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By the end of the four-day Tillamook County Fair, I’d made some friends from our dairy-farm community who seeming pleased, if not amused, by my fascination with cows and were happy to introduce me to their Holsteins.

Cow Stomach
My first adventure was with Helen, a large and compact woman, easy going and with the most cheerful smile and disposition I’d ever seen. I was dressed like her in faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and Wellies. But while Helen filled her boots, I clunked along the twenty yards from her old blue pickup to the pasture gate. On the way, I recited what I’d learned about the four parts of a cow’s stomach, and Helen, chuckling at my enthusiasm, confirmed what I’d learned: 

The Rumen holds 150 to 200 liters of partly digested food and is full of good bacteria that softens the food and ferments the carbs to produce energy.
The Reticulum forms the softened food into small lumps of cud which is returned to the cow’s mouth and chewed 40 to 60 times before being swallowed again.
The Omasum processes the cud by breaking it up and also regulates fluid absorption in the intestine.
The Abomasum works somewhat like the human stomach to digest the useful nutrients which are gradually absorbed into the blood.
Helen opened the pasture gate. “Wow,” I exclaimed as we stepped into the vast grassy land where cows—she’d said about a 150—were grazing and ruminating. As we walked, I soaked in the sweet smell of grass, the blue sky, and the feeling that the world of the sacred cows had been opened to me. 
“I think I could turn and live with the animals,” Walt Whitman had written and I began to recite, my eyes closed as I spun around in the wide open space, “they are so placid and self-contained…” Opening my eyes to look, I saw Helen laughing as over her shoulder…cows, a whole pack of them…were running, no, stampeding toward us. And fast. Oh holy shit…not just those cows…but all of the cows were coming at us from every direction. 150 of them bounding like 1500-pound gazelles across the pasture and closing in….

“They’re coming to meet you,” I heard Helen say somewhere in the midst of my terror. She laughed then added, “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” 

Terror had shut me down into a daze when the stampede came to an abrupt stop just feet from us, and the herd packed in solidly around us, big wet pink cow noses nuzzling me, sliming my shirt, the cows behind them trying to push through. I felt jostled. Except gentle. Curious. “You’re a celebrity,” Helen said.

“They’re like cats,” I heard myself say, “only big. Real big.” Then looking into the large dark cow eyes surrounding us, I saw sentient beings and reached out from that giddy place between terror and wonder to touch the forehead of one.
“That’s Milkshake,” Helen said, explaining that she got her name from the way she charges into the barn from the pasture if someone showed up with a chocolate milkshake. 
“I read that cows can pick up a scent from five miles,” I said. 

But then all I’d read about cows—their history, physiology, anatomy, and hierarchical behaviors—and all I knew of them—milk, cheese, ice cream—morphed with these Holsteins and their big pink nuzzling noses and dark cows eyes into something beyond animal nature, something sacred and full of wonder. 

And that sacred thing came to me in a memory of that afternoon when I was four. My mother had seen an ice-cream scoop in the store, and we bought it alone with some vanilla ice cream and cones. At home, she put a scoop of ice cream in saucer. This was wrong I said. But then she put a pointed cone on top of the big round scoop of ice cream, and helped me put sprinkles and chocolate bits on the ice cream to make a clown’s face. More than half a century later, my mother was gone, all those small sacred moments of our lifetime lost, not from memory but from that moment in time when they happened so briefly and casually between everything that seems more important. In the same way we might snack on a piece of cheese. The emotion suddenly felt overwhelming as the 150 1,500-pound Holsteins packed tightly around us

“How do we get out of here,” I asked.
Helen started talking to the cows good-naturedly cajoling and pushing them apart. They gave way, some wandering back out to pasture, some following us to the gate. 

“Well,” Helen asked as she locked the gate, “could you still, what did your poem say, go and live with the animals?”

I laughed. “I’m not sure I would have wanted to be out there alone,” I said. “But maybe I’ll learn not to be so scared. I’m going to pitch calf pens next week.”

Helen’s eyes grew wide. “Who’s idea was that?”
“Mine,” I told her. “I told Matt and Molly I wanted to start at the bottom.”
“Well,” Helen laughed and shook her head, “that’s definitely the bottom.”

After recording the day’s events in my journal that night, I wrote the words SCARED and SACRED and just sat staring at them. 

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