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The Milk House: The thing itself

Ryan Dennis Published on 11 October 2011

He walked towards me with his hand out and fingers spread as wide as they go. My hand was wet with dirt and sweat. I was going to wipe it on my jeans, but he grabbed it first. “I’m here for the day,” he said. “Just a place to come down to every once in a while, get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”

He nodded at the pounder, still hanging on the fence post. “It’s an honest lifestyle, isn’t it?” he asked.

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I wanted to get the dry cow fence fixed before it rained.

“You probably get up early to milk cows and stuff, don’t you?” he asked. “Five o’clock?”

“Three,” I lied.

“My grandpa had a farm. Lot of work. I’m just a country person at heart.” The city guy waved his hand to gesture at the fields around us. “I think it means a lot to have a spiritual tie to the land.”

The above conversation never took place verbatim. Still, I imagine I’ve been party to something similar my whole life, listening to others’ expressions of kinship and being congratulated on my wholesome way of living. Public ideas about farming seldom hit the mark because they come from people who do not farm.

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A farmer in a movie or television commercial will often wear overalls, a straw hat – and with disturbing frequency – have a piece of hay sticking out of his mouth. It is a ridiculous image, perhaps, although one that is brimming with wholesomeness.

There is a poem read in high school and college classes by Wallace Stevens called “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” Although I never understood any of the poem itself, the title makes sense to me: “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.”

It may be a little outdated, but we still dehorn heifers with gougers. Sometimes, admittedly, the horns get pretty big before we get to them. After all these years, one would think that we’d have it to a science, but it still comes down to somehow fitting a halter on a resisting animal, either with a head chute or by pinning them in the corner.

We always come away with blood on the front of our shirts and bruises on our stomachs where we were poked by their thrashing heads. Sometimes, I look into the holes left in their skulls and become surprised again by how unclinical the act of farming is.

Other professions have standard operating procedures and guidelines that, if followed accordingly, would mean that you’ll never have to invent anything new or pull off any miracles. A dentist will never look inside a mouth and have to try something MacGyver-like with his instruments.

Our family, however, finds ourselves sewing up prolapsed uteruses with shoestrings and holding equipment together with the scraps laying around us. Farming, the thing itself, requires a miracle every day.

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When my girlfriend’s internship ended on Wall Street she came to our farm for a week. She sent her parents a postcard in German that started “Aus der Mitte von Nirgendwo …” (“From the middle of nowhere”) that had a red barn tucked between two green hills and clean cows grazing behind it. It was a nice image and her parents probably taped it to their refrigerator.

This is what our barns look like: The gates are rusted; there are cobwebs in the rafters; some of the doors on the calf hutches sag; sometimes there is manure in front of a building before it can get moved away; and sometimes there are empty teat dip drums lying in front of the milk house entrance.

Visually, our farm contains a lot of elements found in southern Gothic literature that Faulkner or O’Connor would have written. Our family are not slackers – if that must be said. We take care of business and our cows. In the business of farming, however, this is what a farm looks like.

My girlfriend is from a family of lawyers in Germany. She was excited to get to milk a cow. I told her that you just slip the milker on. She wanted to do it the other way, like they do it in movies, and then made squeezing motions with her hands because she didn’t know the exact words in English.

There is a divide between the urban conception of farming and the tangible act of it. Although every farmer has the God-given right to wear a straw hat, it is my understanding that few do.

Who is responsible for this mistake? Is the media shirking its research duties before dressing up their actors? Is farming simply too technical for others to understand? Have we not sent enough of our own writers and artists to infiltrate mainstream society and inform the masses?

Perhaps it is an indication that a society that no longer farms will no longer understands farming things. It’s a sign that if we’re not a dying breed, we’re at least a misunderstood one.

Greetings World, from the middle of nowhere. PD

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