next, do not linger between animals, do not look around or watch the work that my hands do. Before long it appears that not only is the beat surrounding me in the pit, clearly controlling the functions of the parlor, but I seem to obey its rhythms too.

Once the gate is shut behind the cows in the holding area, it is easy to slip into autopilot. Without needing each other, the mind and body can lead separate lives. Being so, it is not uncommon for me to dip a row of udders in iodine, wipe them off and then stand at the opposite end of the pit with a handful of dirty towels, wondering if I had done anything at all to the cows.

It is my father who resists this state of non-being. He does it with conversation. We talk about the milk price, how the corn is coming and women.

If it is the warmer months, we consider the starting rotation of the Cubs and the trouble they have with their bullpen, and if it has already turned cold we weigh the prospects of the Bills and fool ourselves that they’ll do better this Sunday than they did the last one. Often, we have the same conversation again, just for the sake of having conversation. We do it, I realize now, so we don’t disappear.


At times, it becomes evident that when one walks out of the parlor, he doesn’t necessarily leave behind the rhythms that are a part of it. I think it is for these reasons I have trouble taking a nap, even continents away from home. My mind fully understands it is not immoral, nor are there cows to be seen, but the body refuses to be still under the guilt of sunlight.

Sometimes I wonder if my father is not also aware of the forces that pull on him. These last few years he has been insistent on having a cup of coffee on the porch after the morning milking, regardless of what waits in the field or barn. Again, he is the face of resistance.

Frank Lloyd Wright quoted that the failure of attaining freedom would be to enslave man to the machine and make him like it. Sometimes I wonder if, instead, the best we can do is to choose what we become slaves to.

My grandfather grew up working on a farm, first in Germany and then on the land his parents bought in New York State. Later, he would put in 45 years at a milk plant, laboring abnormal hours. Years after retirement find him in his mid-70s, no less active than when he was young.

He helps my uncle with the fieldwork and my parents with cutting firewood, willing to fell an entire forest if no one stops him. He eats his meals at the same time as his old school friends in Germany which, with the time difference, makes for breakfast at 3 a.m. and lunch at 8 a.m. Why a retired man doesn’t sleep to a reasonable hour and enjoy his retirement my grandmother doesn’t know.

Still, I have a guess. 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 Shorthorn s.

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