Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Now Brown Cow

Sometimes the simplest things can hurl you back in time to a memory from long ago. This morning while I was driving on a SoCal freeway, a truck pulled in front of me. It was a dairy truck and painted on the back was a picture of a smiling brown cow, winking at me from over a fence.

Immediately I was flung back to a childhood memory of My Brown Cow. I called her Bess; a more elegant version of "Bossy". She was a Brown Swiss, and she grazed in the field in back of my parents’ home. She lived in a barn that was one of the last rural farms in that part of Pennsylvania. The suburbs of Philadelphia had all but crowded out the cows at that point in time.
Bess knew I would bring her an apple and a face rub. Every day I would come home from grade school, enter my parents’ front door and race through the kitchen and out the back door, and every day there she would be, standing at the corner of the yard, on the other side of the fence, waiting for me. Every day. She was there. Every day I would hug her and kiss her nose, wet though it was, and talk to her and tell her about my day. And every day those immense liquid brown eyes would take in the stories of my triumphs and failures, my proud achievements and my abject disappointments. She’d crunch her apple. I’d comb her soft coat. I’d braid her tail hair. Once I put ribbons in it.

One day when I ran out, she wasn’t there. I waited and finally left the apple on the fence post. I never saw her again.

A few years later we moved to the farm in Maine. My father had determined he wanted to ‘go back to the earth’ and so bought a small dairy farm that had a herd of about forty cows. It was there I learned the composition of a good dairy herd; the mix needed to produce the best overall butterfat content: Holstein for volume, Guernsey and Jersey for high butterfat, Brown Swiss for balance. We also had a magnificent Ayreshire, resplendent with horns, for character. Her name was Ramona.

Cherie was the Grande Dame of the herd. An older lady, she had reached the age where she could no longer be bred, and her milk production was diminished. My tender heart wanted to keep her as a pet. I flashed back to Bess and poured out my love on Cherie. I pleaded with my father not to sell Cherie and screamed and clung to her when the slaughter wagon came and the butcher put a rope around her neck to take her away. I still have a photograph in my mind of her huge wise eyes as they regarded my father pulling me off her as I hit him and tried vainly to bargain: I would pay for her feed, I would make sure she was not a burden. Promising, promising, but to no use. Cherie knew full well what was happening. She was more resigned than I and went calmly to her fate. She understood she had no options. I did not yet accept that I too had no options at that point in my life. So I fought. She accepted. I never saw her again.

Rebecca was a small Jersey. Every day in the summer I would go out to the field to call in the herd, and as she was heavily pregnant she was reluctant to get up and walk back to the barn. Every day I would go and sit down and cajole her to move. And finally she would, slowly and with great effort, get up making soft sounds of protest and woofs of exertion. I would nestle myself against her hip, with her swollen belly in front of me and my arm flung over her soft back. We would slowly walk back to the barn each night that way.

I went away to college and one day I came home and all the cows were gone. My father had wearied of dairy farming. Another phase over; another hobby discarded. I never saw them again.

My memories of cows are warm and wonderful. The feel of their soft hair. The snorfting sound they make when they breathe. The gentle nuzzle of their head as they ask for a treat or a hug. They are sweet, pacific creatures who possess wisdom and emotion, and who form attachments as we do. And I just love them.

So you’ll excuse me when I decline to go with you to the steak house. Or refuse to eat a fast food burger. Yes, I know it’s the cycle of life, but it’s no longer the cycle of my life. The mass production of beef is immoral and cruel. And I owe it to Bess and Cherie and Rebecca and the others.


  1. Nice post ... I can relate. Mooooooo oooo oooo

  2. Ah soo sorry! If your dad had decided to stick to the dairy business, it might not have been quite so brutal. The relationship with each cow would have perhaps been longer and they would have lived a fuller life. Maybe not. I don't really know anything about it. *sigh* Poor Bessy!
    E le D

  3. Deb,

    This was so beautiful, though I've never known cows as well as you, I have known horses.

    I remembered the time a friend and I paid for a horse to be put down rather than see her off to the slaughterhouse. Knackers..the scum of the earth. We had a bulldozer dig her grave. Juniper.

    AND I remembered years ago when my son went to France and I said 'Beware the Chevalier'!

    Beautiful! Barbara

  4. This was beautiful. When you need your cow "fix" I'll take you to Tommie's mountain. There's at least a hundred cattle there.