There is a small herd of cattle in our neighborhood. They belong to an older couple that lives in the house at the foot of a mountain hillside tucked underneath our small-town cemetery. When I first drove out to see the house we would purchase and make our home, I noticed the cows right away. They were a mixed bunch – black and brown and tan and white, some spotted, others plain. I fell in love with a house and lot that day, due in no small part to the cows grazing on the nearby hillside that reminded me of other fields where my grandfather raised our family’s herds. I passed the cows each time I drove out to the house for one of the many inspections you schedule when purchasing a home. I was eager to make friends with my new neighbors. “Here, pretty girls,” I called out the window of my car, remembering how my grandmother greeted those entrusted to her care. Even as she declined, my grandmother could trace most of the cows’ bloodlines back several generations. She was always ready to point out the good mothers, those who could fatten their calves year after year.
Since moving into our new home, I begin and end most of my days in the cemetery at the top of the hill. It’s a beautiful place to walk and I like the quality of quiet rarely found among the living. Sometimes, the cattle graze on the other side of the field and I don’t see them. When I’m lucky, they’re right by the fence and I stop for a while. In the evenings when the wind is just right, the air smells like sunshine and manure. Breathing deeply, I am both home.
A few weeks ago, I was out early with our new dog. I dearly love this 95-pound excuse to start my day with a brisk walk. We were headed up to the cemetery when I first noticed that the cattle up ahead looked different. All of the usual suspects were gone and a new herd was standing in for my favorites. I know what it means to move cattle, having watched and helped my grandfather rotate herds to different pastures on the farm before loading them up to sell at auction. I should have been expecting a change in lineup. “My” cows had been growing and were probably ready to sell. And still, as I gazed out across unfamiliar faces, I was surprised.
There was no goodbye or final morning check-in across the fence. They were simply gone, replaced overnight by a new herd that will join my morning gaggle this year. This witness-bearing to the raising and releasing (and also the slaughtering) of one’s neighbors gives me pause, even as I step up to a well-rounded plate each and every meal. There is more than one way to honor life and death. Perhaps there’s something to greeting each day – and each creature – with enough love and wonder that you can bear a goodbye foreclosed. Perhaps there’s something about the paths from which we can see death and departure as simply part of the journey. I wonder what we can learn from loving – fiercely, tender – all that will inevitably leave us, sometimes with precious little warning? I wonder what it means to count ourselves, too, among that which passes away? The auction block hovers over far more than the neighborhood food supply. What happens when we are judge, jury, and executioner?
I am still getting used to this new herd of cattle and am grateful for their presence, even as my eyes keep looking for what is no longer there. It’s clear that I’ll have opportunity to practice leave-taking again next year. I wonder what I’ll be seeing and asking when it comes time to bid this group farewell. Until then, there are lifetimes to spend honoring the fullness of this season and all that it gives and takes away.