They say you should never name an animal you plan on eating. Perhaps, but I’ll say one thing: when you know it’s Shaggy on your plate, it sure adds authenticity to your pre-meal prayer. Firsthand knowledge of your dinner’s name brings you face to face with the fact that everything that feeds us—from a beef steak to a beefsteak tomato—has to die to give us life. As Gary Synder so ably puts it, “if we do eat meat, it is the life, the bounce, the swish, of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with four square feet and a huge beating heart that we eat, let us not deceive ourselves.”
Rick Faw taught us a lot in this regard. Rick, who serves as A Rocha’s Education Director, came with his family to live at the Field Study Centre the spring after we arrived. One of the first tasks we bequeathed to him was the care of the cows, a task he gladly accepted, being a closet cow whisperer and all-around animal lover. The image that stays with me from those early days is of Rick, baby Jared on his back and a farm cat at his heels, pushing a wheelbarrow towering with hay through the sodden grass to the pasture. He’d deftly launch the bales over the fence and into the cows’ troughs, pet their foreheads while they munched, and then go on with his other farm chores. This was his morning routine.
In the late afternoons, while Jared napped, Rick returned to the fields to brush the cows. I think he really wanted a dog, or any more sentient sort of pet, but since he had cows, he poured all his pent-up pet affection into them. He’d stand out there, in the cold, in his 1980s bright blue ski jacket, and brush those cows down as if they were Arabian mares and tomorrow was the Kentucky Derby. Markku and I watched all this from our kitchen window and, I must admit, wondered if Rick was making the best use of his time. Surely he could be writing a fundraising letter or planning a talk or following up with potential interns. There was just so much to be done.
Our attitude just goes to show our lack of groundedness. Brushing the cows, by Rick’s own admission, served no practical function. Highland cattle on the moors of Scotland never get their coats brushed and they survive just fine. A few burrs and tangles in no way mitigates their enjoyment of sun, grass and stars. But then Rick wasn’t really concerned with burrs and tangles; the brushing was a way of de-stressing for Rick (and probably for the cows as well). In this way it was both an act of contemplation and even, dare I say, of fellowship. Given his bonding with these beasts you’d think Rick would have been the first of us to go vegetarian (I alone of all the A Rocha staff hold that distinction). But no, he ate the stews and roasts just like everyone else. He did admit, however, that he felt a measure of sadness when eating our cows, but for him this was a good thing, for in his sadness lay the seeds of gratitude.