Why We Kowtow to the Cows

The other day I was watching my daughter milk a cow. No, really.

We were at the farm barn at Shelburne Farms (say that five times fast) in Shelburne, Vermont, and there were about a dozen five-year-olds and two fifteen-year-olds there to help with the two p.m. milking of Jamaica the cow. My daughter and her friend from Maryland were the fifteen-year-olds.

Now in all fairness, my daughter has milked a cow before. She was born in Vermont and it seemed important to her mother and me that she be able to use the word “teat” without giggling. So, when she was five years old she milked a cow.

But her friend from Maryland had never milked a cow and I thought a perfect Vermont doubleheader for the two of them might be Shelburne Farms in the afternoon and Addison County Fair and Field Days at night. Cows and carnies, farm barns and Ferris wheels. Piglets, funnel cakes, and tractor pulls the state in all its glory.

We arrived at Shelburne Farms a little after noon, which was just in time for the girls to befriend a chicken and see how many different kinds of poop they could name. Of all the exhibits at Shelburne Farms, that has to be one of my favorites. They got to pet Deering, a baby calf, and they learned that every single day a cow eats the equivalent of all the grass that has ever grown at Fenway Park. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But they learned that cows eat a lot of grass and drink a lot of water. A cow drinks 35 gallons of water a day, and we all got to see Jamaica pee for about an hour (again, hyperbole; it was probably only half an hour).

“How do we know Jamaica is female?” asked the Shelburne Farms staffer who was going to help the kids milk the animal.

“Because her last name ends in the letter ‘A’!” shouted an idiotic middle-aged dad who shall remain nameless.

The farmhand corrected me er, him. He corrected him.

My daughter and her friend waited until the five-year-olds had milked Jamaica and then took their turns. They took their work seriously and never once smirked when they heard the word “teat.”

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Then we were off to Field Days. I love Field Days. I love the Champlain Valley Fair, too. I love any place where fried dough is a food group and there are six-ton rides that are assembled on the fly and will hurl people forty and fifty feet in the air. This year’s Field Days was especially fun because the weather cooperated the day that I went, unlike last year when I spent most of my time in the cow palace watching it rain and wondering whether my car had sunk so deep in the mud that it would have to become an exhibit sort of like Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Tex., a sculpture of cars cemented forever into the earth.
I showed some restraint at the Field Days sugarhouse this year and limited myself to a piece of maple cake, a maple doughnut, and a maple creemee. In other words, I did not have a maple milkshake. Then I joined my daughter and her friend for fried onion rings and my first ever fried Oreo. It was all spectacular.

My daughter’s pal, who may be a budding sociologist, noted how the young women were more likely to wear revealing tube tops at the carnival midway than in the children’s barnyard, where they seemed to be wearing appropriate T-shirts and flannel tops. I explained to her this was because there were baby animals present.

It’s easy to take the Green Mountains for granted. But a day spent at Shelburne Farms and Field Days reminded me of what a remarkable little world Vermont is. Sometimes, we just have to see it through someone else’s eyes.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 9, 2009.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.