When we lived on the edge of town and it was my turn to fetch the cows, I set out—say, on a summer’s eve—through a wide gate secured by a stout wire. The barn stood behind me, and the meadow stretched beyond me. I sauntered along the path the cows had made. A narrow and dusty line, the path snaked through the pasture. It remained visible several feet ahead but kept curving out of sight. The farther it went, the thinner it became as the clover and timothy vied with the dried ribbon of earth.
Cows in the Pasture
Drawing by Henry Singlewood Bisbing (1849–1933)
Engraved by Charles H. Reed (1843–?)
In An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Co., 1885
Around me was a cacophony of insect music. Katydids (both broad and narrow) and snowy tree crickets were keening so loudly that I could hardly hear myself talk. Cabbage butterflies, alfalfa butterflies, and sulphur butterflies flitted and bobbed like winking waves of light. Monarch butterflies and black swallowtails sailed on updrafts of heat.
The countryside smelled like rich chamomile tea. The herbage ranged from ochre to green, from yellow to tan. As I drifted along, my mind became less focused, more detached—almost as if I were observing myself from above but not recognizing myself as myself.
Having almost reached the fence bordering the meadow on the east, I found the cows. The dozen or so Holsteins were standing in the shade of a venerable tree with widely arching branches that made it seem out of place with no giraffes nearby. The cows were chewing their cud and regarding me through deep blue eyes with long lashes. Now and then, their tails swung indolently to try to discourage flies that were hardly inconvenienced by the motion.
I spoke to the leader, calling her by her name: “Buttercup, it’s time.” Slowly, she gathered her hooves beneath her weight then launched forward like a swaying ship. One by one, the others fell into place behind her. Buttercup joined the trail near me. I stood politely, waiting for each cow to get in line. When the last cow passed me, I began to stroll along at the end of the small herd, and I kept pace with the cows.
Black-and-white spotted flanks and rumps tilted to one side then the other, oscillating and undulating in sleep-inducing rhythms. Swinging in slow motion, the Holsteins followed the path exactly. I wondered why the trail bent and curved so often. When the first cow charted the route, was she simply unable to draw a straight line, or did she obey a secret feng shui known only to cows?
Eventually, the Holsteins filed through the gate, and my father called to them, welcoming them into the barn for milking. They were so tame that they required no persuasion; they honored my father’s invitation.