Dairy farming, which has been my occupation through the 1990s, entails the hardest work I've ever done. But I cannot really think of it as a job - it is my way of life, timed by the rhythms of the milkings, breeding, birth cycles, and seasons. Out here there is little need for clocks, and no such thing as a 40-hour week. The cows keep us hopping even in our dreams.
I can compare and contrast farming to real jobs because I've held a variety of the kind that begin and end by the hour and earn a regular wage. I remember the well-padded feel of payday, though there is no counterpart in my present life. If I divide my milk-check dollars by the hours it took to earn them - well, suffice it to say I don't do that, at least not out loud.
I've never regretted swapping financial security for life on the land. My former progression up the career ladder ended not in thin air but on the solid earth I'd been seeking all along. I settled down safely where I know I belong.
Sometimes, as I milk the cows, rake hay, or weed the garden, I think back to my working days, to the various jobs that carried me over the years to this point. Discounting an early experiment in cake baking - a venture that earned me some spending money but cost my mother at least as as much in ingredients until I saturated the neighborhood market - I took my first job in high school, as a library page. Later, to help with college expenses, I applied at the Gannett news offices in Rochester, N.Y., where I grew up and also attended university. I was promptly hired to answer telephones and field complaints in the subscribers' service department. This was not the journalistic apprenticeship I'd envisioned, but I was in the right building.
Eventually, with journalism and geology degrees in hand, I did begin to earn money writing and editing; for 10 years I also ran the business end of a small international society of clay mineralogists.
Then came the move to the milk room. Given my spectacular drop in income, musing on past occupations quickly became, and remains, an occasional exercise in affirmation. What I am doing now really does beat everything. Nothing I'd worked at before satisfies the way this un-timed, forever unfinished un-job does. What other labor involves such a complete and perfect cooperation of body and mind?
One day, though, during my first winter on the farm, an inexplicable sense of dj vu enveloped me. I had been here, or someplace very similar, before. The steam on the milking-parlor windows, the warm, soapy water in the wash bucket, the wordless company of the cows ... ricocheted back to a place I'd briefly known and long since forgotten. Looking through another steam-clouded window to a wintry scene, I'd been up to my elbows in suds, enjoying an inarticulate fellowship then, as now. It had been 25 years, but I was suddenly back scrubbing test tubes in a small corner lab at Cleveland's Case Western University.
It was a campus too urban and far from home for one naive freshman, and I transferred to the University of Rochester's River Campus after one semester. But for those few months, the simple work-study task of cleaning labware had been a soothing balm to my troubled mind. Beside me, also bent over racks of tubes and beakers, was a kerchiefed, motherly figure from Europe, who spoke no English. We gestured and smiled often, but kept to ourselves, each content with her own thoughts and pace. But I'd enjoyed her presence, and like to think she appreciated mine.
It is possible that the seed of my aptitude for dairying was planted there. Then, like all good seeds, it very patiently waited.