A Bovine Biography
By Florian Werner
Greystone Books, 240 pages, $20
Humans gained much from domesticating cattle, but so did the cow. In return for providing labour, milk and meat, cattle have received protection and a steady source of food. This mutually beneficial relationship has spread to the far corners of the globe.
In Cow: A Bovine Biography, German musician and author Florian Werner delivers an in-depth and surprisingly thoughtful piece of non-fiction, apparently inspired by the modus operandi of American Mark Kurlansky who enjoyed success with such titles as Cod and Salt.
Werner starts with the domestication of the auroch, the now-extinct proto-cow in the Middle East soon after the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
Cows have inspired poetry and art. In some cultures, they are sacred; in others, they are linked to the devil.
Werner focuses on more peaceable female cows rather than bulls or oxen. Female cattle are more familiar, he argues, more approachable and gentle.
The simplicity of cows behaviour even extends to their captivity. Despite their size, Werner notes, "they endure their bondage mostly without complaint or resistance."
This symbiotic relationship has, in fact, afforded the cow protection and safety from other predators, allowing it to spread across the globe in great numbers.
This book was originally published in Germany. Werner has previously published books there on such diverse subjects as hip-hop lyrics and human excrement.
Vancouver-based translator Doris Ecker has succeeded in creating a smooth English version of Cow that is simple, modern and expressive.
Some less-familiar examples of German words and idioms are used (such as the Kuhhandel or "cow trade," meaning a transaction where one party is cheated), but these are balanced by French or more familiar English and American idioms.
Even the placid, peaceful cow can be controversial, as Werner explains in his chapter on bovine sexuality. Mentions of the clothing of Clarabelle the Cow in Disney films and the sexualization of cows in advertising leads into a longer discussion of human zoophilia (or bestiality).
Werner makes well-thought-out points that create a different perspective. After all, most people rarely give the importance of the cow a second thought (if they even give it a first thought).
From capitalism, economic freedom and the commoditization of cattle to the environmental dangers they cause with the methane produced by their multiple stomachs, the influence of cattle on human society becomes readily apparent.
The global perspective he brings doesn't extend to Canada, although he does reference the emergence of factory-style farms in the United States, the sacred protection afforded to cattle in India and the causes and repercussions of mad cow and hoof and mouth diseases in the U.K. and continental Europe.
Werner has studied German, American and British literature, and he references a wide range of literary sources, from classical ones such as Shakespeare to the photographs of Annie Leibovitz, the Douglas Adams novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the TV sitcom The Simpsons.
Werner has a mischievous sense of fun. In describing the various uses for leather, he lists "shoes, jackets, belts, saddles, sofas, sandals, transmission belts, tepees, exercise balls, S&M costumes, and fine bindings of books."
Werner reminds us that bovines are inextricably linked to humans, and that thinking more deeply about our relationship with them can give us a new perspective on our own humanity.
Winnipeg writer Julie Kentner grew up in southwestern Manitoba on a cattle farm with about 30 cows.