April 2, 2014

Reflections on Cattle

I'm standing on a dirt road looking out over flat, interminable pasture as the swollen red sun descends rapidly below the horizon. It occurs to me that WE are the ones actually moving, not the sun, but it's impossible to feel. The cattle are dark brown, milky white and beige. They are grazing serenely as the glow of the sunset touches them. Some of them have climbed atop a dirt mound to get a better view over the sea of green and gold. I feel like a cowgirl, or a rancher. I feel like I'm in the Wild West, surveying my rangeland, with a few palm trees and strange bird calls to remind me I'm sub-tropical. But I don't own this land, and even if I did, I wouldn't. Land ownership has always been a strange concept in my mind. It's a system that only humans recognize, after all. There are whole ecosystems going about their business without anyone's say-so. Cattle, who graze among the hum and buzz at their feet, represent a crucial link between these apparently disparate worlds.

Here in rural Paraguay, we cohabit the scenery with these large, docile creatures. We share the roads with them, like in India. And they are sacred, but not like in India. Here their sanctity stems from what they provision. There are some that treat them carelessly, to be sure, but for those of us not part of the agro-industrial complex, their health and well-being is very important. Just days ago we observed with great interest as our elderly neighbor supervised a recently born calf's first hours in this world. His clumsy attempts to get the calf to stand and walk were futile, while its mother's encouraging tongue - and time - did the trick. Some things, when hurried, provide disastrous results - a cake, a birth, the grand processes of Nature.

Cattle are definitively not hurried creatures, though they startle easily. Paraguayan cattle provide some of the richest meat in the world and their milk comprises an important part of the Paraguayan diet. Queso paraguayo is fresh, white cheese made simply by heating and culturing raw cow's milk. The cheese is neither seasoned nor aged, and as such is not very flavorful, but perfect for cooking and baking. Paraguayans, according to my observations thus far, are great lovers of lactose. Milk, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream. Yogurt is sold in bags you can stick a straw in. People prefer drinkable over spoon-able yogurt here. A bag of yogurt can be a refreshing treat on a hot day. Paraguayan ice-cream, in my opinion at least, should be considered a national treasure.

In the end, human development has led us here: we care for animals with the purpose of consuming them. It is strange, and some may consider it barbaric. But when done right, there is mutual benefit to be had. On our farm, for example, cattle enjoy the life their oversize hearts desire. The open pasture is theirs - as much as we have the means to provide. During the lean times when the grass is thin they feast upon organic sugar cane. They drink from natural springs. Their health, comfort and well-being is seen to year-round. We know that when they live the life they deserve, we get the quality of meat that we desire. Their contentment is our contentment.

In sum, I can't put it much better than Temple Grandin, according to the HBO movie: "Of course they're gonna get slaughtered. You think we'd have cattle if people didn't eat 'em everyday? They'd just be funny-lookin' animals in zoos. But we raise them for us. That means we owe them some respect. Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be."

A bit of nuzzling before moving  from their feeding pasture to their sleeping pasture.