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Itching for spring

I was lost in thought, as I often am in the milkroom, when a stir in the barnlot caught my eye. I hadn't been looking at anything in particular, just gazing beyond the broad backs of the cows I'd already milked toward the greening-up pasture. But then, from the foreground came a disturbance not to be ignored, a wild thrashing amid a dark swirling cloud of dust. At first glance I thought of four anvils dancing in a twister. Then I realized that I was only witnessing Ben scratching his back.

A draft horse who weighs more than a ton, Ben generally responds to an itch that he can't reach with his teeth by folding down to earth, pushing off from his massive side, and wriggling about on his broad back like some enfant terrible. It is a sight to behold, those thick, huge-hoofed legs pumping up from his self-styled dust bowl. Despite being inside and yards away from the lethal-looking action, I instinctively took a step back. When Ben rose, grunting with deep satisfaction, I could almost feel his relief.

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All our animals are beginning to shed their winter coats, and their tactics for dealing with the accompanying irritation can be as boisterous as Ben's or surprisingly delicate. A cow, for example, can gently tend a small itch behind one ear with perfect accuracy, using her back hoof almost like an index finger. She will also muster a variety of tools to execute a satisfying scratch. Black-and-white fuzz on the pump handle, on the metal edges and projections of barnlot implements, and along plank fencing and low-hanging branches is a sure sign of spring.

We begin to shed our winter layers as well. The woodpile is down to almost nothing, yet we hesitate to replenish it fully, as if the very act of restocking could, in some perverse scheme of things, bring back the cold. The long underwear, washed for the last time, is folded away. A few sweaters occupy a kind of locational limbo. Not yet in summer storage nor on the handiest wall pegs, they are hung and dropped hither and yon. We put them on and discard them willy-nilly, never able to predict when and where we'll need them.

So it goes as April unfolds. We spend a part of March's milk check on the stuff of spring: spanking new white T-shirts, tractor tune-ups, and one more load of hay to stretch our own dwindling seasonal supply until the cows can go to pasture. We hire a trailer to bring home two cows that wintered down the road in a barn space made available to us by farmers-in-spirit. Charlotte and Red are glad to be back, but the Shaws miss them and stop by our place more frequently this spring than they used to.

In fact, the cold-weather solitude of the farm falls away just like another winter wrap. Friends come by more and more often for visits, walks, and whatnot.

"I'd love to trade jobs with you," one woman says as she heads back to work at the elementary school across the road. She's walked over to get a dozen brown eggs on her break as I feed the cows after morning milking. The air is soft, and the horses are whinnying.

"I'll bet you wouldn't have said that the first week of January," I couldn't help reminding her. Folks at the school can see everything that goes on over here, and they know that dairy farming is no picnic in subzero weather. But then, on a day like this, it's oh-so-easy to forget.

Charlie halters the Belgians and trims their hooves as I finish cleaning up the milkroom. As the sun climbs higher, the hens move over the soft warm dirt around the barn, answering their own ancestral urge to scratch and nest. Ben rolls, the cows rub up against the fences, and we pull off our sweaters to finish our chores. Whatever our methods, we all banish winter from our backs and welcome a new lightness of being.

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