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The Milk House: Venture of solitude

Ryan Dennis Published on 06 February 2014

Several months ago, comedian Louis C.K. appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show, explaining why he didn’t like cell phones. He describes driving down the highway when a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio and evoked memories that made him feel sad and alone.

His first response was to grab his phone and text people until he got a response. He avoided the urge, however, and instead pulled off the road to weep. Later, he began to believe that because of smartphones and other technology, people are never truly alone and therefore never have to face themselves.

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He even goes as far as to suggest that because people are able to avoid feeling profound sadness and loneliness, they are never able to experience complete happiness.

I grew up OK with being alone. I think the tractor was part of the reason. Long summer days of fieldwork lend their share of solitude. Even the radio, eventually, can’t disguise that it is only you in the cab. My wandering mind tends to go through the same progressions each time.

First, I daydream. About winning the Nobel Prize, about people I wish I could meet – there are no rules. Sometimes they’re pretty farfetched – I’m giving the acceptance speech after winning the presidential election or riding a bicycle through Africa.

And then, for reasons I don’t understand, I get angry. It can be about someone I know, or righteous anger about world problems I’ve never experienced personally. Often I make up scenarios that don’t exist and then get heated up over them. I don’t know why.

Finally, when I’ve run the spectrum of imagined and illogical emotions, and the radio is repeating songs from a few hours ago, I’m just left with myself.

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I stayed with a farmer in Iceland named Jón Gíslason. Jón was a small man in his 60s that smiled a lot. When no one was talking, he had a habit of looking into the distance and saying the Icelandic equivalent of “Yes, yes, yes.” His laid-back nature immediately put one at ease.

I got the impression that Jón was well-liked in the valley. Another farmer’s daughter told how he used to tease her in church by leaning across the pew to pinch her while she sang in the choir. She affectionately called him Jónsy.

There was a community event while I stayed there, and Jón was asked to provide some of the entertainment. He was known for his impressions of other locals. He gave a few at his kitchen table.

It surprised me when he told me that one of the things he liked about farming was the chance to be alone. For a man so good with people, I didn’t expect him to seek refuge from them.

He said that people in the city were different, and that he could never make a life there. Other than his family, he spent his days with only his own thoughts, and that was how he preferred it.

Several weeks ago, I interviewed for a Ph.D. fellowship to Ireland. If chosen, my project would be to evaluate the presence of farming in literature after recent changes in EU dairy policy. One of the interviewers noted that in my application I stated that farmers are a group of people with intense selfhood.

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Then he asked me where that selfhood came from. I sputtered on about how dairy producers continuously face challenges and must do so with a confidence that they can overcome them.

Thinking about it later, however, I suspect that it’s more than that. Farming, in a lot of ways, is a solitary venture. When a person is alone, they must also face themselves. I imagine that for each individual, that would have different implications.

For most, it would force them to think about the things they do, and why they do them. It’s a chance for them to decide who they are, and if they are OK with that. It would be hard not to think about successes and failures, why they happened and what they mean.

It’s a time to consider what’s important and how you get there. It is my suspicion that those who are able to be alone with themselves are more integrated individuals, and farming both attracts and creates these type of people. PD

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

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