I have big horned cows in my pasture. They’re not mine and I don’t know their breed but they have big horns—really big horns—so I just call them big horned cows. A farmer brought them over to chop down the grass and weeds in the pasture. He’s done this several years in a row and we call it an even deal. His cows get some grazing for a month and I keep the usually unused pasture maintained. Last year he brought what he called “ugly” cows but I found them rather cute. The young ones had curly bangs over their eyes and they liked to come to the gate and stare at me. Perhaps they even thought of me as the cute little old lady. The current ones are interesting in their own way, and the mama manages to give her baby a bath without spearing him, proving once again that animals are often smarter than we give them credit for.
I thought it was the farmer’s job to make sure there was always water for them and that the electric fence was working. So when I went out several days ago to find the tank almost dry and the fence not “hot” (I certainly didn’t touch it but one of the cats did with no sign of discomfort and cats are not known to let such feelings go unmentioned), I decided I’d better do a daily check. I walked up to the hydrant and turned it on then walked back and placed the hose in the metal tank. It takes a while to fill up and for some reason if I walk away the hose mysteriously is back on the ground (do the cows pull it out as some kind of bovine humor?), so you have to stand there and watch the water slowly inch up the side. The baby approached the tank and took a gulp then came toward me. The big guys were nearby and I thought of walking over to them. There is one bull and the farmer had told me not to worry as “He’s very tame,” but I have memories of being chased by a bull on my grandmother’s farm.
As I stood there I thought about the horses we used to have and how much I missed the sight of them in that pasture, the sound of their hoofs crossing the wooden bridge at dinner time, the way I would go look for Penrod (quite elderly and terribly thin in spite of much grain and every possible supplement available) when he didn’t come in after dark, thinking I’d be relieved to see him lying dead, instead filled with joy when he came crashing out of the trees toward me and my flashlight. Winter night feedings were something I’d dread with all the clothes to put on and getting up off the warm couch, but then as I stood there, listening to their contented munching, seeing the frozen mist from their breath glistening on their muzzles, walking back to the house and looking up at the stars—well, sometimes it seemed it just couldn’t get any better than that.
My parents let me have dogs as a child (they drew the line at cats) and of all the things I am thankful for about their parenting, that one is high on the list. The rules were strict with few exceptions—the dog got walked twice a day, rain or shine. I still do that (O.K., once a day) even when the prairie wind is like a blast furnace or something resembling a trek across Antarctica. Even when the woods are full of ticks and later spiders that love to make their webs at head level (my head) across the path. It’s a job I do because it is my responsibility, but the truth is I get back much more than I give. I’m not sure how often I’d get out on our country road or down into the little woods without them. And who else shows me that kind of appreciation, and don’t suggest it’s teenage children.
That’s what I told myself as I looked at those cows. They give me a little time each day to be still and take in the land I live on, the cats that gather around me, the creek bed now dry but still beautiful. As it turns out, I’m glad the farmer doesn’t always get around to checking on things. I like standing with the cows. I like making sure they always have water.