Rural Life

Holy Cow!

What my 3,000-pound steer has taught me about faith.

Elvis the steer with a buddy

I’ve attended churches, Quaker Meetings, synagogues, and Buddhist temples. I’ve taken yoga and read Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, and the Bible. I pray often. But I had an unsettling realization recently, which is that my steer Elvis already has the spiritual equanimity I have been seeking. He is comfortable within himself, has no discernible anxiety, rolls with life as if it were a gentle wave, is uncomplaining, generous and loyal to his mate, and trusts and accepts people.

Cold, rain, snow, flies, ticks, mud, and muck—none disturbs him. He is as peaceful covered in ice as he is taking in the sun with the Guernsey steer, and his pal, Harold.

Elvis is affectionate in his own way. He eats hats and loves doughnuts, he drools generously on my head and shoulders, and his tongue is impressive. Once, he licked me and sucked the scarf right off my shoulders, just before he ate it.

Elvis, who weighs 3,000 pounds, is the size of a small mobile home, a vast sea of brown with big, soulful brown eyes that suggest, perhaps misleadingly, sadness and wisdom. I need a wide-angle lens just to take a decent photo of him, and more than once, he has swung his head toward me in a burst of affection and sent me flying. He is always puzzled by this, obviously having no idea of his size or strength.

He loves to have his nose and ear scratched and will lower his head, rub against me, and nearly purr if I brush his neck. I am the only person he will permit to get close for bug-spraying and medications. If Elvis does not want you to come near him, you will not.

I once tried to tie him to the side of the barn so that the vet could examine a wound on his leg, and he pulled the side of the barn about three feet into the pasture before I panicked and cut the rope. Elvis goes where he wants to go. In the days before I got the cow Luna to keep him company, he would routinely walk right through my expensive fences to visit me, pulling up stakes one by one like a cartoon character and dragging hundreds of yards of fence easily behind him. I have electrified the fence, and the high-voltage shocks seem to annoy him mildly, but not so much that he won’t graze right underneath them.

Elvis mugs for the camera

Elvis is as smelly as he is big, and he travels in a cloud of bugs, waste, dust, and drool, punctuated by grunting, belching, and various emissions of gas that literally do take your breath away if you are downwind. When he is wet, he is especially game and raunchy. He has peed on my shoes and taken a staggeringly impressive dump right in the middle of a conversation. When Elvis runs to say hello, you have to be alert, because he usually can’t stop, and you have to make sure there is room to step aside while he lumbers to a halt. Once he swiveled his butt into a small tree and knocked it over with a crack. Then he ate the bark and the leaves.

I have trained him to slow down, and to “stay” briefly, but Elvis is not really into training. And why should he be? He pretty much does what he wants.

I am finding in Elvis the spiritual life I have been searching for myself. A few months ago, I brought Elvis a volume of W.B. Yeats poems. I don’t like poetry much, but I often read poems to Elvis, as he seems to love them, swishing his tail to keep the flies off his gargantuan butt. Elvis has his own rhythms. He is usually in the same place at the same time doing the same thing—eating, mostly—every day. I’ve read St. Augustine’s City of God to him, some James Herriott, Merton, and Carl Sandburg, to appeal to his masculine side. I’ve read from C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, and more recently, I climbed to the top of the hill and read from an anthology of haiku, which seemed appropriate for such a centered, easygoing creature.

I read two or three Yeats poems to him and put the book down, and Elvis ate the paperback, almost inhaled it, really, and enjoyed it as much as any donut. Then he looked up at me, as if to say, “What’s next, bub?”

What was next was my sitting down next to him and the two of us spending a lovely hour chewing our respective cuds and staring meaningfully at nothing in particular. I enjoyed it. Elvis is a contemplative, capable of long hours of meditation and observation. Sometimes, it rubs off on me.

I’m a bit jealous. I got these books for me, of course, and I suppose the drive to share them with Elvis comes from my dawning realization that he naturally embraces so many of the traits I have been looking for so long and often with such difficulty. It occurs to me that the price of such equanimity is that you have to be a cow and that to be a human means you struggle to find these things but know in your heart that this is an uneven struggle, filled with successes and victories, ups and downs, crooked lines and gates and fences.

Thomas Merton wrote that one of the most important and neglected elements in the beginnings of an authentic and interior life is the ability to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things. Elvis seems to have that. I do not. When I take photos or write, I struggle to see how light and color suffuse our world and sometimes rise above myself to capture the beauty in ordinary things. But much of the time, I’m on the phone, trying to convince some disembodied computer or human that I do, in fact, exist and did, in fact, order those HDTV channels.

Elvis is beyond this. He doesn’t have to work at acceptance, or retrain his mind to accept the bad with the good.

Elvis in a contemplative moment

One afternoon recently, I was rattled by the drumbeat of grim and contentious news pouring out of Wall Street and Washington, first from the car radio, and then from shouting and hysterical commentators on cable news channels. “We are going over the cliff,” one said, as a means of offering perspective. I went out to the pasture with an apple and sat down next to Elvis.

“We are going over a cliff, it seems,” I said. He turned his enormous brown eyes upon me and looked back to the fence, back at the pastures beyond, back at less fortunate cows who lived in barns, ate silage instead of fresh hay, slept on mats on concrete, and would shortly go to market.

It does not really matter, he seemed to be saying, and I agreed.

This, I think, is the spiritual center of animals like Elvis, the thing that they can teach us and show us.

Elvis is not, to my knowledge, self-aware. He has no consciousness that I can see. He eats, rests, and stares out at the world, content to observe it.

When things are bad or I am nervous, I sometimes have fantasies of killing Elvis, of sending him to another farm or off to market, as it is tough to justify spending so much money on so much hay for a steer.

Elvis relaxes with a friend

But I even when I have these bad dreams, I doubt I will ever kill Elvis, because I have been oddly blessed in life to see that creatures like him have lives, just as I do. It is sometimes difficult for me to justify the idea of keeping such a creature as a pet and spending so much money on his feed and care.

Elvis does not know, and will not ever know, that he should be on the menu at McDonald’s by now and is destined for a short life, as few steers see their fifth birthdays because their legs are not designed to carry such massive weight for too many years. There are few ways to treat such a massive and powerful beast if he gets sick, so when he does, it will almost surely be the end of him.

Sometimes this makes me sad, even as I grasp the irony: It will never bother him.