Of bovines and waterlines

As we dig a trench, our cows' instincts hinder, then help.

Twenty-two years ago, it dawned on us that the cows had sole purview over the prettiest and most private part of our 80 acres – the high, undulating back pasture. And so we built a small log cabin along its northern edge, amid the cluster of sugar maples we tap each year. Then, sugaring season or not, we could leave our roadside bungalow and enjoy our small retreat at the quiet heart of things for an afternoon or overnight – or for however long we were willing to limit ourselves to a one-room domicile lacking utilities, and to hike back and forth for chores, water, and food.

Having leased the bungalow, barn, and pastures to a young dairy farmer, and taken up residence in another part of the state a couple of years ago, we began to ponder how to upgrade the cabin into a more convenient part-time home – for neither Charlie nor I can quite envision a life that does not include regular and sustained time back on the farm. We're considering a solar panel to provide power for reading lamps – though for now neither of us is convinced that electricity is a worthy substitute for the soft radiance of the oil lamps we light at sunset.

Ah, but water is another story, a must-have for slaking thirst, cooking, washing, and cleaning. Whenever we'd deplete our small rainwater catchment we'd carry the stuff up hill and down from the house to the cabin, and ration it carefully. Things improved last year when we tapped a county waterline running under the back pasture and installed a pump and tank for the cattle and horses – a move dictated by the severe droughts of recent years. With that spigot and tank in place, the half-mile slog with a couple of gallons of water was abbreviated to a mere 300 feet. Water became a much more easily renewable resource.

The idea of running a pipe from the pasture spigot to the cabin simmered over the ensuing months – and took fire after another severe drought.

Charlie marked out a line and rented a gasoline-operated trencher. It seemed the logical way to go considering the distance. But it didn't take long for both of us to develop a healthy loathing for the machine, whose raw power, dull rotating blades, and belching engine made for a frustrating and ear-splitting six hours. It took both of us to push and pull it into a turn, and its forward lever refused to remain forward – confounding management of the spinning blades' depth and trajectory. By the end of the day Charlie was spent, the trench was only half done, and we were out $200 for the rental fee.

We are no Luddites, but as we weighed another day with the "labor-saving" beast, Plan B – applying our own muscle and trenching tools to the task – became a wonderfully attractive alternative. Finishing the job manually took another two days, Charlie chopping the soil with a mattock and I following with the shovel to scoop up the dirt and clods, along with a wriggling menagerie of earthworms.

Our dog, Omaha, who'd fled from the deafening machine, flopped by us on the sunny pasture to doze as we worked down the line, occasionally breathing in the sharp scent of sassafras root. In lieu of the teeth-rattling roar of the engine came the dull thuds and clicks of mattock against clay and geodes, bird song, and the sound of the cows, rhythmically pulling at the grass when they (oh, so predictably) gathered to see what we were up to. They had given the trencher wide berth, too, but they seemed drawn to our quiet work. They took to hoofing and nosing dirt back into the trench behind us, a subversive (and typically bovine) recreation that evidently afforded the animals much amusement through the nights as well.

Now the job is done, the pipe laid and buried, in part thanks to Iris, a chunky heifer who sank to her knees and put her head and upper body to work bulldozing dirt back into the trench. Water flows to the pump by the cabin door, into our pots, basins, and glasses. Each time I fill a vessel I think of that day we wrestled with the trencher. And of the two that followed as Omaha dozed, the cows played, and we happily squandered rather than saved our labor.

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