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Thinking About Cows

What is it about kids and cows? Of all the animals in Creation, each of my children have learned to speak cow first. Most recently, Baby Girl has added the standard “moo” to her vocabulary. Only for Baby Girl, it’s a husky, emphatic and insistent “moo.” It’s said with a gusto not found with the ho-hum “woof” and “meow.” There’s just something about cows, I guess.

I grew up around cows. Sort of. My grandfather and my father both kept cows on my grandparents’ farm kind of as a hobby. We visited there almost every weekend when I was a child–sometimes on Friday night through Sunday afternoon, sometimes just on Saturdays. I didn’t spend a lot of time with the cows. They were more of a continual presence. A background, so to speak, for lots of other tomboy activities. In a farm setting, I suppose that’s often the case. My mom grew up on that farm, and I know the cattle were a physical and metaphorical backdrop for her as well. I remember stories she told me of playing “church” in the neighboring cousin’s barn. From the make-shift pulpit, she expounded on scripture she learned at Sunday School… “be not like dumb driven cattle.” Cows. A continual presence.

Cows have an uncanny stare. I’ve been the recipient of it many times over the years, both from near and far. The stare is deep and thorough. But, it’s also a bit blank. You just know there’s not a whole lot going on in there. Still, I’ve always wondered what they’re really seeing with that unflinching gaze. The whole “dumb driven cattle” reference is quite appropriate. They tend to be followers, there’s no doubt. When one begins to gaze, you suddenly find yourself in the grip of the whole herd’s stare. And, if they’re familiar with you, they’ll adopt that stare from up close.

The cows in my dad’s herd learned every pick-up truck he ever had. They saw it every couple of days and with Pavlov’s nod, rightly associated it with feed sacks. When the cows in the front pasture saw it coming around the gravel bend toward the house on those Saturday mornings, they began the trek to the barn. Even if the dumping of the feed sacks wasn’t imminent, I suppose they wanted to be prepared, to make sure they were in the necessary position.

In the back pastures where there were no roads only worn down and less bumpy paths, the cows would gather around the pick-up. There were only select places in that area where feed troughs were stocked. Those cows relied on hay and grass for their sustenance. Still, the truck meant something. They gathered around as close as a bunch of 600 pound, fattened-up beasts could. My dad would roll down the truck window to touch their noses or their foreheads. He wanted them to be familiar, especially the bulls. Bulls are a whole other essay of the more ornery sort, but Dad made a special effort to forge communication with them. He would talk to them, “hey Big Man” and coax them into letting him touch their oversized foreheads. It pays to have a bull on your side.

When the truck was ready to move on, no amount of honking could encourage the cows on their way. Only a small shift in the gas pedal and a slight bump to one’s rear would sink in. From there, the whole group followed that one cow’s jump and bolt away from the vehicle. It was the same with “driving” them or losing them. All it ever took was one cow in some moment of independence wondering if that blade of grass on the other side of the fence would be more tasty, and before you knew it, the whole lot of them had lumbered through whatever sagging barbed wire structure was there to un-pen themselves. Likewise, usually just one wave of the hands and gruff shout from Dad (or whoever might be helping him) could frighten them down the gravel paths required to get them right back where they should be fenced. You would think it would be harder than that. After all, I mentioned the 600-pound quality. But, I guess none of the other cows stopped to wonder why all the fuss or the need for such quick movement. They simply reacted to the one ahead of them, who reacted to the one ahead of him.

Thinking about cows has me wondering. How many times in my business, my home keeping, my relationships or my faith are my actions simply reacting to the one ahead of me? How often do I respond simply out of habit the way that’s always been expected of me? And, how much of my experiences am I missing out of plain old numbness because of it? That “be not like dumb driven cattle,” spoken from a young farm girl’s play and gleaning of faith, is actually a pretty good admonishment. I don’t want to lumber through my experiences bound by the blank stare of simply following old habits because they are habits or following the ways everyone else is doing something because that’s just how it’s done. And, I don’t want to bump and boulder through life immune to the thought that comes from really seeing what I’m seeing. No, perhaps I want to adopt that one creature’s wild hare and be bold enough to step into something new, to push my full weight against the fences binding me until they finally give way.

There’s just something about cows.

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