words by: Shawn + Beth Dougherty
With the grass green and thick and all the cows on fresh pasture, it feels like spring has really come. Last month, Easter-blooming tulips and calving cows issued a promise of spring, but sudden snow-flurries or settled, sodden rain will throw a chill over the most sanguine hopes. Today the sun shines on pastures bright with dandelions, and six dairy cows—brown, black, and black-and-white—graze the east field, the one we used to call the hermitage pasture. This year, though, and from here on, it has a new name.
Sister Teresa’s pasture, it is called now, named for the single grave and gravestone we set here last winter.
The Way is Easy
Cows walk willingly to the dairy at milking time. We used to lead them one by one until we found that they would walk just as readily without guidance, drawn toward the milking parlor as though by invisible strings. Now at milking time, we just open the pasture gate and follow the cows up the lane. Slow haunches swing from side to side; tails flick casually. If we weren’t behind them, the cows would pause to graze in the orchard.
Teresa was young, only thirty-eight, when we learned that she was ill. The diagnosis was not hopeful, but there was little fuss. Her family, originally from the Dominican Republic but living now in New Jersey, made frequent trips to see her during those months of illness. Sometimes she went home to visit her many aunts and uncles, and some of her sixty-nine cousins. When she had to she would spend a week in Cleveland or Columbus, submitting with humor to the speculative therapies of an admittedly baffled medical community. Mostly, though, she was home, and we often met her as we drove the cows to be milked.
Call to Prayer
You can tell what is happening in the milking parlor even if you happen not to be right there. The progress of the evening chores is obvious from the sounds that issue from the barn: the thud of a stanchion bar locking into place, the rustle of hay being pulled from the rack, the sharp clank of a bail handle dropping against the side of a stainless steel bucket. Unconsciously, you tally the clanks until they reach six, signaling that the last cow has been milked, the last bucket of milk emptied into the tall cream cans.
From the convent comes the ringing of the five o’clock bells, the call to vespers. If we were talking to her when the bells rang, Teresa would drop her head in submission to the call, even in the middle of a sentence. She would begin the backward step that would turn her toward the chapel, even while her dark, almond-shaped eyes rose up wordlessly to meet yours, and you could see the laugh—her teeth were very white and just slightly crooked, so endearing—that said she was sorry to leave you, but delighted to go to prayer.
Much as she enjoyed just plain living, it was evident her heart was focused on something else.
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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.