Love & the cow-ness of cows

This is Autumn. She wasn’t our cow. Hue and I were trying to help her over the weekend, but unfortunately she likely had a serious metabolic issue and she died the next night, 5 min before Hue showed up to see if he could help her again. I’m sharing this photo because there is a cow-ness that transcends ownership or time or county lines. Her owner took this picture while I was praying for her, unaware. It captures all the love I have for bovines, and all her regalness, even as she was struggling to breathe.

When we got the call that the cow was in trouble, it was at the end of an exceedingly long day. Hue had been spreading compost on a bumpy tractor, and I had literally just finished moving about 100 50-lb boxes, three times, in tight spaces, on slick floors, in places that it was impossible to “use my knees and not my back.” Yet, a cow who we knew because we have leased bulls to breed this herd, needed help. There are precious few bovine vets left in the countryside, and I happen to be married to one. The cow was going to die immediately if we didn’t go, so we went. I wasn’t really needed, except I didn’t want Hue to have to drive back an hour alone at midnight along windy country roads.

Hue is no longer in practice, after what he calls his Luke 5:11 moment when he realized that being a bovine vet was no longer an essential part of his identity, after being full-on in it for 20+ years. In what seems like an absolute dream-come-true, every day, he and I now farm together, and Hue spends most of his days doing land restoration and improving soil fertility to grow nutrient-dense forage for our cows and sheep. (I credit a sheep — by giving him one long look in the eyes on his first weekend down from Pennsylvania — for convincing him that he could leave his practice and hometown behind to come to NC to farm with me.) All of that means that Hue couldn’t charge the cow’s owner for the travel, time or medicine. And that wasn’t really the point.

The point to me was that he didn’t hesitate, knowing he was in for a long, physically exhausting evening. Pushing around a 1200-lb cow (to get her in a position to treat her, and to entice her to get up) isn’t light work, and he did most of it because he’s by far the most skilled at it. Moving an animal that large without hurting her is as much an art as brute force.

(On his way home the second night our truck was side-swiped and we lost the driver’s mirror. I mention this because goodness is always opposed in a fallen world. The last time we decided to help a cow we didn’t really know, the horses in the same pasture chewed on the passenger side of the truck and took the paint off down to the metal. There’s a good chance if you are facing difficulties on your path, you may be on the right one. Keep going.)

This same week Hue also was the one to put our beloved 14yo Great Pyrenees Eva to rest, nightly gave acupuncture to a lamb with an unknown leg issue, and went out after dinner every night (as he has for months) to give Andy (our GP recovering from getting hit by a car) his medicine and supplements. I’m sure there were other veterinary issues on the farm last week that I’m forgetting, or that I didn’t hear about. With hundreds of animals, at any given time one of them has probably found a piece of barbed wire, or gotten something somewhere that doesn’t belong, or, even as I write this, needing a minor surgery for an uncomfortable wart on her side. Hue likes to relay that compared to years in veterinary practice, our animals stand out because they are just well, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. And animals rarely have issues at convenient times when you are well-rested.

Yet, in the midst of all of that last week, there were flowers on the windowsill when I got home one day, picked one by one from a field of grass. Because Dr. K knows that I love wildflowers on the windowsill.

And yes, that’s what I call him most of the time. It’s a term of endearment, and an ode to how I met him, at an ACRES USA conference in December 2015. He was the speaker, and I was in the front row. We were married five months later, four years ago today.

I fell in love with him the moment that I saw him trail off in the middle of the talk, looking briefly off to the left, transported to a place that he chose not speak about in front of an audience wanting to learn about natural livestock treatments, his specialty. I knew, right then, that there was more to him than the wholistic treatment of dairy cattle.

C.S. Lewis describes it this way:

Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all. (Lewis, The Problem of Pain)

In The Meaning of Marriage, Thomas Keller says that “everyone has something that moves them so that they long for heaven…. Sometimes you will meet a person who so shares the same mythos thread with you that he or she becomes part of the thread itself. That is very hard to describe, obviously.”

Indeed it is. Despite outward appearances, that thread between Hue and me is not cows, although it is embodied in them. It is felt in the moments when cows graze, the ripping of the grass by their soft lips en mass like the roaring of the ocean. The quiet rumination of one cow chewing her cud. The low utterance, not quite a moo, of a mama cooing to her still-wet calf. But it isn’t really cows, after all.

It is this deep, un-needing to be reconciled knowing that we share. We tried to come up with a phrase to describe it the other morning over tea: pneuma-agro-ecology. Pneuma meaning “breath, Holy Spirit,” the formless vapor that ties everything together.

It’s much better described by the physician Luke, in Acts: “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”

For Hue, this thread was the simple act of me reaching my hand back as we crossed a busy street together for the first time, and I said, “Are you coming along?” The same words he unknowingly spoke to me the other night, before we went to treat Autumn the cow. “I’m going. Are you coming along?”

Yes, with you, forever. Happy anniversary, Dr. K.

Credit for the title of this post goes to my friend Joel and his wonderful book, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs.

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2 COMMENTS
  • Melissa Tregilgas
    Reply

    We raise Jerseys on pasture in CA, and reading this brought back strong feelings for me. My husband and I recently spent a day and a night fighting to get a cow back from milk fever and the complications associated with it. We have no real dairy vets where we live, so we spend a lot of time playing Google doctor and calling vets in other counties or even states. A few years back my husband even called your husband–cold call, complete stranger from another state–and your husband talked with him for a very long time and shared a lot of useful mastitis treatment information for free. We still use that knowledge in our treatment of our cows!

    It’s not easy work, but it sure helps to have a loving partner who values animals in the same way and joins in the work willingly.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Melissa
    Free Hand Farm

    1. Suzanne Nelson Karreman
      Reply

      Melissa, thank you so much for sharing this. I am often the one nearby on those calls, making comments that Hue either welcomes by handing the phone to me, or wonders with an eye roll why I don’t think that he would say that very thing if just given 30 more seconds. It’s so gratifying to hear that his time was and remains helpful to you, as so many times these calls do prevent us from getting other things done, or interrupt some semblance of family time, but in the end we give freely because we’ve received freely, and our greatest reward is seeing the kind of stewardship that we’ve been blessed to be able to practice becoming something people who we don’t even know can in turn pass on to others. Don’t look now, but that is how revolutions begin. Keep fighting the good fight, and thank you for sharing the journey. Creation groans and longs for our willingness to step forward as the stewards that God created us to be. With love, Suzanne

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