Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Home on the range

The sun teetered on the rim of the world before slipping beyond the curvature of the planet and still the big cow stood unmoving by the truck. Crouched several hundred yards away behind a clump of sumac I watched it and waited in the hopes that it would lose interest and move off, indeed, my long and lonely vigil was contingent upon its departure. As dusk deepened and nighthawks boomed overhead, it came to me that the cow had more time to kill than I did, also that the last thing I wanted was to approach the truck in darkness with an agitated, papparazi-hating black bovine waiting in ambush. I desperately needed a cow-whisperer, a smartphone version of The Dummies Guide to Interpreting Cow Behavior, something that might give me a clue about its intentions, or an edge I could use to my advantage. I wanted my .45/70. Most of all, I needed to act. 

Wondering how I get myself into these situations, I retreated to the upper slope of the wooded ravine and hastened along its edge, making for the high ground. The contours of the ridge offered temporary concealment but I knew I had to be careful when I broke free near the crest because the cow might have moved closer, or might hear my footsteps in the grass. 

At the top of the ravine I dropped and crawled to the fence. For now it was my only protection; my carbon fiber tripod more hindrance than weapon. Slowly raising my head, I peered toward the truck. The cow was still there, a dark immobile mass. Only now it was surrounded by an approaching herd, an equally but much larger mass filtered through the trees to join it—and they were on my side of the fence.


And the outing had started out so nicely. A rancher had given permission to scout the ridge overlooking the valley for photographs, adding that I’d be sharing the pasture with his cattle. They wouldn’t bother me, he said.

I was game. I’ve been trying to acclimate myself to large hoofed mammals as it seems I’m always uncomfortably close when shooting news stories, covering rodeos or photographing ranchers at work. My unease wasn’t purely speculative. Friends who chide me over this admit to being kicked or trampled by cows at some point in their lives, so they can’t with any conviction tell me it won’t happen. And I still believe that cows sense fear, much as dogs do, triggering an attack mode. Poo-poo it all you want, but it’s a central tenet of my faith. Cows are clever, and sly, and patient. Give them the slightest sliver of an opportunity and you’ll be bleeding and battered before you can say jimminy-cricket.

When I arrived at the pasture I was relieved to see the herd segregated by an electric fence. After locating a favorable vantage, I returned home to wait for the sun to descend. Then, an hour before sunset, I was back, but this time a hefty cow of the female persuasion was waiting for me.

It bellowed and tossed its head when I parked fifty or so yards from it. The fence was easily within reach so I wasn’t too concerned, until, that is, the cow charged me with a speed that belied its girth. I managed to roll under the electric wire with only a slight loss of dignity, but the cow was clearly displeased. Tossing its head, pawing muddy divots from the grass, it snorted and bawled and eyed me with malice. Good grief, I thought, what’s your problem?

I might have found out shortly thereafter when a calf emerged from the trees on my side of the barrier. The two met at the wire, touched noses and made unbearably sad noises. The idea that the cow blamed me for their disunion didn’t prevent me from setting up the camera and running through a series of panoramic frames while the dying sun flamed across storm clouds rolling down from Nebraska. The cow, I figured, would be long gone when I returned, bored of waiting or heading toward its nightly roost.

It wasn’t. The cow had planted itself beside the truck as if guarding it. Now and then it would let out a moan filled with loss and longing, followed by a snort. The snort sounded like vengeance.

And so began a series of evasions, of circumnavigations and perambulations, inching my way forward and sideways using every available means of concealment until at last I crouched at the fence with my options narrowing down to zero. Darkness was falling; I had to move. 

Fearing a slow, painful death, I slipped through the fence and circled around to keep the truck between us. I moved fast, staying as low as possible, feeling terribly exposed. The gap narrowed, the light dimmed; I was 50 feet and closing when the cow stepped around the truck and saw me.

Again the snort, and beyond it the herd crowding the fence to watch. I waved my arms and tried looking taller as one would do if confronted by a cougar, subsequently fruitless as the cow moved closer. (Reports from the field indicate it doesn’t do much for cougars, either.) In desperation I resorted to the one thing I felt guaranteed to repel anything: I started singing.

Inexplicably, comically, Home on the Range was the only tune I could remember. My stanzas were off, my pitch and harmony wretched, my voice cracking with tension, but, to my credit, my lyrics were highly complimentary to beef. I devoted one entire chorus to my love for chicken—fried, barbecued or roasted. I sang of green pastures and fat cows and mammas and babies never being separated, of peace and harmony and of wanting so dearly to reach my truck, and the cows grew silent and still, stunned, no doubt, to insensibility, and the big cow, the big black mean monster of a cow, gawked at me with a look of utter incomprehension, eyes big as saucers and glazed with shock. A long string of drool unfurled from its open maw. I could only imagine what it was thinking, but by then I was at the truck, yanking open the door and diving in.