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A herd of owners, but only one cow

Ten of us stood in a ring with a Jersey cow in the center. We were back-to-the-landers who had dreamed of owning a cow. Along with woodstoves and Mason jars, a cow was a symbol of self-reliance. Owning a cow would give us a personal source of milk, cheese, and butter. A neighbor had picked up this Jersey at an auction and deposited her on our friend's front yard. Doug had called up the lot of us to view our shared dream come true. Bedecked with wicked-looking horns, Mammy stood chewing her cud and gazing back at us.

"Well, how do we milk her?" someone asked. Most of us had recently left the college world of blue books and lectures, and we were better equipped at note- taking than caring for a cow.

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Doug's neighbor cackled and briskly demonstrated milking while outlining daily care. Each of us took a turn at milking, and collectively we managed to empty her udder. At that moment we decided that we would all own a share in this Jersey, our community cow.

Of course, first we had to build a barn.

None of us had foreseen the need for such a building, so we hastily gathered materials from the stacks of salvaged lumber each household had collected. Those who were self-employed drove over daily to Doug's homestead and helped lift beams and roof rafters into place.

During this time of barn-building, we discovered that our Jersey liked to use her horns, so we sold her back to the neighbor and procured a mild-mannered Guernsey named Cindy Lou.

Red and yellow sassafras leaves fluttered across the barn site while Cindy Lou watched her home progress. One weekend we nailed up siding, and finally we hammered down the metal roof while gray clouds spit snow. As with most shared successes, we celebrated the completion of our community-built barn with a potluck dinner.

Despite admonitions from various local farmers that no cow would tolerate being handled by 10 pairs of hands, our community cow defied dairy logic. Each family milked one day a week and claimed one weekend a month as their chore time.

When it was our weekend to milk, we bought the feed for the week and cleaned the barn.

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Over the coming months we traded cheesemaking recipes and devoured gallons of freshly cranked ice cream. Our hands grew stronger from the constant squeezing that milking demands. For two years all of us shared the pleasure of Cindy Lou rubbing her head on our shoulders as her morning greeting.

One by one the families in our cow co-op abandoned their homesteads and moved to the cities. Finally, Doug and his wife bought Cindy Lou, and my husband and I purchased two French alpine goats. While we loved our goats, who provide adequate dairy products and entertainment, we missed the plodding gait of Cindy Lou and her friendly moos.

So six years ago my husband led home two new bovine, a team of oxen. Oxen have clever characteristics of their own, yet they share the dairy cow's placid nature. Weighing a ton a piece, their bulky bodies loom over us, and they bellow their greetings in a deep voice.

Though Leo and Tolstoy do not provide us with butter or cheese, they willingly pull home wagonloads of firewood and maple sap.

Back at the barn, we heave bales of hay into their manger and offer our team apples. While the oxen munch, we scratch their broad noses and inhale the peace of our gentle bovine friends.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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