Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Conversation of Cows

To say that animals do not speak is a grave error. I have been privy to remarkable conversations over the years and I’m here to tell you that those who eschew evesdropping, for moral reasons or otherwise, miss out on a lot.

The first time I realized with absolute certainty that animals converse was long ago while living in a developed area consisting of small homes on three acre plots. Each plot was complete with barns of varying architectural quality and the requisite pond. Our own home site included five large oaks, a stream in the front yard that ran through a tube beneath the driveway and a row of heavy-bearing apple trees, grapevines and a garden lot in the side yard.

The acre of pasture, sturdily fenced with woven wire, at the back contained our very own barn painted a rather fantastic pink and trimmed with cute little white shutters and pink doors with white crossbars on them. At the time, this pasture was the sole domain of Fred, a Jersey steer, originally purchased by city-bound friends to fill their freezer.

After making the mistake common to all novices of the agricultural world of allowing themselves and their two small daughters to accept the slobbering friendship Fred offered from day one, Fred was taken off the freezer list and hauled out to our place. There he enjoyed the good life of soft summer mornings, heat-hazed afternoons, sweet twilights, and the camaraderie of my sister-in-law’s milk cow and the black calf by her side. Fred and the cow would spend long and silent hours, each on their own side of the fence, swishing flies and occasionally swiping each others’ faces with long, wet rubbery tongues.

Fred’s lot in life was enhanced by the fact that he was able to come and go at will. One of the lessons I learned from Fred was that fences, no matter how good, only keep livestock in as long as they don’t have any pressing reason to get out.

However, Fred pretty much stayed in the pasture unless the kids were playing in the back yard, (he loved company and was incredibly curious) or I was hanging laundry. He had the habit of wandering along behind me to slurp the wet clothes, I think he liked the taste of soap, and I was always having to stick my arm down his throat to drag out a towel or something he had managed to half swallow.

Fred was very smart for a steer and until the last three days of his sojourn with us, never left the place. Even I, who believe in the conversation of cows, admit that his disappearance from the neighborhood the very day the call was finally made to send him to Morris’s Meat Locker in town, could have been a coincidence. It was not until three days later that we located him a mile and a half from home and clear across the highway. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions here.

If Fred was ever bored he never complained so I was surprised to see his excitement when the new owners moved into the place at our south fence line. But even I was impressed. It took them three days to unload. The first day the large cattle van groaned up the drive, easily visible from my back porch, four times. As soon as all this excitement commenced Fred ran like a deer, tail hiked in a wide sweeping curve, from the fence line where the milk cow and her black calf stood to station himself at the opposite fence line.

The first load contained a large but ancient white horse who seemed unable to lift his head above the level of his front hocks. I never saw a horse look so tired. Beside him trotted a very small brown pony. We learned later that the big one ate fence posts and the little one bit. But that was later.

Horses are convivial people for the most part and that day it didn’t take the pair long to approach Fred at the fence and..well the only way to say it is that they “communed.’ Heads hung low, hindquarters shifting rhythmically, punctuations of an occasional horse headshake or an indignant switch of Fred’s tail, the conversation obviously covered all the rudiments of new acquaintanceship.

I didn’t have anything better to do that day, like my life has been so earth shatteringly interesting, so I stayed there on the porch and watched the comings and goings of the trucked in newcomers and Fred’s neighborly response. After a few dozen headshakes and tail switchings Fred turned on a dime, the old tail hiked up and off he ran to report to the milk cow and the black calf. Same story, different fence. Heads down, indignant tail switchings, punctuated this time by long gazes across Fred’s shoulder toward the newcomers at the far fence line.

Another unloading, this time two black steers and a spotted cow..they understood the drill..straight to the fence line. Fred’s at his station..heads down..tailswitchings.. Turns on a dime and back to the milk cow and the black calf.

This continued until an incredible Noah’s Arc, sans arc, appeared on the three adjacent acres. Like I say, even I was impressed.

Throughout the rest of Fred’s stay with us he reported faithfully back and forth between the two, obviously friendly, camps regarding who’s moving in..who’s moving out..the health of all new babies..the inevitable death of the old horse.. Of course this is only conjecture on my part. I have no way of really knowing what was said in those urgently friendly first conversations or the subsequent neighborly discourse. But one thing I do know. They were conversing.

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