This land is their land, too

It always cheers me to read or hear of a still-viable farm that has belonged to and been tended by the same family over many generations. I like to imagine how fully linked to the land and sensitive to its moods and cycles this would make one as its steward.

Our 80-acre dairy farm has been an intact parcel since its original deeding to a Daniel Grooce (or Gross, as it is also written there) in 1832. But it has changed hands and families many times since then.

Charlie's and my tenure will be a truncated chapter in the long history of this place. We weren't raised here, and our children all have other plans than to carry on the milking. And yet, we are profoundly attached to this land, perhaps because we vicariously do enjoy multigenerational links to it through our cows.

I thought of this early one recent morning as I stood atop the big pasture hill and watched the herd grazing along the stream below. It was time to drive them in for milking, but for a few minutes I paused there, just watching and ticking off their names: Rosie, Summer, Elsie, Hilary, Spring, and Hannah, and others half-hidden in topography and foliage. I thought, too, of the cows that had come before them.

Dotting the big back meadow behind me were their grassed-over resting places: Charlotte, Brownie, Redbud, Jezibel, and Vernice, most of them grandmothers to the animals below.

We take a fair amount of ribbing from area stockmen because we can't bring ourselves to cull aging cows from the herd for sale at auction. This is what dairy farmers normally must do to avoid economic ruin and overpopulated pastures, but we are just small and diversified enough to have gotten along in spite of our fiscally quirky bovine-retirement plan.

The cows that have passed their productive peaks live out their days right here, and when they pass on, our obliging neighbor John drives over with his backhoe. He doesn't even charge for his services, and if he passes judgement it must be in our favor.

The cows' contribution to this arrangement is to provide milk and calves a few more years than most dairy animals are asked or allowed to. It seems to suit us all, and it lends an aura of continuity to the farm we humans cannot provide alone.

I have often found myself with two or three generations in the milking parlor - Gemini and her big-boned daughters, Brittany and Bernadette, or Swiss brown grandma Jennifer along with her own grown-up heifer Juniper and grandheifer Summer.

I've no doubt that cows are self-aware creatures. Call one of ours by her name, and she'll come, or at least raise her head before going back to what she was doing. What I don't know is whether they recognize one another as family members, contemporary and consecutive caretakers of the farm.

Make no mistake, cows are land stewards, too. Without them, the pastures would shrub up and, eventually, revert to forest, a good thing, but another thing altogether from a farm.

I like to think that the cows sense, at some level, their links to one another, and that they know this farm in ways we cannot. Perhaps it was just coincidence, but last week Richie spent a long while walking sLowly up and down the edges of that high meadow, trying to find just the right place to calve. She would settle down and think awhile, then rise again and move on, as if that last spot hadn't quite cut it, either.

Finally, she had it - the spot and her heifer. As I watched her lick the tawny little newborn dry, it struck me where they were - directly above where Jezibel, Richie's own dame, had been buried a few years before.

If it was a coincidence, it was a mighty good one. If not, we may have to broaden the meaning of family farm.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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