Sky Burial

I'm country: born, bred and to the bone. I am talking about country where God's breath is the northwest wind and if your neighbor's house is closer than a mile away, you feel a little claustrophobic. Before I elaborate further, I want to mention someone whom I admire:
 
Temple Grandin is a high-functioning autistic scientist and professor who has brought society and industry forward in the humane treatment of animals. One of her specialties is developing protocols and methods for humane slaughter of cattle.  Part of her gift is the ability to think like a cow. 
 
I grew up on a farm in North Dakota.  During my childhood I was around more cows than people. There were more cows on our farm than there were kids in high school.
 
I began my first job on September 6, 1955. That was the day after Labor Day and the first day of school. I was six years old. My father had informed me the previous night that since I was starting school, it was time to start doing 'steady chores'. The chore was milking cows. 
 
The job began each day until I was 18 with my father waking me after he had eaten a bowl of oatmeal and put on his shoes. We did not have weekends off. My father was hard, but not unkind. A lot was expected of him and he expected a lot of me. He would come quietly into the bedroom, which I shared with three younger siblings, call me by name and if I didn't respond immediately, he would gently wring a few drops from the wash cloth that he carried onto my face. If the water didn't get me right up, he could safely assume that I was genuinely sick.
 
I began with one cow, a Shorthorn Roan. 'Roan' was her color and 'Shorthorn' was her breed. She weighed almost a ton.  I milked her morning and evening until time came for her to break in a younger sibling. She was chosen to 'mentor' me for her gentleness and her comfort level with humans.
 
Milking on our farm was manual. It was done by perching on a stool at the product end of the cow. A bucket was held between the knees, the milk was produced by squeezing the cow's teats in a rhythm that has stayed with me all my life. In the early morning, light was from a kerosene lantern in a barn full of hay. Cats were plentiful on the farm. Farm buildings were full of grain, mice ate the grain, and cats ate the mice and kept their numbers down.  The cats were well-fed and were given only milk. Many cats would line up in the milking area, begging for milk, which was delivered by squirting in the cat's direction and they would then rear up on their back legs and use their paws to gather the airborne milk into their mouths.
 
My grandmother, who always helped with the milking, had started the herd and as my father grew up, they worked together to develop both a dairy herd and a beef herd. Years later my father would sell breeding bulls all over the country as the market for beef swung towards a bias for leaner meat. It was my grandmother who had persuaded him to develop that lean bloodline. Milk cows were picked for two qualities; milk production and gentleness, but that balance varied from cow to cow. 
 
A few years later I would be terrified to see my mother slammed repeatedly against the barn wall by an angry milk cow. My grandmother was there. She would have been over eighty at that time,  still lean and  rangy, built like cable stretched over rebar. She was a loving, gentle woman who cared about animals, treated her grandchildren lovingly and was fiercely protective of my mother. She was also as tough as the land she lived on. Using a milk stool, she delivered a single calculated but ferocious blow to the cow's head. The cow stopped. My mother had two broken ribs and the cow got sold.
 
The shorthorn roan was a different sort of animal. The common portrayal of cattle today is of contented milk cows staring blankly and calmly at the camera. There's more to them than that. Any one who has heard what a cow sounds like when her calf has been taken from her will attest to that. 
 
Cows are sensitive to people and understand their differences.  I recall coming back to the farm when I had been gone for fifteen years and going out with my father to feed the beef herd.  My father drove the tractor and I rode on a hay wagon towed behind, distributing hay to the cows. The expressions on the cow's faces was clearly suspicious and my father laughed when he noticed.  "They don't know you!" he said. The roan knew me. And she knew that I had a tendency to fall asleep in the morning while milking her. I would drift off and slump against her with my face on her flank, and I would be awakened by her tail slapping me and look up to see her head turned towards me with a look that said: "Let's get on with it, why dontcha?"
 
Another frightening memory comes from that time. I was in the barn yard during calving time. A young cow (called a heifer) with a new-born calf can be jumpy and over-protective. I found myself face to face with  a new mom and the look on her face told me that she was about to charge. My next memory is of the Shorthorn Roan between me and the heifer with her face turned towards me with that look that said: "Let's get on with it, why dontcha." And I got on with it; I got the hell out of there. 
 
Most of the milk cows were born on the farm with my father and grandmother as midwives.  An animal about to give birth represented both a considerable investment and along with the calf, a potential income. Besides, they were like family. When they were weaned so that their mothers could be milked, part of the weaning process was for them to be fed from a pail and they would suck milk from the farmer's fingers.  My father saw his cattle as his partners and his family. He got that from his mother.
 
Cows gave milk because they gave birth. Not getting pregnant usually meant a death sentence. Usually the cow would be sold.  She would be put in a truck, taken from the only home that she knew, crowded in with other terrified cattle and taken to the slaughter yard. Any exception to that rule was a sign of the respect that the farmer had for his animal, because he always could get a little money for selling an unproductive animal for slaughter.
 
The shorthorn roan has probably born the same year as I. When I was about 12, I recall my dad saying to my mother that she wasn't going to have a calf.  Not long after, my father came to me with a halter and the 12-gauge slung over his shoulder.  We went into the barnyard and my father called to her. She hadn't yet gone into the pasture because she was starting to move more slowly. It is likely that she hadn't got pregnant was because she was sick. She walked up to us and my dad put the halter on her. We walked east, down the section line.
 
Hills were in short supply in that country, but there was a hill a mile away, on the northeast corner of the main section of our farm. My dad or I could cover a mile in 15 minutes, but she just ambled along and when she wanted to stop and eat grass, my dad let her. It took us almost an hour to get to the hill. The hill was about 40 feet high and she stopped several times as we ascended it. Each time, my father would run his hand over her back - a tender gesture that also drove away flies - and he spoke to her in encouragement.
 
When we got to the top, dad turned her to the southeast with her back to the wind. He scratched her ears and and put his fingers below her nose and she sucked on them and he shot her in the head.  Instantly, she dropped to the ground.  My heart was in my mouth because I feared she was still alive.  Nothing moved but her hair, mussed by the wind. My father's leathery face was impassive. His bright blue eyes looked at something very far away. Without a word between us, we walked down the hill.
 
I came to visit her frequently over the next few months as she gave herself up to the redwing blackbirds and the badgers and the foxes. Winter closed in and by that time I was milking three or more cows by hand in the morning and in the evening. A younger cow was now mentoring new milkers.