Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Bovines For Bonnie
A city girl myself, when my college roommate Shirley first invited me home for the weekend to her family’s dairy farm in East Stanwood, Washington, I was astonished. The Stillaguamish Valley swarmed with cows; brown and white, tan and ochre, even polka dotted. Awe struck, I didn’t know a Guernsey from a Brahma. I thought a Hereford was some variation of an automobile, spelled incorrectly. For that matter, I could not tell a cow from a bull. (That still gives me trouble unless, at dusk, I see large bags swaying back and forth, and a single file parade heading to the barn.) I certainly did not know that a cow had to calve to produce milk. Yikes, I had not even tasted non-pasteurized, non-homogenized milk.
A tour commenced of the gleaming barn, white inside and out, built in depression times with the vast sum of $500 saved by her frugal Norwegian parents. Its tongue and groove construction looked more like a lodge. It caught me off guard for it revealed hospital-like cleanliness, another shock to my urban preconceptions. The year was 1948. Though automatic milking machines were already in vogue, Arlene, the youngest daughter, adeptly demonstrated the skill of hand stripping, a twice daily chore. She showed careful respect to the “kickers” of course. Though I was invited to share the experience, I declined. I was impressed, however.
My enchantment multiplied when on another visit a calf was born and christened Bonnie Eloise in my honor. Never before or since has any sensate being been named after me!
Chronologically, my next big encounter with benevolent bovines was in the seventies. Three friends and I were canoeing down the Missouri River, paddles tracing the Lewis and Clark Trail from Great Falls, Montana. For what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of miles we saw no other human being. Yet both sides of the wide, swiftly flowing river were lined with cattle, usually standing hoof high in the currents. Like saddle brown monoliths. Silent guardians of the grasslands, they stared and stared and stared. I felt like our eyes locked. A stare down. I was mesmerized. We gazed fixedly into each other’s souls, or so it seemed. Occasionally we would float past a carcass, probably the victim of lightning, or a calf too curious, captured by the deep mud on the shores. I grieved in silence.
Not until decades later would I transfer my affections to the other side of the Atlantic. Each dawn, from the second story window of the French Rhone Alps farmhouse where we stayed, stoical giant white Charolais cattle would gaze upward at me, sometimes eight or ten in a cluster. I came to learn that une vache (a cow) had a special place in a French person’s heart; something about wine and cheese, do you think? I learned that Charolais originated in this part of France in the old provinces of Charolles and Nievre. Some weighed up to 2500 pounds. They seemed to be posing there just for me. I was smitten. They stood transfixed as I shot dozens of digital photos.
Once home, I tried, without success, to transfer my enrapturement to my water color paintings of French cows. I somehow missed the spiritual connection which eyeball to eyeball produced. I was unable to convey the majesty of the Charolais. Was I bewitched? After several failed attempts I threw in the towel (or should I say cow pies?). It was not meant to be.
I finally surrendered to whimsy; certainly not my original intent. How silly! When friends see my rendition they smile and fall in love with their own projection of the Charolais. At a recent art show of my work, the painting above was the most popular attraction. Moo-ve over, Picasso.