Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Department of Lost Things: Herd Sense

Out at the DoD satellite ag campus, we recently found ourselves idly studying cattle and courting dangerous ideas.  The cows were napping en masse in the shade of some trees.  Then, as one, they all headed into the sun to graze awhile.  Presumably having eaten their fill, they then meandered to the muddy pond for some spa bathing.  Finally, all together, they headed back for the shade and another round of napping. 

We here at the DoD are well familiar with the ways bovine and herd are deployed pejoratively to describe people. And of course, deviant itself is a term that might well invoke the opposite of just these pejoratives, the deviant being that which strays from the herd.  But given that we inhabit an age in which purported independence and non-conformity are all the rage, perhaps the more deviant gesture is to cast a more charitable eye on cattle?  At any rate, what we’re really ruing around here is that too few thinker types ever engaged in farming or indeed any manner of manual labor.  The lack of hard physical work among the intellectual class of course leaves all sorts lacunae in human inquiry, but we’ll stick for now to cattle or, more particularly, exposure to actual cows, as opposed to the fictive cows of thinker-imaginings from the armchair.

 Professional Bovine Types Doing Herd Stuff
In watching the DoD satellite ag campus cattle, we could not help noticing how much plain good sense their behavior makes.  We can’t go so far as to say we want to be like cows, but neither can we find being bovine or part of the herd the insult it is meant to be.  For we were struck by how admirably untroubled those cattle were by anxiety about their group and how none brought any pressure to bear on their peers to come along and follow.  It was more as if when one cow acted as a pilot cow, going off in some new way, the others thought, huh, that looks interesting, let’s try that. 

It’s surely fanciful to suppose that cattle know a good idea when they see it, but there are some more commendable things going on here.  Where human “herds” are depicted as coercive, cattle herds seem significantly more friendly.  Cattle are vulnerable creatures and so their tendency to stick together is sensible.  When a calf gets separated from the herd – say, by straying through a fence – the others tend to wait around rather than leaving it behind to fend for itself.  Likewise, cows appear to babysit each other’s calves, such that an unrelated heifer may take charge of another’s offspring for a bit.  Where calves are concerned, they seem to get that it takes a village.  Or a herd.  Best of all, cattle generally accept newcomers to their herds.  They’re not prima facie suspicious of additions and incomers, but instead tend generally to greet new cows with an unexceptional, “Oh, hey, let’s eat.”  So while they together constitute a bovine herd, it’s not the bovine herd your sneering non-conformist thinker types warn you about.  In fact, it looks a lot like a rather generous solidarity.   

Because of all of this, we can’t help wondering how thinker-types with actual farming experience might have swerved human sociality and solidarity differently.  Or how much more interesting discussion of the individual might get if we could drop the dripping disdain in announcing the “bovine” in others.

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