Category: cows

I’ve been trying to get back to my instincts for years.  I stopped milking the cows at Twin Oaks because I was uncomfortable with “taming” those big, beautiful animals out of their instincts (like kicking at a weird human trying to milk them).  I stopped wearing deodorant because it masks the complex smells that we respond to instinctively.  The idea of something “feral” (something domesticated that returns to a wild state) makes my mouth water.  But this week, this love-affair with my instincts is being put to the test.

poison ivy vine on a tree

it got me

I have a nasty case of Poison Ivy, all over my body.  The arm where it originated is swollen and blistered along the entire length, and my chest, legs, and belly are covered in swaths of red itchiness.  I wake up in the night scratching for relief, knowing that scratching today will make it worse tomorrow.  This is where I get confused — I instinctively want to scratch that damn itch!  It’s a biological response, right?  In my cosmology, our instincts lead us towards health and growth… so why am I instinctively wanting to do the exact wrong thing for healing?  Am I wrong about holding my instincts so sacred?

sugar sugar sugar

this gets me, too

Then I started thinking about other instincts that might not be so healthy… craving sugar was the first that came to mind.  I see it in 4 year old Aurora, too… this insatiable desire for sweetness.  All sweet stuff isn’t unhealthy, clearly, but my instincts don’t distinguish between apple juice versus the high fructose corn syrup in the jelly beans in the Easter Basket.  I just want it.  And after I’ve had it, I want more.  So, instincts, are you not the “voice of God” I believed you to be?

And then there’s emotions… fear or defensiveness or anger that seem to arise from that deep “instinctive” place within me, but can toss me into the darkness of a closed heart.  It’s been my practice over these last many years to respond to those emotions by connecting with something even deeper… a knowing, an awareness, a rootedness and a calmness.  It’s beyond my instinctive reactions — what is it?  Intuition?  Or am I just training myself to develop new instincts, the way dancers or athletes train their bodies to hit the move or the shot just right, without thinking.

So, if that’s true, then our instincts are not necessarily biological.  They’re basic chains of reactions that we do without thinking, and we’ve acquired these instincts from different sources: our bodies, our family, the culture around us.  (yep, confirmed by Merriam-Webster, definition B: “behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level”).  Instincts by this definition don’t have the value that I’ve been giving them.  Huh… time for a shift in cosmology.

So it’s not instinct.  There’s a different kind of knowing that I want to be putting my stock in (in addition to and sometimes trumping rationality) — I think it’s intuition.  It’s asking myself a question and having the answer bubble up without thinking.  It’s letting my plan for the day shift because I have an inkling, or a desire, or an inspiration.  It’s knowing what to say without thinking about it.

Instinct.  Intuition.  Inspiration.  Random thoughts that don’t matter.  Knowing myself well enough to know which is which seems to be the work of maturing.  And then choosing not to itch even though I know it’ll relieve me in the moment… maybe that’s just simple rationality.

jedi training


I’m pretty excited to be stepping back into blogging.  Integrating the old “Over the Edge” commune blog into “Passion and Patience” is fulfilling work… turning my seemingly-fragmented life into a cohesive body of work.  Tonight I’ve been re-reading posts from the last several years  — seeing what feelings, intentions, and pursuits have persisted or changed, especially since leaving the commune in January 2006… almost exactly 6 years ago!  In honor of that anniversary, I’m re-posting part of my entry from January 23, 2006, just a few days after I left:

journey of colorI’ve left Twin Oaks. In most moments, it doesn’t feel particularly extraordinary. I’m here at my partner Free’s house, hanging out with him and his kids. This is familiar to me; this has been a part of my life for nearly a year… this house, these people. I’ve been slowly integrating myself into this place (and this place into myself), and it doesn’t feel significantly different to be here without Twin Oaks to return “home” to… yet.

