Dwelling in Milk

“Praised be man, he is existing in milk / and living in lilies – / And his violin music takes place in milk / and creamy emptiness…Praised be my fellow man / For dwelling in milk”

– Jack Kerouac, Mexico City Blues, 228th Chorus

I have learned that cheese making, even artisanal cheese making, is highly routinized. It seems to be necessarily so – and this says as much about the changeable nature of milk as the constancy of cheese makers. I imagine myself experimenting with my own cheese recipes one day, when I finally fulfill Kerouac’s prophetic ramblings, join humanity, and give myself over to “dwelling in milk.” Right now, though, I am part of a cheese making process that has been honed in this spot for twenty years prior to my arrival. Toni, the cheese maker, has been dwelling in (sheep’s) milk for quite a while now, and her routine accounts for all its local varieties of composition, which depend on many factors including the season, the weather, and the sheep’s birthing cycle. I don’t understand any substance that has two-volume technical tomes written about it, as milk does; I understand how to turn still-warm, slippery cheeses in their plastic molds much better than I understand milk. But I can still exist in it, I think.

Last summer I worked with Ruben and Roberta, a young Italian cheese making couple. They homestead in Champremier, population 25, in the country’s alpine northwestern region of Aosta. In six years they have progressed from living in a roadside trailer and testing their first cheese recipes in a ramshackle laboratory to selling every round robiola or crusty tomme they make. They transform milk from their 42 Camosciata goats.

Ruben kept such good work routines that even a job as humble as cleaning the stable reminded me of the Italian word opera. Like ‘opus,’ the word descends directly from the Latin for nitty-gritty ‘work,’ perhaps on a grand scale. (If nothing else, it is the apprentice’s job to tease out the etymologies of farm labor.) The giornatta di merda, or ‘the long day of shit,’ was Ruben’s dysphemism for stable-cleaning – so accustomed to the task that he sounded like an office bee remarking on ‘a day of meetings.’ In this biweekly shit-cleaning procedure, there is a ‘piler’ and a ‘driver.’ The piler uses a pitchfork to heap the soggy straw bedding into a yellow wheelbarrow, one load at a time, which the driver then expedites to the dunghill through a series of Jedi mind tricks. It’s a wobbly, smelly, and physically exhausting job that culminates when you spread out fresh straw bales with a feeling of great benevolence towards the goats. Voilà, Ruben would say, la stala d’oro!

I say a feeling of benevolence, but my memory of the giornatta is more cathartic than anything else. Just look at how much shit we cleaned! To explain the lasting effect this relatively small experience had on me, I’m tempted to assign some totemic power to the tools we used – fork, rake, broom, barrow – or special aura to the mote-strewn stable itself. But even more than these I am captured by the idea that routines, even brief ones, have an uncanny power to orient us toward satisfaction. After all, what could be both more routinized and more satisfying than the proverbial fat lady’s song?

The opera metaphor is especially true because you can fall for a good routine as a spectator as easily as you can as its main performer. These well-worn paths have a way of drawing us in. Again I come back to Ruben, who became for me an amalgam of John Henry, Old MacDonald and MacGyver. I noticed early on that he did everything well and never seemed to strain, although he probably smoked the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day of Old Holborne tobacco. But of course his nicotine habit became part of the opera. I was struck by the reliable speed with which he could roll a perfect smoke, just as I was impressed by his ability to milk 42 goats in an hour. In fact, he often did both at the same time, one hand working the ciggy like a piece of origami and the other a jangly udder, sometimes with his cell phone pinched between ear and shoulder – all of this appearing natural and replicable from my vantage on a little wooden stool beside his own. Not so, I learned. Like a seasoned performer, Ruben cast over that space a bit of illusory magic – call it stablecraft – which was really just a refined series of expert movements and a lot of hard work boiled down to simple, elegant routine.

I fell into my own routine, literally, on the steep meadows where we went haying in July and August. Again and again I scratched at those hillsides with quick grazes and long lunges of the rake, sweating with satisfaction as my knee-high tangle of dry grass and thyme became a messy, head-high rick. Grasshoppers squirmed through the green wave and launched themselves off like single notes escaping crescendo. One day, I was so rapt by the raking rhythm that I must have been on the verge of a fugue state myself, when I stepped on a hill of fire ants and ran around in circles flailing wildly like Aosta’s mythical Dahu under the full moon.

This spring in Tuscany I have a new work routine, a new opera: a long spell of “violin music” in the dairy (work) in the morning and afternoon, followed by a soothing stretch of “creamy emptiness” (rest) in the evening. I find that three weeks into my new apprenticeship, I am hungry for the unexpected and intangible milkiness of life. I don’t know how the routine plays into this, and I’m inclined to leave the theory I set out to describe above untouched for now. I’m off to bed, where I look for (and often find) the syncopated beat.


One Response to “Dwelling in Milk”

  1. Alisha Dahlstrom Says:

    Aaron, that was some vivid and beautiful writing…in particular your wild running in circles (we have Bull ants there that are an inch long and leave you caning in pain for days). I miss you heaps. Also, I’m embarking on an apple and pear cider adventure starting Thursday, ending with me and some mates in a pile of bottles. I’ll let you know how it goes….x

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