You see things in the country you’d never see in a stiff city neighborhood. Beyond the broken vehicles and houses on last-legs, the eyesores that community covenants and HOAs don’t allow, you can see the world as it really is—tending toward disorder, prone to chaos. It’s a reminder to intervene and tend the garden, take dominion, rule thoughtfully—because houses and yards and vehicles and pets and whole families fall right down like the fragile things they are if we just leave them alone. We need to help things live and thrive as long as we can; then we need to help them out of this world graciously, gracefully.
There is a cow by the side of the rural highway that died, presumably of natural causes, over a month ago. It just fell over right by the fence, laying down to this world next to passing cars and trucks and school buses. The owners, rather than getting their tractor and hauling it out of sight, rather than digging a grave, chose to leave it where it lay.*
I first noticed it on my drive to town early one morning because it looked as though snow had covered it, and there was no snow anywhere else. Cows and horses look so awkward in a horizontal orientation, legs sticking straight out, and I always wonder if they are sleeping or actually dead. But I’ve never noticed an animal powdered in this way, like snow on the peaks. We’ve decided the powder must be lime to help with the smell and keep the buzzards away. We’re not true ranchers so what do we know? But we are watching it, noting its progress into the soil, its still white-powdered-hide shrinking over jutting bones like a dust sheet covering the furniture in a forgotten room. At some point I imagine it will be just bones and the owners will haul them away, the show will be over, and the next powdered-cow I see will not be this novelty next to the highway. I’m not sure if this is the most gracious way to help a carcass out of this world, but it must be more convenient. It’s certainly a slow process.
These kinds of things are topics of conversation for us. Did you see the dead cow? I’m watching it diminish on my weekly treks for groceries and the six thousand basketball games we attend, our normal January life passing normal December death each time—death and life passing by, one always waiting for the other. It’s normal because things are daily dying and there’s nothing new about that. But it’s not normal because we tend to hide away the death-part of life, and seeing that carcass slowly melting into the landscape every time I drive to town is like an uncovering…the way of all things is just slowly into dirt. We don’t talk about the dead cow daily, but you can bet that when the bones and hide are finally removed someone will mention it again. We’ll notice its absence.
The busy world doesn’t care about a dead cow next to a rural highway, slowly processing itself into dirt. Truthfully, I don’t actually care about it either, but it’s temporarily interesting and a good metaphor for what we do with nature and natural things. We can over-tend or under-tend; reveal too much or cover too much. And when we make mistakes, which are a natural part of being human, there’s a certain way to handle them, to cover without letting grace be an excuse; to reveal without letting justice be a weapon. I suppose it’s all a balance and I’m never doing it perfectly, but I am embarrassed for our mistakes.
In the end, I think the owners of the cow made the right decision.
*There are no dead cows in this picture. You’re welcome.