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Gentle Advice From a Gentleman

After 40 minutes of steady paddling, the cream in the Dazey churn didn't look anywhere near "buttering up." I've learned that term from Carl, who stopped by just as I began to think of calling it quits. I came around from the back porch to greet him, holding the churn against my waist, still cranking the handle.

"Shouldn't it have turned by now?" I asked, telling him of my long (though not unpleasant) labor. "Does it ever just not work?" He watched as my elbow lifted and fell rhythmically, then he settled onto the metal hitch of the old hay baler.

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"It's always buttered up when I done it before," he said simply, both offering hope and correcting my phrasing - "turn" and "work" seemed to amuse him. Without another word I handed him the churn. He regarded the white foamy cream through the lid vent and began cranking the wooden handle, a motion so natural to him he all but dozed. The red paddles spun behind the glass. His gnarled hand rested across the lid in quiet counterpoint. The cream seemed to thicken a bit almost at once.

Making butter isn't a part of my daily or even weekly pattern, but it's fun now and then, and cream is always handy on a dairy farm. I love the old glass churn, marvel at how easily the paddles spin behind its beautiful fluted glass. The actual "buttering up" happens almost at once, after about a half-hour's work. The thick yellow clots simply appear, bobbing in their buttermilk broth.

Not so today. But as Carl patiently cranked, head bent, I knew that if butter was in that jar, he would find it.

Carl lives on 80 acres of bottom land along Bean Blossom Creek, not four miles from our ridge-top farm in Indiana. I know only a little about him - that he's farmed a good part of his life, planting by the moon, keeping cattle, occasionally quail - and so far as I know, his own company now. When I was canoeing along the creek about a year ago, I'd looked up along one stretch of bank to see him resting there, on his haunches. He'd smiled and nodded. So this is where he lives, I thought. It was easy to imagine he did live literally where he sat, so quietly and completely did he blend with the lowland forest behind him.

Still churning, Carl spoke.

"We'd just put the cream in a quart jar and shake her." I looked at my prized antique, beautifully proportioned, plain and evocative of old-time dairies. I'd never regarded it as fancy or newfangled, but Carl, familiar as he was with the Dazey churn, put it in its proper place: a more efficient, easier-on-the-arm version of a technology that could be reduced to a canning jar and furiously exercising biceps.

He passed the churn back. We moved, following the late-winter sun to the long matted grass of the yard. From there we could see Charlie and the team, dragging the east field. The dogs flopped by our side, and the hens gathered, scratching under the dark leaves for worms and rushing after the occasional creamy dollops flying from the lid vent. Carl shyly offered occasional bits of wisdom on things like boiling elderberries. As to buttermaking, he merely said, without questioning my own methods:

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"Course, we'd always set the jar in a sunny window a while." Carl, I have discovered, times things by "whiles" and "good whiles." Even though cream needed only a "while" in the sun, I now understood why this was taking so long. My cream had risen in a sunless corner of the kitchen, far from the wood stove. The stuff was too cold from the start.

But now, there were hopeful signs for sure. The splattering cream not only clung to the paddles, it began to coat the glass, making it opaque. All at once the moment came. Carl was listening to my tale of buying the Farmall he admired for a mere $1,100 at auction when the yellow clots materialized, dancing in what a moment before had been a smooth white soup.

I carried the churn inside, poured off the buttermilk, and pressed the excess liquid from the clots. I spread two slices of potato bread with new butter. Back outside, we shared our impromptu picnic without another word.

And Carl took his leave.

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