There is a hill. On a farm in Wisconsin.
At one time there was only one tree on the hill, an old white pine that stood guard alongside a lane that connected the fields. It was tall and imposing, standing out on the landscape as one looked north from the farmhouse to the horizon. I grew up looking at that tree, running to it for thinking time, listening to the constant, soft brush of wind through the pine needles. I would have liked to have climbed up in it but there were no branches I could reach. It was a refuge.
One year there were cows in the field. My father had sold his milk cows but had a herd of young cattle that was like a band of unruly teenagers. They would run the fence line looking for a place to go under, over or through the barbed wire. They had a great deal of energy and, something that most people don’t realize about cows, they had a crazy curiosity. Anything unusual within their sight would start them on an approach path, faster and faster until they were running in a stampede, a kind of mob mentality as I remember it.
I was visiting the tree one day when the cows were in that field. They saw me on the hill and came rushing up to investigate. Cows in a large group are intimidating. They’re big, heavy animals and they mill around, eyes wide and hot, moist breath sniffing at the object of their curiosity, all the time ready to bolt if startled. I flattened myself against it’s trunk and the tree and I were engulfed in the herd.
It turned into a magical moment. As long as I was still the cows took turns pointing their wet noses at me and milling back into the group. I was the vulnerable one with only the tree at my back for protection. They were the free and dominant ones. Eventually they were satisfied and trotted off in a different direction. I still felt the awe and wonder of it as I watched them take off. I feel it again as I remember.
The tree was hit by lightning a few years later during a storm. Its twisted, split and broken frame lay on the hill for several years before it rotted away.
Now, there is just a hill.