A Monger’s Musings – Part 1

This post is the first of a series called ‘A Monger’s Musings’ written by Saxelby’s cheesemonger / wordsmith extraordinaire Bennie Johnson. Look out for future installments!


Spring. The earlier the better for some, for most. This year spring arrived in a day. We fell asleep bundled to the nose and awoke to something, a smell, almost forgotten, yet so familiar. The scent of fresh juicy shoots swollen with clean dew. It’s smell that demands a recognition, if only briefly. You stop a moment on that slightly desolate block that is fifth street between first and A, you close your eyes and take a deep breath, all you smell is fresh, clean, young and sweet. If you had time you could let your eyes stay closed, allow the smell to take you further, for those of us whose heartstrings are still embedded elsewhere this small patch of sumptuous green grass gives us a glimpse of a lawn where snowdrops nod their glowing white heads, where swallows swoop into the barn, a swoop that would make your stomach hover weightlessly in the space between your belly button and your lungs. The woodpile is dwindling to no one’s concern and the roads are knee deep in mud, sucking to your boots and tires like a jubilant puppy, desperate to play and tragically misunderstood. The breeze hiccups slightly, backtracks on itself in the way it does only in spring, young and playful still finding its way between the buildings and people. Returning to its spindly legs it brings with it the smell of your coffee and your eyes spring open to the present.

While we cling with glee to our fresh sprigs of grass and the return of outdoor seating, elsewhere new life is arriving in other forms as well. When I was 6 this time of year brought even more excitement than the current thrill of being able to wear my converse outdoors. Sometime in the upcoming week I’d be woken up in the small hours of the morning. My dad, smelling of hay and wool and in his cover-all’s is already beginning to scoop me up and bundle me in my coat. My mom is shuffling down the stairs to boil water for tea. “It’s time.”

We had the smallest of barns. Half was a hayloft with a corner where we kept the big grain bin which I wasn’t allowed to open because I wasn’t strong enough to close it tight. Leaving the light of the front porch we made our way across the dark yard to the barn which sat like a mother hen, the cobwebbed, yellow light illuminating the hay dust causing a golden glow. Our beautiful little barn sat there, patient, the ultimate mother she waited for my dad to return. Like a great bellows, her warm breath washed over us across the yard. I climbed up onto the grain bin and opened the little window that my dad had installed so I could see into the stall where the sheep lay, undoubtedly counting one another with mild amusement, night after night. Tonight the old ewe who had slowly at first and then with astonishing speed grown to an enormous size over the winter, lay, breathing heavily on fresh hay while the other sheep snoozed unfazed in the corner. My dad had gone around through the gate and was now at the ewes head with a bucket of water. She and my father had brought many lambs into this barn together and she had grown quite indifferent to his presence.

She didn’t need much help, despite there being two. “We’ve got a double yolker!” My mom had predicted due to the size of the mamma. One by one my dad pulled them up to her head and while she gave them a tender but slightly tiresome look about, he snapped the rubberbands around their tails and looked up at me with a smile. The sky was filling with light and the air had become the color of skim milk. There was still snow on the ground, hard and crusty but in the sheep’s yard it was all mud and hay. He put out the others and gave them grain closing the door behind them to give the old ewe her peace. By the time he had given her hay and grain I was drifting off, drooling slightly on the window ledge. I felt my cheek peel off of the wood and my head bump into the warmth of my dad’s shoulder. There was the bonk bonk bonk of my head on his collarbone with each step and the warmth of the house and the sound of my mom sipping tea. She would go let out the chickens and check on the lambs while my dad slept for a few hours. But by now my head was on my pillow and I was sinking infinitely deep into my bed into the morning light. In the barn my mom was getting the lambs to nurse and in the mudroom my dad was hanging up his overalls. And all across the state of Vermont other families were doing the same. Milk, like the sap in the trees, had begun to flow.

Here in New York we are stopping briefly to take deep breaths of grass and air, we are promising our friends the return of fresh goat cheeses, we are trying to remember how we had stored our winter clothes last year, can we fit anything else under the bed?

The breeze, like a little messenger bears the news of spring, bears stories of what it’s seen. Baby lambs discovering the excitement of wobbly legs, swollen creeks bearing the last of the melted snow to the river, the roar of the fire that boils the great tanks of sap around which folks drink whiskey and eat cornbread and talk about things that float about a bit and then evaporate with the steam that seeps through the cracks under the roof. The news on the breeze intoxicates us, makes our tired feet step more lightly, makes us chatter more animatedly outside coffee shops, makes bicycle commuters yell with renewed abandon, and most importantly, thread us all together, feed us the same joy, send us smiling to work each morning unclear as to why we feel like an escaped balloon at a fair, full of air and bobbing up into the blue sky higher and higher.

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