Isn't it awfully confining?" people ask us of life as dairy farmers. Well, yes and no. We can't just take off at the drop of a hat, and as long as we're milking, we can't travel far as a twosome: Someone has to be at home with the cows each morning and evening. But with 80 acres out the back door, and no bosses or time clocks, we have our freedoms.
Running a small farm sensibly means falling in step with the languorous poetry of nature - and its slow, free-wheeling verse opens new doors to us daily. The longer we tend our piece of earth and its animals, the broader our world seems to become. If we are confined, it is within a space of ever-surprising dimensions.
So, when I left the cows and chores to Charlie a couple of weeks ago and boarded a westbound train to visit friends in Colorado, I didn't feel as liberated as one might imagine. I was leaving one multifaceted world for others, rapidly sampling them from the Amtrak passenger train linking Chicago and Los Angeles. Boarding in Illinois, my son, Tim, and I rolled through the night and that following morning, alighting with sea legs in Trinidad.
Before dusk and after dawn, hundreds of small dramas flashed before our eyes as we streaked westward through rural Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. Our window framed the startled leaps of a doe and her fawn, then, ever so briefly, a heron poised at the edge of a sandy creek bank. For a moment we bore witness to the glide of a circling hawk, then to a red-winged blackbird, vivid against a Missouri marsh. Cows appeared on fleet canvases of sun and shade, and farmers raked seconds-long fields of hay. Speed condensed the poetry of the heartland to endlessly overlapping haiku-like vignettes.
In La Veta, Colo., our final destination, we had a few days to absorb the local landscape at normal speed. I was quickly at home with the crickets dancing about my feet in the dry upland grass. I watched for hours as the mobile sky moved around the rock massifs of the Spanish peaks. This was country worth knowing - but I didn't have the years it would take to expand my view, constrained as it was to a window of time. In a way, we were still aboard a train.
It is good to visit other places, but as a way of life, I find I must root well to one. And so, I am glad to be home again where my own cows move in real time across a familiar canvas of sun and shade. Beyond them lies the topography of the farm, familiar as my hand, every acre textured by the memory of some event or experience, by some wild thing's nesting or passage, or the first sign of a new season. It takes time to know a place deeply - to develop ties that bind without confining. Perhaps it takes a journey now and then to bring that - and oneself - fully home.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society