The Greener Grass Awaits

Anyone who has ever brushed up against an electric fence knows why cows respect the things. One barely visible strand suffices to keep our herd off the rain-soaked pastures until we feed them the very last scraps of our winter hay. The cows take all we offer, but their patience with barn-lot feeding is wearing thin. Their expressions are plain as words: "Yup. Same stuff as yesterday."

They chew last summer's brome and orchard grasses with bored distraction, casting us doleful looks. Don't we know that just beyond the dread wire is all that any ungulate could ask for? Not just grass, growing lush and long, but a whole smorgasbord of early shoots, greens, tender wildflowers, and meadow herbs - perhaps even a smattering of overlooked morels.

They watch as we gingerly duck under the wire and head for the pastures with our mushroom-collecting bags, then they raise a high, sustained protest at being left behind. Heads pointed skyward, throats stretched and quivering, they sing a lament that carries for miles. Close by, though, it falls on deaf ears. There's still some hay left, and the longer the pastures go ungrazed, the better.

This point, of course, is lost on the cows. Their bellowing splits the air, and we begin sneaking to the pasture by secretive routes.

A few cows know how to sample things to come. By kneeling, and stretching her neck under the wire, Juniper can reach some of the new grass. Her tongue flicks out, wraps around a delectable tuft, and brings it home. This is how cows graze - tearing grass with a circular motion of the tongue, over and over. All along the far side of the wire now is a grazed strip about as wide as a cow's tongue is long.

With each passing day, they watch us coming and going more intently. Sierra calves, dropping a beautiful, creamy white heifer. The barn swallows return, and the first of the Baltimore orioles. The morels popping up now are not small and gray, but fat, white, and luscious. Fried in butter, they make gourmet fare, and it's a tossup whether we eat them ourselves or sell them at a fancy price to local stores.

The cows, nursing a bad attitude, chew their hay, letting down milk that is wholesome, but uninspired. It has body, but seems to lack zip. Today, a pair of robins eye the ledge atop the porch pillars that has held their nests for many a year, and we mend some weak sections of wooden pasture fence. The herd folds down for another night behind the electric wire.

Once, a few years back, we packed a picnic and tied ribbons around the necks of a few of the cows before releasing them to the green fields, making a May Day ceremony of the event. The cows would have worn ball gowns if that's what we'd asked of them - anything to win release, wrap their tongues around the tender spring greens. This year we are too occupied with other things for a ceremonial release. Tomorrow or the next day we'll simply turn off the juice and roll back the wire.

Nonetheless, it will be an event, a time to reflect on the past winter and anticipate the summer to come amid birdsong and the soft, rhythmic tearing of grass.

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