The first time I visited your house, there was a rifle in the corner. I called to mind the latest news reports detailing the violence committed by white men with guns. Then, detecting no tendency toward violence in you, I saw the gun as an indicator of our differences in upbringing, in the ways we came to see the world. You said to me, in not so many words, I am never radical enough for you. And later, You just keep finding new and more creative ways to break up with me. The gun was a gift from your grandfather. You could never put a bullet in any living thing and hadn’t consumed meat in the latter half of your thirty years.
The first time I met a cow, I was with my farmer friends and mentors. B. and B., partners, took me in as an “intern” at their small organic farm when I was twenty-one, a year before I met you. I saw your axe, a gift from your father, and told you how B. taught me to chop down pines to make room in the forest for deciduous trees. (They sequester more carbon into the soil.) Between lessons on swinging axes and resisting taxes in anti-war protest, the couple showed me the deliciousness of raw milk. B. liked to skim the cream from the top of the one-gallon jar to put into his coffee before reading the paper. With them, I broke the law by transporting raw milk across state lines. We picked up T-bone steaks, too. I don’t remember the name of the cow I greeted, but I’m certain her coat was golden, soft. Her milk, velveteen. That summer, over a row of kale transplants, B. told me through locks of her red hair, You are a free spirit. And that is okay.
A strange strand of American exceptionalism goes something like this: The issue with meat consumption now is that the rest of the world wants to eat like the United States. They want sugar, beef, and lots of it. While a student in an environmental politics class, I took part in an activity where we all discovered that if everyone in the world ate like US college students, we would need three earths. The instructor admitted that his own consumption was not so different from ours. The point of the class was not Eat as the United States says and not as the United States eats. But of course, that is what I interpreted from this class; that is how I criticized.
Sometimes I wonder why we spoke so little of cows ushered into narrow chutes before receiving a bolt of pressurized air which pushes through fur and tissue into their brains, or the electrocution and CO2 poisoning of hogs1, the grinding of male chicks, or the bloated immobility of battery-caged hens. There was nothing mentioned in the class about lethal USDA recalls made more disastrous by the vertical integration of meat processors. I realize you, too, never spoke of these realities to me. You aren’t interested in proselytizing.
On my own now, I read of “the historical subordination of women, children, and the lower classes to increase a man’s access to meat [and how it] has allowed such food to be perceived as powerful, patriarchal, and worthy for a man.”2
One day, early on: I don’t feel well and I’m only letting you carry my backpack for me because of this, not because I’m weaker than you. You laughed at what I know now to be a misguided display of feminism. And I want to think I spoke somewhat in jest, but I’m not so sure. What I think now you could have said to me: As a vegetarian man, I am already “actively resist[ing] and/or subvert[ing] the dominant form of hegemonic masculinity by not eating meat.” Instead, you, always loving, carried my backpack through that small town in Oregon. I could walk faster to my destination, always on the go, preoccupied with the world around me.
When I was a little girl, I often became bored in class and went to the bathroom. I didn’t know it was anxiety buzzing through me that made my feet tap, my heart beat fast. My hands became painfully chapped from washing them so often, especially in winter. For this, my mother bought me Bag Balm, an intense moisturizer first concocted in northeast Vermont to prevent the chafing of cow udders. Sometimes she’d switch me to Udderly Smooth, hand cream in a cow-print tube. Udderly Smooth once fell out of my pencil case and the girl who picked it up faster than I could shot me a look that made my cheeks red. My teacher shamed me in front of the class for asking to use the bathroom so often, and though my visits decreased afterward, my hands remained dry. It is winter now, and I’m using the hand cream you knew I’d love: honey-scented, honey-colored, in a little mason jar.
During the year I lived in Oregon, my mother worried constantly over my state of ennui. She often proposed that I eat more red meat, and I always found it ridiculous. I can send you meat in the mail, mija. I said no to her each time, telling myself that I was making up for all of the costly meat I consumed growing up in my mother’s house. So much earth is stripped to plant corn to feed cattle, to fatten pigs. How many chemicals can our farm workers be forced to spray? I ate chicken and beef rarely that year, mostly (shamefully) when you treated me to dinner. Do you mind? I’d be on my best manners. Reducing meat consumption is more realistic for most people anyway, I’d say. Yet a recent visit to the doctor made clear that my blood is significantly iron-deficient. I was anemic when you and I were together. Possible symptoms: fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. But I won’t blame anemia for my torrents of tears. For expecting you to always hold me until I felt better.
The forest might have been the only control in our variable relationship. The old-growth pine trees we walked through are still fixed in my mind, in my dreams. Remember when the forest burned and burned for weeks on end because a child threw a firework into a dry canyon? We watched the orange light flicker and the smoke billow at night from across the river. You’ve saved thousands of trees by not eating meat, an impressive raw number but only a molecule in a drop in the countless gallons of water that eventually put out the fires. Mere thousands of trees in the catastrophe of worldwide deforestation. Me: extreme skeptic or delusional idealist.
