Our family is a part of a growing trend to meaningfully know about and take care in the selection of the sources for our food. In our case this has largely resulted in a determination to produce our own, well, produce. But there are still a number of items we don’t want to be without, but which it has not yet seemed practical to generate from our own portion of the land.
One of those items is cow’s milk. Being of entirely Euro-American heritage (so far as we know), it is our genetic and cultural birthright to accept dairy in our diet throughout our lifespan. With some misgivings and caveats, we continue to embrace that birthright.
It is clear to us, however, that the conventional milk system is fraught with compromises that render it not worth supporting with our dollars. But with the industrialization and regulation of the dairy sector, supporting an alternative (if you can find one to access) can be a real chore in some locales.
Fortunately for us, not three miles away live a farm family who have a love for dairy production and share some of our misgivings about the dairy industry status quo. It’s a situation that has its complications for them, but the upshot for us has been that for the last number of years we have had excellent access to excellent milk: sanitarily produced raw milk generated by cows on pasture (with some supplemental grain feeds and silage) provided on a weekly subscription basis through a Herdshare program. Additionally, we have been able to make use of some unmarketed extra milk from their farm for feeding our pigs, chickens, and even ourselves by way of yogurt and cheeses…we have been most grateful for their generosity, and the pork and eggs are wonderfully delicious!
What we didn’t necessarily know at the beginning was how much we would come to like our milk farmers. Frequent contact to establish the details of our interactions over milk is, well, frequent contact. More ends up being exchanged than money and milk. People who bump into each other at the milk pick-up shed do what people do everywhere: exchange friendly greetings and a little news. Over time, you come to care about their news.
So it is that it was more than news when we recently heard that one of them had come down with an unusual and alarming variant of a common but painful condition and had, in fact, been hospitalized. Our hearts went out to her, and we wondered how she was handling this since she is used to being radiantly healthy and busy from dawn to dusk.
A day or two later I was buttering my bread at lunchtime when I was struck by a realization—maybe a transformation—that had been creeping up on me for some time. It was the butter that tipped me off. All the ordinary components of bread-buttering were present (Do I wish for butter on this slice? Why, yes I believe I do! Dip…spread, spread, spread.), but there was more going on, because the bright yellow color of the butter reminded me of the fresh grass the cows had eaten to give it that color, which reminded me of the farm I had come to know, which reminded me of our friends and neighbors the farmers, and as I reached forward with my knife for some of that radiant butterfat, I found myself wondering how she was doing in the hospital.
Now, I am not one to worry over friends or family on hard times. In fact, I am chagrined to acknowledge that out of sight is too much and too often out of mind for me. I need, literally, re-minders. And there it was. Somewhere in my consciousness a little bell tinkled, and my skin got a little tingly. Some things long divided have been reuniting in our lives, I think, and that was when I took effective notice.
We tend to bellyache about modern society and its lack of meaningful connection between people despite unprecedented theoretical opportunities for connection electronically and informationally. With so much connectivity, I wryly muse, we should be the least lonely people in history! Of course that is painfully ironic, as is often noted by many of us. It can be frustrating, though, to try to work at the remedies for this, or even to imagine what it would feel like to live in a world where people genuinely cared for each other and were involved in each other’s lives in ways that hold deep comfort and meaning for them. I, in particular, often wonder how to gain a sense of belonging that I can trust. It is easy to see that purely fun-based relationships lack depth and confidence, and that even consistent and values-based associations such as church involvements frequently fail to really resolve the loneliness syndrome that is so epidemic for us. Even family relationships, which hold the most promise for individuals in many cases, have often (I would argue) been interrupted and compromised by the time-gobbling trifecta of school, work, and television.
It is sometimes (I think rightly) theorized that a missing ingredient is interdependence. But I would add a nuance to that, because I think interdependence straight up has not suffered one whit. We are, if anything, more dependent on each other for nearly every single daily need than ever we have been, since the specialization of work has given us an extremely narrowed skill set and our estrangement from the land and knowledge of it has rendered us simultaneously very proficient (at our specialties) and nearly helpless (to provide for our own needs.) We could be thought of as being extravagantly, profligately, heedlessly interdependent. For example, when I want a stainless-steel cooking pot, I am utterly dependent on my fellow human wayfarers in China to provide it to me, but I don’t experience it that way (Ok, so I sort of do, but I am an unusual person), rather I think of myself as having earned the money to buy what I need, and a (false) feeling of independence results, and little to no gratitude.
I propose that the problem is not the fact of interdependence going missing, but rather an awareness of interdependence that we lack. And it’s not good enough to just really concentrate hard on remembering so we don’t forget. If we don’t experience it in our lives, or maybe our bellies, it gets no traction in our psyches. It helps an awful lot, too, when our human penchant for memorizing faces is employed. You’ve heard of having a farmer with a face…this is why that matters to our collective mental health and to the fabric of our society: when my butter has a face, and I can imagine that face that has smiled at us so often contorted by pain or disease, lying in a hospital bed, my butter has layers of meaning that go way, way down.
She’s home from the hospital now, and we who know her are crossing our fingers for a good recovery. The other day Janelle and I loaded the car with soup and trimmings (including donuts fried in the lard rendered by us and other neighbors from pigs fed on this person’s extra milk…my what a delicious and tangled web we are weaving!) and knocked on her door with a meal to support her and those who are supporting her through this time. She’s been knocked back pretty hard, but she’s doing o.k., it seems. I don’t mind admitting that one of the reasons I hope her recovery is excellent is that I want to keep getting that terrific milk. Thinking back on my state of mind as we drove back home, I realize that I felt somewhat as if I were walking on the floor of an old-growth forest: in a way not different from walking on concrete, and also entirely different, in that there is a sense of walking on incomprehensible layers of interconnected life. And I wonder, is this how our ancestors lived every day? If my life felt like this most of the time, what kind of person would I be? Maybe I’m not being very clear here; maybe you won’t get what I’m trying to say. But I felt this was a little taste of the missing ingredient: a kind of knowing interdependence that we need to be restored to wholeness.