We’ve all heard about the contentment of cows, although I’m not quite sure why cows should be more serene than the rest of us. But I had time to give the matter some thought last month when I spent the night in a nearby cow pasture — a fair enough laboratory, I suppose, for considering the bovine mind.
When my son and his friends wanted to go camping and the usual campgrounds were full, a dad offered to host the kids and their fathers at his family’s farm just outside of town. Within the hour, our caravan arrived at a grazing area often used by the beef cattle who, for the length of our stay, remained in a neighboring pasture across the fence.
The cows looked up momentarily as our carpool threaded its way through the grass, but they quickly resumed their grazing while we unloaded tents and set up camp for the weekend.
What we so often regard as contentment in cows might simply be ambivalence, I suspect. The humbling thing about a cow, or so I was reminded during my time at the farm, is that it’s not terribly interested in your affairs.
This kind of nonchalance can be surprising if you live with a terrier, as I do. Terriers are the paparazzi of the canine world — always tailing their owners, like a private press corps awaiting news of your every move. Over time, I have found, you begin to believe your own publicity, confident that the rest of the planet finds you as fascinating as your dog does.
Cats, so routinely oblivious to their owners, can be a more chastening influence on a household, although a cat’s apathy probably says more about the cat than about us.
But who can fault cows for being so blandly indifferent to our presence? Their calm disregard reminded me that the world probably wouldn’t miss me very much while I was off the clock for a weekend in an open field.
I sat in a circle of folding chairs with some other dads and watched the cows move as quietly as clouds while they foraged for their supper. By dusk, most of us had slipped into Cow Time, a schedule ordered only by the basic imperatives of food, rest and looking around.
I noticed how the flatness of the field dramatized the landscape, so that the gradual arrival of moon and stars seemed like a Van Gogh painting brought to life.
Maybe cows seem happy, I thought to myself, because they enjoy better views than most of us. The night sky was vividly dark and the stars were plentiful, creating a panorama I seldom see in the city, where street lights bleach out the constellations.
Huddled near the campfire, we roasted marshmallows by moonlight, eventually navigating a lively landmine as we retreated to our tents, careful not to step on cow patties that rose like camel’s humps from the grass.
I’m back home now, where the only cows I see these days are in the creche beneath our Christmas tree. I’m not sure who looks wiser — the Magi guided by a star to Bethlehem, or the livestock who seem inclined by nature to take life as it comes.