(Disclaimer: This is a true story. This is not fiction. While I do not consider myself a farmer, I do consider myself an agrarian in training – even if a stumbling, immature one.)

A Fence Is Merely A Formality

On occasion, our small herd of Jersey cows will escape to the neighbor’s farm. Sometimes it’s all three of them. Sometimes they take turns going alone. Recently, Lucy the milk cow decided it was time to move on to greener pastures. After all, what’s a fence between neighbors? It is a mere formality that means nothing really. It is an obstruction to community- or so seems her bovine reasoning. On these occasions – most likely when the neighbor cows come by the fence line – she will find the place most in need of repair along the tangle of barbed wire and weathered wood posts that mark our property line. And she will pass through that break in the fence like a prisoner fleeing to freedom. It is her portal to adventure and I know she must kick up her heals and run along with her neighbor friends – the beef cows – the same way a teenager giggles with delight in sneaking out of the house to a party with friends.

The Broken Ritual

On this particular day I went in the morning to call Lucy from our top pasture. It was milking time. A ritual that both Lucy and I learned together. She coming from a commercial dairy where machines did most of the work and me coming from the suburbs where milk magically appears in pre-chilled containers on refrigerated shelves. In our past lives we had no need for one another – and now we had become intimately dependent on one another in a way that defies modernity. Our ritual each morning is like a time machine that places me in the agrarian past – in a long line that stretches back to the first ancient man or woman who mimicked a calf for the sake of their human family. On most mornings this profound sense of historic connection with such an enduring tradition is lost amidst my paced bustling. And this morning I was left at the pasture gate yelling, banging the gate like a bell (like I normally do) and whistling with no effect. Probably another great tradition but far less appreciated. I imagine in ancient times the farmer scratching his head wondering where his cow has gone.

Officially Missing

Gerty, the future milk cow came fairly quickly. She had heard the call and was expecting some reward. But instead I came inside the gate and began walking the loop that takes me around the pasture – a mix of open fields, forest and swamp by the creek. I had my mountain bike as I walked up the rock and dirt path that leads to the top of the pasture. I peered down into the forest looking for Lucy’s signature reddish brown color. I looked up for her silhouette against the morning sky among the trees. She had hidden from me before like this. After ten to fifteen minutes of searching I was now on my way down on my bike – riding among tall weeds that did not let me easily pass, on the pasture’s edge. I heard a cow calling in the woods off in the distance – on the neighbors property. But it didn’t sound like Lucy.

I rode along one of the road’s that intersects the farm we live on. It is a quick and easy ride from the top pasture gate, to the barn and then past the old general store at the fork in the road, around the corner and over the bridge to our cabin by the creek. It is all downhill. I clumped into the kitchen and took off my rubber muck boots, cowboy hat and sunglasses. I abruptly announced, “Lucy is missing”. My wife looked up from flipping pancakes at the stove and said. “What do you mean?!” I explained my findings – or the lack thereof.

Gathering Intelligence

After breakfast I went into my office to do computer work. Lucy had gone missing many times before and I knew she would eventually turn up. Later in the day the truth came out. The neighbor confirmed over the phone that Lucy had been hanging out at their place since yesterday. I had a meeting in town to get to in several hours. So, like a good procrastinator I continuing working and waited until I couldn’t wait any longer. Now we had a deadline. We had one hour to find Lucy and bring her home. I called my two older boys (12 and 10 years old) and we formed a search and rescue team like we had so many times before. The three of us rode off on our bikes down the road past our barn and the top pasture, around the corner to the neighbors driveway. We were like three cowboys heading out to the range to retrieve a cow – but on bicycles instead of horses.

We walked down the long gravel driveway towards the neighbor’s house with the mountains rising before us. We were going to do a little intelligence gathering. Indeed, Lucy had been hanging out by the apple trees according to our elderly farming neighbor. We talked for a few minutes about rose bushes gone wild in pastures and her dog who can barely stand. She offered for us to come pick apples in their old orchard by the house (which we will do this weekend). I thanked her and closed the conversation. She gave us permission to go fetch Lucy. We had work to do.

Search and Rescue

We walked suspiciously with eyes looking every which way over to one of the side pastures. But no sign of any cows. As we made our way over the crest of the hill we finally spotted an outer band of the herd standing in the shade of an outcropping of trees. We slowly approached but saw no sign of Lucy. We crept closer. These beef cows now begin to notice us and showed their disdain making derogatory moos at us and otherwise giving us the cold shoulder after a few sniffs at arm’s length.

