(Early, abbreviated version appeared in Progressive Dairyman. Later, complete version was published in Cimarron Review, Issue 171- Nominated for Pushcart Prize)
Tempting the Language of Farming
By Ryan Dennis
I milked with my father every morning in the dark. We herded cows into the parlor eight at a time and dipped their teats. When we were at the end of the row we turned around, wiped it off, and put the milkers on. We smelt like iodine and cow shit, and while we waited for the cows to milk out we passed the time talking.
He told me what fields he wanted me to plow that day and how to plow them. Because I couldn’t interpret his directions he would take a brown paper towel out of his back pocket and draw the shape of the field. His fingers ran up and down the paper in the direction I should drag the plows, lengthwise first, and then perpendicular for the headlands. He always remembered where the dead furrow was left last year. When I was twelve he told me about the dairy industry. His description of the federal pricing system fit in between the pulsation of the milkers around us. He explained how the retailers and manufacturers make money and why the farmers don’t. He taught me what to give a cow with ketosis. We analyzed the starting rotation of the Chicago Cubs. He’d tell me about a good movie he watched and then, unable to help himself, explain the entire plot. There would be times we were repeating conversations we already had and we both knew it, but we said it all again anyway.
There were things we didn’t talk about. We didn’t talk about bills, fears, and the future of the farm. We didn’t talk about the meaning of things. He never mentioned feelings. We talked about my dreams and ambitions, but never his. My father never told me why we farmed. It must have been implied, because I never asked. I must have already known, because it seems strange to get up at five o’clock everyday and work until night and not know why. It’s one of the reasons I suspect the language of farming is as much about its absences as the things farmers say.
There are two things found on every farm regardless of its details: barn cats and radios. Barn cats roam everywhere, living detached lives in dusty rafters and bedded stalls while the radio plays on. The barn cat is a strong animal, because he has to be. He sometimes eats dead calves, is stepped on by cows, and spends cold nights in the corner of the haymow. Sometimes barn cats explode in skidsteers. Their populations billow and shrink by the frequency of drop-offs and manic breeding. At any time there was always at least one that stuck out and later symbolized a childhood era. Mascara, Thomas, Psychocat, Peggie, Bob, and Bob’s kitten in the loft, Garfield. I can remember the cat when I can’t remember the year, and because of this I count time in barn cats.
I don’t feel the same way about house cats. They are stupid. They live trapped, in singular, sterile environments eating dry, measured Friskies and chasing string. One lived in a house I roomed at in college- a gray, shifty creature named Beatrice. Beatrice could open my sliding door and did it at will. I’d wake up to her sitting on my chest, staring at me with a blank look. She tore up all my posters. I threatened to accidentally leave the front door open, in case she might wander out and disappear from our lives for good. Beatrice still lives there and I do not.
Several years ago my friend brought me to her house in the suburbs. I can’t recall the rows of houses we passed to reach hers, only that it seemed indefinite because I couldn’t tell them apart. Her car navigated the streets like a mole through rows of corn, and even from the passenger seat I had a sense of the rectilinear arrangement around us. We pulled into her driveway and her family greeted me with handshakes and questions, leading me in a precession behind the house. They asked me where I was from and told me again they were glad I came.
My initial impression was that these are some great people. I looked around me, at the grass at my feet, and expanded my reaction: These are great people with a nice lawn. It was dark and unburdened by dandelions or tree debris. It was groomed, tidy, and closely cut. In the Cubs games I watched with my grandmother innings were broken up by ads of Scott’s Turf Builder. In them, middle-aged men in slacks leaned over the picket fence to boast about the plushness of their grass. I never suspected that such people existed who would go to the expense of treating their lawn, especially the small, constrained parallelograms behind municipal homes. Here, at my friend’s house, I imagined a suburban father loosening his tie after work in the office and circling the lawn with a Cub Cadet- worse, a John Deere Lawn Tractor, and making it a point to call it a lawn tractor. There comes a point when I’m not sure what I imagined, what my friend told me, and what I remembered from prior conversations with other city people. Somewhere I heard that the quality of lawn is a state of grace, that cutting grass on the weekend, even if it has barely grown, makes for relaxation. That the smell of cut grass gives them severe pleasure. I concede that the smell of grass is nice. But why does it bother me when it means so much to others?
