Among cows there is a pecking order.
When it’s time to eat or be milked, the lead cow will start her trip back to the barn. The lesser cows fall into place and follow her home. They make trails in the pasture, trails they will walk on time and time again. My thoughts follow the familiar. The roads they’ve carved in my head are easy to follow. I do it without thinking.
As a child, I spent a lot of time watching cows, specifically our milk cow and calf and later the small herd that pastured on my grandfather’s farm. I had a healthy respect for them, their size, their slightly unpredictable nature. I developed almost an animal sense. I knew when not to turn my back. I learned that their pawing at the ground with their hooves was a sign they were trying to establish dominance among each other. I knew if they turned a side to me that the best thing I could do was to ignore them. Even a small child can’t allow a cow to be the boss.
Fortunately, these milk cows were used to being handled by humans. I became as harmless as a chipmunk to them. Once their initial look determined I was no threat and that I had no food for them. They would return to grazing and chewing their cud. I was safe among them because I learned to tell the difference between a real threat and simple posturing. Likewise, they learned about me.
From a distance that lie just beyond the boundary of potential harm, I follow their trails. Here in this pasture amongst the beasts, I feel most at home.
Two distinct trails carved their way out of the side of the hill just before the barn yard. On one, the cows left the barn and went to higher pastures; on the other, the cows returned as they always returned to be milked or fed. I don’t remember which trail was which. I want those cows to have enjoyed their time on a hill that is always sunny and warm in my memory. But, they are cows, animals, that despite their size are prey and act like prey, always sizing up the danger, always looking to a smarter cow to lead them.
Like these cows of memory, I have often felt like prey. I allowed that feeling to carve a path in my brain. I followed it home and out into the world time and time again without questioning, without knowing.
We left the farm in the summer of my ninth birthday. Years later, I would move to the biggest city in the state. I learned how to take the bus any where I wanted to go. I learned who to look out for and how to walk with an air of authority that helped keep predators away. I never felt as brave as I tried to act. My mind walked a familiar path long after the world beneath my feet changed from grass and dirt to asphalt and concrete. Looking for danger, I always found it.
Yesterday, I read that our memory of an experience is really only our last memory of it. Perceived danger might be much worse than the actual.
When in college, I had an opportunity to spend a summer working in one of the most wild and beautiful places on earth, Denali National Park. Years later, it has become one of the high points of my life. My adventurous summer began when I first hiked down the hill to the employee cabins. Two huge suitcases in each hand, I marched down the trail to my new camp. Rounding the bend I came face to face with a mother moose and her young calf.
Later, I would learn that a mother moose with calf is a very dangerous thing. What I didn’t know probably saved me. I allowed instinct and long ago positive cow experience to guide me. I stopped dead in my tracks. Slowly, I lowered my suitcases to the ground and from a distance of about ten feet, quietly spoke to the moose a silly string of sweet nothings with a huge smile on my face. She looked me over for what seemed like a very long time. Eventually, she took another bite of bog greens and slowly moved along with calf in tow. I picked up my suitcases and continued bumbling down the hill.
So, here’s to ignorant bumbling down the hills of life and memory. Here’s to forging new paths and to walking on the old. If there are two paths that diverge in a wood, I want to walk on both of them and remember, always remember what I found there.