by Tim Gilmore, 3/11/2014
Smell and hearing heighten. Sight dims in the bleak gloaming of approaching rain. We keep hearing a deep distant longing, a moaning, a lowing. It’s too easy to joke with yourself that it’s the ghost of Buttercup.
I don’t think Buttercup was ever here, but that doesn’t keep her idea from aerating the whole dead farm.
Mama and Papa Gus, their other-era faces looking at me from the side of a milk carton in my memory, began their milking operations behind the big house in the center of town in 1908. Mama Gus churned butter in the shed out back. Buttercup was their first cow.
My sister Wanda and I stood on the porch of the empty house and counted wasp nests on the ceiling.
But now we’re out on the 10,000 acres where Frank and Agnes Gustafson expanded and operated their dairy farm for the rest of their lives. The farm closed in 2013, nine years after Southeast Milk, Inc. purchased it. Officials with the City of Green Cove Springs and Clay County found out about the closure from a surprising and impersonal email, and Southeast Milk refused to return their phone calls.
Wanda and I wander, and she makes puns on her name and wanderlust, toward the old milking shed south of town. Splinters of wood, tin, and PVC arc oblivious to us at ragged angles. A metal ladder leads to a roof that no longer exists. Giant fan blades occasionally turn wistfully in the wet wind and pling, pling, pling against that distant lowing.
We walk each side of the milking bails and down the middle aisle between them, picturing how tightly the cows stood side by side during milking. We walk the narrow lines between rails from the holding yard, so much freer than the cattle led along this broken concrete all those years.
How many years? How many cattle? How many gallons of milk?
We’re both imaginative people, but we’re also people who question things, who aren’t—let us hope—too prone to think wild thoughts without being able to reflect critically on our thinking.
We keep hearing the moan of the wind like a distant roar, but too mournful for that, more like a howl that never gets off the ground, a bovine lamentation.
We know that’s the wind sweeping low through these falling earthbound structures.
But we comment continually on how strange the place smells. Through abandoned offices, hallways, break rooms, and all the corralled walkways in between sheds, a sour sweetness, not quite like anything we’ve ever known, hangs heavy in the air against the walls and the stalls.
It smells like milk. There’s no doubt about it. We both admit it after thinking about it independently for a while.
We walk through a long narrow room full of giant syringes that lay everywhere on the ground, piles of cattle tags, big brown bottles still half-full of decades-old cattle antibiotics.
Oxytetracycline HCI Injection / Antibiotic For Beef Cattle, Non-Lactating Dairy Cattle and Swine.
Lidocaine Hydrochloride Injectable / For Animal Use Only.
In the distance behind another abandoned milking shed newer and more spacious, with many more milking bails, giant fan blades clang in the drizzle and the wind, a sad lowing hums down along the surface of the earth beneath dead winter trees, and though no one seems to be around, the sound of a steady banging in the far branches increases in persistence, and we imagine it to be willful, and then more willful still.
Then the rain comes pouring down on the warped and slivered metal roofs, the abandoned bird nest in the telephone box, the rusted silo, and the pungent funk of this milky earth.
Then once again, as with so many such hauntings, we’re filled with completion at the constant demise that becomes the constant becoming of things.