I spent a good portion of the week cleaning in the dairy barn, going through piles and shelves, dealing with work deferred, and imagining new uses and purposes for these well-worn stations. We’ve been working in the dairy barn for for almost thirty years, and farmers, cows, and who knows what else, has worked in the space for fifty years before that. The barn has seen generation after generation of farmers and animals pass through it, each with new ideas and new visions, new beliefs, new ways of getting the job done, new challenges and new successes. We have moved things around, changed things, built walls and removed walls, cut holes and patched holes, painted, broken, repaired, cleaned and fixed almost every bit of the structure, always trying to make it better, make it suit the need of the season, or keep it from falling. The structure has held up well, though there is some sag here and there, some rotting wood and several empty window holes. The building got a handsome new metal roof a few years ago, and that gives the whole place a much stronger feeling of endurance and fortitude than the old faded shingles. Right now the dairy barn, like so many of our buildings, is plagued with large flock of European Starlings that come to raid grain from the nearby chickens and pigs, drink from the cow’s open water trough, roost and cackle in the rafters of the back-barn, and deposit their droppings generously on every surface. Today, under the oppression of the first winter storm of the season, the cows have spent a good portion of their time hiding in the back-barn, and they all are spotted, head to tail, with Starling droppings. These birds are not from around here, and their aggression and tendency to travel in a large flock means they are ruinous to the smaller local birds we know and love. They bully their way into other bird’s nests, invading any cavity they can find, and disturbing nesting, egg laying and the raising of chicks. They are a torment down at Maggie’s Farm too, where they gather on the roof-peak of the chicken’s winter house, blanket the surface with their manure, and descend in mass to pillage at the chicken’s hanging feeders. They also seem to spend a good deal of time in the tractor barn, and take special pleasure in pooping all over the tractors. Rumblings have begun amongst the staff about making an attempt to eradicate them, though we are yet to hit on a course of action that balances the desired effect and community impact. In the summer our dairy barn is home to a wonderful group of barn swallows who raise two rounds of chicks in mud nests stuck on light fixtures and joists all around the barn. They come back and use the same nests every summer, arriving and departing as regular markers of the turning seasons. Swallows are incredible fliers that catch airborne insects as their main food source, and they use their breathtaking flying agility to zip in and out of the barn doors and windows, around the farmers and cows, passing within inches with a flash. These birds are threatened and declining in Massachusetts, and we are really happy to give them a safe place to raise their chicks every summer. Their arrival in early summer kicks of our stretch of warm weather, and I am always reminded of the immeasurable hidden workings of the natural world when I walk into the barn for morning milking to find swallows where there had been none the morning before. To my mind, scurrying through an endless list of work to get done before the sun goes down, they have seemingly sprung from thin air, appeared in my world from nowhere, deciding, on a whim, to nest in my barn. In reality, they’ve arrived after a long and arduous migration, traveling for months from thousands of miles south, using the same destinations on either end, and paths between, year after year. The space between my experience of the barn swallows in the barn, and the depth of the lives they trace to be there, is overwhelming.
Of course we have ideas and plans for changes to be made in the barn this spring, ways to improve operations and make the barn serve the program better, and though these seem from here to be ultimate fixes that will finally carry us to perfection, I’m sure we’ll have tweaks and changes in mind come this time next year. We plow the ground every spring, change the layout of the beds and pathways, order different seeds and try new tools, but the ground is the same ground, and the barn is the same barn its always been.