Friday, March 5, 2010

The cows are by the pond -- is that a sign of spring?

Throughout most of the winter, the cows stay close to the hay barn. Although they have free range over several acres of pastures and woods, they tend to huddle in the cold weather, moving little from the spot where I set their haybales every morning.

This doesn't seem surprising to me. I always assumed it was because they conserve energy and retain heat by staying put, and because they are not particularly comfortable slogging through snow drifts, not to mention the fact that when the fields are frozen or snow-covered, there’s nothing for them to graze on, so why bother to move away from the spot where they are fed, even once they’ve finished eating for the day?

So I was a little bit thrilled to look out the window yesterday afternoon and see that all six of them had crossed over two pastures to mill around by the pond, where they often graze in the summer. It made me think that although the temperatures rose no higher than the mid-30’s and wet snow fell for much of the morning, the cows might be detecting a tinge of spring.

I myself certainly wasn’t. When I went out running midmorning, I was wearing as many layers over my head, neck and torso as I do in January. But I was encouraged to think maybe the cows sensed something I didn’t. It is early March, after all. Spring should be on the way, at least fairly soon. Tim announced a few days ago that he’d seen Canada geese in the sky, which he considers the first sign of spring.

Still, if I woke from a six-month sleep today and didn’t have a calendar, I’m not sure I would have been able to identify this as early March. So I’m curious to know if the cows really were reacting to something in the air, or in their bovine limbic systems, or in their memories. Because not only is it reassuring to think that spring hovers somewhere close ahead, but it’s also appealing to imagine that animals feel changes in the seasons even if we don’t.

I’m a little ashamed of how out of touch with the weather I can be. It’s true that running a mile or more every single day puts me in closer and more constant proximity to the weather than I ever used to be. As I’ve written about before, the fact that I'm outside for at least those ten minutes every day means I always have some idea about how cold or warm it is and whether any precipitation is falling.

But at the same time, I check my computer every morning to see what the temperature is, and sometimes before I go out to feed the cows I check on the digital thermometer connected to our household heating system. Even though we have a traditional mercury thermometer on the porch, I somehow feel more assured if I see the numeric version on my computer screen or on the thermostat, which I realize makes no sense at all, especially as at that point I am seconds from going out into the weather myself.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in The Age of Missing Information about the peculiar and disturbing fact that in the 20th century, Americans developed the ability to turn on the Weather Channel and check the forecast anywhere in the world but have lost the ability to hold a finger in the air and determine which direction the wind is blowing from, not to mention determine from that information what kind of weather is likely on the way. Similarly, I consult the table in the newspaper every day to see what time sunrise and sunset is, having lost the ability my ancestors presumably had to keep track of the solar cycles by, well, looking at the sky.

So I’m left to wonder if the cows detect spring in the air – maybe even temperatures in the 40’s by this weekend? – or whether they were just tired of standing by the barn and chose to alleviate their cabin fever by taking a ramble over to the pond. And I feel sheepish, no pun intended, about the fact that I check my computer screen for the temperature and the newspaper for the forecast before I go outside, rather than feeling the breeze and smelling the air and watching the sky to obtain information. It all makes me wonder what else the cows might know that I don’t.

Or if maybe they don’t have any special animal sense at all of when spring is coming, but just saw a break in the precipitation and used it to go for a stroll to the pond, rather than worrying about when the next forecasted snowfall would begin.

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