A Light in the Darkness

words by: Shawn + Beth Dougherty


Over the course of a year, the morning milking time is a lesson in contrasts. In June, the sky is light at five a.m., and you walk to the barn to the accompaniment of a hundred songbirds in joyful conversation. But by December, five o’clock is something else. We come out the back door with our buckets and milk cans into hard frost. We can’t see it—there are no lights—but we can hear it under our boots as we cross to the yard gate. Beowulf, the farm dog, trots beside us as we head down to the barn.

Here in central Appalachia, only bird flight and utility companies can trace a straight line over the mountainous terrain, and all other creatures have to find more circuitous ways. The path from the house to the barn is just such a trail, starting out northwest to travel south and uphill to go down. It gets there in the end. In between points, there are flower and vegetable gardens, two woodsheds, a stream to cross, a brush against the wooded hillside, and then the barnyard—a small journey.

Light in the Darkness

But for the early milking, we are mostly walking it in obscurity. Our hands occupied with buckets and milk cans, we can’t carry a lantern or flashlight, and our feet have to find the path without any help from our eyes. But it’s a path we walk many times a day and we seldom stumble. We move through space we cannot see, our feet making the picture we perceive in our minds. Moving in darkness, we find that every small gleam or glimmer takes on a larger meaning. Even a spark captures our whole attention.

To the west, as we cross the calf pasture, we can see neighbor Barry’s light come on a half-mile away as he steps out to feed the two cats—one an orange tabby and the other with a black/white tuxedo—that we know are crouching by his kitchen door. His home is as familiar to us as our own; he taught us to butcher hogs, and for twenty-some years, our families have shared in the raising of five pigs to be butchered for the neighborhood each January.

Mike and Gwen, whose farm is to the north, live beyond the reach of our vision. Still, at five in the morning, red lights blink morse from the tall chimney at the power plant, telling us exactly where these neighbors are; and we know that Gwen, or one of the children, is headed out the back door with a bucket to milk the Jersey/Limousin cross-bred cows that graze their hilltop pastures. 

And to the south—but down in the next holler, from which we can see no gleam of light—son William and his wife Ashley are rising early to milk their Jersey cow Gracie before breakfast. Although we can’t see any of these folks, and the night is nearly silent, we aren’t really alone.


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About Shawn and Beth:

Shawn and Beth Dougherty live in eastern Ohio, where their home farm is 17 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’. Using grass as the primary source of energy, they raise dairy and beef cows, sheep, farm-fed hogs, and a variety of poultry, producing most of their food, and feed, on the farm. Concerned that farming is too often dependent upon multiple off-farm resources, from feed, fuel, and fertilizer to water and electricity, their ongoing project is to discover and test the time-honored means by which farming may be done with a minimum of off-farm inputs. Their research has led them to identify the daily conversion of grass into milk by dairy ruminants as a key to whole-farm sustainability. They are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, Chelsea Green Press 2016.


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