I have always held a deep regard for the full circles that can be found in natural processes. Perhaps this was cultivated by my childhood on an eight generation family farm. The cycles of the natural world were apparent everywhere–in the long slow breath of the tides, the ever-shifting seasons, the ripening and harvest of each summer’s hay crop. I recognized them in the slick wet of a newborn calf, the blossoms of blood in the dust when we slaughtered the chickens, and in the lichen-spattered gravestones of my own ancestors. I understood I was one cycle among many. Even now, as an adult, I discover new circles. Not long after putting down a beloved horse and delivering him into the hillside, I found a small bird’s nest on the ground. Lifting it up, I noticed the long pale hairs of my horse’s tail standing out amidst the sticks and leaves. They had been carefully woven round and round inside the nest. A circle.
Thinking in “wholes” is an act that can feel in direct contrast to the fragmentation of our modern culture. So often we see or participate in only part of a process. We grab the milk off the grocery store shelf without knowing the farmer or the cows. We buy clothes and never wonder who made them, or where. Technology has compounded this abstraction. We can now communicate without being physically present, without even hearing one another’s voices. Many people have little contact with the very processes that sustain life. Yet, I think most people yearn for this lost connection. They want more intimacy with the things they consume. They want to participate and understand.
I didn’t grow up aspiring to be a yogurt and cheese-maker. I simply arrived here in pursuit of a tangible engagement with the “full circle.” It was this pursuit of “wholes” that led me to build a house at a young age, plant a garden, have children, raise chickens, milk my own goats and begin experimenting with cheese and yogurt. Later, when my cousin brought dairy cows back to the farm (after a thirty year absence), I installed a licensed cheese-room in my house and began the journey that is now Tide Mill Creamery. I can tell you this work is tangible, and I have strived to participate in every step of its very circular process.
Walking to the barn on winter mornings, snow creaking beneath my boots, my own breath hanging in the air around me, I have been greeted by the sun glowing dull orange through a haze of sea smoke, the staccato wingbeats of shore birds breaching the gauzy distance. I have helped milk the fifty-cow herd, alongside my cousin, Aaron, or my husband, Nate. Seven at a time, the cows saunter into the parlor while Johnny Cash songs spill from the radio in the corner. The cows are never in a hurry. We set our coffee cups down to dip and wipe teats, put on milkers, wait, then pull them off, dip teats again. I pick up my coffee cup as the cows stroll out. Then the next string, on and on like an elaborate dance. Later, the buckets of warm milk bump my legs as I step from the parlor into cold dry air to the calves that wait in the barn.
In summers, I have walked with those same cows, at the very pace of those cows, from the barn to pastures woven with timothy and clover. Sometimes our strange parade crosses the farm’s small bridge with its ever tumbling ribbons of water below. The cows plod along, a multi-colored stream of contentment. (It must be for this reason that the ancient chinese text, the I-Ching, claims that, “Care of the cow brings good fortune.” It is not financial fortune they refer to, but the wealth available to anyone who can slow themselves to match the pace and peacefulness of a cow.)
In the early days of Tide Mill Creamery we would sled the half mile in to the barn, sometimes by the light of a full moon, fill our five gallon pails at the bulk tank, and pull them home, the sled whispering easily along behind us across the packed snow and ice. Once we even canoed to the barn to retrieve milk for mozzarella. We had fantasies of horses with saddle bags designed for buckets and bicycles with wagons, but now (alas) milk is mostly transported from barn to Creamery by mini-van (Hey, we’re making a lot more yogurt these days).
In this earlier time, we made our cheese with the simple tools of pot and spoon, and I am grateful that we began our venture with the level of intimacy that such humble tools afford. We understand hand-made. We are bedfellows with artisan. This is the way generations of our grandmothers and grandfathers made cheese in their kitchens, and we honored them by beginning this way. Now we have a sixty-gallon cheese vat that stirs the milk for us, but we still have our pot and our spoon and the lessons and reverence they instilled in us.
We used to pray over every batch, awkward, kind of nerdy homemade prayers with good intentions. We no longer perform this ritual, but have come to know that, at its best, work itself can be unending prayer.
When we pause midday for lunch, our table is a fleeting masterpiece. We dip green beans from the garden into fromage blanc that marries the fresh sharpness of new garlic with the tenderness of dill. There is a loaf of bread. There is a bowl of beets. There are round golden potatoes just plucked from the ground. Blackberries picked from along the driveway sink slowly into bowls of greek yogurt, glistening wet with maple syrup from the trees around us. Everywhere there are circles.