Right now, from the comfort of a house where I feel supported and loved, on a cozy Monday morning of tea and NPR, it’s hard to dive into the grief and fear of two days ago. Where to start? I spent my last day at Twin Oaks in a strange limbo. I had high expectations… I wanted intensity and meaningfulness, symbolic releases and powerful goodbyes. Instead, the whole day was fairly mellow. I had a morning date with Hawina, who has been a giant force in my life since early in my membership. She’s Paxus’ life partner and co-parent, and throughout my time at Twin Oaks we had several intense rounds of polyamory-induced emotional and logistical processing. We started to develop our own independent relationship through working together on the Mental Health Team over the last year, and our friendship now is deeper than I would have expected, given our history.

We chatted for awhile, then walked around the community and told each other stories of our experiences in different places. We ended up at the dining hall, and went inside for lunch. I got a plate of food and sat down with a group of friends in a small lounge area. Taking in the scene around me, friends laughing and entertaining the new baby, I felt an immediate emptiness, noting the joy and comfort and deep friendship I would be leaving in just a few hours. A friend across the room made eye contact with me, and the tears that had been building in my eyes suddenly released down my cheeks. She came over and wrapped her arms around me while I sobbed. I don’t mind crying in public; in fact, I like it. I want it to be natural to see people expressing sadness. I want to embrace sadness as an acceptable emotion, and so when I’m sad I don’t go hide out somewhere to cry unseen.

Other friends came over and sat with me, holding me and stroking my head. I calmed down and talked about how weird it felt to be there with them, and be on completely different trajectories. They were engaged in the continuing functioning of the community — I wasn’t. I was engaged in extracting myself from the fabric of their lives, while their lives continued on.

After lunch I spent a few hours getting ready for my goodbye party with another woman, Alexis, who was also leaving in a few days. We decided to have party together, sharing the experience of letting go and moving on. We decorated a large living room with all of our clothes and other items we were getting rid of, for other people to take. We hung clotheslines around the room to display our clothing, and laid out candles, earrings, condoms, and posters for our friends to choose from.

Once the room was ready for the evening’s festivities, I left to say my final goodbyes to the community. I walked around with my journal and took a few moments in different places around the commune to write memories and reflections on my experiences in those places. I wrote in the dining hall about rehearsals for musicals, meals with friends, wild dance parties, and hackey sack circles outside on sunny days. In the dairy barn, I wrote about the smell of the cows, the playfulness of the calves, the intuitive skill of herding, and the silence of solitary winter mornings. In a high field near the graveyard, I remembered moments of retreat and reflection, rituals for full moons and other pagan holidays, and running in the rain for sanctuary when my grandmother died.

In that same pasture, I engaged myself in a ritual of release. I had brought a piece of wood that I found in Maine before I moved to Twin Oaks, a bouquet of lavender from the herb garden that had been hanging in my room, and a rock I had found during a full moon mediation in that very field. I released the wood and set it softly on the earth, symbolizing that which I brought to Twin Oaks with me, and was leaving there: hesitance, passivity, deference to authority, fear of being wrong, naive independence. I then scattered the lavender beside it, symbolic of that which I acquired and experienced at Twin Oaks, and was also leaving behind: the cows, the land, daily responsibility to community members, full benefit of the collective resources of the community, safety, sanctuary. Finally, I held the rock against my chest, envisioning the confident, powerful, compassionate Self that I’ve found at Twin Oaks. Awareness and empathy, clear and honest communication, an active sense of responsibility… I want to carry this persona with me as I move on, and so I brought the rock, infused with that vision, with me. I looked at the wood and lavender on the ground, and felt the weight of the rock in my hand, and I realized that I didn’t have anything to symbolize that which I brought with me and am also carrying on with me. I looked through my bag and couldn’t find anything that fit the description, so I used my body, my eyes and lungs and nose and skin and heart. I thanked my body for carrying me to Twin Oaks, and thanked it for staying healthy enough to carry me away.

