I spent some time with the cows, living in a mysterious garden shed, helping calves be born, feeding first bottles, and wrangling a cow to the ground in a headlock while the herdsman reaches the length of his arm into its vagina to remove a retained placenta. There is something so comforting about cows, and something so unbelievable about calves, so fully formed when they are born, just trying to figure out what in the world they are.
I arrive on the slow train, and on the ride to the farm, Sarah tells me about all of the things that are a part of Joel's job as a herdsman. Even though it's a dairy farm and not a meat farm it's a dirty job, sometimes you have to kill calves if they are injured, or you have to pull out rotting retained placentas from cows uteruses, or one time cut a calf's head off en utero with a chain saw. "He can't wait to show you everything!" I am led to the shed where I’ll be staying. It small and simple with a curved wooden ceiling, just big enough for a bed with a quilt on it, and a lantern for light. A couple of horse and buggies pass by in the night, and Sarah explains that it is date night for the Amish. I am awake for a while in my bed, the stars are right outside, the shed doors creak a little. A buggy passes by with a radio playing, renegades! At a certain point I drift off and only wake again when the door suddenly flies wide open. And that's all, stillness and stars, and somewhere in the close but unseen distance, a lot of cows. I leave the door open and fall back asleep, and dream, as the first signs of dawn are arriving, that there is a progression of prehistoric beasts slowly passing by the shed in the pre-dawn light, their silhouettes black against mist, rhinoceri, antelope, dinosaur-like creatures, aurochs. They are on some kind of exodus. A skinny black hyena cat-like creature jumps through the door, dives under the covers, and bites me in the ass. I wake up to bright daylight and Sarah with baby Sophia on her back in the doorway. Sarah shows me the garden, and harvests some rhubarb to cook up for breakfast. I go for a run along a stretch of tilled field that's turned over in big prehistoric clods.
The farm is actually the second biggest organic dairy farm on the East Coast. The calves are separated from their mothers an hour after birth, partly because on larger farms, there is a particular kind of disease that mothers can pass on to their babies. Sarah and I and baby Sophia on piggyback walk through the fields, opening and closing electric fences behind us, you have to make sure to hold on to the plastic handles. We go down to the cow pens, first passing by the maternity pens, and then up a hill to the hutches, where the calves are. They are each chained to their own little hutch. A lot of them buck around nervously as we approach, but one of them wags its tail like dog as we come up, and sucks on our fingers, they've named this calf Happy, it is strangely calm and content and full of joy, basking in the sun, with none of the startled sudden jerkiness of the other calves. At the next pen, there are heifers, and they all come over when we shovel feed up to the edge of the their pen, their heads and orange numbered earrings sticking out through the bars. We go down to a field of big cows. Sarah says she might not usually go in alone with Sophia on her back in case they all charge, but she trusts that I will be able to protect her. "What do we do if they charge?" "Just be firm with them", she says...We go through the fence, and walk across the field toward a pack of cows. And they start to walk towards us. Why are they doing that? I ask. Sarah says it's okay, they're herding animals. A big brown cow with horns is leading the progression, which is slow and steady, but gaining speed. We stop where we are, then start backing up as they come closer, and as they get very close, and we are backed up against the electric fence, we stop. I stretch out my arms and say "Hello cows." The cows stop. I lower my voice," We are very powerful." I am not quite sure of this, but I think it's best to pretend. They seem skeptical, but we each stand our ground, and then a brown and white cow named Ash, who is Sarah's favorite comes forward to greet her, it seems a peace has been made, we are all friends.
We take the four wheeler up into the high pastures. Once we pass any electric fence, there is the initial wariness of whether there might be a bull in the field, because you never know what they might do. The sun is setting, and we stop in the middle of a field. Gradually the cows come and surround us, dipping their big swinging heads towards us. It feels like we are a small boat that has come to rest in some underwater world, with ancient sea creatures slowly circling around nudging close with their curious muzzles and big patient eyes.
