My cows come home to roost

Those first collectibles were pale substitutes for the animals I'd left behind, but they bred well. Soon, family and friends were adding to my collection.

I can't remember the first cow figurine I bought after a half-year idyll getting to know the real creatures in the English countryside. I'd gone to Devon in 1974 with a graduate geology degree and no idea what to do with it other than avoid oil-company employment. I kept body and soul together for those months as I pondered my future by milking a herd of Holsteins on a hill farm dairy. Some things stick with you.

I returned to the States with plans to combine geology - which I'd thoroughly enjoyed as a student but still could not imagine as a career - with a more down-home passion, writing, which I'd done in one way or another since childhood. I enrolled in Indiana University's school of journalism, thinking I would launch a career in science writing. Innocently enough, I placed a couple of bovine figurines on my bookshelves. I found that I missed the herd I had come to know during my self-styled sabbatical from "real life." But I never questioned my innate assumption that real life, for me, wasn't about milking cows.

Those first few collectibles were pale substitutes for the animals I had left to other hands at Langaller Farm, but they certainly bred well. Before long, family and friends picked up on my little collection and began adding to it. To say it got out of hand is a neat way of covering a lot of ground without going into a detailed inventory of what I came to house in the way of figurines, kitchenware, linens, apparel, and artwork - all about bovines.

A year in Switzerland made further acquisitions almost obligatory. There was simply no point in resisting. At its peak, my collection was worth mentioning in my will - whether my sister appreciated the news or not.

Eventually, I came to realize what I was doing. I found my way back to the real animals on a small hilly dairy farm near Bloomington, Ind. Having reconnected with my true vocation, I convinced gift-givers - and myself - that I was beyond satiated with housable imitations of living, breathing bovines.

I then pared my collection down dramatically, keeping only the quality pieces I could fit into a single glass cabinet that Charlie fashioned for me, no doubt to encourage containment. Only my favorites remain: a soapstone cow from my mother (come to think of it she might have started the herd); a lovely sandalwood cow and calf pair from India; a carved antique Swiss brown beauty that Charlie, against his better judgment, presented to me one Christmas; and a few dozen others made of glass, pewter, ceramic, rubber, brass, and cloth. Each has some special meaning.

I even managed to squeeze a few of my cow-themed books behind the glass - Paul Gallico's "Ludmilla," Natalie Savage Carlson's "Hortense" (the cow for a queen), Miriam Mason's "Susannah" (the pioneer cow), and others such as "Valerie" and "Rowena" (the skating cow). They are just drops in the milk bucket of children's literature on cows, but ones I prize. These, along with a racing car my son whittled for me long ago and painted a Holstein black and white, are it.

I think. It would, in any case, have to be a really small and special item to win admittance to the tiny spaces left in that cabinet.

The other day I was reading an article in The New York Times about a woman who collected everything she could find about Clint Eastwood and his films. I like the guy a lot, but collect stuff on him? I showed Charlie and commented that it would be strange to be so obsessed with something.

The look he gave me...

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