A life and a land shaped by cows

On mywalks around the farm, I sometimes come across the bedding place where our cows have spent the previous night. After their evening milking, they gather and drift about our 80 acres with the freedom of nomads in search of just the right mix of breeze and shelter, open space or woody bower, depending on the weather. Given their heads, they know how to make themselves comfortable.

I like to stop and study their bivouacs. Each of the wide patches of flattened grass, pressed leaves, or melted snow represents one of the animals I work with daily and have come to love. The individual beds are situated this way and that, and are variably spaced, representing a kind of bovine sociology. Even among cows, alliances and dislikes develop, and they sort themselves out accordingly even as they keep together as a herd.

Of course, it's wise to watch where you walk in such a spot; but I feel at home in the space where my cows have lain, in touch with their fresh, earthy dreams. The very ground seems to remember their peaceable presence.

Will it eventually forget? When, in the next year or two, we retire from milking, and the herd leaves this land, the place surely won't be the same. The cows are to move to a diversified organic farm that wants to diversify further, adding a dairy to its beef, grain, and vegetable operations. Along with the herd, we'll send the cooling tank, vacuum pump, surge buckets and belts, and birth and breeding records - turning over the basic tools of our trade to new hands.

But far more than all this will be leaving the farm - all the intangibles that can't be given away with the cows or kept behind without them. The daily rhythms, revelations, and steadying sense of purpose that comes from creatures who are more than the salable products they provide. The quiet enjoyment of their quirky personalities. The satisfaction of putting up enough hay to keep them over the coming winter, and of spreading it before them on cold, dark mornings as they let down their milk.

The farm itself will transform; its neatly mown summer pastures will grow ungrazed. The twisting paths and branching meanders now densely packed by cloven hooves will fade, along with the muddy prints by the stream banks and the fertile crescents around the feeding racks. On walks, I will not meet up with the herd, or find a new calf, or stumble upon the rumpled ground on which my cows have slept.

I have begun to keep this in mind as I milk these days. It is an especially valuable exercise, on subzero mornings, to remind myself of all that attends the chore that has pulled me from my warm bed into the frigid barn.

We'll keep a cow or two to provide household milk. After years of drinking it fresh from its source, the blander, pasteurized product just doesn't inspire. The laying hens will stay, too, and of course the Belgians and our big black Percheron draft horse. Cynthia, our retired nanny goat, makes it clear that she isn't going anywhere, come what may. We will not be bereft of animals.

What's more, the herd will be within striking distance, and Charlie and I have both signed on informally as relief milkers. If we feel the urge to visit, we can. No doubt the cows will have mastered their new topography, and adapted to other hands on their udders by then. But they'll remember me if they know what's good for them. And cows always seem to know that.

And our farm? A conservation easement protects it from future development. For a while, it will still bear the stamp of the herd. I like to think that something that so defines a place cannot fully fade - that when our children and grandchildren walk the land they will sense where the cows have lain - and without knowing why, will feel like stopping a while.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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