Knowing the frequency of forest fires and rising waters will only worsen has me wondering whether I can bring myself to birth a child into this world. Though, for a short time I envisioned what it might be like for you to be the father of my baby. You, me, a porch, a garden, a goat—my mind floated off easily into American dreaming. I’m gonna be an old dad already, you told me. But, also this: You can’t leave Oregon! You’re gardening in the moonlight! You’re wearing wool socks with sandals! But the age difference, my vacillations. It’s been months since I sent you a letter.
In college, my dear friend H. and I helped run a sustainability group. We took the same environmental politics class. We hosted a waste-free pumpkin carving for Halloween. In a double effort to cheer my friend up and get pumpkins for carving, we went to Schuster’s Pumpkin Patch to have cider, roam the corn maze, pet some livestock, and pack pumpkins into my ’99 Toyota.
I want to tell those of you who are not from the corn belt this: stand still and listen closely. The sound of dry corn stalks rubbing leaves in the wind sounds like ocean tide.
By then, H. was my roommate of three years. She’d recently been dumped. She’d dyed her hair purple. At the pumpkin patch, I reached for my phone to take a photo of H. petting a cow, fingering the tag on its furry ear. Her face was without expression, hollowed out further by the harsh purple hair fluttering around her head. I remember thinking, I hope I never suffer from love the way my friend is suffering now.
The ’99 Toyota allowed me to commute off-campus for work. Often crying, I drove for fifteen minutes through cornfields and hills to the office where I interned. A mile and a half away from the office stood Hormel Foods. Frequently, the west side of town smelled like bacon. The USDA approved and praised the recently implemented, high-speed slaughter process used in Hormel plants. I saw online, instead, images of hogs with abscesses and broken limbs sent to slaughter in a Hormel plant. At the time I couldn’t explain my tears, but now I think it was the violence we do to one another. The blow of an underpaid slaughterhouse worker hitting the flesh of a delirious hog; this is what made me cry.
I know I said thank you for buying my friends and me bacon. We were hungover and you are generous. Now what to say? That I’m sorry? But I’ve said that so many times. I could never hate you. I promise.
A ten-pound tube of ground beef sits on my mother’s granite countertop. Mom? Why so much? The beef is red with dots of white fat, not yet brown from oxidizing. She tells me as if letting me in on a secret, a secret a fellow shopper shared with her: Costco receives their beef in this packaging. It’s cheaper to buy this and freeze it than to buy smaller packages. Inevitably, I say something provocative, abrasive. As usual, she brings the conversation back to my future. You should put more effort into finding a boyfriend than you put into politics. She did not mean to puncture as deeply as she did. She even follows me as I walk upstairs to cry in private. Then I am sobbing. I tell her some variation of this: I know. I know. That is why I lost him. I want another chance. She rubs my feet, and perhaps seeing consolation off the table, opts for honesty: You have to forgive yourself, even if you were unkind. It’s over now. But all I can hear is you, all I can feel is you, rubbing my arm and chest telling me, You don’t have to feel so bad all the time.
It takes 17,990 pounds of water to produce ten pounds of beef. It’s over now. It’s over now.
Another friend tells me what she misses most about not being medicated: crying. She no longer cries while playing music on long car drives. How much we all want to feel something sharp in this haze, even if it’s despair. I thought of her comment as I began the drive from Ohio, where I attended grad school, to Illinois for a visit home. Propelled to switch my self-indulgence of crying and driving to eating and driving, I ordered a Whopper from Burger King. I unbuttoned my pants in preparation of eating my first fast-food burger in two years. Ketchup leaked onto my shirt and my seatbelt. Fries fell to the gas and the brake pedals. I reached Illinois bloated and empty.
Your seat belt tightened as you leaned over to retrieve my notes through the window. What are these? you asked, turning the folded, lined paper over in your hands. We were on again, off again. I had very little money. For your birthday, I said. I wrote you poems. You shook your orange pill bottle and said, Good thing I got these.
I dreamt recently that H., her hair its natural brown again, and I were standing in the front room of my childhood home. The first scene of the dream involved she and I chatting when you suddenly appeared: long, brown curls and blue jeans. You aimed to avoid me but I caught your eye. You joked about something I can’t recall and then stepped away to leave. I lit up, ignoring your body language, and launched myself into your broad chest for a hug. You were shocked but hugged me back. I held your head in my hands. Then we immediately started fighting about details which either never became clear in the dream or which I forgot upon waking. H. took you into the hallway and started screaming at you for ignoring me and making me cry. I am certain she would do this in real life, too. I started laughing at your discomfort. I laughed so hard I cried. The dream ended with you running out of the front door and me running after you. I woke up then, not shocked at the sequence of my dream, not needing to look for its meaning.
