Naturally, there are a lot of cows here in Switzerland.
I see them every day when I run. They congregate in the most unlikely places. By the train station, behind the grocery store, on the beach. They seem to be free to roam, at will. When we go hiking, we have to maneuver around them on the trails. They just stand rooted in the middle of the path, with their doleful, adoring eyes. They won’t move.
And I have no idea what is going on behind those huge, vacant-looking stares.
When we think cows, we think dumb. We think slow, lumbering, not very clever. I think we could be wrong.
My daughter, Katherine, used to have an adorable stuffed cow that she named Marlin. It was given to her by her grandfather when our family was on vacation at Holden Beach. The street we rented on was Marlin Avenue, hence the name.
Marlin was a white cow with a black spot near each button eye. He wore an adorable pair of jean fabric overalls. His ears were creased in just the perfect way to look cow-like and cute. But it was his nose that really captivated you. It dominated his face and made his whole demeanor lovable. You just couldn’t resist nuzzling that soft, bovine snout against your cheek.
Katherine and Marlin were inseparable. She carried him with her everywhere, to church, on vacations at the beach, and endless sleep overs. He got a little stained and his ear became ratty from where she had nibbled it so often. At one point his stitching busted open and Mac had to do a little surgery with needle and thread. But, like the Velveteen Rabbit, his flaws made him even more cherished.
As the years went on, Katherine continued to keep the cow high atop her pillow, in the prized position, ahead of her dolls and other stuffed animals. And if she was ever feeling upset, I would sit on her bed and edge Marlin into her lap as my negotiator and have him talk to her. It always worked. Even in high school. There was just an ageless, cow-shaped place in her heart.
And when it came time to drop Katherine off in her dorm room at college, I helped her make up her lowly single bed with all the newly purchased linens and a quilt that her aunt had sewn for her. And, with a catch in my throat, I watched as she pulled Marlin out of the suitcase and placed him on the new pillow.
Such is cow love.
Through the years, she always claimed that cows are extremely intelligent animals. And that they are loyal to their calves, and are patient, good mothers. I wasn’t too sure about any of that.
But being around them now, I look a little more carefully, and they’re actually quite pretty. The Swiss varieties are a lovely, soft russet color. This is the time, mid-August, for their second calving of the summer. The new calves lurch and stumble around after their mothers, who stoically attend to their needs.
Cows are an enigma. So still, so silent. With none of the flashing brilliance of horses or nervous energy of sheep. Or grizzled cleverness of goats. But their silent expressions sort of make me feel calm too, if I engage for a few minutes. And they seem to do well in social groups, no fighting, just lots of vigorous chewing.
But they aren’t our favorite animal in the barnyard. What is it about us that value quickness and smarts above all else? But what about the value of being quiet, of having an unassuming presence? Are we uncomfortable with cows’ primary identity as sources of milk for us and for their young? In other words, are they just too content and satisfied for their own good?
Maybe cows are an oddly uncomfortable reminder of our essential dependence on our mothers. In our society, we value independence over almost everything else. We wean our babies off of breastfeeding too early because we fear excessive intimacy.
We nervously rush our children through pacifiers, blankets and stuffed animals so they’ll grow up faster. We dislike emotional “crutches” of any kind. We’re kind of afraid of nurturing, in general.
I think Katherine’s cow Marlin was the perfect comfort object for her. I’m sure he listened patiently to a lot of stories and endured a ton of dragging around and many a loving stranglehold. And he suffered countless nervous bites to his tattered ear.
But, in true cow fashion, he held still and did his loyal duty without complaint. He was a gentle presence. He was serene. And so, what better comfort than from a cow?
And I seriously hope that if Katherine has any lingering messages from Marlin, they might be: you are loved. No matter how big you get, how old you are, you will always be loved. And you can never be too dependent on that love.
Anyway, I’ve actually seen cows “frolic” here in the hills around Zug. It’s a deafening spectacle, with cowbells swaying ponderously from thick straps. And the cows literally kick up their back heels in ecstatic cow joy. If you think cows are mellow and incapable of high emotion, you should see this.
I took a video on my phone when we were hiking one day, and, while the visual is incredible, what dominates is the audio. It was a total cacophony of noise, from every direction. And you couldn’t even see the cows, they were scattered all over the Alps. But there is no way a farmer could lose even one of his herd, with all that racket.
So this is what cows do on summer vacation. Who knew.
And later, when I lay down in the grass to rest, I closed my eyes and it sounded almost like a beautiful Gregorian chant. I felt the clean breeze and I relaxed into the clear, plaintive song of the bells. I was completely content. I didn’t need or want anything in the world.
Maybe cows are actually on a higher plane than humans. Maybe they have found transcendental peace and no longer feel the need to strive, to get ahead or to be too aggressive. Maybe they are actually enlightened beings.
I’m not sure, I just know that the Swiss cows have gotten to me, with their liquid, eye-lashed eyes. And their coy flicks of the tail. And their curious way of turning their necks and watching me as I run past them down the dusty road.
And I wonder what is going on in their enormous, shaggy heads. Are they themselves wondering about me?
And are they asking the other cows next to them: why? Why does that human need to rush around like that today?