Saturday, January 21, 2006

Uneasy in cattle country

I have it on good authority that a man walked into a Marysville café not long ago and asked the waitress if perhaps they served something other than hamburgers. He was tired of hamburgers, he said. He wanted something different.

A lull in conversation ensued. Heads swiveled. There was something new in the air, a hint of malice, and hard eyes all around.

The waitress opined that pork tender sandwiches were also available.

The man nodded and said he’d take one.

“It’s good he didn’t order chicken,” my friend said. “They’d of killed him.”

A tough crowd in a tough neighborhood? Nope. Anywhere else and the request would have gone unheard. This, though, was the sale barn, and cows were coming to market.

Now, my grandfather died before he was able to impart much taurine tutoring to the skinny little redhead who hung around his ranch in West Texas, and with his passing my ties to a lifestyle with ruminants were neatly severed. So young was he when felled by a heart attack, and so young was I, that for most of my life I assumed that male cows spouted horns and females did not. When decades later I was gently corrected, I felt rather sheepish.

Maybe that’s a bad term to use.

I’m not much of a cow expert, or I wasn’t until last weekend, but even my limited exposure to cattle and cattlemen sufficed to educate me in the irascibility of the former and the tetchiness of the latter. Had it been me waltzing into the sale barn, I would have sung out like a canary, “Beef! It’s what’s for dinner!”

Moving from the city to rural Kansas has brought me into a sometimes uncomfortable proximity to bulky cloven-hooved ungulates, usually when hiking on a certain rancher’s lands. On one such walk I had pushed through a weed thicket taller than my head when I came face to face with a massive black cow. It blocked the path and appeared in no hurry to let me pass, nor, as far as I could tell, did it entirely welcome my sudden presence. Any idea of sneaking around the bovine massif was summarily dispatched upon realization that others of its ilk had me surrounded. Fortunately, my training in cougar survival kicked in and I was able to slowly back away, eyes downcast, making myself as unassuming and non-threatening as possible, hoarsely crooning “Nice cow, pretty cow.”

This tension that develops when I’m around livestock can perhaps be explained by two incidents in my past. When our boys were young we used to camp on Cumbres Pass in southern Colorado. One morning our oldest son, then around four years old, wandered off into a broad meadow and was happily at play when I glanced over and saw a bull (with horns) snorting and pawing at the grass. It was several hundred feet from our son but clearly had its ire directed toward this interloper garbed in a bright red jacket.

Our shouts to Joel to get into the trees being ineffective, I told Lori to skirt the meadow and save our son while I hauled out a .45-70 rolling block rifle and laid it across the top of the car. If the bull charged I’d have time for one shot only. I thumbed back the hammer and centered the sights between the cross rib roast and the ribeyes. Luckily for the bull—or for our son, for my hands were shaking and I wasn’t that good of a marksman—the beast elected to do nothing more than stomp the turf and chuff imprecations.

On another occasion, after wandering far down the South Platte River near Fairplay while fly-fishing, I topped a low rise on my return and found several hundred cows scattered between me and my vehicle. Their number being too great to circumnavigate, I cautiously wended through them. One—there’s always one—took exception and bullied me along. If I’d had my buffalo rifle rather than a wispy nine-foot fly rod, my nerves would have been in far better shape upon arriving at my car.

I may be bullheaded at times but that doesn’t mean I understand how a ruminant ruminates. The reasons for their aggression are known only to them and their therapists, but I blame them for the quirky impulse I’ve developed of asking cattlemen if cows are as stupid as they look.

Such teasing may well be as dangerous as entering a sale barn café on cow day and asking for fried chicken, but I get a perverse thrill when seeing the shock on ranchers’ faces and hearing their voices rise a few octaves. After hearing of the man at the café, I posed this question to my friend, a good-natured soul with a finely-developed sense of humor.

“Cows aren’t stupid,” he stammered. “I mean, they’re not as smart as a horse, or a dog. But they can be trained. They learn to meet at a certain time to get fed.”

“So do most married men,” I said.

“Good point.”

While driving through the country east of town last week I put the question to my birding partner. She’s a rancher first and an accountant second, and eminently qualified to answer in layman’s terms. Though she refused to be baited, for the remainder of the day she provided identification tips on the bovine species of Marshall County.

By the end of the day I could readily ID shorthorn, black and red Angus, Hereford, white-faced and Charolais, and knew something of Texas longhorns and polled Herefords. (I thought it had something to do with elections.) But for all that, when viewing cattle I still saw T-bone, sirloin, porterhouse and tacos. She saw money.

My bovicultural education continues. I’m still more comfortable around cattlemen than cattle, but that’s easily understood by our crosscultural differences. Cows might attack when sensing fear, but cowmen tend to be more temperate. After all, they know bull when they see it.

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