An Excerpt from Home Bird

Winter in the Barn

Winter in the Barn

The shortest days have come and gone. The holidays, with their open houses and potluck suppers up and down the Island, are over. The frenzy of shopping has stopped. We rang in the New Year with kisses at midnight and toasts of champagne. Daylight hours show little sign of lengthening, so we are grateful for those outdoor lights that remain up. Winter is truly upon us, and the Island has moved into its quietest months.

Island winters are demanding for even the hardiest among us. Last night the thermometer dropped into the teens, and there was no wind to keep ice from forming on the ponds. Although I heard geese working hard to keep a patch of James Pond open, the water was frozen solid this morning. Sea smoke hung over Vineyard Sound, hiding a huge raft of eider ducks. Their lovely black and white feathers dapple the beaches along the north shore and when I walk there, I collect them with thickly mittened hands.

We drive the dark away with book groups, knitting clubs, and other social activities. People meet at the gym, at Alley’s Store for coffee, or make dates for walks. I find what particularly grounds me during these cold, short days are animals, especially cows. When I lean into the sturdiness of their big flanks and feel the warmth of their breath, I am fortified. The tender way they lick their lanky calves always makes me smile.

Blackwater Farm is right across the road from my house. This time of year, I often walk over at afternoon feeding time. Even before I enter the barn, I hear the clink of stanchions, slurp of water, and munching of grain. Farmers Debby and Alan are chatting as they work. Their two dogs, Cheddar and Sugar, greet me with jubilant barks and wags. Two new calico kittens dart by hoping for a pat.

The barn smells of manure and hay, horses and cows. Chickens wander through, clucking and cawing. The two big draft horses, Jack and Ruby, are deep in their grain buckets. I run my hands through Jack’s thick coat, and he flicks his tail at me. There are four solid cows, each still nursing a summer calf. The mothers are fed in the stanchions while their babies feed in the box stall, which makes for a lot of mooing back and forth.

I always approach Swanlee first. Her patient white face is blotched with black freckles. I take off my mittens and offer her stale bread from my pocket. She licks me with her warm, wet tongue, and I rub my face against her sturdy neck. We’ve known one another for fourteen years.

Swanlee is an old lady now. She has given birth to fifteen babies. Buttercup, the baby Swanlee is nursing, will be her last. The other calves must sense Swanlee’s lack of energy. They nurse off her udder, and she no longer pushes or kicks them away, like the other mothers do. Once I feed Swanlee, I help with the farm chores. There are eggs to collect, buckets of water to fill, food to dispense. The cows and horses need to go back out into the field. The chickens need to be shut in. The cats need food. The work is immediate, twice daily, relentless and real.

This afternoon as I gather eggs and watch the calves languidly nursing in the dimming field, I decide to make eggnog. Usually this is something I make during the holidays, but not this year. There were too many gifts to make and wrap, too many visitors and parties. Now there is time and no less need for cheer.

I fill three cartons with eggs and pile them in my arms. It’s satisfying to know the egg yolks will be from these familiar chickens and the cream from a cow like Swanlee. The eggnog will need time to season for four or five days, but there’s no rush. Giving Swanlee’s nose a final rub and promising to bring Debby and Alan some eggnog when it’s ready, I head for home.