I look back through the six decades of my life to recall a memory, clear and resonant.
A little boy moving among my father’s cows as they assembled in the concrete yard of our small farm waiting to be milked.
Fearless and totally trusting, I loved to move among them, experiencing their huge bodies towering over me, the feel of their thick coats, silky smooth in one direction and rough against my little hands in the other, as I stroked their flanks and nuzzled into their soft necks, using their animal heat for warmth against the early morning cold.
I remember becoming mesmerized by their gleaming wet noses, their breath billowing from their nostrils in rhythmic spurts of steam, carrying the sweet smell of the damp hay they were chewing patiently, as they waited, their full udders swinging heavily between their legs as they moved and jostled to line up for their turn in the milking parlour. Sometimes they were so ready to drop their milk that little streams of the creamy white liquid would squirt from a teat, making rivulets of pure white on the muddy concrete.
The cows‘ feet and legs were always caked in mud where they had to enter the yard through the field gate. My father regularly tried to fill the area with hardcore to combat the effect of the cows‘ daily convergence. The tramping of dozens of cloven hooves of these heavy beasts created a deep mud soup that smeared their legs up to their shins all winter, and was impossible for us children to cross without losing a welly boot or keeping us entirely stuck , screaming for parental rescue.
Cows have an air of contentment, almost stillness, with their slow ponderous bodies and their patient chewing of the cud, that fascinated me at that time and since. My memory of all this, but more particularly my sense of how I seemed to merge with the cows at the young age of 5 or 6, comes back to me now as hugely significant, reminding me of the power of those early experiences on the farm, in nature, at one with the animals.
I can remember looking up into a cow’s eye as she stared back at me; the wild non-human otherness I saw in it, while I could sense the gentle reassurance of a mother to a child.
After all, these cows were all mothers. I had already seen them giving birth out in the field. The wonder and magic of watching a slimy limp and leggy object sliding to the ground in a lifeless heap; the mother turning to lick and nuzzle her newborn, bringing it to life, so that within a few minutes the flimsy creature, struggling against the forces of nature, would miraculously rise to its feet, stagger about and quickly find its way to its mother’s teats for its first taste of strengthening milk.
Once he was reassured of the calf’s ability to drink and the mother’s instincts to care for her young, my father would lead me away to let nature take its course. For my father these
must have been anxious events. The husbanding of his herd and the regular production of healthy progeny, was the key to the survival of his farming business at that time. But for me it was the only world I knew and on one level it was familiar routine for my dad too. And yet there was a beauty and sense of wonder that shone through, informing me at a soul level, giving me a sense of deep interconnection with the rhythms of life and the laws of nature.
Our father never spoke of it this way. He was a sensitive man but pragmatic and if he felt these things he never shared them . Our mother, a school teacher, took us on nature walks, teaching us the names of wild flowers and birds, talking about the animals that lived around our farm. This was a gift to my sister and I in giving a factual base to our world. But the feeling of interbeing that I was open and receptive to, as I spent time with the cows, was something that must have been innate in me as a little boy. That innocent, intuitive, immanent sense of embodied oneness was educated out of me by ten years at a boys’ boarding school, through rational, paternalistic grooming – not lost but pushed deeper into my psyche for me to retrieve later.
But before that stage of my childhood began, I came running into the kitchen one morning with blood pouring from my mouth. My mother told me later she was panicked to see me and I was whisked off to the doctor, where it became clear, through examination and what I was able to describe, that a cow had inadvertently whipped its head around (probably not realising I was standing at her side) and the tip of her horn had caught the corner of my mouth, tearing my upper lip, a part of the body that bleeds profusely. It was decided not to stitch the wound but to let it heal naturally and to this day I have a small scar as a record of that unfortunate moment.
I can’t recall if I was frightened of the cows after that, but my parents pointed out to me the horn could have taken my eye out or worse. They warned me not to walk among them any more and my father had all their beautiful horns cut off. They were what is now a rare breed of dairy cattle called Short Horns. I wasn’t there when the man came to carry out the dehorning, but I do remember a huge and gruesome pile of those emblems of bovine splendor left to slowly rot in a ditch behind one of the outbuildings. I understand now my father’s decision, but at the time I felt terribly sad to come across this graveyard, for which I felt somehow to blame.
I ask myself: was my childhood experience any less profound than communicating with white lions in africa or living in the dreamtime in the australian outback? I have only been able to grasp the significance of those non-dual moments of my childhood through my adult years. But now I am coming full circle, through a combination of conscious spiritual practice over many years, and a gradual surrender to the divine feminine, in which I can consciously evoke something of that original natural beauty and wonder of existence that my soul longs for – coming home to my original innocence.