We soon discovered the rest of the herd was down in the woods off to our left so we made our way down a hill and across another pasture. Slowly we made our way among the edges of the herd. Quickly becoming agitated by our presence several cows began bellowing and moving away from us. In turn, from the far corners of the herd more bellows sounded as if to echo the warning. It wasn’t long before the entire heard was on parade exiting the woods en masse like a powerful train starting down the track but not yet gaining steam. Our milk cow Lucy was briefly spotted among the mass exodus but we lost sight of her as she moved through the crowd. Everyone was headed back up into the pasture so we slinked to the outer edge of the herd once again to prevent a stampede.

The Intervention

We waited several minutes crouching behind a tree line. We didn’t see Lucy as the beef cow procession slowly abandoned the cover of  forest. The black herd spilling out into the open pasture was like a heavy stream of molasses pouring steadily from a mason jar. My boys suggested that Lucy was out in front but I waited a few more minutes slowly scanning the scene for any sign of her reddish brown color. My boys were right – Lucy was nowhere to be seen. The only place she could be was up in front. We now moved more quickly but quietly hoping not to draw the herds’ attention. Suddenly as we came up on the hill we saw her again- this time walking out in front…alone!

This was my moment for action. I jumped on my mountain bike (like cowboys jump real quick on their horses in movies) and began furiously pedaling. I didn’t have a moment to lose. If we didn’t get her separated from the herd than we could be chasing her in circles for hours. Lucy wasn’t going without a fight and had no intention of going back home. The once gentle rapport I had with her was now a firm and jealous love. I tore across the field like a bolt of lightning sending the now spooked herd running to my right like the waters of the Red Sea pealing back for Israel. I came up on Lucy on my left as I blasted full speed beside her as she ran. She was making a break for the far tree line. We flew neck and neck across the pasture – she on hoof and I on spinning wheels. It was her will against mine and I was determined to bring her home… and to not be late for my meeting in town.

A Battle of Wills

There was no turning back now. If I faltered in the least she would succeed in getting away but I pressed towards her driving her towards the exit to the pasture. Finally her mad dash subsided and she now quickly trotted like a prisoner of war resigned to her capture. I had won the battle of wills – at least for the moment. Now we had to cross the driveway and make it over another rolling pasture. I stuck to her side at every step. I enforced my authority with forceful shouts of “Come On!” and “Let’s Go!”. Lucy picked up speed and I could tell she was considering making another break for it. It was a race across the rolling hills. If she won, she was free – if I won, her social life was ruined and she would once again be home bound. Finally we came to our fence line.

Mission Accomplished and A Final Sign

By this time I had lost sight of my boys. I sat for a few minutes on my bike as Lucy and I stared at one another. I needed the boys to help me get her through the break in the fence. I knew my authority was short lived – at any minute she could run again. And yet she seemed resigned to being again on familiar ground. I wasn’t sure what she would do. Finally I dismounted around the time my boys appeared on the inside of the fence. “Where were you!!?” I yelled. They had gone to retrieve their bikes that they had left at the end of the neighbor’s driveway.

We finally got Lucy back through the fence. Mission accomplished!! I reviewed with the boys how our search and rescue procedures needed some tweaking. The last time we had done this we became separated near the end just like what had just happened. We agreed that walky-talkies would help eliminate confusion next time.

The boys were about to go do the daily feeding of the rest of the animals (cats, dogs, sheep, chickens, the other cows, etc) when my oldest son said “What’s that noise?”. I said it was just wind. He said it was rain. He was right. We looked and saw rain coming over the mountain. They rushed off on their bikes. I stayed to do a rough repair on the break in the fence. I quickly cut and bent barbed wire to hold some old cattle panels together. It was crude but it would work for now. Cold drops of rain pelted me as I worked. I wrapped up and quickly jumped back on my bike as the rain now came down in sheets. I looked up towards the mountains as I rode along the grassy path next to the old rusty fence. A rainbow appeared in the sky as my clothes soaked in the rain. I threw a prayer of complaint out into the air “Thanks GOD!” I said sarcastically. Some how I knew he was smiling. Didn’t he know I had a meeting to get to? His sense of humor seemed like bad timing. I made my way back to the gate, flew done the road from the barn to the fork in the road and rounded the corner to our gravel driveway. As I walked up on the porch with my bike, it looked as if I had jumped in the creek – and then the rain storm dissolved into sunlight. It had rained just long enough for me to get drenched. The humor began to sink in. I guess it was funny after all.

J. Fowler

J. Fowler is the website editor and co-founder, along with his wife Pamela, of the Sustainable Traditions project. The Fowlers live with their seven children on a farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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