For a long time I ridiculed those with a fear of cows. As a 7 year old boy, in Italy, I was “helping” our neighbours to muck out their stable.
The cows went out to pasture and we shovelled their sh*t. There was Viola, the mad one, but otherwise no reason to be scared of cows.
Not so long ago my wife called me from a field to say there was a cow looking at her in a funny way. She was frightened. I laughed. She's not one of us outdoorsy types, you see!
I remember climbing in the Alps, as an eighteen year old, and my climbing partner was afraid of these horned, but docile, creatures dotted around the alpine meadows. I thought him a fool.
Then, last year, I was out for a walk late one evening when a cow decided to stand in my way. I slowed, but continued to approach with what I thought was the swagger of a cowboy. In the ditch were two calves. The cow just started running towards me. Charging. Properly aiming at me. I shelved my John Wayne impression and ran like a child, legs flailing, fuelled by a violent surge of panic.
The fear was real when I said this to my husband, about halfway through the first day of our mid-March walk along the South Downs Way. We’d spent the morning slogging through mud: the path from Lewes to the Way was well trodden (by horses) and churned into a messy graveyard of chalky, gooey muck.
Every time we passed an animal on the South Downs Way, memories of a mishap on the South West Coast Path sent adrenaline pumping through my veins.
The Great Cow Incident of 2017.
We’d been walking the stretch of the SWCP between Boscastle and Tintagel and had to cross through a pasture where cows were grazing. No big deal: I told Joe that we’d need to be careful, as cows could charge especially if calves were near. He laughed my warning off, even as his smile faltered when a sign on the gate echoed me—BEWARE. STOCK GRAZING. KEEP DOGS UNDER CONTROL. Well, we didn’t have any dogs. What was there to worry about?
Charging cows with calves. That’s what there was to worry about.
We heard them before we saw them: a herd of cattle charging over the ridge to our left, pursuing a man, a woman, and their dog. We’d seen the couple on the path earlier in the day and heard them discussing dogs and cows and going around, as you do when you’re vaguely eavesdropping but distracted by the views, but now we were all ears. Our paths had crossed again and we were about to pay the price for that tenuous, fleeting relationship.
I remember saying something like “We’re going to die!” while the fear tears threatened to blind me just as the clouds themselves began their own blubbering and the mud sucked at my boots and the wind clawed at my hair and the hooves stamped and stomped and thundered—
And then a gate led us to safety. Four humans and a dog hurtled through that gate and had never been more thankful to see a fence in their lives. The cows trotted by, snorting and mooing and generally letting us know our place in this world.
“Oh my gosh I’m so scared it’s happening again!”
Back in the South Downs, every second of that April day came flooding back as we stood before the gate to a cow pasture on the South Downs Way, just above Southease. WARNING—but I didn’t even have to read further. I knew what the sign was telling us.
Maybe we could go around? We searched this way and that, high and low, left and right, for a way, but all we could see were cows, cows, everywhere, more cows than you could think. Cows, cows, everywhere, and both our hearts did sink.
We had to go through. There didn’t appear to be any calves or bulls in the field and most of the cows were grazing towards the middle of the pen. The path was clear. If we just walked along calmly, quietly, but not too quietly so we wouldn’t startle them, but not too loudly so we wouldn’t startle them, we could make it to the other side.
Everything started out fine, all parties minding their own business. But then we came over a low rise and saw it: a cow in our way. The words I whispered to Joe are too colorful to reproduce here. Suffice it to say that we deliberately slowed down, hoping the cow would move off the path so we could get to the gate. It was so close, but the cows were also close now. They had crept in, snuck closer to the path. A big white cow started mooing. She was gathering her forces, calling her army to her.
Then the black cow crossed our path and started towards the white one’s call.
“Come on, she’s gone, we have to go!” My voice trembled with joy and adrenaline. Our steps quickened along the path, as much as they could with mud sucking at our boots; we were getting nearer and nearer the gate on the other side.
“I don’t want to scare you, but they’re coming.” Said Joe. I glanced back and saw the cheeky black cow and a couple of her friends trotting along the path behind us.
“Should we run?” I asked as I started to run.
“No! It’ll make them chase us!”
What torture, to trudge and slip and slide through muck and goo with a band of huge bovines at your back, inching along while they moved like speedboats across calm water. The gate in front of me disappeared and all I pictured that scene from Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, where Sir Lancelot can’t seem to make it across the field to the castle to rescue the singing prince.
I looked back and the cows were still just ambling towards us.
It seemed illogical, afterwards, to have been so petrified as I walked through the field, almost embarrassing, but that’s human hubris, the self-comfort we give when we understand, in a very real and immediate way, the potential for danger and death when we’re outside the walls and doors and paths we’ve created to give us an illusion of safety.
I think it’s important to have those moments, whether we’re praying we’ll make it through a field of cows unscathed, or watching the sun break through the storm clouds over the cliffs, or standing with one foot on either side of the Meridian Line. We need to be reminded of our own fragility, of the ease with which the cows’ hooves bury our footprints in the mud as they tread this path we’ve called our own; the way the wind howls over the cliffs and rips the breath from our lungs, carrying it out and up, up, up, until it’s gone.