I came down from the pasture, and had enough time before dinner to hang out a bit with Paxus. It felt important to spend some time together on my last day, rooting ourselves in our continuing connection despite our many changes. We will certainly have a different relationship now that I’ve left Twin Oaks; what it looks like is up to us.

After dinner, I headed down to the courtyard to finish preparations for the party. Alexis and I had decided to have a “feed your friends” party, where no one fed themselves from their own hands. Instead, we had finger food (pineapple, grapes, chocolate, popcorn, and cake) that people could feed to each other. Once it got rolling, people walked around with platefulls of food and offered to feed each person they interacted with (I did it a lot, and loved it!). The whole party was great — folks grabbed the clothes we had on display and wore them as party outfits. We had a coffeehouse where people performed (juggling, singing, and spoken word tributes to Alexis and me), and we all danced until late in the evening. I returned to my room around 1am to finish packing. I went to sleep at 4:45 and woke up again at 6:15 to get ready to leave with the 8am trip into town.

I spent my last hour and a half at Twin Oaks running around doing final details, cleaning out my message slot, returning things I’d borrowed, and emptying my trashcan. I found Paxus one last time for our final goodbye, and then picked up my bags to load into the minivan. A friend had posted a note on the office door for me, saying simply “You will be missed” in big bold letters. I took it down as my tears started, and held it in my hand as I climbed into the van with the other folks going into town that day. We drove around to the dairy barn to pick up the milk that was to be delivered to cowshare customers (though raw, unpasturized milk can’t be sold, people can buy a share in a specific cow and receive milk from the cow that they partly own). On top of that day’s milk was another note for me, from a friend who was that morning’s milker and knew I was going in with the town trip.

Her note kept my tears flowing as we drove away from Twin Oaks, my home of three and a half years. Folks in the van asked me about my plans, and assured me that I could always come back if I wanted to. The driver offered jokingly to turn around. I cried, and felt comfortable with my tears. I chatted with a friend who I hadn’t spent much time with lately, a man named Thomas who joined the community just before I did.

The 45 minute drive passed quickly. We dropped one woman off at an early dentist appointment, and then everyone else unloaded at the downtown library. Before we headed off in our own directions, Thomas hugged me tightly and offered to help me carry my bags into the library. “No thanks,” I said. “I want to know I can do it all by myself.” It wasn’t a feminist political statement — more, it was a symbolic act of independence and my capacity to take care of myself.

As I write it now, I realize that’s only part of it. The truth is, we are all interdependent, whether we recognize it or not. The very nature of life on Earth is interdependence. Living in community just makes it more tangible. I don’t want to forget that truth simply because it’s more obscured in the mainstream culture. And yet, it felt important to me to feel my independence as I walked away from the van and my life at Twin Oaks.

Friday was hard for me, more than I expected. Sitting in the library, I felt aimless, no roots, no direction, just floating in limbo. I spent the day in deep grief and sadness about leaving my home and my friends of over 3 years, wondering what I’m heading towards and being fearful about not knowing. I cried with Free and he held me. I blamed him for picking me up late at the library and dragging me around town to run errands, and he held me. I cried and talked about my fears and he just gave me the space to be scared, giving me his love and reminding me about hope and faith.

Then on Saturday, I borrowed the car and ran some errands around town. I started a bank account. I stopped by the library to check my email. I sang in the car about how the earth is my home. I’m not rootless, I’m rooted in the earth and the global community.

As I walked down the street towards the library, this time unencumbered with bags, I felt my independence and my interdependence merging. I smiled at people I passed on the street, and they smiled back. This is my mandate for myself on this piece of the journey. Trust myself, and trust other people. Remember my independence, my capacity to create what I want, and my strength, and at the same time remember my connection with others, my responsibility to the people around me, and my commitment to honoring each person for who they are, even when I don’t understand them. We’re all in this together.

