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2 november 2011

Hannah Velten's Cow presented the editors of the Reaktion Books Animal series with an interesting title dilemma. Few animal species, even domesticated ones with a strong sexual division of labor, are so multifariously named as the . . . as the what, exactly?

"Kine" is a good, if archaic, plural for the big herd ruminants that serve us by pulling plows, giving milk, shoeing us, and being the essential component of hamburger. But as singulars, kine consist of the cow, the bull, and the ox – grown-up versions of the heifer, the calf, and the steer. Such complicated nomenclature for a single kind of animal shows just how important the what-you-may-call-it has been to human culture.

Velten, who went on to write the Reaktion Edible global history of Milk, treats each of these different avatars of kine in a separate chapter. Actually she starts with the aurochs, the extinct ancestor of modern kine. "Aurochs and angels," I keep thinking in Nabokov's phrase; the Ur-moment of Western art comes with the cave depictions of aurochs in the caves at Lascaux. I was somewhat amazed to learn that the aurochs survived well into historical times. The last one died in Poland in 1627 (18). But of course aurochs' DNA lives on in domesticated cattle. There have been attempts to reverse-engineer kine into latter-day aurochs. The results seem to be big and ugly, but not really sublime.

Meanwhile, living cows, bulls, and oxen are essential to civilization, and at the same time, deeply emblematic. We see ourselves in these companion creatures. Sexed, they show us the extremes of our own sexuality – often so energetically that we are forced to treat cows and bulls with religious awe. But even gelded, kine heighten human qualities. The ox is the emblem of patience, of rural values (or alternatively of the peasant as dullard). We see perseverance in oxen, and we sometimes see purity in their ways. Velten does not mention the ox as the familiar animal of the evangelist St. Luke, but to me that instance of bovine solidity is among the most comforting in a Christian art tradition that I identify with sentimentally, if not spiritually. "O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum!" as the chant goes: "Oh, great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that beasts should see the birth of the Lord!" Those beasts were oxen.

Like all other animals under man's dominion, however, kine have fallen on hard times. They are squeezed into Great Plains feedlots, or, on our insistence, they graze away at the remnants of rich Amazonian ecosystems. In the UK, the cow is synonymous with mad-cow disease. Velten ends her book with a picture of Phoenix, an unaffected calf who stands hopefully at the beginning of a new era in British beef-eating. Let's hope it is a more respectful and sustainable era.

Velten, Hannah. Cow. London: Reaktion, 2007.