A guti Kuhe deckt alle Armut zue.
A good cow hides all poverty.

Alsatian proverb

Winter Solstice 1984.

It’s dark out, wet and cold December. There are no stars, just a fine mist of rain, Oregon dew, settling on the pasture, dripping from the barn roof. The first signs of the solstice sun will be just beginning to show soon. But not yet, not until after the milking. For now, there is only this shadowless gray world, not quite darkness, not quite light.

If you pause on your way, between the house and the barn, milk buckets in hand, you can be lost for a moment, unsure of time, unsure of where you are walking, here in the silently drifting mist between earth and sky, between waking and dreaming, the past and the future. Here, between the house and the barn, on this, the longest night of the year, there is an overwhelming sense of connection, despite the solitude. Somehow, the night is made more real, despite the vagueness of a world without shadow or horizon–perhaps, because of it.

The woman and the little boy are asleep behind you. The old cow and her small, perfect daughter lie in the dark ahead, their backs to the same wall, sharing their warmth through the thickness of the boards between them. The cock roosts among the hens in the chicken house. The dog lies curled on the hay. The dark and the mist and the silence make them more real and more close and more precious than the light of day. They are revealed by the darkness, at once both the well-known and deeply loved particular beings you share this world with and also, every woman, every child, every cow and calf and cock and hen and dog past and present and yet to come.

And what if they all somehow weren’t? What if the old essential rituals have finally been neglected and the sun really has died this time, and the great cycles have ground to a halt, come apart at last, no connections between them anymore? Broken and shattered into its logical components, the fragments of reality would whirl chaotically, each piece alone and isolated and unfeeling, their truth retained as unrelated strings of random digits. Without compassion the night would go on forever.

But there are mouths to feed and they depend on you. You don’t need to look far for a prayer that will hold the world together. This simple chore is an essential ritual. 

There are rhythms in the night. Your own breathing, your thumping heart and the pulsing of blood, assure you and reassure you. This daily act is all the sacrifice it takes. This walk is the necessary graceful dance which keeps it all going, “…world without end. Amen.” 

There is a stirring in the barn. You reach for a stick-match, strike it and light the lantern. The dog is already risen from the straw, stretching, and then she smiles up at you. Overhead, the cats, resting from their hayloft mouse hunt, meow. The old cow exhales a sweet grassy breath, rubs her horns on the wall and her wide-eyed calf turns her head, regards you calmly.

Each familiar movement is informed. You hang the buckets up on the twenty-penny nail, leave them dangling from the post. Your rubber boots sound the ladder rungs as you climb to the loft, one hand carrying the lantern, one hand pulling you upward. You pass through a hole in the floor, one knee touching the boards, genuflecting, as you step off the ladder into an open space between piled bales of last summer’s grass.

Crossing the floor, the cats, a sleek and stealthy mother and her fat sluggard son, rub against your legs with plaintive cries and purring. Down below, you hear the cow mounting the wooden platform of the stanchion, her hooves sounding. She pisses on a flat rock like a hard rain. 

You look to the feed sacks, the stacked bales of alfalfa and grass hay anxiously. How long, you wonder, can this small world without money go on? The sun set yesterday on a breaking valley, shattering from the hammer blows of a collapsed economy. There is no work left but this. Across the valley, in a government housing tract a dozen families–mothers, fathers, children–lie asleep. What if the sun doesn’t rise? What if the cow goes hungry, runs dry, and they no longer have a jug of milk, at least, to calm their bellies now, when there is no way to earn their daily bread?

It is important to do this right. Each vital step in the dance against death comes in its proper order. Done right, there is no strain or wasted movement. You drop hay flakes down the chute to the feed-rack below; fill the grain tub, measuring the days from the sagging feed sack with a coffee can scoop; place a flake of hard green alfalfa atop the tub; walk, with both hands full, balanced, down the ladder to the dirt floor below.

She stares at you, head tilted with one dull brown eye beneath a curving horn and moos expectantly as you enter the milk-shed carrying a pool of lantern light. Her gold and white sides, brindled with black stripes over the gold, heave with her anxious breathing. Her pink teats stand out sideways from the bulging white bag. 

Mindful of her bulk, you set the grain before her. Mindful of her sharp horns, you duck aside as she thrusts her head through the gap, slide the hinged board in behind her ears and lock it in place with a block of wood. 

Hearing the click of wood against wood, the dog squeezes under the gate and, after circling around in the still-warm straw of the cow’s bedding, lies down in the hollow to watch. You pull up a stool and swiftly perform an ablution, knock the straw and mud and manure from her bag, wash the teats with warm bleach water and a rag, cover your hands with bag balm ointment, anoint the teats and place a bucket between your knees. 

You tap her rear leg and she moves it back for you, swatting you familiarly with a flick of her tail out of mild annoyance. You press the side of your face against her warm solid side, your nostrils filled with the primal scents of cow and manure and fresh hay and you are grateful for this moment.

You grasp the far teats and begin the rhythmic squeezing, your forearms and hands sore and stiff at first. Left. Right. Left, right; left, right. Each squeeze produces a response as the good milk washes against the bucket, high pitched and hollow at first, then deeper tones as it fills with the steaming white fluid. 

You get lost in the rhythm after awhile. The left hand is peace; the right hand is love. Left, right; peace, love. It becomes part of your breathing then, inhaling peace, exhaling love; inhaling love, exhaling peace as the cow’s ribs too expand and contract. Time no longer exists in the immensity of a moment. You might as well be, and perhaps you are, any one of your ancestors stretching back to Neolithic times, feeling the same ancient pulse and rhythms, smelling the same scents, waiting for the same sun. And then, off in the hen house, the cock crows.

Robert Leo Heilman is an Oregon-based writer, and – among many things – a former logger and a tree planter. “The Milkshed” is a chapter from Heilman’s book “Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country,” which he kindly offered for republishing here, on The Daily Yonder.