The Tao of the Cow

by Bruce Patterson, August 11, 2010

I once lived on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. Less than three years out the army, alone, broke and chased by war demons, I wound up on the farm by acci­dent. Or since, strictly speaking, there are no such things as accidents — or luck, or fate — I should say that I wound up on the farm the way one thing leads to another, and that to the next, and so on until you arrive at something else entirely with another thing coming.

Working in an onion field on land as smooth and level as a lake, herbicided, pesticided, fertilized and fumigated, the birdless sky a dusty dome, the Sierra, Tehachapis and Diablos hidden behind a wall of indus­trial haze, with tractors on the chalk-line horizon crawl­ing like bugs on a windowsill and lowing like lonesome cows, at least I was about as far away as I could get from root-bound, vine-choked, muddy/slippery mountainsides. “Anti-jungle,” the San Joaquin was, and I very much appreciated that. Now I just needed to figure out where — it wasn’t here — I belonged.

That’s how the farm’s milking cow helped me out. I milked that cow a bunch of times, my cheek and ear to her side listening to her stomachs gurgling, my hands pulling and squeezing her teats, her steaming jets of milk rhythmically squirting into my frosty milk pail. One morning I realized why she was allowing me to get away with it. The reasons were obvious and simple, of course, but the implications struck me as profound. While I had no clear idea about what I wanted to be when I grew up, then and there I resolved that, no matter what, I wasn’t going to become a two-legged milking cow.

According to cow cosmology, the entire universe is divided into just two elements: Food and Unfood. A cow’s moral code begins and ends with: When in Unfood, go to Food. When in Food, stay.

My dad was a reformed hustler and when I was a little boy he warned me never to become conceited because conceited people are always the easiest marks. For one thing, since they’re convinced that they as uniquely talented individuals are entitled to all they can get their hands on, like fish they always rise to the bait. Even better, because they assume they already know everything they need to know, they never learn anything. Whether it is to a pool hall, a card table, the stock market or a milking stall, they always come back for more.

Am I accusing milking cows of being conceited? Yabetcha. She lets you milk her in exchange for a feed­bag full of cow candy, be it alfalfa and molasses, rolled oats or whatever. So long as her mouth is full of candy, she won’t lift her nose out of her feedbag or worry over what you’re doing to her ass end. But woe to you if she runs out of candy before she runs out of milk. She’ll lift her head up, see what you’re doing and, feeling cheated, her pride wounded, she’ll kick over your milk pail just to spite you. She might even kick you if you give her the chance. If her head wasn’t tied and she wasn’t stalled, she might buttonhook around and snort a pint of snot into your eyebrows. Worse, she might drop her head and run right over the top of you. If she does then you’d best hope the ground is good and squishy.

To avoid such humiliations, when it comes to han­dling any kind of large animals, the First Commandment is: Thou shall not get thyself runned over. Unless you’re a rodeo cowboy. If that’s the case then it’s amended to read: When thou art throwed by thy equine or, lo, verily, thy bovine, thou shall not get thyself runned over.

Of course, not many rodeo cowboys are temperamen­tally fit to be following most any kind of commandment all the time. They’re bound to sin at least a little bit and the most sinful of them have broken so many ribs during their careers that they tinkle while they hobble, one hip rolling counter-clockwise. In recent times there’s been folks willing to call rodeo organized “cruelty to animals,” if that don’t beat all. They’ll say the same with regard to horse racing, too, if you let them. I suppose you could even find some folks who’d denounce milking a cow as inhumane and uncivilized. I mean, a farmer could just as well shoot a milking cow in the brainpan and haul her off to the cannery to get chopped up into gourmet dog food. The same as rodeo and racing stock could have never been born.

Once on TV I watched a network personality grill an old cowboy about the nature, types and extent of animal cruelty on the rodeo circuit. The old cowboy was sport­ing a sideways horseshoe tattoo across his forehead, his nose was lying over like a broke bale of hay and one of his shoulders was hanging like the tail of a bashful dog. “All’n all,” the cowboy softly ventured, “I reckon the livestock gets treated pretty good.”

By the way, did you hear the one about the rodeo cow­boy who showed up at the Pearly Gates? When St. Peter asked him what was the noblest thing he’d ever done in his earthly life, the cowboy told him about how one time he was enjoying a quiet beer in his hometown watering hole when six loud, crude and nasty outlaw bikers barged in. Immediately they started in at harassing one of the local girls and the cowboy couldn’t have that. So he stepped into the middle of them fellahs and told them they could either behave themselves or he’d knock them down and drag them out one-by-one.

“Hmmm,” St. Peter said, impressed. “How long ago was that?”

The cowboy glanced at his wristwatch. “That’d be about ten seconds ago.”

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