For a few years in my 20s I lived and worked on a cattle ranch on California’s central coast. The ranch was at the foot of a wall of lush green hills towering over the Pacific Ocean. The house I shared with a surfer buddy was smack in the middle of the cow’s favorite grazing area. In the evenings, finished with work forking hay and building fences, I’d scrub up and take a beer into the backyard to lean against an old oak fence post and watch the cows. They’d munch grass, softly call to one another, and spend a whole lot of time stoically staring at the oak-carpeted hills in the distance. Sometimes I’d ride an ATV to the tops of those hills to have a look at the ocean and I’d find a dozen or so cows already there watching the sunset. They’d look at me as if in welcome, bow their heads and tear grunt chunks of grass from the dirt, then gaze at the horizon, chewing, always chewing.
Cows are great appreciators of scenery, I realized. Terrific hikers too. They blazed efficient trails from the sea to the creek, winding through trees and along ridgelines in routes that made for the best afternoon walks. These were domesticated animals, sure, but wild too, in a sense, with nothing impeding their movements, keeping a wary eye out for predators like coyotes and mountain lions which would easily take down a calf. Though wildness had been genetically bred from them bodies, I swear, I sensed in them a deep connection with the land, and the slow rewilding of a species that would turn back into great aurochs if left alone.
I’ve shared some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been with placid head of cattle—California’s wild coast, alpine valleys in the Pyrenees and the Sierra, lakeside in the Scottish highlands, on the edges of jungles in Nicaragua. It’s abundantly clear they appreciate just as I do being in a beautiful, natural space. Which is why Werner Lampert’s The Cow: A Tribute is so dang appealing. It’s a book about, well, cows, filled with photographs of them in beautiful places, an attempt to celebrate an animal so closely associated with humans but to also celebrate the cow’s animal-ness.
While it’s true cows are sometimes unwelcome intrusions grazing on beautiful spaces in public lands, and their waste can foul freshwater sources, there’s still something charming and arrestingly beautiful about these images. Even to a dedicated backpacker like myself who would prefer to drink from streams without worry about bovine contamination.
Lampert, clearly a fellow bovine appreciator, wants to remind the reader of the close relationships cows and humans have shared over the past 10,000 years. Cattle breeds too, believe it or not, face extinction in some parts of the world. We’ve both bolstered the numbers of certain breeds while habitat destruction and over-hunting (think, bison) have at various points pushed some of these massive ungulates to the brink.