The one where I find my calling as a cowgirl

Unfortunately I don’t have an pictures of this event, nor of the cows. But here’s a goat.

Unfortunately I don't have an pictures of this event, nor of the cows. But here's a goat.

I wrote a lot of short vignettes while we were WWOOFing in Brazil, things that would have made for appropriate blog entries. Unfortunately we did not have internet there. Actually it was really nice not to have internet. Anyway, here is one of them. Perhaps more to come.


Last night I herded cattle. Galloping alongside them in tall grass, trying to avoid stomping in their shit while maintaining the best position relative to the cows and their “barn”, I felt like I’d found my calling.

A little. It took some time to gain a field sense, to understand where to position my body in relation to the animals. I tried to use my dormant sports knowledge. At the beginning, Danny and I were the wings. Our backs were feet away from the fence and no one was getting between us and that sideline. We shuffled back and forth along the field’s edge, listening to calls from our teammates and occasionally cutting in to try to block our opponents. I was even wearing my jersey, as it is one of three shirts I have with me.

There were a few minor differences between this and ultimate of course. We were at the top of a hill, in knee high grass, in flip flops (because this is Brazil, and everything can be done in Havaianas), avoiding poops, and we couldn’t actually see the cows nor our teammates because of all the trees. Otherwise I might as well have been back in college.

Another difference: I felt like an idiot. Pacing back and forth across the top of the hill not even able to see the cows, much less herd them, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. Danny and I were on the point of throwing in the towel when Diego arrived on a white horse (literally). At first he trotted past without giving us any instructions. Reasoning that his lack of communication may have resulted from the fact that he doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Portuguese, rather his not needing our services, we decided to follow him. We didn’t want him to think that we were giving up (which we were) or lazy (which we were). Suddenly we saw the cows. Diego reappeared, vaulted off his horse, and handed Danny the reigns to hold before he set off running around the herd. Since Danny now had a purpose, I followed Diego alone.

Working alongside someone who knew what he was doing, it was much easier to see where I should put my body. Diego would run towards the cows leaving them two general direction in which to flee him, one of which was where we wanted them to go. It was then just a matter of putting myself in the way of the other path.

I was part of the team! I faked and wove and darted, flipping my flops and tripping over the high itchy grass. I felt like I was playing in some vital season determining game much better and more fluidly than I play in most games, even with all the flopping and poop avoiding. Except losing was not an option. Things might take longer if we didn’t do a good job (in fact I’m sure it could have been done much faster by Laura Ingalls Wilder), but we couldn’t not complete the mission. We couldn’t say, “okay cows, you win, you’re ten times bigger and stronger than we are, let’s all high five and go for pizza. Everyone gets a trophy for participation!” No, without completing our task there could be no pizza, because there could be no milk!! But once Diego and I were a team I knew we’d lograr. I knew we’d get it eventually.

When we got the cattle into the little spiral leading to their pen, I manned the door, somehow understanding across language barriers that I was to follow commands of “open” and “close” until the calves were all inside and their moms were not. This way the babes would drink no milk all night and we’d get some in the morning for our pizza (okay actually, when we did make pizza, we bought cheese from the lady down the road who owned 70 buffalos. You can’t really beat buffalo cheese for pizza. And don’t even get me started on buffalo yogurt).  Seems a fair deal. We’d get the morning milk, they’d get the evening milk.

By the time this opening and closing business started, everyone else had gathering around  to watch and make sure the cows didn’t escape again. My adrenaline was already pumping from the rush of bounding quasi-barefoot through the field. Now I had an audience to witness how naturally I took to being a cowgirl. I stood on the balls of my feet, knees bent, arms up agains the gate ready for the Portuguese commands: abrir, fechar. I opened, I closed, I opened, until all the cows were in their places. Then I tied the gate shut, took a breath, and leaned back against the fence to stare at the beautiful creatures I had just corralled. I basked in their essence, feeling like this was where I belonged. I guess I knew some things when I was nine years old and decided I wanted to be a dairy farmer when I grew up. I thought once again of Laura, who got to spend whole days with the cows in her childhood.

My reward this morning was to go alone with Diego to milk the goats and one of the cows. We cleaned their udders with warm water, secured their legs, and squeezed treasure from their teats. Two different types of warm frothy deliciousness. The path down to the house was slick from rain and I was wearing sandals again, so I slid down on my butt rather than risk spilling the milk we’d just worked so hard for.

In the kitchen, the others had been preparing breakfast while we milked. Flushed and dripping from the rain, I entered with a huge grin, strained the milk, and set the prize on the stove to boil with a bit more of a triumphant flourish than was necessary. I drank warm cow’s milk in my coffee and poured goat milk yogurt I had made the day before on my fruit. So did everyone else.

I love dairy.



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