A historical hodgepodge of things bovid.
At the outset, Carlson (A Fever in Salem, 1999, etc.) notes that cattle ranching is today one of the great polarizing issues in world ecology, cattle being both destructive and voracious. Though she recognizes the dangers of cattle grazing in sensitive landscapes, she mostly comes down on the side of the cattle keepers in this wide-angle view of the role of ranching in human societies around the world. That role is of critical importance, she writes, for “obtaining hay and feed, building pens and barns, and learning how to preserve milk and its products has changed us far more than it has changed the bovines. One could argue that they domesticated us.” Her swift-moving narrative begins with the cave paintings of western Europe, which depict the aurochs, a wild ancestor of the modern domesticated cow; it moves along to describe attempts in Hitler’s Germany to retro-breed the aurochs, long extinct, from the wilder breeds of cattle that roam the earth today, and it considers the ethical questions associated with the modern tendency to treat cattle as food-producing machines rather than things with faces and minds. In between, the author touches on just about every possible oddment and bit of trivia that bears on cows, from political scandals surrounding the use of preservatives in the Spanish-American War to the history of margarine (“a food so sterile that no living matter can exist in it”). Carlson’s narrative is easy enough to absorb, although it often reads like an assemblage of index cards, mixing quoted and cribbed material with ill-fitting transitions. The author has relied on only a few printed sources at that, some of them erroneous and outdated: anthropologists, for instance, are no longer comfortable maintaining that cattle cultures are more egalitarian than, say, fishing societies, and it’s a stretch to suggest that women suffer from depression more than men because they eat less red meat.
Still, it’s a handy gathering of facts and opinions on our ill-used bovine friends.