Heading back from feeding the cows yesterday morning, I found myself musing. Why do I enjoy this so much? Why is it so satisfying, day after day? Why do I find no particular relief in having a couple days off from the duty, as I did last weekend when I went up to Maine leaving my husband and son with the barnyard chores? Why do I never accept my father’s offer to take a turn with cow-feeding, a job he did on his own here for more than two decades before I offered to take it on a couple of years ago?
It’s hard for me to explain why this job is so satisfying. Unlike dogs waiting to be fed, the cows don’t greet me with ecstatic displays of welcome; they just swing their big heads around to watch me enter the barnyard. Our dog jumps irrepressibly with excitement when we offer her the simplest gesture of affection; the cows and bulls, on the other hand, seem almost patronizing as they submit to a scratch between the ears when I walk amongst them, but they certainly don’t seek out my attention. They just wait stolidly for their bales of hay to be tossed down from the loft or pulled out from the back of the barn, and then they wander eventually over to the water trough to see that I’ve topped it off for them.
But leaving the barnyard always gives me a sense of accomplishment different from anything else I do during the day. Not a bigger sense of accomplishment, necessarily, but in some ways a more unequivocal one. And I suppose that’s because the job is physically demanding but also easy. I haul a few bales, turn some valves on the pump, take off my gloves to manipulate the chain closure to the gate, reach and stretch my arms and legs to climb up and down the hayloft ladder; but really it’s all easy. Very little can go wrong; it’s unlikely that on any given day I’ll find any of these simple processes impossible to execute.
So perhaps the satisfaction comes from that combination: knowing I’ve worked hard physically, but also knowing it’s more or less a sure thing that I’ll complete my task in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes. And when I’m done, I’ve filled that most primal of needs: provided food and water to fill an animal’s stomach. What could be easier, and yet what could feel more critical at the time it’s being executed?
Curious about how something so routine could continue to be pleasing, day after day, I resorted to the question I often pose to myself these days: WWHDTS, or What Would Henry David Thoreau Say? In his journal from 1841, I found this quote: “Routine is a ground to stand on, a wall to retreat to; we cannot draw on our boots without bracing ourselves against it.”
Is feeding the cows every morning the routine against which I brace myself as I draw on my boots to advance through the rest of the day? I like that image, the idea that the sturdy everyday-ness of this task fortifies me for whatever follows. Perhaps that’s the answer: I’m fortifying myself as I fortify the cows: them with hay and water; me with the routine of caring for them. Maybe they don’t show the overt enthusiasm of dogs at my arrival, but I know they wait for me every morning, and I know their day becomes better when I appear. And it might be that that’s enough.