Last week I achieved one of my most pressing post-graduation goals: I gazed at some cows for a few minutes … all alone. I’ve been an overstimulated, homesick rural girl for a few years now. My lungs got bored of the college air. I longed for my old hard-hewn country life: for quiet. My feet cried out for fresh callousing. My hands wanted to pick and freeze fruit. My eyes missed the cows.
American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard had this to say about some cows she routinely saw near her Tinker Creek:
“They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”
On the subject of cows Dillard is too censorious, perhaps—but I know what she means. Cows are big, blockish barges of beast that wear their eyes on the sides of their faces and show little apparent feeling.
They’re fascinating anyway, and I have always been drawn to them as creatures of exceptional beauty. A whole herd of red-brown ones, especially, dotting a green hill, makes me want to converse with them—and even to please them. Whenever I see them in the fields I call out in a thin voice, “Hello cows!”
The cows don’t care that I greet them, much less what I say. And—as I am a person whose head swells if my words are taken too seriously—unapologetic cow-apathy helps me reassess my own importance.
I learned this as a little girl when my best friend, Kayla, and I fed her father’s heifers early in the morning.
“You can’t reason with cows, Chelsea,” she’d tell me. The heifer herd around us nudged at our elbows for the grain we held in buckets. I felt bullied and stood up in my nightgown against their advances. Since they outsized me, I couldn’t hope to push them away. Instead, I tried to convince them with eloquent speeches that they ought to behave with civility out of respect for my dignity. “All your vocabulary in the dictionary won’t help you,” said Kayla. “The only word you have to know is ‘MOVE.’”
I learned to say, “MOVE.” It sounded painful to my ears at first. Cows looked so pretty on the outside that I thought they ought to have manners, too.
So last week I looked at the cows: “beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks.” When I said hello they ignored me. They observed none of my speeches.
I sighed. I needed to come home to the country. Not just for rest after a long labor. I needed to come home, in a sense, to recover from the praise and attention I’d received while away, because sadness comes hard on the heels of self-consumption. When my world revolves around my own words and their reception, it has shrunk too small for me to live in. So for the sake of my own joy, I am glad the cows ignore me, and I can just look at them and wonder. I’ve done enough talking for a while.