I spent a few weekends last month traveling remote country roads. These are potholed ribbons of blacktop that meander along densely forested ridges and through little pastures that look as though they had just been hewn out of the forest primeval. The truth is the forest is the newcomer. Fifty years before, the land was virtually nothing but a vast expanse of rocky pastureland.
The depopulation of West Virginia is a story that is little known, but as the agrarian economy fell apart in the early decades of the twentieth century, the children of the mountains ran off to find industry in places like Cleveland and Detroit. Later generations would race off to life in the Carolina and Georgia Sunbelts.
But few stayed to farm.
For those of you a bit confused by the term, no one in West Virginia “ranches.” A person who raises cattle is a farmer. The word “ranch” connotes the vast openness of the West, whereas the land here is snug and tight and more than a bit obscured.
I came across several of these little beef operations. Beef prices are high now, so the farmers are taking what advantage of the market they can.
Most beef producers in West Virginia keep “black Angus,” the vaunted black cow from Scotland with its very well marketed marbled beef. In most of the rest of the world, the breed is called an Aberdeen-Angus, and it includes both a black and a liver-colored variety. The liver-colored ones are called “red Angus” and are marketed as something other than true “black Angus.”
I’ve always thought these black cattle were rather homely. They are lardy little brutes, but when the mud and feces cling to their shedding winter coats, they don’t really have that much appeal.
But within the past few years, there has been a bit of renaissance among the Hereford cattle. These are the stately English beef cattle that once made up the backbone of the American beef industry. They are named for the English of Hereford, which is pronounced “Hair-a-ferd,” but in America, for some unknown reason, we call them “Hurfurds.” (I think the British pronunciation sounds more fitting for one of these animals.)
They always look very English to me. They remind me very much of bovine equivalent of an eighteenth century English gentleman, decked out in a red coat and wearing a powdered wig.
In May, the West Virginia’s little hill pastures take on a semblance of a George Stubbs painting: well-bred livestock and horses standing out in the greenest pastures.
And Hereford cattle certainly add to the delusion.
When I was a child, I learned the big herds of bison that the first European settlers encountered when they crossed into the Trans-Allegheny West. They were but a foretaste of the great throng of bison that they would encounter as they crossed in the Midwest and deep into the Great Plains.
The bison tore up fences, and their hides were valuable. So they fell to the gun.
They were replaced by rougher bred British cattle, the kind bred for milk and beef and oxen for the yoke.
The first “improved” breeds to come to this part of West Virginia were “Durhams,” more normally called “shorthorns.” These animals came late in the nineteenth century. They, too, were bred to be generalist cattle, but later on, it became customary for people to keep Jerseys and Jersey crosses for milk, then Holsteins. And when the beef market began to take off, Hereford cattle became common, too.
My grandfather often told the story of “whitewashing” his neighbor’s black Jersey cross dairy cow. He took white paint, and just painted her all over. People started talking about the new white cow that the neighbor had in his pasture.
“I don’t have a white one; she’s black!”
Boy, was he in for a shocker when he got home!
We used to live very intimately with cattle and horses. Cattle produced milk and meat, and horses were as essential as motor vehicles are now.
We’ve lost that knowledge. Too few Americans have even touched a cow or horse. They are remote creatures. They might as well be mythical or exotic.
But in every Hamburger or steak we eat, we consume the flesh of the bovine.
What we don’t often think about is that we’re actually eating the flesh of an animal that is now extinct in the wild.
Just as the Eastern bison are now gone from West Virginia’s hills, the wild ancestor of domestic cattle is now lost to the ages.
It was called the aurochs, and the last of these giant wild cattle was killed in Poland in the seventeenth century. The genes of the great wild cow now exist solely the 1.3 billion domestic cattle that are spread across the continent. There were two domestications: one in the Middle East that produced things like the Hereford and the Holstein and another in the Indus Valley, which produced the zebu or “Indicus” cattle, which are famous for their sacred status in Hinduism and for their dewlaps and shoulder humps. The Indian aurochs went extinct shortly after the domestication.
The species now exists solely in a domestic form.
If the whole world were to go vegan and then demanded that no draft animals be used, it really would be the end for the aurochs.
The children of the aurochs have become the most successful large ungulate species on the planet. They graze through the Americas and deep in Siberia. Their hoof-beats can be heard on “stations” in the Australian Outback, and the Maasai people still kill lions that menace their herds in Kenya and Tanzania.
The gentle Herefords grazing along these country lanes are not the aurochs of old. Just as the eighteenth century English gentleman was nothing like the wild Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Normans or Brythonic Celts in his pedigree, the Hereford is utterly domesticated. Almost all Herefords in West Virginia are polled– born without horns– and when cows calve in remote pastures, they often have a hard time defending their young against the depredations of coyotes and dogs.
But though thoroughly domesticated, they still exist remotely. There will never be huge demand for pet cattle.
They will still be aurochsen, though modified and refined for our pleasure.