I helped kill a cow this morning… a steer, actually.  We keep all the females around until they’re done producing milk.  All the males that are born go to the “beefie” herd and are slaughtered at about 3 years old.  I moved here almost three and a half years ago, and joined the milking crew almost immediately.  I probably saw this one as a calf, and maybe even helped with his birth. Today I was a part of his death.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal die before.  I don’t think I’ve ever really seen Death happen.  I’ve seen plenty of dead creatures — just last week my partner Free found a recently-hit deer on the side of the road, and he hauled it home in the back of his truck and we spent half of our date skinning and gutting it.  We stayed up until 2 in the morning while he butchered the meat.  I mostly watched.  I was fascinated by the process, and even more than that, by the concept of something living as an independent being becoming an inanimate hunk of matter.  When I returned to Twin Oaks the next day, I asked Woody to let me know the next time he was going to kill a cow.

I almost didn’t go  this morning.  I woke up early and laid in bed for awhile, trying to imagine what it would be like to see a cow die… such a huge creature, an animal that I’ve worked with so intimately as a milker, an animal that I grew so fond of that I eventually gave up milking and stopped eating dairy products.  After about a year, I returned to eating cheese and butter, though I didn’t start milking again until just a few months ago when the dairy crew was sparse and needed some help getting shifts covered.  And then this morning, I had the opportunity to observe and participate in the other end of our dairy program.

I was running late because of my hesitation, and I had to jog to catch up with the crew of eight other people who were already on their way from the barn to get the steer from the “beefie” pasture.  When we arrived, Woody went through the gate with a bucket of grain to choose which one would be killed.  The steers were curious at first, but each one backed away quickly when Woody approached.  It seemed, though I don’t know if it’s true, that they recognized Woody as the one who took cows away and never brought them back.  He finally separated one large steer, and coaxed it through the gate.  Once through, it started running and bucking in the open field, then calmed down and walked slowly as the group loosely surrounded it.  Another helper held the bucket of grain to his mouth when he paused, teasing him forward.  As he walked away from his herd, I had a distinct awareness of his separation from the others as a predecessor to his death.  He was quite alone.

He came easily most of the way, then stopped suddenly when we got close to the barn.  Woody said it might have been the sound of the tractor turning the compost — I think it was the steer sensing what he was moving towards.  Perhaps it was the energy of the barn where so many others had been killed, perhaps it was the intention growing in each of us, or just Woody, as we guided him closer.  Regardless, he was spooked, and we had a wild few minutes trying to corral him and keep him from running down the road.  We finally got him going back towards the barn, and he actually ran directly to the corner where Woody has killed all the cows — 5 so far this year, including this one.

Once he was in the corner, he was able to smell the blood from the previous kills.  We had gathered around fairly tightly so he couldn’t bolt, and he let out a load of shit and then started turning and pacing and snorting and kicking.  Woody picked up the shotgun and loaded a bullet.  The more experienced helpers covered their ears — I was transfixed by the steer, watching and feeling his fear.

The shot surprised me; Woody got him right under the ear and he immediately dropped.  Suddenly this lively and active creature was collapsed on its side, unmoving, in a heap in the dirt.  Woody grabbed a knife and immediately started severing the head from the body to cut the spinal cord and let the arteries empty.  Once done, he tossed the head to the side for Elona, one of his more experienced helpers, to cut out the tongue.  Once the head was off, the body still moved, muscles responding even without the central command of the brain.  We waited before doing anything else while the legs kicked aggressively and blood continued to drain from the neck.  Woody turned on classical music in the barn and smoked a hand-rolled cigarette.  I watched intently, tears streaming down my face from the intensity.  Watching life suddenly evaporate, seeing the transition from alive to dead… the union of body and spirit separates, body unites with earth and spirit unites with Spirit.

