Although not the most exciting photo of this collection, taken today at our very own Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I am especially moved by my walk past this cluster of pine that lives close to the lovely Japanese Pond.
I stopped, smelling the scent of the pine needles and the rich earth below. Immediately the sweet smell wafted up my nose and the sensation traveled me back in time to one of my favorite memories.
Most of you probably don’t know that I moved to NYC from a cattle farm in Virginia. Yes, that’s right people – a cattle farm!
I wasn’t a farmer, but I lived in an old house with no running water, heated by a wood stove, where I also boiled my wash water and cooked my food. In the warm weather, I washed my dishes on the front porch with carefully conserved water accessed by crawling down under broken boards to a tiny spring surrounded by poison ivy, scooping up the muddy water with a small pot. I hauled in drinking water collected in a big plastic tub from the local gas station. When it got good and hot, I hooked up a sun shower to a pole next to the house and bathed after long sweaty days walking amid the wildflowers.
At night, I opened the top half of the door on our ramshackle outhouse and gazed at the moon.
There were a few other houses on 250 acres, all inhabited by lesbians. The man who owned the property was an old irascible former Washington DC criminal lawyer who rode around mostly naked on his tractor all day. For some unknown reason he only rented to lesbians – and so our property was known countywide as (in a whisper) “That Lesbian Place.”
It was the early 90’s in Flint Hill Virginia, population 333. The “center of town” consisted of that gas station, the post office, and a tiny general store attached to the gas station. The women in the general store wouldn’t speak to us – because we were lesbians.
One time a cow got loose from some farmers’ property and I almost collided my car into it in the middle “Main Street,” i.e. the paved public road near the general store. I went inside to report it, concerned for both the cow’s safety and the farmer who’d lost it.
Despite the urgency of the situation, neither of the two women behind the counter would look at me. One got busy putting away supplies, and the other gazed in my direction, but would not acknowledge my presence. She looked right through me as if I was invisible, pretending not to hear what I said. So, to get someone to listen, I had to go ’round back, where the men in the gas station hug out; because they were always friendly enough when they allowed me to fill my tank with water.
I don’t know if they ever found that cow.
Local legend had it that all the lesbians on our land had guns –and we didn’t hesitate to use them.
I found out from Diane, one of the other women who lived alone on the land for over 20 years with as many cats, cutting her own firewood to survive the harsh winters, that this legend started when a bunch of drunk and carousing men drove up to her house in a pickup truck, demanding that she come out.
Hearing the commotion, instead of putting herself at risk, she shoved a broom handle out of the window and yelled out: “I’ll blow the heads off every last one of you if you don’t get off my property – NOW!”
Upon hearing the serious tone of her voice and seeing that “gun,” of course the drunkards high-tailed it out of there as fast as they could. That incident became legend around town – part of the town’s history – and it protected the rest of us on “That Lesbian Place” – for years and years to come.
Around our house was a barbed wire fence to keep the cows out. Even though there was nothing special about our yard, I was forever doing repairs looking for an ever-moving weak link that somehow managed to allow one particular all white cow that insisted on coming into our yard. I guess it was convinced that inside lay the “greener pastures” we’ve all heard about. Mostly, though, the cows would hang around mooing, chomping on the grass placidly just past the tiny little creek – up on hill, on the other side of our fence.
One day I spotted a beautiful little black and white calf sporting a white stripe on her face, munching on the hillside. It was a nice, sunny warm day – so I walked slowly up the hill to see if I could touch her.
Whenever I moved closer than about 10 feet, she’d bolt away – keeping me at a safe, but curious-filled, distance. I’d try to approached, she would let me get just so far, then she’d bolt away to safety, eyeing me with a backwards glance.
We kept up this game for a long time – but no matter how curious she was or how determined I was, I could not get close enough to touch her.
But, I got it in my mind; no matter how long it took, I was going to pet that calf!
I followed the herd up and down the hills, along the old rutted dirt road that led to the back pond, where the cows would take their muddy baths, then up the steeper incline to the pine forest with its tall straight trees. As I followed, that little calf kept looking back, eyeing me, the stranger, making sure I was at the proper distance – but never running too far away.
As we entered the pine forest, the air shifted to cool and sweet and the light gently filtered through the trees. After a few minutes, cows, one-by-one, sank down to their haunches, humph-ing with the effort, or plopping to their sides onto the thick, soft pine needle floor – while others lazily scratched their bodies against the rough bark of the trees.
It was serene and peaceful, with nothing but the sounds of the cows and few birdcalls filling the air.
So, I waited.
I stood completely still.
Finally, the little calf found a “nest” near a rock and lay down to rest.
In time, I could see the calf’s body sinking into slumber. Carefully I walked through the herd, trying my best to make as little noise as I could by tiptoeing around the broken branches scattered on the soft scented carpet of pine. I made my way, arching wide, to that flat bolder directly behind the sleeping calf.
I stood behind the rock, as the calf’s breaths became sighs. Eventually her furry little belly barely showed any movement.
The time had come …
I crept up onto the rock and sat down with my legs curled up, as silently as I could – watching her sleep. She was in a slumbering, sweet baby sleep – breaths more and more shallow and farther and farther apart, as she sank deeper and deeper. The rest of the herd relaxed too, and as I sat and watched, the dusk fell in filmy blankets, and my lungs filled with the sticky-scent of sweet pine.
When I saw the calf was in very deep sleep, I reached forward – bending over in careful increments from my vantage point perched on the rock. I moved ever-so-slowly, until at long last the tips of my fingers touched the bristly white hairs on her belly. I reached out further and was able to caress the soft broad white blaze just above her wet nose. I could feel her tiny warm breaths on my fingertips. The calf lay in sweet slumber; stretching and emitting slow pleasure-filled moans in response to my touch.
We were both, it seemed, in heaven.
After a few minutes of bliss, the calf slowly opened her eyes, languidly gazing at me through haze-covered half-sleep. Then, a few moments later, I saw the haze slip away, as her inner eyelid opened and the veil of trust and sleep lifted – and with it, the sudden realization of where she was and who I was.
Her eyes, darkened, widened, pupils dilated.
She jerked, jumped up – and darted off to the edge of the herd.
We stared at each other in the dim light of dusk – her eyes like wide like moon circles.
I eased myself off the rock, walked through the sleeping herd, and made my way home along the rutted mud road as the dark night enveloped me
Today, as I walked in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I was stopped in my tracks by that same sticky-pine scent. Pausing to press my feet upon the cushiony bed – so many years later – the smell suddenly triggered that memory as though it had happened yesterday … the intimacy I shared – caressing that beautiful sleeping calf.
All photos above and below taken today at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my little rinky-dink camera.
Judith Z. Miller
aka Artist Soul Speaks