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Cows Listen, and a Cow Herd

It is a great many more moons than I can count on my toes and fingers since I last had a tete-a-tete with a cow.

You may scoff, but a conversation with a cow is a rural pleasure to which few other rural pleasures compare. Or urban pleasures, for that matter.

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The reason is that cows have virtually nothing to say to humans. This means that for once in one's life, interruptions to one's verbal flow scarcely have to be reckoned with. Even conversations with total strangers on trains, whom you will never meet again and who therefore have nothing to say that could possibly be of interest, have an awkward way of interspersing bouts of speech into their generally compliant posture of bemused listening. This can really upset one.

Of course, cows have certain downputting ways of displaying their udder indifference to your opinions, among the most mentionable of which are a sudden vast mooing of primeval but inconclusive significance and a cynical cud-chewing of unvarying rhythm. But the smallest amount of practice makes it possible not to take such mild interventions personally. You can discuss the world with a cow to your heart's content all afternoon, and no one is any the wiser.

If you think these are the ramblings of an ignorant urbanite, let me assure you that, for a decade, cows were my constant companions. If they weren't crowding at the back gate, only three feet from the back door, whisking flies ineffectually with their mud-caked tails, they were just across the yard in the sheds, bellowing and shifting in their stalls day and night.

One of the prime characteristics of cows, paradoxically, is their curiosity. Their general air of indifference may, therefore, be feigned, or it may be simply the counterbalance to their curiosity. But curious they definitely are.

Someone told me of a thief who attempted to hide near a field full of cows. The police nabbed him in an instant by observing the fixed direction of every cow's gaze.

Some friends and I went camping years ago on a Welsh hillside in tents that were so small and basic that no modern camper would deign to lie down in them (which was all you could do). We believed we had pitched in a pasture uninhabited by any wildlife more threatening than a rabbit. We were wrong. We were wakened at the unconscionable time of night called "dawn" by a grunting, snuffling, and shoving all around us. And a rich rustic smell. We were terrified the tent would collapse. Cows, as I mentioned, are terribly curious.

On another occasion, when we lived in a small cottage in Sussex for a year, I was painting in the fields one day. Feeling peckish, I went back home for a quick snack, leaving the easel with the oily potential masterpiece on it, and the palette on the ground.

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On my return, my painting was being given a once-over by a not-altogether aesthetically discerning crowd of connoisseurs. Cow-noisseurs. Their large, wet noses were smudged with unlikely pigments. I thought the painting, on the whole, was rather improved. Some paint smears look contrived when you try too hard to make them look uncontrived. The new smears were authentically without dexterity, and that much better for it.

TALKING of cows and art, it seems to me a strange thing that painters over the centuries have often used cows for subject-matter. Pastoral art has, in fact, tended to represent them as essentially placid, epitomizing an ideal countryside devoid of anything but idyll. The contentment of most cows, however, seems to involve being exaggeratedly dirty and frequently smelly, things which do not fit with fluting swains and swooning apple-cheeked maidens. Other cows in art are carefully depicted champions, sitting for their portraits. They have clearly been scrubbed for weeks before the painter came to call.

I am not very aware of the presence of cows in poetry. I do, however, know Thomas Gray's indelible lines:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Maybe cows inhabit poetry more than I am aware. A fascinating new anthology of world farm poetry called "Over This Soil" (University of Iowa Press) contains quite a few poems in which cows and cattle feature, not always in expected ways. "November Calf," by Jane Kenyon, is an acutely observed description of a cow giving birth, an authentic mix of promise and poignancy.

So there are cows in art and cows in poetry. There are biblical cows on a thousand hills and sacred cows. But I am reasonably sure that cows play very little part in great music, and (I trust) none at all in classical ballet. Having said this, I fully expect to receive a sheaf of letters contradicting me. If I do, I shall not, however, be in the least cowed.


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