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We once had cows where we lived. They weren’t our cows but they always acted like they belonged on our land and we didn’t.

We owned a small farm in the hills of southeast Ohio. Most of it was covered with a scraggly forest and the soil was poor clay but parts of the hillsides had been cleared for a hundred years or more and used for cattle pasture by various farmers who owned the land before us.

We bought the land from an older couple, the Taylors, who had moved to Ohio from Oregon and thought they could raise sheep on it. Unfortunately for them the owner of the farm next door was a witch (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and along with practicing voodoo on anyone that offended her she kept a pack of half-wild dogs that she fed and allowed to roam free throughout the neighborhood. Those dogs loved the taste of lamb and often attacked and ate parts of the Taylors’ flock. Mr. Taylor responded by shooting at the dogs when he spotted them on his land which apparently led the neighboring priestess to create a pin-filled effigy of the sheep farmer. Mr. Taylor complained of stabbing pains in his abdomen and walked with a decided limp that he said he didn’t have before moving to Ohio.

So the Taylors were very happy to be selling us their property cheaply and going back to live with a community of born-again Christians in Oregon. We weren’t farmers but we had a notion to be back-to-the-land people and grow our own food, plant an orchard, and await the end of the world which seemed then, as it still does, to be looming just over the horizon.

Since we only needed a few acres of land for our kind of farming we decided to rent out all the pasture to a dairy farmer down the road for his young cows and those between milking cycles. At the time this seemed like a good way to make a few extra bucks and to keep the land from growing up into brambles and multiflora rose. Plus we liked the idea of being able to look out the window of our trailer and see the idyllic sight of a herd of Holsteins idly munching on the grass and weeds.

But the cows seemed much more interested in the plants and flowers in our well-tended and fertilized gardens than in the barren pastures. All too often we’d awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of munching and rustling cows eating up the garden next to our trailer. We’d rise immediately and chase them back into their pasture and then find the break in the fence and fix it or the gardens would soon be totally destroyed.

The life of a cattle farmer — or anyone who has cows around his property that he wants to keep out — is one of building and fixing fences. But it seems that no matter how good our fence was this enormous bovine superspecies always found their way to the other side. The fence that was on the property had been built for sheep which are smaller and not nearly as strong as the Holsteins, who would just lean on the thing at vulnerable points and knock it over.

We finally were forced to resort to electric fencing. We strung a wire of electric fence above the top wire of the regular fence. The first time the leader of the herd, Bossy #167, came by and tried to push it over she received a rude shock, right on the nose. After that things mostly settled down but every once in a while the power would go out, or the fence would get shorted out by a branch or a storm, and we’d once again awaken to the sound of marauding cows.

Nowadays we live in the suburbs and have a much smaller garden in our yard. Pretty much the only Holsteins we ever see are on the cartons of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. But on a recent summer night with all the windows open I was awakened by the sound of munching coming from the garden. At first I thought I was having an old cow nightmare but when I came to complete consciousness and looked out the window I saw a small herd of deer happily browsing on our roses, blueberries and tomato plants. I have no desire to build an electric fence around our yard, and I’m sure the postman and neighborhood kids who cut across the lawn wouldn’t think much of the idea either. But, fortunately, there are plenty of vegetables the deer hate that we love, such as onions, garlic, kale, asparagus, carrots and eggplant. Mostly we plant butterfly gardens and herbs to go along with the terrific assortment of native weeds. I can’t get that upset about a few small deer browsing the hostas. Not after having once experienced watching our entire market garden laid to waste by a herd of marauding Holsteins.

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