First came oxen.
A three-ton team of old-style Simmentals appeared one day on the pasture down the road from Honey Hill, and I fell in love. Consumed with curiosity, I had to get to know them. Within the year the Swanzey Open Space Committee had positioned Buck and Ike as our town’s ambassadors of open space protection and biggest rural characters, and I—as personal assistant to these busy celebrities—had learned how to drive oxen.
Buck & Ike’s understudies --Star & Bright-- were the first cattle I trained from infancy, and were present to comfort Ike when Buck succumbed to eye cancer. Two-year-old Jesse & James, another team of Milking Shorthorns, joined the herd soon after Star died. Ike found a new teammate in Bright and, driven by Rick Lewis, inspired Jesse & James to put their 4H blue-ribbon training to productive use. The six of us logged out the timber pasture at Honey Hill. We remember Ike, who died in 2012, with special love and a granite gravestone in his timber pasture.
As Jesse, James and Bright grew older and slower, and even taller, that 11" yoke also grew heavier--for me. I wanted a team that would keep up the pace into maturity, and remain a more manageable size. Smaller, lighter cattle also would be gentler on Honey Hill's marginal soils. If I grew my own team, potentially I could also enjoy the bonuses of creamy milk and clean, flavorful meat. American Milking Devons were the obvious choice.
Preservation of cattle, conservation of land
When American Milking Devon working steers and oxen first caught my eye, I didn't appreciate how close we came to losing the breed. By the mid 1900s, interest in beef and dairy specialization, coupled with a growing reliance on tractors, had led to the dwindling of the Devon population. By the 1970s, the breed was nearly extinct. Thanks to dedicated efforts of members of the American Milking Devon Cattle Association, approximately 1,200 to 1,500 purebred cattle are registered today. At Honey Hill, we're proud to support the preservation of these heritage animals.
Protecting New England's historic cattle goes hand in glove with conserving important open space. One hundred forty acres of our one hundred eighty-acre farm are permanently protected with conservation easements. For years I helped advance the work of conservation by serving on the Lands Committee of our regional land trust, the Monadnock Conservancy. I became actively involved in land conservation in 2004 as a founding member of Swanzey's Open Space Committee.
Talk to anyone who cares about saving special places, and most often you'll hear a personal story about someplace special that has been lost to development. My place--Pressman's Home, Tennessee--literally is a ghost town. Kudzu climbs through the windows of the few buildings that have not yet fallen to arson or decay. An entire community and a self-contained town has disappeared.
My father was the associate editor of The American Pressman, the union's monthly publication, and our family lived across the road from the union’s dairy. Pastures and hay fields surrounded our home, and cattle grazed the pastures. The smell of manure was comforting, the woods were my home. Pull up your most romantic image of Shangri-La, set it in the Appalachians, and add cows. You've got my childhood.
That is, until 1968, when the union re-located and, at the age of 11, I found myself in the gridded, sterile suburbs of Washington, D.C. At 18, on the advice of Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life, I fled to southern Vermont, and have lived mostly in New England ever since. In 1999 I finally came home to Honey Hill. The presence here of American Milking Devon cattle--with their comforting smells, various and charming personalities, their rhythms and routines--brings the circle to a close. There's no place I'd rather be.
Mark Ames, my husband, heroically and cheerfully fixes machinery, hauls and stacks hay, plows snow, exercises his chain saws, and solves problems with ingenuity and useful bits from his curated collection of Good Stuff. An avid hunter and forester, his professional career was in addiction prevention, providing treatment and recovery support services. Mark manages woodlots here and in Vermont, and makes striped bass nervous in Gloucester, MA.
Evan Barlow, our son, lives in Walpole, NH, and is a cinematographer, photographer and editor. From eighth grade forward he has worked on documentary films--his own, and Ken Burns's The Roosevelts, The Vietnam War, and Country Music. Blessed with curiosity, Evan is an explorer and an adventurer. He also is a whiz with all things technological.
Moses, the African grey parrot, completes the family. When the cattle come in from the pasture, Moses announces their arrival with a convincing "mooooo." "Come up, come up," he encourages. Then, "Whoooa."