On our farm, we go with the bovine flow

Except when they're headed uphill to a greener pasture, cows move very much like water. Despite all those body angles and bony protuberances, there's a graceful fluidity about a cow's progress across a landscape.

A herd of bovines is even more evocative of water flow as members braid along overlapping paths of least resistance - separating and coalescing and separating again, and ultimately pooling in a quiet cluster to rest or sleep.

Our eight retired dairy cows have an 80-acre farm to cover. If they don't exactly flood the place, they spread across much of it on a daily basis, gliding into and out of view in patterns both familiar and unrepeatable.

We had a much larger herd during our years of commercial milking - up to 30 cows and heifers.

There were hot summer days we never caught sight of the animals, however widely we roamed ourselves. It was as if they'd seeped into the very floor of some cool, secluded woodlot, into the groundwater.

Other times they seemed to be everywhere, meandering from pasture to pasture under a cool autumn sky in full view from the farmhouse.

Collecting all those animals from the back pasture on Ben, our big black draft horse, often amounted to an exercise in hydrologic engineering.

Once the slow flow barnward began, one or two bovines would invariably leak away into a gully or hedgerow and off we'd go, Ben and I, to channel them back.

Eventually as they neared the barn, the cows, their full udders swinging, would assume the collective will of a river. Then nothing could stop or divert them. They filled the place like a vessel, jostling for entry into the milking parlor, where grain and premium hay awaited them in their stanchions.

The challenge was admitting just a few of them at a time into the little room. Moving aside the restraining bar and stepping back, I would let three bulky bodies spurt past me, then jump back into the entrance ramp to block the sudden, quickening flow of bovinity.

I didn't always manage to. The parlor, too, would fill with roiling turbulent bodies, until there was nothing to do but roll open the exit door to let them spill back to the barnyard. And start over.

Over the past five years the cows have left by twos and threes to new homes.

I don't know all their fates, but I like to think of them etching out new topographies, patiently cutting their quirky paths with an almost geologic leisure. Perhaps if a herd of cows had millions of years to work a landscape they'd leave behind a true valley - and real water would fill it.

No longer milking our small remnant herd, we don't interfere now with the ways they move and where they go. They follow their own paths, at their own pace.

We just sit back and drink in the view.

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