They move

I got a letter from Nash:

Hi, Peter. I enjoyed your Slow Reads Digest that you pretty much forced me to subscribe to. I don’t get to read books too often, except I check out books on CD from Cracker Barrel when I’m on the road, which is like all the time now.

Last week I had business in Waynesboro, and on a lark I visited a farm I had seen off of 81 probably a dozen times before. Really the idea came the day before as I was passing the farm heading to Waynesboro. I didn’t think I’d seen the cows on the south end of that farm’s pasture before. I believe they were normally at the north end near a pond. But there they were, some sitting and some standing, most in the shade, some grazing and some staring at I know not what.

That night at the Super 8 I ordered a veggie pizza and for the umpteenth time forgot to tell them to hold the olives. I arranged the olives to simulate where I had seen the cows. The pizza box lid was the field on my last trip here, and the bottom of the box was the field earlier that day. The olives were probably not placed too well on the lid because I wasn’t really paying strict attention to the cows last trip. So I kind of jammed them together at the lid’s north end.

I stared at the box until two in the morning. I even ate three of the olives. I knew I had to visit the farm.

“How do you get them into position each day? Farm equipment? And how do you decide on the arrangement?” I was too embarrassed to say what I really think: that the cows seem as if they’re some sort of giant dice rolled after long intervals – maybe a day or more between each roll. Think of a colossal Yahtzee game, where you roll a lot of dice, except it matters where they land. It looks like – it just looks like – some opponent takes some meaning from the cows’ relative positions and then counters the next night with a throw of his own, either on the same farm or on one nearby.

The game is slow because it’s complicated, maybe more complicated than chess. It’s big and it’s cosmic and somebody is telling somebody something.

I was careful not to say any of this. Although I’ve never met this farmer, I make it a practice to impress upon everyone I run into my ability to distinguish between my imagination and reality. I’ll need all the practice I can get when I call Tom Ridge.

“No. No equipment. They use their legs.” He looked at me squarely, and not without warmth. “They move.”

I’ve never seen a cow move. Granted, I’ve only driven by cows. But I’ve never heard of cows moving, either, except in nursery rhymes.

He was smiling now, leaning back. He cocked his head and studied his arrangement. “They got legs.”

I knew that, but I figured the legs were to prop up the operation, and to provide easy access to the udder for the calves and the farmer. But I was out of my element and said nothing.

I started down his gravel road. In the side view, I saw him turn his back to me and walk toward a shed. I stopped my car and arranged the olives on the lid to match what I saw. Clearly there had been some movement since yesterday. I could get technical but there’s no reason to here. And it’s not like I was using GPS or anything.

I’m starting small. I’m hoping to get a grant from The Old Farmer’s Almanac to study the connection between cow arrangements and long-term weather forecasting. I’d like to continue with this farmer because he was very nice. My working plan is to outfit the cows with battery-powered Rudolph noses in order to study their movements at night. It would be in December and I don’t think anything would look out of place.

[Inspired by Tom Montag’s “Morning Drive Journal,” in The Middlewesterner, May 13, 1998 entry: “The old horse is out to the far end of his pasture this morning. This is not usual. What is it a portent of?”]


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