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September Postcard from the Prairie

It's that time monthly postcard from the prairie. You can follow the link to listen, or read the longer piece from which it is excerpted below.

Most of the mothers around here, including me, feed our babies milk, which our bodies conveniently make. It's almost magical when you stop to think about it. How wonderful and strange that we women are born with all the machinery needed to grow and feed a baby with only the addition of a few extra calories.

Truly, we mammals have it easier than we think. Recently, I wrote about a missing hen who reappeared with a brood of chicks. Unlike the rest of us, she has to forage to feed her babies. As soon as I crack open the squeaky coop door, she toddles out with the other hens, a chirruping caravan of chicks in tow. Through the grass she leads them, then under the metal railing to the corral by the barn, where they can scratch at the dust and chase bugs. The babies are fast, but their mama is faster. She stabs through the brown armor of a giant grasshopper before he even sees her coming, and she throws him back to the chicks. They are always one step behind her, so they are ready to dive in and divide him up. One scurries away with a leg, another with an arm, all the while they peep and she clucks, checking in with one another. Are you ok? Are you still beside me? she asks. Yes, yes, Mama, we are right beside you, the babies reply.

In the shade of a scrubby elm tree, the gray barn cat lays half hidden. He is sleek and sinewy, with unblinking yellow eyes. He watches the chicks tumbling and shuffling, piling on top of one another, then scattering apart. He waits for one to fall behind, the tip of his long tail flicking like the flame of a candle. He leans forward. Any minute now…

WHAM! Mama Hen pecks him hard between his eyes before he even has a chance to pounce, and he turns and slides through the grass back to the barn. She unruffles her feathers and goes back to hunting and clucking. Everyone ok? Yes, yes, Mama, we are ok, the babies say.

The Bean and I sit in the shade of the coop and watch as Mama Hen leads her little flock over to the tin waterer for a drink. I look down at him, then kiss his smooth forehead. He looks back at me with round, blue eyes, then grabs my lips with his chubby fingers. He is so big already.

I kiss the Bean again, and stand up, ready to walk back to the house. To the south I see the brown, black, and gold backs of the dairy herd grazing. After nearly a year apart, Rita has been reunited with her daughter, Ruthie, who is now an expectant mother herself. Every evening when I go to meet the herd with my bucket of grain, Rita tries to shoo the other cows and calves away…except for Ruthie, who has grown large and sturdy. Rita doesn't have milk for Ruthie anymore, but she still wants to see her baby get fed.

Tucked in the circle of my arms, the Bean makes a soft coo to get my attention, and moves his lips like he is nursing. It's his way of reminding me it's been a while since he ate. He does this in his sleep sometimes too, then smiles so wide you can see the dimples he inherited from his daddy. His sweetest dreams are still about milk -- for a little while longer, it is all he really needs.

Milk, grasshoppers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or a patch of sweet clover. We feed our babies, we watch them grow, then we watch as they go out into the big world to confront whatever comes next. If we are lucky they will come back every once in a while to visit and let us feed them again, and as they sit beside us, we will ask, Are you ok? and they will answer, Yes, yes, Mama, we are ok.

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