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Backstory: Stinkiest Assignment


Published December 25, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 30, 2019 at 12:12 p.m.

Geraldo Velasco - FILE: CALEB KENNA
  • File: Caleb Kenna
  • Geraldo Velasco

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.

In February, I was reporting on the innards of Vermont's dairy industry — the bewildering matrix of humans, cows and economics from which those eight-ounce bars of Cabot cheddar mysteriously emerge. In an attempt to understand it all, I decided to spend a week at Vorsteveld Farm in Panton, a 1,300-cow operation that seemed to represent the inexorable scaling up of production that has changed the face of Vermont agriculture. 

To ensure the most immersive experience, my original plan had been to sleep in the workers' trailer, but the lack of spare furniture made that inadvisable. So I ended up commuting home to Burlington every night, a mindless 45-minute drive by day made incalculably dicier after a 12- or 13-hour stint in the milking parlor, by which point every imaginable farm odor — the rich smell of raw milk, hot from the udder; the nose-stinging iodine solution used to protect the teats, which was disconcertingly cold to the touch and looked like orange Kool-Aid; mind-boggling quantities of steaming manure — had penetrated my five layers of clothing. 

I drove north on Route 7 with the heat cranked up all the way, huffing my own fumes, which induced a stupor probably comparable to being high. Something about spending so much time around large, helpless mammals and their fluids gave me a heightened sense of everything that could go wrong with my own body, and I spent large portions of these drives contemplating, with stoned detachment, various gruesome ways in which I could be accidentally maimed: slipping on ice and getting a compound femur fracture, or being thrown through the windshield in a head-on collision, among other cheerful possibilities. How is it, I wondered at some point, that I'm even capable of driving this car? Aren't I just a mammal? Could any mammal learn to drive, given the right circumstances?

When I got home, amazed to discover that I'd survived the journey, I would sneak in through the basement and strip down in front of the washing machine. My overalls were always the filthiest, crusted with dried manure so thick that it flaked off like paint whenever I moved. Then I removed my fleece pullover, then either two or three long-sleeve shirts, depending on how cold it had been that day, then a wool base layer. If I could have peeled off my skin, I would have thrown that into the wash, too. By the fourth or fifth day, I no longer registered my own smell; there was just a constant slight sharpness, like interesting cheese. To be completely honest, I found it strangely comforting, an olfactory reminder of the womb or some other primordial shit.

My girlfriend did not share that sentiment. One night, when I climbed into bed at one in the morning after debriding every square millimeter of my body with Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap, she mumbled, half-asleep, "You don't smell great." I had to wait up to move my clothes into the dryer anyway, so I got a beer from the fridge and drank it slowly in the shower. Briefly, I dozed off and dreamed of a giant, unmilkable udder.