They brought me around the corner of the house where they told me there was a campfire. Without seeing it, campfire seemed like the wrong word for what was going to be a small, calculated pit in the corner of a manicured lawn. It is natural to compare every macaroni salad to the ones you grew up with. The curved, in-laid bricks around the fire were more stylized than the tractor rim at my family’s pond. They used fire-lighters and lit them under carefully tee-peed blocks of wood they bought at a gas station. They stacked small twigs and called it kindling. They poked at it with concern. This is what I measured it against: broken-up slab wood, old two by fours, and splits of locust we chunked up after milking and threw in a pile. “I am a master of the fire,” someone at the party told me. “I am too,” I didn’t say. “I dump diesel on it and drop a match.” “This is my manifesto,” I also didn’t say. “I am from a farm. I wear stained clothes. I milk cows. I eat good hamburger. I cut hay. And that’s how we make fire.” It is my understanding that man was quite elated when he discovered fire. It changed his world. Yet, what he has done to it since, with his grooved bricks, seems terrible. It’s a condemnation on himself. It’s a violation of an old metaphor. Even fire, it seems, has been urbanized.
My friends are good people, with a nice lawn, and they treated me well. I make the distinction between farmers and city people, and talk about the latter in tones of judgment. I can’t find a better term for them than “city people.” I have no doubt that such prejudices originate in fear. The pressure of the urban lifestyle encroaching on agriculture is felt in many ways, but it is certainly felt. Residents of Buffalo and Rochester buy lots around our fields and slowly build cabins and garages. Hills that were quiet with narrow dirt roads now have steady traffic climb them. Every time another field gets a house or another farm disappears, even though I am already born and my childhood is in the past, it feels like one more chance that I might not have been born on a farm, and that I might have driven a lawn tractor instead of a real one. I might have talked about wholesome ways of living and not known the irony.
Last time I was in the parlor the high pressure house dripped. You could hear it if you listened carefully because it didn’t fit into the other rhythms of milking. The top of the hose was discolored where water ran over it continually. If left, it would weather the concrete beneath it and leave a blemish that would be difficult to fix.
“Once it’s in your blood, you can’t get it out.” My uncle said that. He’s a hauler now, but was once a farmer. He leaned heavily on his cane while my father unlatched the back gate to his truck and carried a bull calf to the front. My uncle is in his seventies, overweight, and limps. He still works because he has to, and because he doesn’t know not to. The things said by haulers, milkmen, and seed vendors always seemed wise. At times they sounded like beatitudes. Because we would see so few people in the course of the week a quiet probing underlied the banter and common jokes. While the rest of the world twitters among itself, news on a farm still arrives by haulers, milkmen, and seed vendors. It is the only reliable report of who bought a new tractor, who had their corn in, and who was selling out. Sometimes they interpreted the weather or the milk price, or told how the beef prices were at the market. Yet, at any given moment, they could make a statement that only they would make and only the people they were talking to could understand. My uncle knows the vestigial rhythm in his body, the one left over from farming that he still obeys when he gets up at five in the morning without a reason.
Perhaps because the exchanges were short and matter-of-fact while loading a cull cow or setting up the tank wash, everything said resonated longer into the day. We might have placed more meaning in the brief conversations because they were so few. Maybe we were gullible. But that’s not what I choose to believe. I would rather say that because they went farm to farm every day certain universal truths become more evident to them than the rest of us. In their daily occupation they earned a clarity for the things my father and I were too familiar with to recognize.
It must have also been a person like that who told me there are two types of people: those who can walk away from the farm and those who cannot. Those who can walk away should not just walk but run, as fast as they can, into a much easier life. It would be said in jest, but like all humor in agriculture there is intention not far beneath the smile. I was the first type of person. My blood was lousy with the “it” that all farmers’ sons know about. Although I never called upon terms such as “fourth generation farmer” and “century farm,” they were all part of things I belonged to. I was well aware of the figure of the son who left, applying his work ethic and new freedom on other occupations to become successful. There were farm kids I grew up with, showing cattle at the county fair and selling cheese for the 4-H club. Many of them became teachers and bankers, went into research, or started their own businesses. Some got PhDs, headed organizations, or reached some other level of achievement. It was a cliché I wanted no part of.
My uncle is not an unusual ex-farmer. Many, after the last cow leaves in a creaking trailer, immediately start talking about putting a small herd together- something to do on the side, they’ll tell you. They’ll become carpenters, bus drivers, and factory managers. Some still need to feel close to the industry and become haulers or milkmen, artificial inseminators, or sell supplies out of the back of their truck. They’ll have free time and disposable income, but they’ll never learn to sit down. “We put a few beefers out back, for the sheer hell of it,” a friend said, six months after selling out. I can imagine what the hell of it was. My uncle is old now and has been a hauler for many years. He’s reached a maturity where he doesn’t talk about these things anymore. He loads up our bull calves and tells us what to expect for them.