The rest seems mundane after that initial moment.  The rest, I could handle easily.  Woody cut around the anus and loosened up the bowel muscles as well as he could, then tied off the end with a rope to keep it tidy.  Elona worked on the other end, cutting away the trachea and the gullet from the neck.  She tied a rope on her end, and then started opening the abdomen, careful not to puncture the stomach, so we could pull out all the guts and internal organs at once.

Once gutted (the heart, liver, and fat judiciously removed and placed in cold water for storage), Woody cut off the two hind hooves just below the ankles and strung chains between the two bones on each leg.  The chains were hooked to a piece of equipment that I’m sure has a name, a broad piece of wood hooked onto a chain that went through a pulley at the top of the barn.  One of the helpers worked the pulley to slowly drag the carcass into the barn and raise it off the floor so we could begin skinning it.  Yes, “we”, and not the “royal we”.  Woody called me in the barn, and someone handed me a knife.  Up until this point I had been mostly an observer, helping at times with pulling on a rope or moving a cinderblock to help lever the body into a better position.  At this point I felt ready to engage more in the process — we were far enough away from the time that the thing in front of me had been a living creature.  It wasn’t really moving anymore, except when my knife sliced into a muscle and it involuntarily twitched… which was actually quite fun to watch.

Woody showed me how to pull away the hide with one hand and gracefully cut it away from the fat and muscle beneath.  I liked the work, and I enthusiastically dove in.  Others had already gone by then, and I was glad to help at last; I had been frustrated that I felt so reluctant and useless before when there had been so many people and I was caught up in the intensity of Death.

It seemed like it took us about 45 minutes to skin the whole thing, pausing at intervals to hoist the body higher so we could work at eye-level.  Finally, Woody cut off the two front hooves and put aside the hide for a friend in town to tan it.  He hung the limp tail next to four others on a nearby beam, his way of tallying for the year.

I thanked Woody and walked up the gravel road back to the courtyard, and my room.  I washed my hands, noting that the soap was made of beef tallow, and then went up to lunch and ate a cheese sandwich.

Full Circle

Full circle — I’m back with the cows.

For those of you who have been reading from the beginning, you’ll remember my early days as a cow-milker.  I stopped almost 2 years ago after a much-loved Jersey died of mastitis and I began questioning the ethics of domesticated animals.  I was exploring my own capacity for wildness, and I started to despise myself for helping train the wildness out of these creatures I had grown to love.  I stopped eating dairy and eggs… I was a vegan for nearly a year and then slowly started slipping into my old eating habits.  It was just too hard to find food that met my diet when I traveled by Greyhound, and  when certain people cooked on the commune (there are “vegan options” at every meal, and sometimes — albeit rarely —  that’s just a tray of green beans).

And now I’m back in the barn.  A large portion of the dairy crew has been off the farm on vacation for the past week, and the dairy manager asked me if I’d mind coming down and helping out to ease the labor on the remaining crew.  I’d been thinking about going back to milking for awhile, and I was glad for the opportunity to check things out again.  I’ve been doing the afternoon chores, giving bottles to the calves and grain to the teenagers and filling all the water tanks in the different pastures.  My body remembers the barn and the cows.  I easily swing my legs through the fence and slip my body as always between the poles into the calfyard without thinking.  I navigate the rowdy teens, charging confidently to the grain trough with the bucket held high, warding off hungry heiffers and rambunctious young males.   I’ve also been helping out the morning milkers, herding the cows and doing small tasks around the barn.  I easily remember the heft of the full milk cans, stooping and lifting from my legs to gracefully heave them into the cooler.   When I’m herding, I again slip into the energetic space of aligning myself with the cows’ intentions, and using compassion and suggestion to get them to understand mine.

I love being with these animals again.  I remember how much they have to teach me.

a cycle that makes sense... (from the Humanure Handbook)

Morning reading in the composting toilet collaborative notebook:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who repeatedly shat in a bucket
When told this was strange,
He replied, “You’re deranged!
You shit in clean water and fuck it (up)”

a cycle out of synch...

