I grew up in a suburban planned community where the only interaction I had with cattle was passing them in the car. I can recall as a kid, I would take notice of them in these situations but it was a fleeting and superficial notice. “Look at the cows, kids” my mom might say. I would look and admire for a few seconds and then on with my day. I would not consider them again until the next similar situation would arise. It was not until moving to the farm, decades later, where we often see these animals for longer periods of time up close that I began to consider them in any real way.
We do not own any cattle, but our neighbors on both sides of us do. We have a fenced pasture within 50 feet or so of our home, where we allow one neighbor to pasture his cattle, so they are often in close proximity to us for relatively long periods of time. Initially this was a bit of a novelty and I was much like I was as a child. I would be giddy about them being there briefly and then move along through my day without much of a thought about them for a while. Over time though as I have been in proximity to these creatures I have begun to notice things about them that I never before noticed. Perhaps to the farm raised kids we now live around these revelations might seem obvious or even silly, or maybe when you grow up around it the details fade into the background, I do not know. What I do know is the herd has much to teach you but you must be paying attention. “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.” ~Proverbs 27:23
The first thing I noticed over time is that these creatures almost never move with any kind of speed. They are deliberate and methodical in their gait, which can only be accurately described as a saunter. There are exceptions to this rule, notably the calves who are very playful, but in general there is no hurry in this animal. The contrast of that with the hustle and bustle lifestyle we lead is stark. All it takes is for me to get in my car and travel the couple miles to the highway before the slow and relaxed nature I am surrounded by at home melts away and I am immersed in an 80 mile per hour world of unpredictability and loss of control which increases the body’s stress response as a defense mechanism. The physiological and psychological changes this induces are palpable. It is not something I noticed prior to moving to this rural area. I suspect that is because it was virtually impossible to escape. Before we moved, even at home I was surrounded by the ever present hum of traffic noise so the stress dial never really made it down as low as it does now. It seems to me that those constant levels of elevated stress can’t be healthy for our bodies and it would be good for me to try to follow the example of the cattle and slow down whenever possible.
Another thing I have noticed about the cattle that I had never detected previously is their build. As someone who lived largely separated from these animals I always thought of them as stout or chubby. I think that impression maybe originally came from the depictions in children’s books I’ve read. I was never close enough to them in real life to consider that it might not be a correct representation. In fact, I have observed that most of these animals are extremely muscular. Some of the more impressive specimens could only really be described as equivalent to human bodybuilders. When you watch them move for a while you begin to see that just under that skin is an enormous amount of highly developed muscle tissue. They are completely covered in enormous muscles; they are extremely strong creatures. This fact becomes even more amazing when you watch the animals eat. They consume nothing but grasses and leaves and yet their strength and musculature would amaze you. They do not eat everything though. When they are let loose on a new pasture they go for the best, presumably most nutritious, matter first. If they are left there for long enough you will notice tall plants that either are not nutritious or possibly even toxic to them are left standing, while everything around them is eaten down. They will only begin to eat the less choice and dangerous plants if you leave them in that pasture too long and they have no choice. They are eating what they are meant to eat and their physiology is finely tuned to turn those inputs into the energy and tissue needed for them to not simply survive but to thrive. We too can feed our bodies in the proper manner in order to help us more easily realize our potential. In order to do so, we must make wise decisions. Given the choice between healthy and unhealthy food cattle will choose the healthy food most of the time. We would do well to learn this lesson. In a world where we are surrounded by foods that are not very good for us, it can be difficult to make the proper choices but if we look to the cattle for guidance, we see the way.
Next, I notice that cattle do everything in a group. We all know that cattle are herd animals so this behavior might be expected, but it is still a useful lesson for us to learn. If they are eating or resting or drinking it does not matter, they are doing it together. In the morning we might see them all slowly come over the hill and into our pasture and in the evening they all wander back over together to get water or sleep for the night. There is always that one who is first to venture off but inevitably the rest follow. Similarly there is always a straggler who is a bit behind the rest, stopping to eat a snack along the way, but it does not generally stray too far from the rest. The lesson for us here is not to follow the crowd, that is not something I would recommend. Rather, the lesson for us is that there is comfort and safety in community. We, unlike the cattle, have some freedom to choose our community and we should do so wisely but having a community is far preferable to not. Proverbs 13:20 tells us “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.” Having a community of the right kind of people around us can protect us from harm when things don’t go as expected. Like the cattle we should try to maintain proximity to the community we build even if they are geographically separated from us. We should maintain contact and never stray too far. We can be the leader or the straggler but we don’t want to be either too far out in front or too far to the rear or we risk getting caught on our own without the help and support of our herd when a problem arises.
Finally, I have noticed that cattle rest often. When I was younger I remember seeing cattle in the field eating. They might be walking along a fenceline grazing or gathered around a water trough drinking but I don’t recall often seeing them resting. What I have seen now that I watch them up close is they spend much of their day laying down. They will eat for a period of time, moving around the pasture, and then almost simultaneously they will all lie down. They lay there and chew their cud taking in the world and digesting their food. They will sometimes lay there for a couple hours just resting and digesting, never sleeping, but relaxing. This is a tough lesson for me especially with all the work that always needs to be done around the farm. The list of projects never ends which for me can cause a constant sense of urgency that is not good long term. I am working on trying to realize that the list will always be there no matter what I do, so it is alright for me to take a rest from time to time and in fact that rest will make me better when I get back to work.
As excited as I was to have cattle so close to us when we first moved here, the fact that they would be teaching me life lessons never even occurred to me. I hope that perhaps growing up in this setting will just maybe allow my kids to learn some of these lessons a little earlier in life than I did. Unfortunately, I suspect we all have to figure the most important lessons out for ourselves and in our own time.