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On Calves and Children: a Note on Ranch Life
David contemplates the mother and her calf in our field. “How much longer before they take the baby away?”
I consider the size of the little one, much bigger than when we were last here in April. “I’m guessing Big Mike will do a roundup in mid-to-late July. That’s what he usually does.”
My son thinks for a moment. “So, they have one more month together?”
“If that, yes.”
Summer vacation has begun at my family’s ranch in the East Bay hills. We haven’t owned our own cattle in a few generations. My great-great-grandfather’s branding irons are on display in the old house living room; they have not touched flame or flesh in my lifetime. We do, however, lease our land for grazing. It’s a three-for-one deal for the ranch: we get a nominal fee, our grass gets eaten down before fire season, and we are classified as a working farm for property tax purposes. The man we call “Big Mike” owns very little land of his own but has title to a few thousand head of Black Angus; for pennies an acre and the promise of fire protection, he rents vast swathes of grazing land from private property owners and the regional park district. We’ve had Big Mike’s cows (and the occasional bull) on our property for more than 30 years.
When I was a child who wanted to be a cowboy more than anything in the world, my Uncle Stanley took me to my first roundup at a neighboring ranch. I wore my hat, my checkered shirt, my plastic six-shooter. I sat proudly astride Ginger, the gentlest of our horses. Uncle Stanley rode the more cantankerous Senator, and together we made our way to a great corral on the slope of Mission Peak. Stanley and I sat on our horses at a distance and watched as the real cowboys separated calves from mothers. Again and again, a man and a horse would dart into the space between a cow and her calf, driving them apart forever. The mooing was desperate and heart-rending. The corral filled up with panicked calves, pressing against each other, turning again and again in confusion.
I’d seen cattle branded. I’d held a plastic bucket into which testicles had plopped as he who might have been a bull became a steer. That was bloody and smoky, but it was exciting. The branded and neutered calves would rise from the dust and race to their mothers, who would nuzzle them. This separating at the corral was altogether different, and as a boy who hadn’t quite put two and two together about what being a cowboy was, it was shattering.
I had grown up seeing the long wooden ramp that led from the corral to… nowhere. It looked like something built for jumping bikes or motorcycles. One could imagine Evel Knievel himself rocketing into the air off such a ramp, clearing a dozen school buses. Only now did I see that the ramp could lead to the back of a great truck, and the calves would be herded up it and onto the machine that would take them to the finishing lots and the slaughterhouses. I remember the rhythm of the cowboys’ shouts; the frantic mooings, the clatter of hooves on the wooden ramp, the finality of the truck door shutting, the whining of the brakes as the fully loaded truck eased its way down the dirt road to the pavement.
I didn’t cry, but there was no mistaking my stricken face. “If you’re going to eat steak, Hugo, you have to count the cost,” said Uncle Stanley, deploying a phrase that I repeat to my children often.
The mothers mooed desperately for two days after the calves were taken away. On the third day, they fell silent. “After three days, the mothers forget about their babies,” said my mama, repeating what she had been told all her life. I don’t know if my mother believes that, but even as a boy, I found it implausible. Any child who grows up with even the mildest of traumas knows that the end of tears is not a reliable sign that injury has been forgotten. It is not silly anthropomorphism to consider that our dinner grieves.
I went vegan for several year in the mid-aughts. I joined PETA and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and I made unfortunate, indefensible, impassioned comparisons between what I had witnessed in the ranch hills to what the Nazis did to my father’s grandparents. I can’t stay a militant anything for long; the stridency of the hardcore vegans made me uneasy. Certainty is a helluva drug and outrage is an alluring addiction, but they wear off, and that was the end of it for me and PETA.
I started eating eggs again, then chicken, and finally steak. I remembered the cowboys of my childhood, and their great gentleness; they weren’t Nazis. They were doing what had been done for generations and investing that tradition with kindness. The terrible mooing of separation did not get easier to hear, but instead of demanding an end to ranching I would whisper a quiet prayer. My vegan friends would say I became inured to suffering. They would say I have become complicit in the Great Crime, and when they have said that (because they do), I smile, nod, and say, “Perhaps.” They never like that answer, and I wouldn’t either if I were them, but it’s more honest than anything else I might say.
The roundups happen elsewhere now. The loading ramp that led from golden pasture and mama to the captive-bolt gun and exsanguination hasn’t been used since the Reagan Administration. The ramp has all but crumbled away, only a few posts remaining. I took this photo at dawn today.
David says he loves cows, but he loves hamburgers too, and he accepts that his desire for the latter means the death of the former. It is not a failure of empathy any more than any recognition of life’s cycles is a failure of empathy. He may change; he may go through a vegan phase, and give up meat and leather, and do all he can to live without causing harm. He will say he will see it through, and not make the compromises we made. Perhaps his sister will decide the same; if so, I will buy the bean patties and the Quorn bacon and say, “I honor your commitment to live without violence. Let me know how I can strengthen you.”
And if that moment never comes, all I ask is that he be solemn and reverent about the reality of how his food comes to him, and that he be thankful for the ranchers and packers and truckers and butchers. I ask him to be kind to the animals and consider the paradox of what it means to sustain our lives by taking others.
“It’s a beautiful day,” observes David. “It’s not too hot, and they have plenty of grass.” My son looks at the trough. “And there’s plenty of water too.”
I agree that all this is so. David addresses the mother and calf: “Today is a good day. There’s nothing to be afraid of today.”
That’s the best deal any of us get, I suppose.