The radios are left on all day, regardless if anyone is there. The one in the parlor adds to the breathing sounds of the vacuum pump and has a calming effect on both the cows and the farmer. Any part of my day I was never far from a radio- the parlor, the tractors, the truck, the house. When something needed to be fixed, in the shop or in the field, my father drove up the nearest tractor, opened the door, and left the key on alternate. There was a radio wired to a post in a small shed where we kept horses, and then bulls. When the bulls matured and been placed among heifers the radio stayed plugged in, singing to the absence. Air conditioning can be forgone, but a tractor without a radio is nearly undriveable. It would pass the time, up and down the dirt furrows or cut windrows, for about six hours. Sometime around then I would be saturated with country music and turn the dial until it clicked off. Myself and Emily, our old border collie, were left with only the droning hum of a working machine. Moments later, without realizing it, I would start regurgitating choruses and partial lyrics from earlier in the day. One particular song, “Me and Emily,” found enough modest success on the charts to last a summer and become “our song.” When the sun darkened and I finally exhausted all the self-made melodies clamoring in my head I would talk to Emily, and be consoled by her careful silence.
If my family is an adequate example then there is always a song in the farmer’s head, and he always sings it. We sang, foolishly, among each other and thought nothing of it. We sang nonsense and sang with conviction. We sang with other things on our mind and we sang without knowing it. It was a way I could be sure we were different from town families. I suspect that because we were able to sing the songs in our head there were less things we had to keep to ourselves. They were what we needed to move from milking to feeding heifers to mowing hay without wondering if we were getting tired. They were a release. I wonder if because of the off-pitch melodies we passed among ourselves we felt less urgency to find words for other things.
I live in the city now and I find myself humming a lot. I want to bellow out partial refrains and near misses of phrases, but I’m never alone to do it. There is always someone coming down the street or in the next room that would think it an odd and unacceptable reaction to living. My self-diagnosis: I suffer from arrested flow. The music in my head stays there and gets bounded in itself. It makes it harder to not concentrate on what you are doing, and more difficult to not be aware of yourself. It’s harder to forget that you’re not on the farm like you always expected to be. I try to quell it in sly and unsatisfying bursts underneath my breath in the distance between people, hoping they are none the wiser. I pretend I’m chewing gum if I have to. I’ll cover my mouth like a yawn. Then I hum again.
When I was little I watched my father carefully at the end of the milking. I was waiting for him to say we were eating breakfast at Grandma’s.
We sat the same way every time. My grandparents at opposite ends, the length of the table cloth between them, and my parents facing each other. Those were the only four chairs. I sat on a stool next to Grandma, higher than the rest. It was a novelty as a child, but as I grew I had to lean further towards the plate and slouch awkwardly when I was done. Grandpa would start telling me about an article he read in Hoard’s Dairymen and then suddenly walk to the bathroom, his arms swinging from hunched shoulders. He came back with the magazine folded to an inside page and pointed to the title. Soon after sitting down someone would make an observation. “If it doesn’t stop raining we’ll never get the corn in,” or “Fuel jumped again, damn it never stops.” The remarks changed little year to year. When the men started saying these things my mother kept her hands in her lap and cleared her throat often. She waited for them to stop talking about business and was ready to lunge in with strong opinions on other subjects. Grandma held a stern face with one elbow on the table and occasionally opened a palm to roll off a lament to what the men were saying and sometimes to what Mom said, if it was particularly grievous. “How can they expect anyone to survive?” “The farmer is always going to take it down the throat.” “The price of feed is unbelievable.” Sometimes, if nearing the end of a topic or if Grandma’s lament felt like a cadence, Grandpa would push both hands in front of him and conclude “It’s all just a game,” or, “We can never win.” To this my father nodded, at least three times, and if needed maybe four times, and then say something that may concede the last point or open a new one. That is, unless, during the time he nodded someone said something else, which he would have to consider and nod his head again. When Mom did give her opinion it was with thrust, gravity, and hand movements. “It’ll be years before sexed semen takes off. No one can afford it.” Grandpa might step in with “Well, you see…” or “You know what it really is…” Dad might add something too, but it would never contradict Mom. Grandma would watch everyone’s faces and move her spoon on the table, and if she had an opinion on the matter she gave it with urgency, or if appropriate, open her palm and roll out a lament. If that felt conclusive or final Grandpa might add “It’s just a game” and then lean back in his chair. Then there would be silence, except for forks scraping plates.
