This dark-edged time of year, it takes all my will to slip out from under the pile of warm blankets and into the dark, cold morning.
Into the bathroom (cold), turn on the light (bright), shut the door and hope that the contained air will warm the room a bit. Turn on the hot-water tap and let it run while I wash my face and brush my teeth. I haven’t counted how many minutes it takes, but it takes many, for the hot water to reach all the way from the hot water heater in one basement corner of the house to this opposite corner, second-floor bathroom faucet.
I suit up: flannel-lined jeans, t-shirt, heavy-weight sweatshirt, warm socks. Turn off the bathroom light and slip out into the still-dim hallway and down the stairs.
The cats are waiting. Hudson is mewing his head off, “Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!” He and Oyster are darting under my feet, wanting to stay close to me and still make it to the food bowls just before I do. Sometimes I actually trip on them in the semi-light. They’re trying to kill me.
To the kitchen sink now and turn the faucet on, letting the water warm up. Last night, I washed and sterilized all the milking equipment. Right now, I just need to rinse and assemble what I’ll use this morning: one quart canning jar, one pint canning jar, two plastic lids, the glass milking bowl and its lid, the strip screen, the two-piece metal funnel.
I remove a round of milk filter cloth from the cannister, place it over the bottom opening of the funnel, and then screw on the bottom cap, which keeps the filter in place when I pour the milk through.
Next, make the udder wash: two cups of hot water into a plastic container; add one tablespoon bleach, one drop of skin-softening dish washing liquid, mix well, cover.
Scoop up the milking bowl, strip screen, udder wash and head to the basement steps. Cats mill under my feet, then bolt down the stairs. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Tiny cats sound like a herd of miniature elephants galloping down the stairs.
Downstairs, I start the warm water running into a big bucket in the utility sink, then scoop the cat food into their bowls. The cats are gobbling and don’t notice my trying to get past them to reach the sink again to turn off the water and fetch the bucket.
To the basement door. Turn on the outside light. Put on my insulated vest, hat, gloves, boots. Grab the bucket, the milking equipment. Open the door. Head outside into the half light.
The light is just coming up over the hill. The fog is floating in a line over the river. Everything is quiet. No bird song yet. The goats are awake, though. I see Westie and Willow up by the barn, waiting for breakfast.
From halfway across the yard, I say, “Good morning, beautiful goats!” and they bleat back politely, “Meh-heh-heh-heh!”
At the near gate, I put down the water bucket, to use later.
At the barn, I scratch heads with one hand, while holding the milking equipment in the other. The goats sniff my hands to see if I have any treats for them. Willow is ravenous. She’s the one doing all the hard work: making the milk and feeding her boys and us. No wonder she’s hungry.
I hear the boys inside, bleating for me. Or Willow? Or their grain? Or just to great the day?
Unlatch the barn door, put the milking supplies down on the table, turn on the light, peek over the stall door and see four bright little goat eyes staring at me. Lars has been up for awhile, but Albus is still stretching, rounding his back up and shaking his fur. They both have bits of shavings and straw on their fur. I wonder if they cuddle the way they used to when they were first born, or if they sleep in separate corners of the stall.
I would stare at them longer, but they start talking to me, and so does Willow, and then Wellesley is here, hooves up on the fence, mouth nibbling at the barn door latch: “Let’s get this show on the road!”
Let Willow into the barn and let the boys have a first milk drink. They don’t seem to need this the way they did even a month ago, but it takes the edge off of their hunger and gives me an extra few quiet moments to prepare the grain and treats for everyone.
For Willow: a large handful of shredded beet pulp, one quart of grain, another handful of black oil sunflower seeds. The beet pulp must go in first so that she has to work her way toward it. It’s her dessert and once she finishes it, she thinks milking time is done and things get hairy.
For Westie and Wellesley: a handful of beet pulp and another of sunflower seeds each. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they’ll get a small handful of grain, too.
For the boys: 2/3 of a quart of grain, some beet pulp, and some seeds – to share.
Give Westie and Wellesley their breakfast, then open the stall door to let Willow onto the milking stand. She goes right up, making a beeline for the grain bucket hanging from the front of the stand. I don’t really need to clip her in, but I do so out of habit.
Before sitting down to milk, I give the boys their grain.
For a moment, the only sound in the barn is content, steady munching.
Sit down, open the container of udder wash, take a fresh paper towel and submerge it in the warm, soapy water. First warm my hands with it, then gently wash Willow, then dry her and my hands with a fresh paper towel.
Start the milking with two squirts from each teat through the strip screen. The boys have already taken the first milk, so I don’t need to worry about disposing of the first stream of milk (which may contain bacteria), but I still scan the strip screen to look for any unusual particles that might indicate mastitis or other problems.
The meditation begins.
Starting is sometimes hard, but after a few uneven squirts and searching for the right hand position, I find a rhythm.
Long, steady streams.
Remind myself to let my shoulders relax, release my tongue from the roof of my mouth, let my jaw loosen. Breathe.
Willow eats. I put my head to her flank, feel her warmth, watch the milk accumulate, then begin to foam. Keep the rhythm steady and calm. If I do this right, I’ll have 1.5 – 2 quarts of milk and Willow will still be finishing her grain.
Everyone else is quiet and eating.
I think about singing to her, but the silence is nice. The world is turning and the dawn is lighting up the sky.
If I finish first, I dip Willow’s teats with udder wash easily. If she finishes first, we have a disagreement about the dip, but I usually win by holding one of her legs firmly in the air so she can’t kick.
Unlatch the stanchion and Willow walks out. She might sniff around the barn for a second, looking for any uncovered treats, but more often runs quickly to the pen, eager to see if Wellesley or Westie have left any beet pulp. Usually they have and Willow is greedy for more.
Open the barn door and the boys come out. The herd is reassembled for the day. Hay, water, muck. Scratch chins and ears. Sniff noses. Stroke ears. They jockey for position at the hay rack, then settle in for a long munch, while I walk up to latch doors and gates.
Carry the milk inside. Filter it into the canning jars and put the jars into the freezer to cool quickly before moving them to the refrigerator.
Place the rest of the milking equipment in the sink to wash and sterilize later.
The rest of the day can start now.