And then I looked out the window and saw an AWOL cow wandering through the plum trees, so I finished my business and went to find the herder and his collie.  I love living in a place where I read homegrown limericks and encounter escaped cows.

I stopped milking the cows. I can’t do it anymore.

I loved milking the cows because I loved working with them. I loved the interaction beyond words — trying to communicate with another being that doesn’t understand my language stretches my capacity for communication… I couldn’t speak to them about what I wanted, so I had to operate on a different level. Bovine telepathy? Not really… but doesn’t it seem like animals (especially dogs) can read your mind? It works on an energetic level, beyond words and even overt actions.

I loved working with the cows because they helped me explore myself. My first four hours in the morning were spent beyond verbal communication, remembering to be intentional and present — because if I wasn’t, I’d get kicked! After a couple close swipes at my head, I understood that being intentional about handling the cows teats was a matter of respecting them. I’d want anyone handling my teats to be intentional, not just absently groping around. I’ve had times where I should have delivered a kick to the head!

Things started shifting for me when Santana died last month. I felt the weight of her life. I realized she had spent her entire life in service (slavery?) to us, providing us with calves and milk and getting grain and hay in return. I started looking at the cows differently. I grasped that they’re living their lives from the same source as I am living mine, and what I want most in my life is freedom. We control these cows, forcing them to live the way that we want them to live so that they can provide us with the milk and meat we want.

Soon after Santana’s death we were training a young heifer (a female who hasn’t calved before). We train them by leading them into the barn with a bucket of grain, getting them used to walking up the concrete steps into a gated stall where there’s grain waiting for them. We shut the gate, they munch on grain, we take their milk. This heifer, Poppy, hadn’t been barn trained before, and she didn’t simply saunter into the barn the way our older cows do. She wanted to explore, to look around, to rub noses with the cows on the other side of the fence. And she wasn’t all that interested in the grain I had to offer. As I started trying to coerce her, I felt a sense of dominance rising in me: “You’ve got to do this because I say so.” And that felt so foreign, so opposite of what I’m trying to cultivate in my life, that I had to stop and think about it. Is this really just for me and my friends? Out of our desire to have milk? Is there anything in this for Poppy at all? If she doesn’t care about the grain, she has no vested interest in entering that fucking barn. We teach the cows that the grain is what they want, just like mainstream culture teaches us that money and cell phones and fast food and makeup is what we want!

I struggled with this as I continued to work with Poppy. The more she refused my manipulation, the more upset I felt about what I was trying to do. I saw a wildness in her that I loved, that I desire in myself, and I was attempting to train it out of her??? I couldn’t do it.

that was a saturday, the day of our dairy crew meeting. I went to the meeting at lunch and announced I was going to take a break from milking to explore these feelings more, and to see if I was resolved about this enough that I could stop eating dairy. Because of course, if I feel philosophically opposed to domesticating and milking the cows, the followup is to not benefit from it. So I stopped eating cheese, which had been a main staple of my diet here because we make our own — everything from cheddar to romano to gouda — and it’s delicious and fresh. And now I see that its creation is reliant on the domestication and manipulation of these animals that I respect so intensely. It hasn’t been hard at all to stop eating dairy. It hits me too deeply.

I was a vegan for a while in college, but that was more of a political decision. “I’m an activist, I’m a radical, I should be a vegan”… or something like that. So when it got too difficult to cook vegan food (when I was fired from the vegan restaurant I worked at), the cheese pizza my friends ordered from PapaJohn’s was too tempting. I said I was a “freegan” for awhile (I won’t BUY food with animal products in it, but if it’s already been purchased it won’t hurt for me to eat it!), and then the slope just got too slippery and I went back to indulging in cheese and milk chocolate again.

this time it feels different. I’m coming at it from the other side… instead of “I should be a vegan, so I’m not going to eat dairy products”, it’s “I can’t participate in this oppression, so I’m not going to eat dairy products… I guess that means I’m a vegan”.