As dusk approaches, they gather at the fence and stare inside the cabin.
I want to tell the cows, as they stand planted stolidly at the gate, pointedly staring our way, that a watched pot never boils. But it wouldn't deter them. They'd go right on following our every movement through the glass of the cabin window, alert to any quickening that could signal one of us rising to pull on a coat, scarf, and boots to trudge out and spread their evening hay.
They rise from their rest on the frozen ground as early as 3:30 in the afternoon to slowly make their way to the fence separating our small cluster of buildings at the back of the farm – cabin, timber-frame library, and barn – from the big pasture, and jockey for position around the gate. And they wait. For the next hour or so, Charlie and I hunker down over books, crosswords, or letters, deliberately minimizing our movements. Even a casual walk across the room to put a log in the stove or click on the radio can get their ears to swiveling and trigger the big black heifers' lowing duets.
Not yet, not yet, the nights are so long. We make them wait until dusk for their feeding.
This winter is a contrast to last, which was mild and snowless in central Indiana. We'd fed our small herd and two draft horses an occasional bale of hay on raw, rainy days, but they grazed straight through the new year and into spring on a pasture that never fell fully dormant. The unseasonably mild weather was unsettling, but it made for easy maintenance of the herd. We could even spend much of January and February in our second home on the banks of the Wabash – a young friend who rents the farmhouse and runs the dairy regularly checked on the retired animals.
Not so this year. With the ground alternately snow covered, or bare and frozen, or muddy with intermittent thaws, we've been compelled to stay put, living in the cabin, feeding the animals morning and night – a rhythm they adapted to with typically bovine alacrity. It was harder on us to be constricted by the needs of animals we've long since milked for the last time, who serve no real purpose other than to keep the pasture from going to brush in the summers. Charlie declared that this had to stop; we'd get rid of the cows before another winter set in. Then we could travel, be free of them. But as the days ever-so-slowly lengthened, we fell under the spell of the cabin, the farm, and yes, the animals again.
On a late midwinter afternoon, Charlie rises to add seed to the platform feeder at the east window. A few cows move instinctively to frame themselves in that portal, maintaining unrelenting eye contact. As the sunlight pattern from the star-shaped loft window plays across the painting of an elk above the mantel, we know it is just after 4. Not long now. The red-bellied woodpeckers tap out seconds on the nearby walnut trees; juncos, chickadees, wrens, sparrows, and gray and red squirrels haggle for space on the feeder. A pair of bluebirds explore their old nesting box.
Almost 5. I put down my pen, and our dog stretches on the braided rug by the wood stove. Outside, the Belgian gelding, Buck, hangs his massive head over the gate, his harness mate, Mary, close beside him. A couple of cows move back a few steps, leaving a small gap for the anticipated two-legged conveyance bearing hay. One of us rises, dresses for the weather, heads to the stack of bales under a tarp, and totes one through the gate to spread at the nearby treeline. It's a tricky journey with the big animals crowding for that first tuft.
But once back inside we can move about freely, dance if we like, and for the next hour or so watch the rhythmic movements of quiet satisfaction play out on the pasture. It takes a real winter to bring some things home.