The Beginning

 

WHAT’S IN A SMELL

 

by

 

Kalli Deschamps

 

         Have you ever had the memory of a smell buried deep in the well of your subconscious? A smell so penetrating and so alive, that its slightest essence can bring to mind vivid pictures whose chain of events lay moldering through the years? I have such a smell. It is the aroma brought forth when a bale of sweet hay, be it clover or alfalfa, is opened in the confines of a winter barn. Don’t get me wrong. The smell is still there if you open the hay in a corral or a field, but it’s not quite the same. After much thought, I’ve decided the poignancy of the inner smell must be due to the confined air and the presence of other related odors.

         Now that I’ve told you about my smell, would you like to hear about the picture? Who knows, there might even be a story involved.

         It was a cold, snow-coated winter. The porch of our elderly ranch house was piled high with cords of split larch and pine. Storm windows hugged tall narrow panes of window glass adding warmth to the cozy interior. In the chicken house ten hens were scratching happily in twelve inches of new straw. Eloise, our lone pig, was spending most of her days buried in the warmth of her farrowing house waiting the approach of spring and the ministrations of a friendly boar. Brownie our Australian Shepard would alternate between the braided rug fronting the mammoth wood stove in the dining room and his responsibilities in the barn. Tippy, the grey-striped tiger cat with the white paws would continue her nocturnal battle with our collection of giant pack rats. During the day, a search into the depths of the horse manger would find her buried snugly in a pocket of hay.

         But the story isn’t about any of these. It’s about a young couple, two small children and a barn full of dairy cows.

         The barn was old (turn of the century) and very large. It would stanchion twenty dairy cows and stall two work teams with space left over for a saddle horse. That was the ground floor. By climbing a perpendicular ladder and twisting through a small hole in the ceiling you could gain access to the second story. This was an enormous expanse of smooth wood floor and eight-foot walls leading to a sloping roof and filled from top to bottom with sweet cured hay. In the middle of this tower of bales was another hole, cleverly spaced to allow hay to be dropped between the mangers. The beams consisted of slightly squared trees of white-washed larch. The interior walls were insulated with layers of old newspapers; the siding rough-sawed lumber stained a dark red.

         This wonderful building was a winter haven for most of the animals on the “Rafter D”. Even the pack rats preferred the warmth of the old barn to their natural home in the hovering rocks that formed the backdrop to our small mountain ranch. Although Tippy was a big cat, she decided early in life that she was no match for the robust creatures. Their mutual tolerance, was centered around cooling buckets of skim milk left from the twice daily process of separation. We sold the cream and gave the milk to Eloise. But warm milk will kill a pig so it was left to cool in five-gallon buckets. The years have never dimmed the bizarre picture of the cat and the rat sharing a daily feast of warm skim milk.

         Finally, there were the cows. Not many, but enough to provide a little income every month and to start a love affair with cattle that would last a lifetime.

         There was slow, gentle Bessy who wanted so badly to be a herd boss, but never quite had the presence to achieve her goal. Stanchioned next to Bessy was hard milking Daisy, then easy milking Bonnie. (She was my favorite because in the months before we acquired the Surge Milker and had to milk by hand, she was the only one who’d give me a bit of foam on the bucket.) Ole liked to kick when least expected so she was usually hobbled. And then there was Andy. She was the ticklish one. If you didn’t come down her flank just right before you touched her bag, you’d get a foot in the face every time. Grandma was the herd boss. Time after time when we’d walk them down our long narrow valley to various pastures, I’ve seen her pass an open gate. First she’d stop to look at you. If you waved her on, she would continue down the road. If you said “okay” she’d turn in with the herd following. She was a very intelligent cow. I mention Maisie with an indulgent smile. She was the smallest and would also like to have been herd boss. After a couple of years of constant rejection, she hit upon another tact for recognition. She would be herd mother and would steal every calf in sight. What a problem she became, but we loved her. There were others, but the ones I’ve mentioned were the ones of which memories are made.

         The winter of my story was the coldest we had ever experienced. It also brought the luxury of the milking machine and the redundant chore of bookkeeping. For this reason the cows spent the months from December to March in the barn. We had discovered the miracle of heat. You’re raising an eyebrow. Twenty-five years old and you’ve just discovered how nice it is to keep warm? Come on! Let me explain. It was the miracle of heat for the cows. It actually was two things. If they were warm and if they were fed a small ration of hay every two hours from morning to evening, they gave more milk and we had more income.

         Ed spent that winter cutting meat for John R. Daily. During the day my snow boots rested near the kitchen door for easy access as I made my barn run every two hours. In the morning Ed dropped enough bales from above to last the day for each cow to have her ration. I grew to love the aroma of the hay and the expression in the eyes of the gentle animals as they studied me while chewing their giant mouthfuls.

         With Brownie’s help they exited their stanchions twice a day and made the trek down the lane and across the road to Lolo Creek. After a drink and a leg stretch they returned to clean stalls, the warmth of their clustered environment and more feed.

         We all looked forward to the evening milking, for then our small world reached its zenith. Ed was home, his work in town complete for the day. Dick was four and Joey four months; each with a place in our family barn. Surcingles(straps) encircled the cows with stainless steel buckets attached to waiting hooks under their bellies. Four nozzles were sucked onto their teats and the process began. While the cows were milking two at a time Dick entertained his sister as she peeked with a grin from the depths of her blanketed stroller. When a bucket was lifted onto the scales, while the cow waited to be stripped, he ran to help his dad…to squeeze a tit, to feel part of the daily process. Milk was over. The time had come to head for the house; for supper, the warmth of the wood stove and perhaps a song fest around the old upright piano.

         We would open the double doors and emerge from the warmth of the barn into a clear, cold, star-studded night. High above us rose the beauty of snow-crusted Lolo Peak, silhouetted in all its majesty against a thick onyx sky. Carrying our buckets of cream we would walk slowly toward the house, silent in our joy. Sometimes we would stop and talk. It was then our life seemed complete as we shared the fulfillment of these simple pleasures.

         Thirty-five years have passed. The climax of my story has yet to be reached. We are the ranchers of today, but the philosophy of our life was set in a barn on Lolo Creek during a long cold winter at the onset of our youth.

Comments

I love the description - white washed larch. This is a warm, homely story and I could imagine you telling it to your grandchildren. I could hear your voice as you talked about the barn and the cows.I could also picture the various animals and feel the chill of the night as you walked out into it at the end of the day. I imagine farming is quite different these days.

White linen perfume and the smell of it at anytime in my life is of a girl friend I loved dearly.  Smell can provoke an intense emotion.