My mother tells me when you dream of someone, it means they were thinking of you.
Remember in the kitchen, how you carried me like a baby, one arm under my knees and one arm supporting my back? How we cried laughing when I missed a high note? Remember?
H. wrote me a song to help me feel loved during the time I lived in Oregon. The lyrics read:
I hope you understand
You weren’t made for
The soil that your body came from
Don’t be so sad
I’ll be here
When you get back
You told me, I thought you’d stay. I thought you’d fall in love with this place.
I think I told you the ways I found Oregon so topographically similar to the northwest of Spain. I studied for one semester in Santiago de Compostela, in the trees and surging rivers of Galicia. The region resembled Ireland more closely than popular depictions of Spain’s flamenco south. For a few weeks before the semester began, I hiked north from Portugal, eating potatoes, drinking beer cheaper than water, and enduring hard rain. You would have loved the fog and rocky coast, so much like Oregon’s. I intersected with many herds of cows during each long hiking day. Some had horns, but we neared each other with caution. I’d put out my hand and feel the breath from their nostrils. The cows outnumbered us but cleared the way for us to hike on.
Galicia, one of the last regions of Spain to “develop,” works hard to maintain its dairy industry. Yet, due to trade deals with other EU nations producing similar exports to this region, many dairy farmers live with the losses caused by fluctuating milk prices. I loved hearing the regional language of Gallego—a staccato blend of Spanish and Portuguese with additional consonant sounds—spoken by older adults. One evening in Santiago outside of the cathedral, my friend from Madrid called a Galician student an idiot for grammar mistakes, for having the wrong accent. From the Galician countryside, this student had learned Castellano, standardized Spanish, at age nineteen. There is a special word in Gallego that signifies nostalgic homesickness for this green region of rivers, trees and coasts sculpted by the violent Atlantic: morriña.
About a year ago, I read an article saying that entire villages in Galicia are selling for as little as $230,000. I still wonder what became of all those gentle cows.
To claim despairs are individually felt and isolated incidents is at odds with the widespread realities of climate change anxiety, economic depression, sugar addiction, etc. People do not often choose to leave their homes and cows in the countryside; they are dispossessed from the land.
I often choose to move elsewhere. I miss the forests, the mountains, the rivers of Oregon. Your eyes the color of pine bathed in sun.
After that summer of farming in Massachusetts with B. and B., the year before I met you, I was welcomed back to Iowa with an invitation to a barn dance thrown at a Catholic Worker farm. The farmers, a loving, kind, and peaceful couple, had a dairy cow named Violet. Violet licked me through my overalls clear from the tops of my thighs, up my right butt cheek, and swerved inward, tracing my spine. Her tongue was surprisingly strong and her milk was sweet. I swung through the barn dance, laughing and taking turns churning the hand-cranked ice cream machine. Violet’s milk, sweetened with nothing more than honey, slowly thickened with ice and rock salt. You’d agree Violet lives as all cows should.
You’ve never had honey with peanut butter? you asked me. From that point on, I ate honey toast almost every time I needed replenishing at your house. Maybe the fourth or fifth time we slept together, we ran outside of your little house out into the fog you so love. Across the gravel road is a field of Highland cattle, the kind that have big tufts of hair on top of their heads. You called them “emo cows” for the way their hair hung in their eyes. We were so hot and so naked and running, running into your backyard, laughing, laughing till the cows came home. Literally, we heard a cow while I was shaking my breasts to the moon so goddamn exquisitely happy. You’ve never seen the Milky Way?
And then, in the spring, on again, off again. There always comes a day where the cows never come back into the field from the barn. They’re gone. In two hundred years, cows will likely be the largest surviving mammal on earth, remaining in great numbers only for their eventual slaughter.
You were vegetarian and liked to eat Taco Bell. I liked to remind you of the unethical structure and labor abuses of fast food chains. You asked me once why I, an occasional meat eater for the duration of our relationship, didn’t care about animals. Irritated that you’d ask me a question not unlike the questions I frequently asked you, I responded, Why don’t you care about humans? I wish so much you instead would have asked me, Why don’t you care more about this: us, me, here, now? I’m holding you. Feel me holding you. And then I could have asked, Am I holding you enough?
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.
1. US Department of Agriculture, Code of Federal Regulations – Title 9 Animals and Animal Products, Pt. 313- Humane Slaughter of Livestock. Vol. 2, Washington DC, GPO, 2017.↩
2. Kristen Sumpter. “Masculinity and Meat Consumption: An Analysis Through the Theoretical Lens of Hegemonic Masculinity and Alternative Masculinity Theories,” Sociology Compass, Vol. 9, No. 2, Feb. 2015:104–114., doi:10.1111/soc4.12241.↩