Bolting from bovine bondage | AspenTimes.com
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Bolting from bovine bondage

A curious drama played out in the wilderness two weeks ago when a helicopter rescue spared the lives of four heifers stranded near 12,000 feet in the high mountains near Aspen.The cattle were discovered by a backcountry skier who notified the owner. This set off a series of feeding forays where skiers carried flakes of hay bales on their backs and literally hand-fed the hungry bovines.These cattle were wild. There is no other word for it. They had evaded numerous roundup attempts by the rancher and his family, stubbornly and elusively sheltering in the rugged mountains that gave them their freedom, but which ironically assured their doom.The rancher who spent all fall searching for them said that the wild heifers were more evasive than the native elk herds he encountered. These heifers held a strain of wildness that came alive during a summer of grazing in the wilderness, removed from man and his barbed wire.By the time they were found in mid-December, the cows had taken refuge on a few acres of windblown high country that afforded meager grazing. Hungry and weak, the cattle could not be driven out through the waist-deep snow that surrounded them, so skiers fed them until the helicopter rescue came at Christmastime.Lured by the smell of fresh hay, the heifers were tranquilized, hog-tied, loaded into cargo nets, and airlifted off the mountain. Later, at a lower elevation, as the rancher attempted to doctor them in a squeeze chute, one of the heifers bounded off into a shed. When a ranch hand tried to get her out, she charged through a solid wall, smashing it to splinters.Wildness obviously lies deep in bovine genes, slumbering in a distant past that is occasionally awakened by wild nature and seclusion. It is the same with man. Given wildness and seclusion, human beings may also revert to wildness.William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is a grim fable of children debased by wildness. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is a cautionary tale of going native when left too long in the shadows. Jack London perhaps told it best in “Call of the Wild” when Buck regains his savage instincts and canine glories in the Yukon.Looking to the roots of wildness, there are contrary views. Thomas Hobbes saw man’s existence in a state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Jean Jacques Rousseau credited nature for providing man with superior qualities of vigor, good health and strong instincts.The wild cows near Aspen chose Rousseau’s state of nature, lured there by freedom. It would only have been a matter of weeks until the brutish Hobbesian view starved them to death. Which is more noble? Starving in freedom or living in bondage?The lost cows traded their freedom for food, and in that exchange, they lost an element of nobility, albeit vainglorious and doomed. How many human beings make the same exchange? Knowingly or not, we all do.Membership in a family, a community, a city, state, and nation demands the surrender of certain personal liberties. School, religion, and employment take other pieces of our innate freedom through self-imposed limitations, the sum of which can be stifling.Karl Marx, in his “Manifesto,” warned that this surrender enslaves laborers to industry: “Not only are they slaves to the bourgeois class and the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine…”The machine is the ubiquitous gear works of industrial life, where culture and economics demand a toll of human freedom. Our fear of a Hobbesian fate deprives us of Rousseau’s savage nobility as we quest for comfort and security over the attributes of wildness and freedom. “Man is born free,” Rousseau observed, “and everywhere he is in chains.” Like the lost cows, we smell the hay and come to the hand that feeds. Tranquilized and hog-tied, we wallow in the security of the feedlot while desperately trying to evade the specter of the fence, the squeeze chute, the slaughterhouse.Paul Andersen is utterly cowed by herd instincts, and that’s no bull. His column appears on Mondays.


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