11 May 2010

Women who stare at cows

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?

Posted on May 11, in Blog


  1. Kelly wrote:

    Really great post. I miss living in the country so much. My favourite country sounds though are the coyotes (pronounced kye-yoots in my neck of the woods) at night. But I love the sound of cows too…makes me think of my grandma.

    Posted on 5.11.10 ·
  2. Kelly wrote:

    Who wasn’t a cow…but she always tended her beasts well.

    Posted on 5.11.10 ·
  3. LoriAngela wrote:

    Do the cows think you’re making fun of them when you stare at them with a vacant bovine expression? We both grew up on dairy farms and D is a dairy vet. He’s very fond of cows. We even visit them when we’re on holiday (even in Hawaii).

    Posted on 5.11.10 ·
  4. Anne wrote:


    Cows looking at themselves…

    Posted on 5.12.10 ·
  5. Ruth Temple wrote:

    Love the ruddy roan/sable of the second from left lying down.

    Beginner’s Mind is a fabulous place to visit, and start from, again and again, deep into these iterations.
    Cows are terribly comme-il-faut [Just So] creatures of habit aren’t they? Though I’ve heard they’re quite amusedly-curious about dawn pipers at certain summer music camps…

    Posted on 5.12.10 ·
  6. AllyB wrote:

    Thanks for this. Great story, I love cows and imagining you reading this to me made it ever so enjoyable.

    Posted on 5.12.10 ·
  7. DebbieQ wrote:

    “…not a wholly attractive bunch”. Now that is just the best phrase when describing a herd of cows. You had me laughing. And that is a real accomplishment when I am looking at the boiling clouds on the horizon and noticing the tornado watch that they have posted.

    Posted on 5.13.10 ·
  8. Lovely writing, as usual. Thanks.

    Once I was in England and Wales in the Spring. I collected as many of the greens as I could, in yarn for a fairisle tam. I was thrilled at how many different greens there were. That was 10 years ago and the yarn is still safe and unknit.

    Posted on 5.14.10 ·
  9. Beautiful post!! I’ve finally returned to Portland, so when you come back to visit be sure to look me up! 🙂

    Posted on 5.18.10 ·
  10. Love this post! When I think of your part of the world, I think of green pastures. So the photos of the cows and your lovely descriptions were just perfect to bring back memories. You have a wonderful way with words. Thanks for continuing to write even while taking a break from the podcast. I enjoy your thoughts!

    Posted on 5.19.10 ·
  11. WoollyJumpers wrote:

    Mmmm….just dreamy. I get to listen to my sheep at first light every morning, but miss the echos of cows wafting down the valley, with every closing dairy operation.

    As others have said, this post made me miss the podcast all the more…Are you sure you couldn’t read us the dictionary or labels from paint pots? Hurry and be well.

    Posted on 5.22.10 ·
  12. When you mentioned the summer, open windows and cows in the same thought, I was certain you were leading up to manure. I grew up near a horse stable, and to this day the smell of hay and warm manure makes me feel 10 again.

    I’m so glad you’re able to type while recovering. I just recently thought to visit your blog to see whether you weren’t podcasting or my iTunes was acting up. I’m so glad I did, because reading your posts and hearing your voice in my head as I do, feels almost like having a new show to listen to. Thank you.

    Posted on 5.24.10 ·
  13. Lorri wrote:

    Thanks for another great posting. I grew up in a small MN town and fondly remember when my city-born and bred husband looked out the guest room window during his first visit and exclaimed “Wow, you can see cows from the bedroom window!” I guess it was something that I had always taken for granted but something I still treasure.

    Thanks for the memory.

    Posted on 5.29.10 ·

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