A SPECIAL PLACE: Pastural Farm
Azure Gallagher Michalak
Among the fondest memories in my life are those of summer 2014 on Pastural Farm. People often came and went, but the two permanent residents were Dan and Jane Barson, friendly, rugged folks with warm smiles. They had revitalized the main farmhouse from a neglected state after they moved in in the late nineties. Near the house, three dozen hens and a few roosters strutted about proudly, although they would scurry away frantically if anything larger than a chicken approached them. Largest among the three barns on the property was the dairy barn. This huge barn was built more than a century ago, and still stood rigid, roof uncaved, almost like it was new. It had a giant hay loft and ample room for cows and calves.
The foremost of my recollections are those taking place in the milk house and parlor, for I spent many long hours there milking the cows, cleaning the pipelines, and carefully filling glass jugs with scrumptious buttercream-hued milk. Every bovine had a name, Silver, Henry, Raven, Dora, and Cindy being a small selection. The former was a gargantuan brown bull, and the second his younger, meeker twin. It is a bad decision to be dishonest at a dairy farm, because if you claim you can handle moving a bull and fail miserably halfway through the job, it is your fault. The same rule does not generally apply to safer jobs indoors. The cows possessed the most differing personalities, some faultless and others very troublesome. One was so misbehaved that she repeatedly struck me in the face with her tail until I developed an eye infection. It is no wonder that some farmers wear goggles when milking. The job was a perplexing mixture of chore and fun. It was tiring and repetitive, and one time when I was sick and unsteady I was forced to use the cow’s backs as a support to get off my knees after attaching the milking machine. At the same time, many sunny days were spent listening to conservative radio or country music, talking to friends, or singing and humming pleasantly to the cows as the twice-daily chore was underway. The reward was fresh creamy milk, made even more perfect by the addition of chocolate syrup. It was always worth it.
After finishing the night milking, it was time for dinner, an ever-expanding assortment of quality food. My labor went unpaid, but the food made it worth it. Jane, Dan’s longtime partner, would do the traditional wives’ work, cleaning, homestyle cooking, and baking, as well as bedding and feeding the calves and looking after the chickens. Company would often come over in the evening to break up the monotony, and we spent many pleasant nights talking and eating with friends until midnight or even later. During the daytime, there would always be a homemade desert on the table; orange cake, elderberry pie, homemade jam. Amish donuts, or brownies. Lunches would often be simple and quick if there was a lot of work to do outside, so Dan and I would grab a bologna sandwich, egg sandwich, or a quick slice of “egg pie” with hot sauce or homemade pepper mustard. I do not eat eggs, but always made exceptions at the farm, since they were very different from the store-bought kind. The quintessential beverage was milk, and I was a great guzzler of it. I was known to drink at least three cups a day, sometimes six and up to nine. More trips were made to the milk tank when I was at the farm than at any other time.
I first learned to drive at the farm. My vehicle of choice was a 1978 blue Ford tractor, a reliable vehicle with a huge amount of play in the steering wheel. Shifting the gears was difficult and nonsensical at first, but Dan slowly explained it to me until I understood it well enough to drive by myself. I did a number of jobs successfully with that machine, although I almost hit a fence post while towing a huge trailer behind. Still, it was preferable riding stately Trooper, the bay Warmblood horse, in my opinion. There were many other tractors on the property, a temperamental old International often found doing field work, a huge White tractor with dual wheels, and an antique Farmall with a broken engine block which was never fixed. I learned how to tinker with the engines of two John Deere mower tractors I had bought for little over a hundred dollars. After failing to repair them, I traded them for a 1968 Cub Cadet and 1994 Lawn Chief which I partially fixed. After driving the tractors around for a while, Dan and I went on an errand in the surrounding hills when our car got a flat tire. He calmly called his friends while we stood outside in the hot summer weather. We talked for a while about relaxing topics, and I asked which plants were growing on the side of the road. He told me the names and uses of every single one, to my surprise. Ten minutes later, a friend pulled up in a noisy custom pickup truck with a spare tire for our Crown Victoria, not at all bothered by our call for help. People in the mountains are not afraid to help one another, a valuable lesson for everybody.
I had many long discussions with Jane while driving home from the farm, waiting for dinner to be ready, or being idle before the chores. We had an astounding synchronicity; our minds were very similar and despite our different backgrounds we were able to share a lot about life in those talks. History, politics, and living in general were our favorite topics. We lamented how true rural culture is fading away in America and around the world, the comforting clopping of horse drawn carriages and fresh country air replaced by the uncomfortable squeal of automobiles and polluted atmospheres of cities and towns. People, instead of helping their neighbors with their work, have turned to push them away or do not even know their names in the first place. I would have been sorely in need of advice from elders if it had not been for Dan and his wife helping me along with questions about my future or anything else that interested me. The most memorable discussion took place in the barn hay loft during a beautiful thunderstorm, when I realized how the sky looked exactly like a painting from the 1800’s, an amazing opalescent orange glow surrounded by cloudy black ink. We talked there for a long time, until the storm finally passed away. That night, I wished I was a painter.
From driving through the field herding the cows and sleeping in the quiet, expansive hay loft, to pigeon hunting, fixing cars, buying Amish baked goods, riding Trooper bareback down the road, and discussing the meaning of life, I find myself often missing Pastural Farms and the lessons it taught me about patience, humility, work, and fun. Perhaps the world would be a better place to live in if everyone would stay for a while at such a farm, as it exists in a far-off place where virtue is rewarded and dishonesty, laziness, and falseness are slowly tilled away. It all started by going to the barn sale and picking up Macguffey’s 1880 Reading Primer for a quarter, and that summer ended with me bittersweetly waving goodbye to Dan and Jane from the car as the orange autumn leaves skidded, drifting across the road.