If you are a word junkie, as I am, you tend to think about words a lot. Recently I’ve been thinking about the second verse of the Christmas carol Away in a Manger. You know the lines:
The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes…
The cattle are what? Lowing. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines the verb to low as “to make the deep, long sound of a cow.” Merriam Webster is more succinct: “moo.”
Now then. Anyone who has anything to do with cows knows that there are almost as many different tones to a moo as there are to a human voice. When Katika was younger and lived alone, during her heats she would pace the fenceline and yell her sexual frustration. Yes, this was a moo — but in pitch and intensity it was closer to a foghorn. A new groom who was married outdoors a quarter mile away told me that the soundtrack to his wedding DVD was punctuated by Katika’s bellowing. I have written before of the high-pitched bawling of a calf and the deep growling roar of a bull. When I am late bringing the animals in for breakfast, all the cattle waiting at the gate will call to me in impatience. Moooooooo! Aren’t you done putting out grain yet? Aren’t you going to open this gate already? Moooooooo!
In my opinion lowing is something else entirely. I think lowing must be the soft, low-pitched, almost purring note that cows use to murmur to their calves. Mmmmmmm.
Katika also uses this low purring sound with me. When my forehead is pressed to her flank, it feels like the deep, rumbly, comforting note of an organ in church. Mmmmmmmmmmm?
With me, the note is always interrogative. She’s asking something.
This summer has been a bad one for flies. My perfect cow, who normally never lifts a foot during milking, has practically done the cha-cha in the stanchion, and, in stamping and shifting, has kicked over the bucket innumerable times. My temper has flared. I have slapped Katika’s barrel and shouted at her (cows hate, hate, hate shouting — far more than a slap, which can hardly compare with the bashing cows give each other routinely).
Finally I began doling out her grain in dribs and drabs. While engrossed in snuffling out each last pellet and kernel in her manger, Katika would ignore the flies and I’d milk as fast as my hands could move. Of course, the minute she ran out of grain, she’d begin to shift dangerously around the bucket again.
“No!” I’d shout. I’d move the bucket to safety, stand up, and dump a little more of her grain in her manger.
Finally one day, instead of tap-dancing, Katika stood stock still and lowed gently to me.
I smiled. What a great cow trainer I was. “Ready for more?” I got up from my milking stool and served her the next dollop of grain.
In recent weeks this has become our routine. Mmmmmmm? — followed by a new dump of breakfast.
I realized yesterday that Katika is now lowing before she’s finished her grain. She has learned that I will give her a fresh serving of sweet feed if she simply stands and asks for it politely.
Who exactly is training whom?
Last night, as I worked to get the last milk out of her hind teats, we had quite a conversation.
The low, deep organ note. Mmmmm?
“I’m sorry, sweetie, you’ve finished all your supper.”
“No, Tika dear, I can’t give you any more.”
“No, it would give you acidosis.”
“I know, I’m very slow and you are a good, good girl.”
She seemed to sigh and accept it. Mmmmmmmm.
Turning it over in my mind, I’m not surprised that when the cattle were lowing, the Baby in the manger waked but did not cry. I think lowing must be this soft and gentle sound that stays patient, deep, and quiet even when begging hopefully for more.
However I guess we’ll never know for sure unless a cattleman writes a dictionary.