Not long into his 2019 TED talk, British journalist and New York Times bestselling author Johann Hari tells the curious story of a Cambodian rice farmer who suffered from severe pain and psychological trauma, after his leg was blown off from a landmine. Outfitted with an artificial limb, the farmer was anxious at the prospect of resuming his work in the same fields where he’d been injured. He sunk into severe depression. His doctor and neighbors sat him down and worked together on finding a solution. What they did next surprised Hari: even though anti-depressants had been recently introduced to Cambodia, the doctor prescribed a local remedy instead: determining that the troubled farmer could pivot quite easily to dairy farming, the doctor and community banded together and bought him a cow. Within one month, and without an ounce of allopathic drugs in his system, the farmer’s depression lifted.
This story struck a chord with me; not only because it involved injury to life and limb in Cambodia, but because the global pandemic also ‘gave’ me a cow. Who really knows why my life has intersected and intertwined with Angelique’s? Yes, Angelique, the cow. But the why is less important than the how and when: The blame falls squarely on COVID19.
When everything started to shut down here in Bali, beach-side hotels and cafes included, I knew the stray dogs would suffer, seeing that they could no longer scrounge through trash bins filled with chunks of uneaten meals. Resolving to feed them regularly, I began carrying to the beach (with trespassing permission granted from the village security gang), a large container of home-cooked food for the doggies – generous bi-weekly donations whipped up by an expat restaurateur (and neighbour). Other residents also began to haul bags of dry food and leftovers to the empty stretch of sand, so I felt certain the strays would survive.
But Angelique was a different matter. Tethered by heavy rope to a bamboo cowshed next to a beach-side yoga studio (forced to shutter its classes and doors), she inhabits this small, wall-less enclosure without a herd or partner. Not an easy feat for a cow, known to be as social as humans. Whereas, in pre-pandemic times, plenty of people fed and fussed over her, quite suddenly, like me, Angelique was on her own.
I felt her pain, her solitude. Soon, this so-called ‘sacred cow’ (pseudo-yogic marketing ploy?) became the focus of my beach-going routine; after feeding the dogs, I’d break off branches and gather leaves for Angelique. A handful of sated pups would follow me to her compound, then poke around and settle down while I fed the gentle beast. Soon, produce peels, bokchoi ends, and watermelon rind made their way onto her menu – and she devoured most everything (minus the eggshells) right out of my hand.
Angelique would sniff me out (and sometimes let out a moo) when I was still meters away, her gaze trained on me before she even saw my face. She’d pace about, maybe stop for a long pee (always in the same patch of dried earth) and approach me with her slimy, hairy snuffle. I’m no Temple Grandin, and what I know about cattle behaviour is next-to-none, but something about her manner assured me that I was a welcome presence. Maybe it helped that I played cow-friendly jazz and classical music while she nibbled and peed.
We began observing each other, the cow and I. From up close. Together, we shared a space that felt more intimate than any contact I’d had with human beings in a long while. Peering past Angelique’s long, fluttering eyelashes, deep into her dewy eyes, I intuited that she was trying to relay a message to me – in cow-code. A language I do not speak.
So I continued to commune in the only ways I knew. After a good dose of scratching behind her protruding ears (apparently favoured by most cows), she hung her head down low in front of me. A precognition, of something momentous that was about to happen, silently dangled in midair. I waited. Before I could step back, Angelique ejected her big, floppy, sloppy tongue. It went straight for my leg with a sandpapery lick so rough that I let out a yelp. A signal of gratitude (or love), I read, they said. Oh, yum.
And so it was, and so it’s been, my rite of passage into cowhood. I can’t say for sure that I’ve brought anything more than grub and company to her ongoing state of abandonment; but I’ve received much more than I’ve given – communion con cow, and a living being to hug.
During this not-so-great pause, particularly in those drawn-out days when I’ve struggled with too much sorrow, anxiety, silence and loneliness, Angelique has been a godsend. Along with the sea, the sand and the strays, she too has been my solace – and her simple bamboo shed, a near-daily sanctuary.
I’ve always trusted in the healing power of nature; but little could I have envisioned that the day would come when a four-legged creature would be my cure – and drug – of choice.