Marney Blair

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Chapter 1

The soothing rose light caresses the inside of my sleeping eyelids. Slowly, as the energy of a new day soaks into my dream life, I move into an awakened state. I open my eyes gently and see the busy, buzzing insect air outside my bedroom window. As I watch the gliding activity, my ears pick up the rooster’s call at the far end of the farm. Another glorious day on the farm is about to begin. 

I walk into the kitchen to make coffee on the stove top. The aroma fills the sleepy kitchen air. While I sip I look outside the large windows and try to feel the day. This simple, momentary reflection helps guide me as I make decisions about all the animals and plants on the farm today. I chuckle to myself. Every day for twelve years, or over four thousand times, I have engaged in this helpful ritual.  

I enjoy the last sip and walk toward the front door. A swirl of seductive spring air moves across my face as I walk up the short path to the milking barn. Lisa, my partner, moves her pitch fork in fluid, confident arcs as she cleans out the milking area. The earthy weight of the cow pie plopping into the wheelbarrow makes a satisfying, grounding sound. It counters the caffeine buzz. 

“Wow, another beautiful morning in paradise!” I shout to Lisa as I walk up to the open pole barn. 

“Isn’t it amazing? ” she says, with an air of excitement. “I’ll finish cleaning up here. Do you wanna go and get the cows?”

“Yes, it’s light enough. I can see,” I say, as I walk away from the barn and on a path through a grove of live oak toward the cow’s night yard. 

The farm is located in the Sierra foothills of northern California. The land undulates among the valley oak groves. A stream divides the pastureland from the woodlands. The hillside is populated by gray pine, ponderosa pine, black oak, blue oak, valley oaks, alders and manzanita. The pasture flatlands are home to fescue, clover, birdsfoot trefoil and annual rye. 

The farm holds seven cows in her care. There are three milking Jersey cows, three Scottish Highland-Milking Devon crosses, and one Highland bull. When watch them they seem to hold the pasture in place, an ancient marriage between plant and animal. When they lie down to ruminate, their large bodies appear to expand and fill the space with elegance. They have their eyes half closed. Many times a day they go through the exercise of regurgitating the cud and rolling it around in their mouths. The green wad slowly swirls among the molars, releasing the beautiful, vibrant juice. Each chew is a deep meditation. The digestive vapors, deep within the rumen, move up into the head and tumble out of their nostrils onto the pasture as they masticate the next wad of grass. 

The cows hold the digestive rhythm of the farm. This important beat sets the productive pace of this farm. All of the other animals, including the farmers, are glad to move to this beat because we have other roles on the farm. They have earned our respect. Above all domesticated animals, the bovine provides a grounded, steady metabolic pace. 

The rooster Hank sounds a muffled crow from inside the coop. He knows to be patient until the morning’s milking is done. Only after the cows have been lead back to pasture and the milking pails cleaned will he be set free to stand tall in the oak grove and watch over the farm. All day long Hank will stand at attention, listening and looking for unwanted intruders. He’ll watch proudly over his hens, occasionally signaling with a coo and scratching feet that he has found some good food. He’ll wait for the cows to return to the pasture, for this is when he and his hens receive their glorious milk, curd or whey. He knows his role on the farm and rightfully carries it through.

The pigs sleep in. They hear the cow’s feet vibrate the red clay soil as they move past their den. They hear the rooster sound off as he walks into the misty morning air. The smart pigs may stir, but they know the food is coming so why rise sooner than that. When the slop of grains and milk arrives, their noses are the first to animate their heavy, dense bodies. As the slop is poured into the trough, they are overcome with joy. They bump each other, bump the farmer, bump the tree, and stand in the trough to be with their food. 

Now that the animals are settled for the morning, Lisa and I can tend to the needs of the other life forms we hold near our hearts--the plants. The plants are of the domesticated type and have been human companions for thousands of years.  

Lisa and I decided eleven years ago that we would grow food crops that were seeds, rather than vegetables. Seeds that people eat are known as grains, edible seeds like sunflower or beans. Like the animals, each plant has a personality on the farm. The majestic corn towers above, reaching for the fire and holding it in her golden seed, while the bean is happy to stay low to the ground, breathing in the moist, humid earth. Later in the season the bean will produce a dense, hard and colorful seed. 

As I walk about on this precious piece of land, a gift of nature, I walk tall, knowing my job and my role. I am the conductor. As a human I am bestowed the ability to perceive beyond myself and thus can tend to the needs of every animal, plant, and mineral that lives within these 20 acres. I take on this huge responsibility knowing that it is a huge opportunity to live up to my given gift on this planet. 

I walk strong and proud while holding Lisa’s hand, knowing that our love for each other has ignited every creative project here. I know this is home. We are here, now. 

The role of the farmer is to support life, but death and disease are part of life, an inevitable part of life. Every living being has a dramatic story. 

Sophie is a Jersey cow. She picked us to be her caretaker. We were sitting among the rocks at our friends’ 2,000 acre ranch looking at the various heifer calves. Sophie kept walking up to us. All of the young girls were range cattle, wild and wary of humans.  These dairy cows were like deer and would shy away from any movement we made. Sophie was different. She was curious and trusting of humans. While we sat among the cows on a rock outcrop, she kept moving closer to us. Lisa offered her hand as the curious heifer walked right up to us. We both got a closer look at her. 

She was not a prize heifer.  The young cow had healed wounds on her hide, probably from entanglements in the brush. The wounds left black scars that bore no hair. She was a bit too curious and clumsy. While she sniffed Lisa’s hand, I looked at her face. She had a pirate patch over her right eye. It was made of burlap and had been attached to her face with some strange adhesive. The rancher has placed it there. He guessed that perhaps she got a sticker in her eye. The eyeball was saved, but her vision in that eye was not. 

Without hesitation Lisa and I decided on Sophie. 

That was three years ago.

A year later, in the spring of 2004 Sophie was pregnant with her second calf. In great anticipation, we both felt that she was going to deliver a girl. The last seven calves born to our cows were bull calves. A bull calf isn’t nearly as useful as a heifer. A female cow can give you milk and sire a young. We needed a heifer to expand our dairy herd. 

My deceased mother’s presence was in the air around the farm that spring. This was our seventh year farming. Out of love and respect, I decided to name the calf Beverly, my mother’s name, if it was a girl.

Sophie was oozing clear mucous fluids. Her delivery was only a matter of days, perhaps hours.  Her udder was engorged with milk. It was so full that she couldn’t walk properly. This sweet bovine had to swing her leg around inside her hip bone.  Mother Nature, in her grand design, has created such indescribable beauty, but also such unmentionable pain and suffering. This cow was ready to pop. Her udder was developing edema. I gently placed my hand on her bag, and the imprint of my middle finder stayed. 

We brought her into the barn. 

The day turned into night and still she had not moved into labor. My brain swelled with worry.  I tossed and turned and felt very sad and twisted inside. Finally, at 3am, I surrendered to my exhaustion. 

I woke just before sunrise. I could feel that it wasn’t a regular day. It felt crooked and craggy. The hair on the back of my head was twisted into knots. Sure enough, as the sun broke the horizon, Sophie went into labor.

Copyright © 2014 by Marney Jane Blair

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