When I am not working creatively I sometimes have the feeling that I am in exile. Everything seems to be at a surreal distance, until I lock into something concrete, a particular personal means of interaction, which I slip into and remember myself, and then slip out of and forget, and on and on it goes. I remember someone quoting the cabala as saying the human condition is to live in moments of either great joy or great uncertainty. Today I saw a baby cow being born. Pulled by two straining men out of its heaving mother. Three calves were born today, all bulls. The bulls that are born are brought to temporary hutches, because only the female calves are kept at the farm to become milk cows. The bull calves will be shipped off in a day or two. I sat in a little hutch with a day old calf and got it to drink from a milk bottle with a big red nipple. You have to start by getting them to suck on your fingers to get the hang of it, and then transfer over to the bottle. Meanwhile the calf doesn't even know who he is, or what his movement is, and begins half standing and sliding around the hutch in jerks and starts. When he's settled in one place, I somehow or other manage to get him sucking, interspersed with a couple jerky moments of his head to the side and milk splattering all over all of us, I'm on my knees, I don't know anything either, I'm holding his chin, and we're both covered in milk but he's drinking, it ends up being intuitive, the two of us in a pile of milk and mud and slobber, these calves are unbelievable, so fully formed when they are born, and just trying to figure out what in the world they are. I practice chewing like a cow, lower lip slowly moving side to side, and cocking a single ear from time to time in rhythm with the chewing.
Usually the calves get the hang of the bottle after a few tries, but today I fed a calf who was different. I would get the bottle to her mouth, and she would lunge for it and then as soon as she got it she would jump backwards crashing into the back of the hutch. She did it over and over again, going for the bottle and then careening back in the opposite direction as soon as she touched what she was reaching for. I could relate.
Today I helped Joel in his rounds of removing retained placentas in the maternity pen. We went into the pen, rubber boots deep in sloshing manure. I held a stack of arm length plastic gloves and some large bolus pills. Joel would go through, identifying the cows with retained placentas mostly from the rotting stench, and then he would wrangle them into a position where they were ideally head first in one of the rows of pens, with a railing on either side so they couldn’t really go anywhere. Then I would hand him a plastic glove, and he would insert the entire length of his arm into the cow’s vagina and scoop out the remaining placenta. Once that was out I would hand him a bolus to insert. On one of our final cows, he couldn’t angle her into a pen, so he decided to go for it in the center aisle between rows of other cows. He put the cow in a side headlock, a position that makes them be still. He transferred her head to me, and then went around behind. I held her steady with all my strength, her big brown eye inches from my face. As he reached his arm in, she started and pitched forward. I managed to somehow maintain my hold as she and both came down onto our knees. I continued to hold her steady, in the muck, as Joel pulled his arm out. I realized my position had landed me directly under the ass of another cow. As Joel reached inside again to insert the bolus, the cow I was under raised its tail and shot out a shower of liquid manure that missed my face by inches.
I think we make sense of the world by becoming a character in a book or a movie of our own invention. But the tricky thing is, due to the shifting nature of what is usually thought of as the real world, the book or the movie changes. Not only does it change, but there are gaps of time between the changes, in which we are lost, floundering, trying to find a way into the next narrative. Sometimes we stumble into the next story, and are in it before we even realize; and sometimes it is as graceful as stepping out of the bath and into a new robe. Sometimes, it takes an impossibly huge leap onto a moving train, whose direction we don't even know, whose nature we don't even know, all we know is that the ground beneath us is quicksand, or an earthquake, and we have to jump or die. No past shift between stories can tell us about the next one, except to remind us that another one is coming, and that at the moment we are walking around in the dark, feeling for the light switch. In our own lives we can only be the writer in retrospect, once a kiss is a kiss it is too late. Its meaning is sealed, it is a sad kiss or a happy kiss, it is a beginning or an end.
On the day I was leaving the cows, Sarah woke me up and said, quick come, there’s a cow being born. She woke me up from a dream in which the lyrics and melody of a cheesy country song were playing in my head fully formed:
“My love is a symphony that no one ever heard
My love is a work of art that no one ever saw
My love is a stillborn calf that never saw the sun.”We ran up to the maternity pen, and saw that the calf was breach, it was coming out backwards, in a dangerous position. I prayed for the cow to come out alive. And I prayed for it to be a girl, so it would stay on the farm. Just before I had to run for the train, the calf was finally pulled out steaming and alive and female, and in an act of sappiness and divine inspiration I named her Symphony.