Returning from the junction of Colorado and Thomas roads in Franklin County I stopped at Pleasant Hill Cemetery for a brief rest and befriended a cow who, with three calves, had also made her way into the trees for a bit of shade. She was eating leaves from a scraggly Osage Orange, gingerly pulling the leaves from the thorny branches. I decided to call her Sadie Mae and scratched her head, which was probably a useless gesture since hedge thorns and barbed wire didn’t seem to make much of an impression on her, though she did take the opportunity to carefully sniff my arm.
Sadie Mae is the kind of peaceful cow who has inspired vegetarianism in many cultures through the ages. I felt a pang of guilt for having suggested to her that humans were friendly companions, especially in front of the calves, who had decided I was dangerous until Sadie Mae walked over to demonstrate how benign the human is.
There is a heavy concentration of early prints from the Low Countries that feature cows in leading roles, no doubt due to the central importance of cows to the economic and geographic landscape of the Netherlands. In 1510 Lucas van Leyden engraved an unforgettable image of a cow between two peasants, and Paulus Potter and Nicolaes Berchem’s prolific production of cow prints in the seventeenth century suggests there was a real demand for such images.
Carl Wilhelm Kolbe’s brilliant etchings of cows amidst reeds (illlustrated here) argue for the centrality of ruminants in a peaceable, if largely botanical, kingdom, while Kolbe’s near contemporary, Goya, changed the formula from one of agricultural harmony and bucolic fantasy to a more aggressive world of bulls and bullfights, carried to embarrassing extremes by his twentieth-century admirer, Picasso. Unable to turn back the clock to Kolbe’s peaceful world, Sue Coe has recently drawn and printed an array of virulent exposés of stockyards and the meat industry, as in her 1990 and 2001 photoetchings, Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat.
I’ve included a self-portrait as an age disclaimer – the shadowy form in the upper right is Sadie Mae lying down in the shade, before we visited face to face, though over the fence.