I Wonder Whether Cows Wonder
by Keith Arnatt
The first indication they had returned was the sight of a black and white cow's back appearing just above a roadside hedge. The strong markings of the back punctuating the bright green landscape were visually quite shocking. I took a photograph to record this dramatic effect and to remind me of the pleasure it gave to realise the cows had returned to where they 'belonged'. Their prolonged absence from the landscape had been due to the recent foot and mouth epidemic. Later reflections led me to consider the idea of taking further photographs of cows. Though I had no clear idea why, I began to look for cows and photograph them.
Searching for cows involved peering through hedges and looking over stone walls, for that is where, if they were around, you could catch sight of them. I began to feel that looking for cows was a bit of an addiction. It was virtually impossible to predict when and where they might be. There was always the possibility they would be just around the corner.
When I did encounter cows I always stopped and watched them for a while. Frequently I was taken by surprise at how quickly they showed evidence of having become aware of my presence in their midst. This awareness was not just a matter of looking in my direction, but deflection from the act of grazing, to the business of investigating me at closer quarters! It was clear some members of a herd were tentative and nervous about approaching me, whilst others, obviously more confident creatures, would push and jostle their way to the front in their eagerness to inspect me at the closest possible quarters. Often it was as close as it could possibly be!
Although I found their nearness rather alarming - sometimes resulting in a soggy shirt front and the loss of a button or two - I did not discourage this attention as it afforded me the opportunity of getting a really good look at them.
My recent preoccupation with looking at cows was not just the result of the pleasure of seeing them around again but also because I happened to come across John Berger's essay entitled Why Look At Animals. Here, he suggests, that when we look at animals we do so across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension, though being animals, not the same one as ours.
I've come to regard my looking at cows looking at me, along with the photographic activity involved, as elements of an ongoing performance - one that is likely to continue unless, of course, I should ever find out whether cows do or do not wonder!