What my 3,000-pound steer has taught me about faith.

Stories from the farm.
Nov. 26 2008 6:55 AM

Holy Cow!

What my 3,000-pound steer has taught me about faith.

Steer.
Elvis the steer with a buddy

I've attended churches, Quaker Meetings, synagogues, and Buddhist temples. I've taken yoga and read Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, and the Bible. I pray often. But I had an unsettling realization recently, which is that my steer Elvis already has the spiritual equanimity I have been seeking. He is comfortable within himself, has no discernible anxiety, rolls with life as if it were a gentle wave, is uncomplaining, generous and loyal to his mate, and trusts and accepts people.

Cold, rain, snow, flies, ticks, mud, and muck—none disturbs him. He is as peaceful covered in ice as he is taking in the sun with the Guernsey steer, and his pal, Harold.

Elvis is affectionate in his own way. He eats hats and loves doughnuts, he drools generously on my head and shoulders, and his tongue is impressive. Once, he licked me and sucked the scarf right off my shoulders, just before he ate it.

Elvis, who weighs 3,000 pounds, is the size of a small mobile home, a vast sea of brown with big, soulful brown eyes that suggest, perhaps misleadingly, sadness and wisdom. I need a wide-angle lens just to take a decent photo of him, and more than once, he has swung his head toward me in a burst of affection and sent me flying. He is always puzzled by this, obviously having no idea of his size or strength.

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He loves to have his nose and ear scratched and will lower his head, rub against me, and nearly purr if I brush his neck. I am the only person he will permit to get close for bug-spraying and medications. If Elvis does not want you to come near him, you will not.

I once tried to tie him to the side of the barn so that the vet could examine a wound on his leg, and he pulled the side of the barn about three feet into the pasture before I panicked and cut the rope. Elvis goes where he wants to go. In the days before I got the cow Luna to keep him company, he would routinely walk right through my expensive fences to visit me, pulling up stakes one by one like a cartoon character and dragging hundreds of yards of fence easily behind him. I have electrified the fence, and the high-voltage shocks seem to annoy him mildly, but not so much that he won't graze right underneath them.

Elvis the steer.
Elvis mugs for the camera

Elvis is as smelly as he is big, and he travels in a cloud of bugs, waste, dust, and drool, punctuated by grunting, belching, and various emissions of gas that literally do take your breath away if you are downwind. When he is wet, he is especially game and raunchy. He has peed on my shoes and taken a staggeringly impressive dump right in the middle of a conversation. When Elvis runs to say hello, you have to be alert, because he usually can't stop, and you have to make sure there is room to step aside while he lumbers to a halt. Once he swiveled his butt into a small tree and knocked it over with a crack. Then he ate the bark and the leaves.

I have trained him to slow down, and to "stay" briefly, but Elvis is not really into training. And why should he be? He pretty much does what he wants.

I am finding in Elvis the spiritual life I have been searching for myself. A few months ago, I brought Elvis a volume of W.B. Yeats poems. I don't like poetry much, but I often read poems to Elvis, as he seems to love them, swishing his tail to keep the flies off his gargantuan butt. Elvis has his own rhythms. He is usually in the same place at the same time doing the same thing—eating, mostly—every day. I've read St. Augustine's City of God to him, some James Herriott, Merton, and Carl Sandburg, to appeal to his masculine side. I've read from C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, and more recently, I climbed to the top of the hill and read from an anthology of haiku, which seemed appropriate for such a centered, easygoing creature.

I read two or three Yeats poems to him and put the book down, and Elvis ate the paperback, almost inhaled it, really, and enjoyed it as much as any donut. Then he looked up at me, as if to say, "What's next, bub?"

What was next was my sitting down next to him and the two of us spending a lovely hour chewing our respective cuds and staring meaningfully at nothing in particular. I enjoyed it. Elvis is a contemplative, capable of long hours of meditation and observation. Sometimes, it rubs off on me.

I'm a bit jealous. I got these books for me, of course, and I suppose the drive to share them with Elvis comes from my dawning realization that he naturally embraces so many of the traits I have been looking for so long and often with such difficulty. It occurs to me that the price of such equanimity is that you have to be a cow and that to be a human means you struggle to find these things but know in your heart that this is an uneven struggle, filled with successes and victories, ups and downs, crooked lines and gates and fences.