My Time and Place Among the Cows

Dave Stewart - Epsom, New Hampshire
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, January 12, 2012
Dave Stewart

For many people, work defines the pace of their lives. That’s especially true for New England dairyman Dave Stewart. He believes his cows help him appreciate the slower rhythms of the natural world, and embrace the responsibilities of farm and family life.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: environment

I believe in Monique and Julie, my cows.

I believe in my cows for their alchemical conversion of sunshine into milk. Cows work their magic with the simple ingredients of grass, water, and a dry shelter from wind and rain or the summer sun. I believe in my cows because we drink their milk, eat homemade yogurt and cheese, and enrich the gardens’ soil with their manure.

My cows and I are faithful allies in the effort to keep our pastures safe from their natural enemies: trees. The woods may have looked lovely dark and deep to a poet who lived down the road in Derry, but trees are patient partisans waiting to advance and reclaim land which is rightfully theirs. We hold the trees back, my cows and I, for our co-conspirators: grass and clover, vetch and weed. Throughout the growing season, I watch for the places where I will turn out the animals to strip the leaves off the seedlings that sprout in the sunshine at the edge of field and forest.

I believe my cows stretch time. Despite the demands of single-handing a small, diversified farm and shepherding two teenagers, I find time to stop and watch how a healthy cow moves, and how a sick or stressed animal shrinks and shies. When I drop off dairy to my neighbors, we talk about our families and wonder where time has gone. After dinner, my kids undo time by making ice cream soup out of the laboriously frozen product that had been my goal minutes before.

Morning and night, I, like my grandfather the dairy farmer before me, confirm Orion’s progress through New Hampshire’s dark winter skies. Walking to the barn I remember the grad student I was at the time of his death a quarter of a century ago. I fretted over the responsibilities that life’s defining events would bring. But milking the cows reminds me that the ability to shoulder a burden is a gift on loan. Soon enough, age or infirmity will end my twice daily walks to the barn and the cows will slip into memory, where the burden will be light and easily shared with anyone who will listen.

Tonight, though, fatigue gathers in my arm as I carry a sloshing pail of milk back to the house. A brittle cold snap has settled over the farm, leaving my fingers and toes numb and slowing my work in the barn. But the glow from the kitchen windows and the glitter of starlight on the snow warms me.

Thanks to my cows I appreciate the responsibilities of my here and now.

Ayuh, I believe in my cows.

Dave Stewart raises cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, bees, vegetables and fruit on McClary Hill Farm in Epsom, New Hampshire. In addition to believing in his cows, he believes in E.B. White’s maxim: “A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus.”

Independently produced by John Gregory for This I Believe, Inc.