Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Autumn Cow in Retrospect

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Fall is the time when the earth perspires and cows steam. I'm getting to know cows. While my chest cavity lacks the heft to speak the tongue, I listen as they talk. They warn of my passing, and when I walk between them, talk across the divide. They are inquisitive by nature, and it can be intimidating to have a herd of thirty or forty all watch as I pass. Sometimes I play with them. They will turn their heads sideways to follow me until they are eventually looking backward. Then I go slowly, drawing their heads further until they nuzzle their own flanks, to see if I can make them stumble unbalanced before they readjust their heft.

These are beef cows, steers and heifers. Across the stone fence the neighboring farm has dairy cows; they're used to being around people, and you can rub their foreheads. These can be skittish which is about how I feel as I walk among them. They're left pretty much alone to graze through connecting pastures, but I've learned that these at Four Maples Farm are so calm that sometimes when I pass they don't even stop eating or rise from their afternoon bask in the sun.

Across town at Twin Elm Farm the herd is more mischievous. The farmer wondered, had two of them not been castrated properly? And I wondered what it meant, "castrated improperly."

Sometimes at Twin Elm as I'm shooting they'll sneak up behind me, and when I turn they jump away. One morning I turned from shooting, and there they were, the whole herd looming out of a thick fog, watching me. Sometimes I've had a third of the herd follow behind me as I cross the pasture. When I stop and turn, they stop. When I turn back and walk, they walk.

Nor is it true that cows lack guile. The other day they had me surrounded (at a safe distance). I was shooting one who was well positioned with regard to the light. As I shot I became aware of the cows slowly converging. They thought I wouldn't notice them, slyly nibbling their way along the grass headlong toward me. Their heads were down but their eyes were up. Several times as I was shooting one, he would eat his way almost to the camera, and I'd have to stop, step forward, and shoo him back. They run away when I try to touch them. I ran away when two steers began locking horns in the background. I left quietly and in the other direction.

I ended the day in a muddy farmyard, eavesdropping on three genuine moo-cows with drooping utters that let me rub their foreheads.