Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Walt Whitman wrote in A Song of Myself "I could turn and live with the animals, / they are so placid and self-contain'd, / I stand and look at them long and long / they do not sweat and whine about their condition..." Perhaps they don't whine about their condition, but they do get overheated and sweat (on their noses, of course). Lately, when we drive Templeton Way on our way to the Convent of St. Mary, we see a small herd of cows and calves bunched together, up to their bellies in a pond in the pasture where they graze. Although I'm one of those humans who's afraid of cows, dating back over seventy years, the distant sight of these bovine creatures, half immersed in pond water, becalms me.

My first experience with a cow was not a good one. I was three years old and out playing in a side yard when I spied a cow tethered to a stake in a pasture alongside our yard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A young boy who was probably no more than ten seemed to be tending the cow, and he kept beckoning for me to open the gate in the fence that separated our yard from the pasture. Since my older brother only gave me attention when his six-year old playmates were away, it was one of those desultory days in hottest summer when I had no one to keep me company and nothing to do but poke a stick around in every hole I could find in the yard. So when I saw that finger beckon me, I ran to the fence and placed my hand on the latch of the gate. My mother, who had been watching from the kitchen window, flew out of the house, screaming at me: "Don't go near that cow!"

The cow looked innocuous enough to me, but I was unfamiliar to her, and my mother was probably wise in alerting me to the danger. When I screamed back that I was going anyway, my mother slapped me for the first and last time I can remember experiencing corporal punishment from her during my childhood. The slap and the admonition not to go near the cow have stuck in my mind as a dangerous experience. Later, when I'd visit my grandmother during the summer and often walked up 10th Avenue to visit my aunt, I'd walk as close to the street as I could to avoid an old cow staked out in an unfenced vacant lot near the sidewalk.

So I've never been near a cow, but I like to view them from a distance because they engender a feeling of pastoral peace. After all, they've been around as domestic animals for over 10,000 years and there are one billion of them alive and doing well. Those bovines clinging to one another in the pond at Sewanee create that peaceful feeling in me, and we took pictures of them yesterday—but from a distance and at a vantage point behind a barbed wire fence.

When I lived in Iran, I often saw a cow anchored in a desert lot near the Ahwaz Super Grocery and kept my distance from the poor animal who had no pond to dip into to cool off. I wrote a poem about my exposure to this creature in a long poem entitled "A Girl and A Cow," which appeared in my book of poetry about Iran, The Holy Present and Farda:

"She guards the stringy tan cow
not even a 'friendly cow all red and white,'
its neck encircled by thin rope
like a frayed shoelace tied loosely
to one stick anchored in sandy soil,
nibbling parched summer grass—
short stubs in a vacant lot
staked out for future houses—
the coming of more expatriates,
new neighbors in Melli Rah.

Dressed in knee length overblouse,
blue cotton buttoned at the neck,
matching pants,
and head covering of same blue cotton,
she is an outfit without a life,
looking longingly at Ahwaz Super
just a leap across the concrete djube,
near enough to offer its wares,
far enough for one who has no rials,
wishing for a break from the all-day vigil,
guarding a cow without milk,
an animal not likely to be eaten,
the girl surely wondering why,
why she must encourage its chewing,
tend it in 110-degree desert heat.

She stands there, unspeaking,
ignoring us,
knows little of Anglos,
people in Melli Rah
who live on the springs of oil,
no more bothersome to her
than the blazing sun.
But my blond-haired teen-age daughter,
cycling to the Ahwaz Super,
worries that a girl her age
tends a cow in the hot sun,
asks me to buy her chocolate bars,
fetch her a parasol from the bazaar
to ward off the sun, unrelenting...
the cultural disparity, scorching.

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan

1 comment:

Margaret Simon said...

There's a viral video on YouTube about a little girl who let the cow in. https://youtu.be/M5H7uMq3mS8