Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

The Raw Life

 First things first, hats off to the countless generations of humans who milked by hand. This stuff is hard.

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There were many things I thought about this week while milking our Jersey cow, Goldie. I thought of the magic of grass turning sunlight into fiber, and of this large mammal turning that grass into a miracle food. I thought about the ridiculousness of this activity, about how people have obtained this taken-for-granted substance for centuries. I thought about when Goldie was next going to kick the bucket over, or slap my face with her tail. I thought about the blessing and the curse of fossil fuels, the blessing and the curse of pasteurization. I thought about how much milk was on my hands and pants and shoes, and how much was actually in the bucket. I thought about if I was going to finish in time to make it to breakfast.

Do a repetitive, manual task for forty minutes, twice a day, for seven straight days, and you’ll find your mind wandering as well.

But mostly, I thought about how much my hands hurt.

Raw milk is a much-debated topic these days. The post-pasteurization folks view it as a silver bullet, infusing us with its rich microbial activity, preventing everything from allergies to asthma to autism. The FDA views it as a pathogen-rich public safety hazard, sending in SWAT teams in the middle of the night to raid small-scale raw dairy operations.

What do I think? Well, there probably aren’t any silver bullets to our varied health crises, even if I do believe there are many beneficial bacteria in properly handled raw milk. And the FDA and other bacteriophobes are way off base with their core assumptions about how to keep the public safe, destroying small businesses and infringing upon consumer freedom in the process.

But mostly, I think raw milk is the most gloriously decadent food, and drinking it makes me rejoice at being alive.

I loved waking up at 5:30am every morning, grabbing coffee, putting on my jacket and boots, and walking out to the field knowing that an animal was waiting on me. I loved the intimacy of scooting up next to her broad flank, nustling my forehead in at the end of her ribcage, and methodically going to work. I loved taking extreme caution with the milk in the pail, knowing that I was going to drink this perfect breeding ground for bacteria, that I was going to have to vouch for it to the rest of the community. I loved feeling like if I treated Goldie well, she treated me well in return.

It felt like a sacred and ancient exchange. I’ve felt pretty close to my food before, but never quite this close.

This is what we humans have been doing for a long time. In the 18th-Century timber framed barn here at Maggie’s Farm, above the stanchion where we milk Goldie, you can see evidence of the record-keeping done by German immigrants in their dairy 200 years ago. In the pre-dawn hours, it is haunting.

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 I couldn’t help but imagine them sitting exactly where I was, doing the exact same thing: hunched over, hands clenched, milk filling a pail. I couldn’t help but think how much I envied the men and women who came before me, and how much I pitied them. I could help but wonder about all the ways we were similar, and all the ways we were different.

It seems that we’ve lost a great deal through the industrialization of our food system, but it’d be foolish to not recognize how much we’ve gained as well. As my hands started cramping, I became extremely thankful for fossil fuels, for generators and vacuum pumps. Hand milking is magical, yes, but also draining, unrelenting, and time consuming.

To have a little extra help frees up so much for me, for my society, to do other great things. Novels and films and music, the opening of worlds. I value all of that deeply, and it’s hard to imagine much of it existing or being accessible to a plebeian like me without the technologies and energy sources that are all too easy to demonize from afar.

But we’ve gone too far, for sure. We don’t know where milk comes from, not really. I sure didn’t. And in losing that knowledge, we lose an important piece of our collective history. We wage war on the specter of unseen microbes that we don’t understand. We argue and flail around in search of what will make us healthy, with no anchor to hold us down.

The raw milk debate will surely rage on, with most commentators most of the time missing the whole point. I have my hunches about where the science on bacteria and health will end up, but in all honesty I don’t know. We’ll have to wait for conclusive answers on that front.

What I do know is that anything that brings us closer to the food and processes that sustain us, anything that lifts the veil on what food is and where it comes from, anything that produces joy and awe at what the world can provide, is a good thing. Raw milk does that. In fact, to be done correctly and safely, it requires a level of connection, and intimacy, and trust, that all seems rare in this world.

As I walked Goldie back out to her pasture once we finished milking, my mind always wandered back to the grass we were walking on, the grass Goldie kept stubbornly stopping to eat. Somehow, someway, through millennia of evolution and centuries of human enterprise, there was this large creature that subsisted on the grass that grew freely under the sun, producing gallons of delicious growth juice for us to drink.

Cheers to that. Bottoms up.


To see the rest of my pictures from this week, which may or may not have included things not related to Goldie or milking, click here...


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