A clean barn is no Herculean task

The Augean stables it is not. Still, it had been several months since we'd backed the manure spreader into the space that our eight bovines and two draft horses occasionally occupy.

The open-ended barn offers them welcome cover in winter storms and raw spring rains. Its shelter is rarely needed this time of year, but that doesn't mean it stands empty all summer.

Our elder cows, retaining a herd memory of their and our dairy years, still lead the last of their offspring into its cool darkness most early mornings for a couple hours of cud-chewing relaxation.

If we no longer usher them into the milking parlor for the soapy massage and scoop of grain they used to enjoy as they let their milk down, they remain open to possibilities.

Ben and Jim put in an appearance as well, though hames and harnesses have been taken from their pegs and passed on to younger teams. Retirement hasn't quelled our animals' deep-seated barn-centered habits.

And so the structure, while not the vibrant hub of activity it once was when the milk truck came and went, still needs a good cleaning up now and then. I mentioned this to my teenage son at an opportune time when his billfold was thin and his gas gauge was sliding toward empty.

Six or seven spreader loads later, Tim's wallet and his car's tank were replenished. Our newly cut hayfield was nicely covered with what makes the grass grow, and the barn floor was bare again.

I'd cleansed my mind, to boot - something I've always been able to do working in the barn among the animals.

The cows and horses shuffled in and out, nosing and nudging us, inspecting the spreader with the languor of creatures with a wide-open schedule.

Their dark, placid eyes, warm breath, and close, rainy scent stripped away the years since I last slid back the wooden door and called the assembled, three at a time, into their stanchions.

The swallows, flitting from rafters to barnyard with their newly launched flight-giddy young, might be the very birds who looked down from their nests among the beams on that bustling herd of 30.

The rhythm of the pump and the warmth of a full udder at my fingertips rushed back to mind as I maneuvered my pitchfork around the stolid and familiar bulk of Jenny, Madge, and Bernadette, three grand dames of the dairy we have never parted with. Nellie is a lovely young cow with curving horns who threw her first calf after we'd stopped milking and so raised it without our interference. Being bovine,

Nellie comes to the barn with the others, even if she wonders why in the world they find the place so compelling.

As we filled the spreader for the final time, Tim quickened his pace, pitchfork churning as release beckoned. The barn has never been the charmed place to him it has been to me, perhaps because like Nellie he comes to it from a perspective not wholly his own.

I, like the elder cows and draft horses, still seek some rhythmic contact with the place in which I've invested so much. And so I spend a little time there each morning even when there is no hay to spread, and nothing to do but bask in its earthy, somber, and quieting embrace. When there's reason to spend a few solid hours working off my cares there, so much the better.

A full tank of gas, a field freshly fertilized, a settled mind, and a satisfied soul - it was all in the barn for the taking. And it will be again after a few more months of mornings.

So long as the cows keep coming home.

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