Saturday, November 6, 2010



I retired at 73 to a log cabin, part of which is over 100 years old.  It sits on a dairy cattle ranch, in a valley carved out of the NW Montana mountains by a river that dumps into Pend Orielle Lake.  The mountains are fuzzy with many varieties of fir, pine, spruce, and cedar, mixed with aspen shimmering in the breeze.  There are strip clearings bare of trees, caused by destructive avalanches.  The most wonderful tree is the larch, fuzzy green needles in the spring, and golden orange in the fall before they drop for the winter.

The sky is a more intense shade of blue than it is in civilization; there is no pollution.  There are no poisonous snakes or spiders here.  The water comes off the mountain, from a spring, to a waterfall, to a stream, to a pond. It is naturally filtered, and it has cured my lifetime of indigestion and intestinal issues. 

I decided to take my daughter Daphne and her husband Joel up to see the waterfall in the woods, the source of all the pure mountain spring water that feeds the cattle ranch.  We walked across a pasture, ducked under a 6000 volt “fence” and walked into the woods.  Off in the distance we could see a dozen or so cattle chowing down on the spring grass.

It was a still, quiet day, a few clouds here and there casting shadows as they moved above us.

Daphne is in her forties.  She has dark brown hair streaked with a little grey, hazel eyes, and a gentle and sweet spirit that shines to anyone meeting her.  She is creative and intuitive.  She has been married for seven years to a Preacher’s kid, a calm red-headed man of intellect… analytical, and able to see through the mud of our family’s relationships.  He detaches very well.  Daphne is wearing a parka against the breeze coming up the valley and carrying a glass of pino grigio wine; Joel has on a black t-shirt that advertises a game he doesn’t own, drinking a bottle of Moose Drool beer.  I’m drinking a Coors.  It’s the 4th of July weekend. They have come from eastern Vancouver, Washington, on the Columbia gorge to a different world from anything either has ever experienced. 

We were just hanging out under the fir trees, watching the waterfall, when we turned around and a whole gang of cattle were calmly walking up the trail toward us.   It looked so pretty seeing this group of beautiful Jerseys looking up at us sweetly, from lower down the trail… it was a real Kodak moment, and Daphne snapped some pictures.  At the time, we didn’t realize that a bull was among them until he made his presence known, stepping up ahead of his girls.  He arrived with an attitude, wanting to make sure we knew that he had the biggest ones. 

Everyone reacts to danger in a different way.  It’s programmed into our neurons at an early age.  Daphne sees reality immediately, no nonsense.  Fear is appropriate.  I go into “function now, cry later mode,” especially when my child is threatened.  Joel goes into cool detachment.  He called over to us, “I could offer him some beef jerky, but somehow that seems wrong.”

It only took a couple of minutes for the bull to calm down and decide he wanted to get to know Joel.  He kept nudging Joel, following him wherever he went to escape.  He seemed to think that Joel was the guy who would give him food, or at least play with him.
Joel was pretty tolerant and unflappable in his first encounter with a real bull.  This was a magnificent animal of several hundred pounds, medium brown face and head, fading back to lighter shiny beige fur.  Free range cattle, grazing at will, sleeping on hay or grass anywhere they wanted are a dying phenomenon.  The corporation milk farms do not really have happy cows, despite the ad campaigns.  This was a very happy bull. 

This bull was determined that someone was going to play with him.  It’s hard to argue with an animal weighing that much.  Really hard. When he would come toward me, I would reach out and scratch his forehead.  He liked it.  Too much.  But it was Joel he was fixated on.  This was a toy, if he could only figure out how to play with it.  I began to laugh.  This giant thing was in play mode.  Daphne kept telling me, “MOM!  This is not funny!”  Laughter still seemed a viable mode of operation at the moment.  I could not afford to view this through Daphne’s logic.

