Holy Cow

This blog has had a long hiatus. Between a summer unit on sustainability, a month-long family vacation to Britain and Ireland, and plenty of other things besides, I couldn’t find a moment to sit down and think up a blog post, never mind write one. Then, as I was going through some recent photos, I remembered an idea I’d had months ago, around the end of November.

The inspiration for this idea is an interesting one. I was walking by the river with my mum when we encountered an eye-catching art installation. It consisted of four life-sized cow sculptures, decorated with various methods and materials. They were placed at three sides of the small playground there, and each cow was accompanied by a name and a description.

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The first cow was titled ANI – Animal Spirit, by Stuart McMillan. It was decorated with adhesive contact vinyl and enamel spray paint. It’s description read:

In many cultures cows are sacred animals, here Start engages the Perth community in a conversation of what animal spirit, symbol or icon is important to them. We are ultimately all connected to the earth, animals and organisms that inhabit it. ANI is covered in these symbols of importance and painted, leaving an imprint of human history.

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The second cow, more ordinary at first glance, was titled GAIA – Natures Wonder, also by Stuart McMillan. It was decorated with peat moss, soil, plastic fittings, stockings, hessian, seedling and grass mixture and acrylic paint. It’s description read:

GAIA reflects on human impact in the wider natural environment, GAIA has been seeded by the Perth community with a vast edible garden. She embodies how we can improve our lives with a nurturing approach to the environment, with sustainable farming, and caring for the land with a symbiotic relationship.

 

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The third cow was more eye catching. The work was titled 40 litres a day…, by Kerrie Argent.  It was decorated with acrylic paint and plastic milk bottle lids. Flowers made from milk bottle lids were also scattered in the surrounding grass. The description read:

A milking cow can produce up to 40 litres of milk a day. How many litres to they supply us in their lifetime? Here Kerrie encourage the public to think about the connection of the cow to milk, and to the importance of our land, primary industry, and farmers.

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The fourth cow was something different again. It was titled Guernsey/Jersey, by Kerry Argent. It was decorated with acrylic paint, rusted recycled knitted materials, wool and plastic. The description read:

Guernsey/Jersey is a docile common house cow and milking cow. Historically milk provided the nourishment and security during hard times, and protected the population from starvation. Guernsey/Jersey was also an old fashion name for jumpers and cardigans that were used to keep warm and protected people from the cold. Looking at the common threads of protection, warmth and security Kerrie worked with the Perth community to create a Guernsey/Jersey Cow.


 

The instalment of these cows and their accompanying explanations led me to thinking that the cow is undervalued in modern Western society. It is an animal that provides us with many widely consumed products, and in Australia is a vital part of our economy, and yet we rarely speak of cows with the respect or appreciation that they deserve.

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A small selection of dairy products.

This was not always so. Historically the Celtic peoples regarded cows and bulls as the most important animals that a person could own, above horses and dogs. In fact, not only the most important animal, but the most important possession. Gold, silver and other items were highly valued in Celtic societies, but the true measure of a person’s wealth was their cattle. A similar view was held by the neighbouring Germanic peoples. This also was and continues to be the case many African societies, e.g. Maasai and Zulu. It’s no wonder, because cows provide a plethora of valuable products. Milk and all of it’s derivatives (cream, butter, cheese, etc.) are not only enjoyable to eat but are an excellent source of both nutrition and calories. The later is a bit of a bother in modern, First World Societies, but historically and in many places presently it could be crucial to survival. Beef is a good source of protein and calories, as well as several important vitamins and minerals. In some societies people also drink fresh blood from their cattle.

 

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A Maasai warrior prepared to defend a cattle herd.

Then there is leather, for making clothes, shoes, bags, shelters, horse-riding equipment and armour. There are horns and bones for making musical instruments, eating and drinking utensils and many other items. Even cow manure can be used for fertiliser, building materials and fuel. Last, but certainly not least, is the labour that cattle can provide in working the fields, without which many people would have gone hungry. Essentially, for many people and for a lot of human history, you just couldn’t do without cows. And cattle were so valuable to many peoples that they were willing to risk their lives for possession of them. The practice of cattle raiding continues today in many parts of Africa, but it was once common across Europe and parts of Asia as well.

 

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An Indian woman decorates a cow with marigold garlands and vermillion powder.

In India the cow was so highly valued that it came to be sacred in the Hindu religion. Hindus do not worship cows, as is commonly thought, but have a deep respect for them. Cows are relied on for their dairy, manure and labour, and loved for their gentle natures. For this reason most Hindus consider it sacrilegious to eat beef, and it is in fact illegal in most of India. Cows participate in Hindu religious festivals, where they are decorated with paint, cloth and garlands, and given special feed.

 

In most cultures cows and bulls have a strong association with the earth, and with fertility and nourishment. There is a cow goddess in both the Hindu and Ancient Egyptian religions. Cows are part of several creation stories, including Zoroastrian and Norse, and cows and bulls feature in traditional myths and legends around the world. Many cultures recognise constellations as a cow or bull, and cows have also been credited with the creation of the celestial Milky Way.

This is all somewhat in contrast with the modern Western attitude towards cows. For one thing they are often perceived as unintelligent, docile and lazy. The word cow is also used as an insult or very derogatory term for a woman, implying that she is unattractive, overweight or possibly uncooperative. It’s a long way from saying that someone was more valuable than gold.

On the other hand, you have the vegan attitude, i.e. that it’s unethical to consume any kind of animal product, or animal labour for that matter. While I’m not quite of that mindset myself, I do believe that it’s important to support farmers that produce dairy, beef, etc. with a care to both sustainability and the wellbeing of their animals. In that way we can encourage farmers to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard, and hopefully improve our environmental prognosis as well as the lives of cows everywhere. They deserve it, after all.

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