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FIELD NOTES: Of Cows and Men

On my way to get a cup of coffee early Saturday morning, I came across a strange sight along a lonely stretch of rural road. A dead cow was lying in a shallow ditch just a couple of feet off the pavement. Several other cows grazed contentedly on the other side of an intact wire fence, oblivious to the fate of their fallen sister. I wondered what had happened. How did the cow escape the apparently undamaged fencing? How does a cow just drop dead along the side of the road? Do cows have heart attacks? I also wondered if anyone had informed the farmer and whether cows are insured against sudden death. But mostly, I felt bad for the deceased cow.

I passed the cow again later in the day. No one had made any obvious attempt to move it, and it occurred to me that a full-grown cow must weigh over a thousand pounds and would most likely require a front-end loader to lift it out of that ditch and onto a flatbed truck for a trip to the landfill or the rendering plant.

I was up in that neck of the woods celebrating my 60th birthday by clearing a plot of land where I hope to build a cabin one day. I welcomed my 40th birthday as finally reaching the age where people would take me seriously. I shrugged off my 50th, climbing Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, to prove I could still do anything my 40-year-old self could. But 60, that's a different number altogether. Sixty is old; no getting around it. One in ten Americans don't live to see their 60th birthday.

On Sunday morning, I attended a small country church within walking distance of my land. The mountains are peppered with these tiny spiritual outposts, spaced just a couple of miles from each other; a nod, I suppose, to the days before automobiles when the community walked or rode horses to Sunday services. I suspect the same dozen or so families have been attending that church since before my progenitors came to this country, and I wasn't entirely sure how they would react to an outsider. 

They welcomed me with open arms, and while the service was somewhat different than what I'm used to, maybe that's a good thing. The preacher's sermon was on how we do not know the hour of our demise and tomorrow is not promised. It concluded with the story of a church member, "Jim."

"When Jim woke up on Friday, he didn't know he would be in a terrible accident. And when he left work at 2 a.m. Saturday morning, he didn't know what was waiting for him on his drive home. And when he hit that cow, black as night in the middle of the road, he surely wondered, is this the end? Is my time on this earth up? Now, Jim will be alright, but it could have ended very differently..." Well, one life mystery solved.


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