Daphne was in deep reality of the moment; she was scared spitless.  This thing was dangerous, and he was pursuing her husband.  Some action was required to defend him.  “Honey, are you all right?” She could not come up with a practical way to assist, except to express fear.  Joel was in no mood to have a conversation.  He would get a tree trunk between him and the bull, and the bull thought, “Oh, goodie, he’s playing hide and seek.”  Joel hopped from tree to tree, keeping sometimes inadequate trunks between him and the huge animal chasing him, around trees.  If we hadn’t been in a forest, there would have been hell to pay, with nothing to hide behind.  The bull thought peeking around the trunk was great fun, and kept on.  He showed no interest in quitting.

Meanwhile his harem of females watched placidly, with the exception of one very large black angus lady, who wanted to be petted.  By me.  Now.  Don’t stop.  She was beautiful, but her size was also intimidating. 

The bull circulated among Joel, Daphne, and me.  Whenever he was distracted by someone, one of us could move downhill and hide behind another tree.  Again, if there had been no trees, or if one of us had been alone, the playful giant would probably have broken something essential.  I said, to nobody in particular, “That huge thing is NOT CHUCK!  I don’t know who he is.”

We worked our way downhill, as the bull nudged us, gently for him, but his size was such that we were in danger of dropping to our knees.  He was playing, but we knew that there was little protection from the sheer weight of him, as he bumped.into us.   When he ran happily after us, he was faster than you would imagine something that huge could be.  After choosing to pursue Daphne for the third or fourth time, she lost all semblance of cool and screamed at him with a combination of terror and indignation, “Stop it!  Go away.  Leave me alone.”  Hysteria did not deter him in the slightest. He bumped her on the hip, she screamed, and soon discovered the empty wine glass in her jacket pocket had shattered.   Polite to the end, she said, “Mom, I’m sorry, your wine glass is broken,” as she ducked behind another tree.

It finally occurred to me to get a stick, and I yelled, “Get big sticks.  Remember who has dominion!”  We picked up sticks from the forest floor, and began to work our way down, but away from the path they used.  He seemed reluctant to step over fallen logs, which was our advantage.  But he never took his eyes off Joel.  This was his favorite, his wonderful new toy.

Joel and I hit the edge of the forest, and the end of our protection.  Daphne, after some protest, “I’m not leaving these trees!” followed.  Joel said, “Split up, so if he knocks one of us down, the other can wail on him with a stick.”  OK.  We headed along the edge of the pasture, filled with two-foot high grass.  The bull was in no mood to quit.  In fact, he leapt in the air, kicking his legs out behind him twice, like a young heifer, he was feeling such glee.

Joel and I began our campaign of driving the bull ahead of us, with Daphne trailing along behind.  Leaving the cover of the trees was truly frightening.  The bull was in no mood to lose the best game he had ever found, other than his harem, that is.

Joel and I began to use our sticks to swat him and push him ahead of us.  Joel’s stick broke on him.  Joel bent over in front of the bull to pick up the stick while the bull watched intently.  The bull came toward me and I slapped him on each cheek, trying to avoid his eyes.  Why I gave a damn about his eyes, I can’t tell you.  There is such as thing as being too nice when under attack by a mindless bull.  As we pushed toward the ranch corrals, the females broke into a run, and we wondered why, but gratefully ran behind them toward the electric fence.  The bull saw his females escaping and gave up the game to chase after them.

They must have thought we had food in the corral.  Joel ran up and slammed the open gate closed, just before the bull was about to come back out to play some more.  I yelled over to Daphne behind me somewhere, “Get under that electric fence NOW and keep your ass down.”  It’s just a thin little ribbon of plastic, with 6000 volts flowing through it, but it gave us the first moments of safety we had felt for almost an hour. 

Despite the fear, I will never forget the amazing sight of a huge Jersey bull playing in such unrestrained joy.  I found out later who the bull was.  His owner says his name is Dale.  I maintain his name is Chuck.   Who ever heard of a bull named Dale, anyway?  He grew from a ratty looking teenager into the most magnificent bull ever.  Whatever we humans call him, I’m sure that his ladies think he is quite wonderful.  He is playful.  An essential quality in a bull or a man.

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