Simon, a retired policeman, and one of the four farmers down at the end of our lane, is our closest farming neighbour. Well, he used to be a farming neighbour. Now he’s just a neighbour.
Simon only ever kept cows, and he stopped keeping those a few years back when changes to Ministry of Agriculture rules made cows too expensive. Not to keep, but to dispose of. What used to be free – the carting away of dead cows, of any age – now costs several hundred pounds. Young cow carcasses are still carted away for free, but Simon’s middle-aged herd of breeding stock were going to cost him dearly when they shuffled off this mortal coil. This change in policy meant the end of hobbyist cow farming, as far as Simon was concerned, and the end of cow watching in the pasture behind our garden.
I always had a soft spot for Simon’s cows because they were in the field on the day Tonia and I first viewed our house. We leaned over the back fence to watch the cows one afternoon, and Gerta, the previous owner of our house, opened the window and asked, “Can I help you?”, which is British for “What the hell are you doing?”
“We’re interested in buying the house,” we said, and Gerta kindly invited us inside to have a look. It was high summer, and cows could be heard in every room, through every open window. Cow munching provided the soundtrack for our tour of the house, and from the terrace it sounded as if they might be eating their way through much of the back garden. We liked the little house well enough, and were blown away by its view across the valley, but the cows were also one of the main selling points.
I know. It doesn’t seem like having cows for neighbours would be a selling point. They don’t do much beyond eat and shit, loudly. Which means that in the summer, with our windows flung wide, we are blessed with not only an abundance of cow noises, from both the front and back ends of cows, but also the flies which inevitably follow the latter. These come in two varieties. There are the large horse flies or, I suppose in this case, cow flies, that dive in through open doors and windows, Kamikaze-like, and leave just as quickly. We think of them as the “smart” flies, because they usually manage to find their own way out. The second, smaller variety are dozy little “idiot” flies that circle aimlessly around the ceiling light, or hurl themselves uselessly against open windows, to die beaten and baffled on sunny window sills.
We always assumed Simon’s organic beef had to be tasty, what with the satisfying lives his cows seemed to enjoy. We never actually bought any because after a few summers of watching adorable calves grow quickly in the pasture out back, we had neither the heart, nor the stomach, to eat any of them. They were endlessly entertaining to watch, moreover, we began to think of them as friends. As everyone knows, one doesn’t eat one’s friends.
We’ve been saddened by the empty pastures, just as we were at the news that Simon would no longer be keeping cows, though other farmers in the village say it’s a mercy, really, that Simon’s fields contain naught but grass now. His cows were, according to some, “half wild and largely unmanageable.” Their own cows are, naturally, so perfectly behaved you could invite them to tea. Farmers are nearly as fond of pointing at each other’s gates, and saying, “They don’t look after their beasts there, you know,” as they are of their own methods for farming.
The field out back is full of cows this week. Though I haven’t asked, I’m fairly sure they’re not Simon’s, as his cows were always so pretty, and these new cows are not a wholly attractive bunch. They are rough and ready cows that I’d put at somewhere between one and two years of age. A teenage gang of cows, several of which sport wicked looking horns, they’re fiercely territorial, for all that this is a relatively new ‘hood in which they live. I’ve seen cats fleeing across the pasture, pursued by these young thug cows, and they mass at the hedgerow, glaring, whenever Ruby is the garden. Lean and curious, they’ll come right up to the fence when I’m out back, to noisily munch, and gaze, and wonder what the hell I am doing. They seem placid enough where humans are concerned, but there’s something about their eyes that warns they’re not to be trifled with.
I’ve been watching the herd for a week now and though I’m used to looking at cows in the field, I feel as if I’ve never before seen cows in my life, probably because I haven’t. Painting has me seeing everything, including cows, with new eyes. Beginner’s eyes, Ruth called the process, on Twitter last week.
Beginner’s eyes are why, when I stare at cows lying across the field in the early morning sun, I don’t see a field of green dotted with bovine black and white, but masses of yellow and orange bodies, and purple and green shadows. I may not be able to paint cows yet, but I can see them with my new eyes. Beginner’s eyes are responsible for what I’m sure is a vacant expression on my face as I stare, slack jawed, at spectacularly back lit grass and amazing light falling on cow shaped bodies. I’m sure I look like an idiot, standing, staring at cows. You will tell me, won’t you, if I begin to drool?