Watching our cattle graze, I’ve been thinking about how best to communicate the powerful connection between grasslands, grazing animals, and the overall environment in which they exist. Quietly walking with the herd, listening to the sound of leaves tearing, feeling tails swish as they swat the fat flies on their backs, occasionally being bumped by some big steer who wants to eat the particular piece of grass where I’m standing, I can grasp in an intuitive way that cattle fit with this place. I have settled into a deeper understanding of how right cattle are for this place, and how well they fit their role in our ecosystem.
For anyone looking for disputes, there are innumerable examples of people telling us contradictory things about cows. “Cows are destroying the world.” Or, “cows will save the world.” They can’t both be true, and I don’t believe either one is completely true. Being candid about all the ways humanity is inflicting harm on itself, I don’t think cows really rise up to the primary or secondary tiers of problems. But on the opposite end of the ideology where cattle are advertised as the world’s premier hope for carbon sequestration and topsoil stabilization, I am not convinced that well-managed cows are capable of undoing all the harm humanity is collectively unleashing on the world. Both visions lean too heavily onto simpleminded absolutism. Whether it’s vegan utopianism, or beef utopianism, we all ought to know by now that utopianisms all lead to sad ends.
For someone outside the farm, someone who doesn’t share my daily pattern of working among cattle, chickens, and turkeys, it might be hard to know how to weigh and to interpret the messaging from different perspectives. How would such a person judge with understanding?
I wish there were a way for everyone interested in these questions to be able to drop in on the farm and to live through it’s seasons over the course of the year. To be there, to see the whole spectrum, with no editing, no sugar coating, no motivational background soundtrack, and no ability to swipe to the next scene. From the thrill of newly hatched chicks to the sadness of realizing it’s time to shoot our favorite sow suffering from a prolapsed uterus, the whole round of living would be open to experience.
If you could work alongside our family in this imaginary program, you’d quickly come to see that this farm isn’t going to transform the world. We’re too limited; we make too many mistakes. And even if we were some paragon of perfection, we’re just too small. But I’d hope that you’d come away thinking that we’re on the path toward something good. After spending your days among grazing cattle, I think it would become evident that cows are neither ruining the world nor are they carrying it to some perfected future, rather they simply and quietly fit neatly into this place at this time. And maybe that’s the only burden we can expect anything to bear: to be appropriate to the moment and to the place.