Cows can be frustrating to say the least. If you are in a hurry, they are not; if you want to turn left, they will turn right; if you want them to come to you, they will walk slowly but surely from you (except, of course, when there is food in the offing). You can shout until you are blue in the face and, unless it is milking time, the only resultant effect will be an all pitying gaze from two enormous brown and blue eyes set in the most imperturbable face that nature has created.
My first introduction to the bovine species took place when I was about seven years old. My parents, brother and I were on a picnic in Kent and on that particular day I was a fearless explorer penetrating the depths of the African jungle. This had stemmed from the fact that I had just finished reading a book called the Gorilla Hunters which had sparked my imagination into a riot of fantasy. Slipping unobserved into the undergrowth, I crawled upon all fours until I came upon a high, mossy bank surmounted by a thick, prickly hedge. Hearing an unfamiliar chomping sound coming from the other side, I wriggled into the hedge and poked my head through into a small meadow. I turned and gazed upwards and at the same instant, a cow who was hiding behind the hedge and who I swear was no less than fifty feet tall, turned and gazed down at me. Then, unable to contain herself any longer, the cow blew violently down her nose at me, turned on her heels, and shot across the field like a bullet kicking the air behind her as she went. I cannot recall ever seeing a cow move with quite so much speed. Neither, I suspect, would an observer have ever seen a small boy move with such speed. I rejoined the family scratched, breathless and as pale as a ghost, and shamelessly told the face-saving lie that I had been chased by a bull.
My opinions regarding the intelligence of cows has pendulated with the acquisition of experience. When I first worked with cows I noticed how, on entering the shed at milking time, they all went to their own particular stands, and had an animal for any reason entered the wrong stand, she was very soon ousted by the rightful occupier. This, I assumed, denoted intelligence. However, I was very soon to discover that cows are animals of habit and habits are no criteria of intelligence. Eventually I came to the conclusion that, because of its indolence and obstinacy, the cow was a complete and utter dim-wit. But once again, experiences of the past year have led me to the final conclusion that cows have a very good measure of intelligence. I milk for a local farmer one day a week to give his herdsman a much needed break from the seven day a week routine. He owns a large farm with two herds of cows, a herd of Jerseys and a herd of Friesians. Milking is carried out in a modern tandem parlour with automatic feeding and ‘all mod cons’. When the animals enter the parlour they are fed by pulling a lever which releases just the right amount of food from a hopper into a manger. When the lever is pulled down, two pounds of food are released and when pushed back up, another two pounds. After a surprisingly short period of time, the cows become aware of the connection that existed between the action of the lever and the delivery of food. By contorting their bodies in a manner quite out of character with their natural movements, the cows discovered that they were able to reach the lever and very soon began pushing it down and returning it to the upright position to obtain an extra double helping of food. Indeed, one of the Friesian cows developed the knack of tossing the lever violently up and down in order to obtain an almost continuous supply of food. When her manger was almost full, she would struggle back to her normal position and attack the gargantuan meal before her.
However, with cattle cake costing over thirty five pounds per ton, this state of affairs had to be dealt with. We eventually overcame their antics by tying a piece of cord to the stanchion and looping the other end over the lever, so that in order to feed the cows, we would merely remove the loop, pull the lever and replace the loop. This system worked beautifully – for a while. It wasn’t long before the animals overcame this obstacle by pulling the loop from the lever themselves, despite the fact that this is a somewhat delicate operation for their great, cumbersome muzzles to perform. An interesting point that came to light during this period was that the Friesian cows were the worst offenders, whereas, out of a herd of twenty five Jerseys, only four managed to reach this standard of reasoning and acquired the knack of working the lever.
Yet despite their apparent superior intelligence, I have in my experience, found fewer ‘character’ cows among the Friesians. By ‘character’ cows I mean the bovine equivalent of the human being who is ‘a bit of a lad’ or rather ‘quite a girl’, the one who stands out in a crowd. One such a cow was Magatha, who was just about the ugliest little creature that I have ever seen. She was sway-backed, had a fawny-coloured coat with grey patches all over it and had a face too concave even for a Jersey. One ear had a lump torn from it and her ridiculous little head was beset by two crooked horns. Despite her lack of charm and elegance, for she waddled along in a most ungainly manner, she was the most endearing and affectionate cow I have ever met. At milking time she would always be last out of the field and last out of the shed and during the short walk between the two, she would creep up behind me and push her ugly little head under my arm and we would troop up the lane behind the herd like a couple of young lovers. On one occasion (I think it must have been a ‘morning after the night before’, for I wasn’t in a very benevolent mood), I failed to reciprocate her affections and instead gave her a hefty whack on the rump to speed her on her way. She countered this breach of etiquette by doing a half-passage and forcing me nearer and nearer to the side of the road. I realised too late what she was up to when I landed full length in the ditch running with effluent from the much heap. However, like all good lovers we made up and until the end of my stay at that particular farm, we could be seen every morning and every evening strolling arm in arm together along the lane.
read the collected work as it is published: here
blue & brown wormhole: TO A SOLITARY DISCIPLE by William Carlos Williams
eyes wormhole: thought
faces wormhole: ‘oh my girls and muse …’
hedge wormhole: travelling // arrival
reading wormhole: … the underleaves show
sound wormhole: moon- // washed