The cowgirl and the museum

It's snowing big fat flakes at Bull Brook Keep. The cows are caped in white as they pull hay from the ring feeders. They stand, seemingly oblivious to the weather.

The snow is thick and I can hardly see across the field. It puts me to mind of an evening years ago when the fog was so thick the street lights seemed haloes suspended above the wet pavement. It was the early 70's and I was walking to my apartment after my late shift at the CBS Network Radio newsroom. The air was still and as warm as a bath. I walked in the near drizzle, and what I remember feeling was joy and gratitude. I was happy to live within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History.

It was 1972-73 and I shared a tiny apartment in a brownstone building just west of Central Park. It was a one-bedroom with a pretend kitchen and not much of a living room, but it was downtown Manhattan, and just affordable for two young women fresh out of college and struggling to make ends meet. (The building had yet to be converted into super-expensive condos.) After a childhood in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem, I felt I "had arrived."

I grew up in New York City at a time when almost anyone could afford to attend an opera, ballet or musical if you waited for the cheap seats to become available. My mom made sure my sisters, little brother and I took advantage of all this amazing city had to offer. This included frequent visits to one of the many museums just a train ride away. A repeated winter activity was getting to a museum and struggling out of woolen leggings and fur-trimmed hats. It's what little girls wore in the 1950's. We had to slip out of them once we got inside or we'd overheat as we walked up and down the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Museum of New York.

But of all the historic and cultural exhibits, it was the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History that captured my heart and tapped my soul.

They were glassed-in displays of peoples and animals from across history and around the world. The back wall of each panorama was a mural of a place or time - dinosaurs flying through the air, or a dense jungle, or an African savanna. Placed at the forefront were large three-dimentional figures: villagers is family groups, animals in life-and-death combat, herds racing across grasslands.

There was usually space on the benches that faced the highly-researched and expertly executed scenes. I was only five or six years old when my parents introduced me to this part of the museum and I'm sure my feet didn't even reach the ground as I perched on the long bench. Over the years, I spent hours and hours staring into those worlds. I'd sit there by myself, transported by the molded figures and painted landscapes. They took me away from the crowded buses. They lifted me from the jostling streets and from the noise of packed subways. Those museum scenes were frozen in time and place; yet they told me of a life I wanted - where people were connected to the land, to different kinds of purpose, to a different set of sounds.

Unrealistic? Romantic? Yes, and yes. Yet, they created an impression that expanded as I grew up. I wanted to be on the land, somehow. My journey to the hilly pastures of my farm, Bull Brook Keep, took years along a winding path: television/radio reporter in Duluth, Minnesota; public relations counsel to sustainable farming organizations in the Midwest; Minneapolis mom feeding young children from an organic garden; corporate public relations practitioner. And, much later, my husband and I bought a farm, and I purchased my first six head of cattle.

It's getting dark. The snow flakes are smaller now and the wind's picked up. Seventeen Buelingos beef cows munch hay 100 yards from my window. They're calm and comfortable - at ease in the weather. Ah, the low rumble of the skid steer - my husband's started it up, getting ready to move another couple of hay bales out to the feeding rings. Tomorrow I'll call the cows to the barn for treat of dry alfalfa pellets. As always, I expect they'll moo as they trot to the barn. They'll push and shove for a good spot at the feeding trough, and they'll fill the air with clouds of breath and steam. Alfalfa dust smells like freeze-dried summer.

In the growing season, we rotate our small herd from one grassy field to the next, providing food for the cattle and restorative land management. We strive to provide friends and customers with healthful beef. This is our backdrop, our work.

I am so grateful for what He has allowed me to try, and to do. And I am very aware that those first memories of the museum dioramas -- of trying to understand what they were -- helped me explore what could be.

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Sylvia Burgos's picture
Sylvia Burgos

Sylvia Burgos Toftness and her husband raise 100% grass-fed beef in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. She blogs about her farm, interviews guests on her weekly show, Deep Roots Radio, and heads up communications for a local private foundation. sylvia [at] bronxtobarn [dot] com