Only now, on paper, does it seem like whining. At the table it was something different: it was talking, and because all talking was informed by farming, it was talking about farming. My generation was given a pitchfork and shoved towards the calf hutches when it had already gone bad. The pessimistic overtones were made law before we came on the scene, and it is hard for me to picture it differently. I surmise that it was different, once, only by sorting through the stories my father and grandfather tell. There are two things I look for: how many cows they milked and how much fun they seemed to have. They go hand in hand. When my grandfather was young he milked thirty cows, went camping with other farmers, painted the town every weekend and did rowdy dances to Hank Williams. My parents first ran a herd of seventy cows and occasionally won production awards. They liked going out with other couples, and sometimes they brought a fish fry home on a Friday night. We have two hundred cows now. It seems to be the minimum for survival, even if the definition is elusive. When I was twelve we went to Disney World. It is our only family vacation.
I hope that things change. I hope one day a man can make it on thirty cows again. I hope that he can have friends and go places. That someday the milk price would trump the feed bill once and for all and the farmer could build a deck, put on a suit, and toast the world going by. I don’t think it will happen. And if it did you’d never know from talking to me. I would still sound resigned and defeated. I would sigh a lot. I would make jokes about all the hard work and all the money we weren’t making, even if it was plenty, because that’s the only way I know to talk about farming.
My stories are going to be different anyway. I’ve already spent years away from the farm. I’m going to tell about the old drunk I used to hang out with in Iowa City and how he’d ride his bicycle through bars. I’ll have accounts of playing drinking games with people I met in Ireland long after the sun came up again. I’ll tell about being abducted by punks in Belfast and taken to a hangout. I’ll probably stretch a few things and add a few details. I’ll entertain. But when it comes to farming it will be different. I’ll have little choice. I’ll clear my throat, open my palm, and say, “Let me tell you how it was…”
My father brushed by me while he changed pipes and closed valves to shut down the parlor for the morning. Over his shoulder he said that the high pressure hose was leaking, which was his way of asking me to fix it. Water dripped where the hose and pump met and fell to the concrete quietly. It happened often enough and I watched my father handle it with ease each time. I loosened the failed clamp. I yanked the hose off, but water sprayed over me before I thought to close the flow valve. I took a thin wrench and fiddled with the old clamp that didn’t want to give up its place and dickered with the new one, who didn’t want to slip over the hose. They are only thirty nine cents at the hardware store, but they made my knuckles bleed and got me to swear. Worse, they took too much time. My father returned. He took the clamps from my hand, fitted the new piece, and silently walked away.
It would have been better if my father shook his head. I would have preferred that he called me stupid or took the Lord’s name in vain. I wouldn’t have felt as guilty if he would have made a joke. He walked away without doing any of these, and it felt like acceptance. That morning was no way a turning point. There was no epiphany and I wasn’t changed. It was another example of a pragmatism that is supposed to be in every farmer’s son. It’s the one thing needed to make a farm survive and let a person survive on a farm, and I didn’t have it.
One day I’m going back. I couldn’t tighten the hose clamp but I equally can’t consider that farming is not how I’m going to finish my life. I’m not whining, because farmers don’t whine. And I’m not claiming angst, because we don’t believe in it. I’m refusing to accept that one day I will stand in front of a decorated campfire that is mine, and if I did, that it would mean anything.
It’s the language that won’t let me go. It has marked me as belonging to someplace specific and made me unable to forget that. The city streets do not need my condemnation, but that’s how I will satiate myself in the meantime. I’ll act like it’s a crime when they use the word “harvest” because it’s not a word that I would use, and I’ll kick their house cats when no one is looking. I’ll go to the park at night and sing Kenny Roger songs at the top of my lungs until lights come on in houses. I’ll find someone in a bar and go on ad naseum about how sometimes a barn cat screams right before it explodes in the skidsteer, sending intestines out the radiator, and how I once saw one jump through a fan and all that came out was a head and a front leg. I’ll tell him about my dog. I’ll tell him where he can put his notions about flannel. I’ll tell him he has no idea. I’ll tell him I can outwork him. Maybe we’ll fight. Then I’ll go back to my house, walking in people’s lawn instead of the sidewalk. I’ll settle in a chair, switch on the radio, and turn the Hoard’s Dairymen another page.