Rants from the Hill: On the construction of a hillbilly cyborg


"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

I’ve never liked cows one bit. I know they come off looking pretty good in Hollywood glamorizations of life on the trail, and they’re supposed to be cute when they appear in the form of your great aunt’s Holstein knickknack collection, but the plain fact is that they’re lazy, unattractive, smelly, ill-mannered, and they can’t be trusted. I’ve made close observations of cattle out on the BLM land here around Silver Hills, and I don’t like what I see. It is tough to manage much admiration for an animal that lumbers back and forth on the same path all day, and I am not impressed by bovine intelligence when I see fat cows standing in the only spring in this valley, plopping huge butt pies into the sparkling water, and then bending forward to lap that water up, as if they have somehow improved its flavor. Without launching an ecogeek polemic here, it may be enough to say that herds can be hard on public lands, causing erosion, dispersing invasive plants, destroying riparian habitat, and displacing native wildlife. While backpacking the Escalante canyons in southern Utah more than twenty years ago I was so appalled by the environmental damage caused by cows that I decided to end my complicity by withdrawing from the hamburger economy, and I haven’t eaten beef since. And don’t forget that bovine methane gas release is a contributor to global climate change. Next time you see the heart-rending image of a stranded polar bear adrift on a tiny chunk of floating ice, think: cow farts.

Of course this account of my dislike of cattle makes it sound quite principled. In truth my main objection to cows is that they appear crazy-eyed and drunk. They look like they’re always about to fall over, as if they just did a five-gallon-bucket shot of tequila that hasn’t quite hit them yet, but will momentarily. Think by comparison of the quickness, agility, and attentiveness of wild things—how coyote, pronghorn, rattler, and falcon are like the string of an instrument that millions of years of evolutionary tuning has tightened to perfect pitch. There is no graceless motion or lapse in concentration, let alone giant tequila shots or pooping in their own water source. When I look into the eyes of cows, by contrast, they gaze back with a disturbing blankness that seems to say “I might kill you, or you might kill me, or I might just stand here and fart, and it’s all the same to me.” This is not the kind of calculus I want to see revealed in the eyes of a fellow mammal. And while these spindly-legged, dung-covered beasts hardly look threatening, I can’t help picturing the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain (or Elko, Nevada, where we continue the venerable, Old World tradition of getting drunk and tempting angry cows to kill us), and I wonder how long it would take one of these cranky fat boys to go from bore to gore, from trying lazily to bum tequila off me to turning me into a shish kebob. I’ve looked deep into the black hole of those bovine eyes and have lived to tell the chilling tale: there is no there there. It is pure existential void.

When I was in seventh grade a big kid named Billy Green, who had failed fifth and sixth grade a number of times and was thus approximately twenty years old at the time, punched me in the face as payback for me having accidentally hit him with a softball during recess. I handled this difficult moment with my usual courage and aplomb, by crying like a girl, spouting blood, and blubbering helplessly: “Billy, you’re…you’re going to have to pay the doctor bill!” I doubt I appeared very threatening, since several of my front teeth were at that moment protruding completely through a gash in my lower lip. Ever since that time I’ve had problems with those teeth, and a few weeks ago I received the troubling news that the abused choppers would have to be yanked out, and that deterioration in my jaw would need to be remedied with a bone graft. Speaking as a person who would rather be punched in the face by Billy Green every single morning than sit in a dentist’s chair for twenty minutes, I respond poorly to terms like “surgery,” “extraction,” or “implant,” and least of all did I welcome a “bone graft.” My situation went from bad to worse when I asked my oral surgeon where he would harvest the bone that would be used in the graft. His disturbingly enthusiastic reply: “From a cow!”

As you might imagine, this news caused me genuine consternation. A perfectly intelligent man of substantial professional training and experience was casually proposing that he should pull teeth out of my head and replace part of my jaw with freeze-dried cow bone. Was this some kind of cruel joke? Looking up helplessly from the chair I carefully explained to the oral surgeon all about the hollow eyes and the tequila and the glacier thawing flatulence, and I begged him to perform the operation using bone from a monkey, armadillo, or wallaby. He replied calmly that it had to be cow, and added, reassuringly, “Don’t worry about contracting mad cow disease from this.” “Thanks a bunch,” I said, drooling onto my clip-on bib, “I really wasn’t worried about that…until now.”

Yesterday I went in for my operation, which I don’t have the stomach to relate in any detail. When I was placed in the dreaded chair—a moment that already feels distant and surreal—the radio was unhappily tuned to our local country station, KBULL, which was at that moment twanging out Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” a terrifying ballad about “a mighty herd of red eyed cows [whose] brands were still on fire and [whose] hooves were made of steel.” The surgeon revved up the drill just as Johnny described the “bolt of fear” that went through him as the demonic cattle began their deadly stampede. I don’t remember much after that, and the fragments I do recall were processed through a distorted filter of hallucinogenic fear: a synesthesic blending of the sound of drills, the feeling of splattering water, the taste of blood, the smell of grinding bone, and the horrific imagination of rising from the chair to look in the mirror and discover that my head had been fully transformed into that of a cow.

            I survived the procedure, as this Rant attests, but it is certain that I’ll never be the same again, for part of my jaw is now built of the bones of my enemy. Once fully human, I am now a hillbilly cyborg, part man and part cow. And like Captain Ahab, whose prosthetic leg was crafted from the bone of the whale he so despised, if I continue to badmouth cows I will have to do it with a mouth that is part cow. Perhaps my own epic account of man and monster will begin with the line “Call me Cabeza de Vaca.” I search my imagination for some ennobling analog for my bizarre transformation. As a kid who watched too much TV in the late 70s, I think of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” in which a cool, good-looking astronaut guy is rebuilt with cutting-edge technology that makes him stronger, faster, and even better looking. And six million dollars is approximately what this oral surgery has cost me. I run some quick numbers on the procedure and determine that the amount of money I’ve paid to get a few milligrams of cow bone stuck into my head would have bought 800 pounds of fresh ground beef—or, perhaps better, a half dozen full-grown steers that I could keep in the garage in case I need additional cow bone for future operations. I also learned that the cash spent on my smidgen of cow bone would have gone a long way toward buying an entire cobalt-chrome hip joint, which makes me wonder if it would have been a better value to skip the cow and simply rebuild my jaw using an artificial hip.

But of course I’m no handsome astronaut, and I’m no stronger or faster than before I raided my kids’ college fund to become a cow head. At least I don’t eat cows, which under my new circumstances would seem rather like a person who had received a heart transplant from a pig waking up the morning after the operation to scarf a plate of bacon. I try to make light of my dental misery, telling my young daughters jokes that I’ve spontaneously crafted for the occasion: “What happened to the cow whose bones are in Daddy’s face? Nobody’s herd!” But beneath this strained humor my relationship to nonhuman nature seems more visceral and intimate than ever before. Of course I still distrust cows, but now when I shave in the morning I sometimes notice an irrational, vacant, slightly insane look in my own dark eyes, as if my bovinification has led me closer to the profound philosophical question being asked each day by cows everywhere: Got tequila?

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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