My colleague, Katie Gillespie, researches the life-course of bovines. That’s a very simplistic view of what she does. But it is the easiest way i know to open the conversation to what that even means. She is, particularly, interested in the the life of the dairy cow and her offspring, which means she is conducting field research on and in places as diverse as semen collection farms, to rendering plants, to dairy farms, slaughterhouses, and even sanctuaries for those cows (and other animals) that make it out of the farming life cycle and into a pasture to enjoy their lives not as working animals and / or eventually food.
A couple of weeks ago, she asked me to go to an auction yard with her. I laughed (and think maybe blew a little snot out of my nose, in snorting) and said, “No.” She laughed, too. She didn’t actually expect me to go with her. But i thought long and hard about it over a week and realized that all of our research would be easier if we had more of a sense of responsibility to help each other through these tough moments. And what better way to support each other – both intellectually and emotionally – through what can often be harrowing experiences.
Katie and i have spent long hours, often over our craft projects or cups of tea, discussing our projects. Our research is about as divergent as one could possibly imagine it to be, but we do find common theoretical ground (and many laments about the difficulty of arguing what others perceive to be radical points of view – points of view that to us resonate as simple human decency). But going with her to the auction really, for the first time, made her work very tangible to me, more deeply understandable that i thought possible.
We almost came home with a sick cow.
The auction that we caught was a cow culling auction. These are the bovines (and some bulls) who are no longer productive and are being sold off for meat. Most of the healthier looking cows started at about $60 (per 100 pounds). The sicker or thinner they were, the lower the starting price. They came in and were bid on, then they left to be weighed and held for pick up. They were sometimes turned in circles. They nearly all shat themselves in utter fear. But one tiny cow couldn’t even make it through the 20x20x20 triangular pen. She stopped after one turn and laid down. Her starting price dropped to $5, and still no one bid on her. They let her rest, and when another cow came through, she struggled to follow her through the door to the holding pen.
We nearly bought her. She weighed so little that she would have cost us less $35. When Katie called back the next day to ask what happens to the cows that don’t sell, she learned that the one that had collapsed had died in the night. I don’t know that we would have done much more for her than give her a last night in grass, free of the stench of the fear of the other cows, free from the dry hay and dirty water in the pens. But even so little seems like it would have been worth it.
And that is why we each do what we do. And i learned a most valuable lesson in all of this – a lesson about the buddy system. I couldn’t look at Katie the entire time we were in the auction house because i knew i’d burst into tears. I caught myself busily taking field notes on my phone when i felt my eyes well up or my nose start to throb. But i knew that i would leave and never come back. Katie has to keep going back. And facing worse moments in their lives. And struggle to find the balance between her academic voice and her activist voice. She has to be confronted with one of the darker sides of a mass-consumption society such as ours and try not to alienate people out of hearing her. And for that, i have immense respect for her.
I learned more about Katie, about her research, about consumption, and about myself in that one day. And i have a renewed vigor to do my own research. But more than anything, i have a renewed and more intense appreciation for what she puts herself through to do her work.
And the next time someone asks me to go into the field with them, i won’t hesitate to say yes.