By Carol Elliott | Spring 2022

Calling the Cows


My neighbor Mr. Conrad was a farmer straight out of central casting. Invariably kitted out in overalls and a buttoned-up plaid shirt, he was bent-backed and big-knuckled with a face permanently scored by the sun. He worked about 200 acres on his Indiana farm, keeping cows and sometimes pigs in a side pasture. 

From a lifetime spent at the mercy of weather and markets, Mr. Conrad was a deeply pragmatic man. I doubt if he ever waxed poetic about the spring rain or early corn. Without fail, a big truck would pull into his yard every fall and take away his herd of cows. (And not to a farm upstate where they could run free.)

And yet, he had this one quirk that put a crack in his stoic character: Every morning, he loved to call to the cows. He’d slip through the pasture gate while the sun was still pale on the horizon and let out a big holler. And the cows would run to him, milling around him like a pack of puppies. 

As a person who has only owned cats and dogs, I puzzled over his ability to love these animals that he would also eventually sell for slaughter. For him, it was a much-needed payday for his family. 

Caring about something outside yourself is a complex matter. As much as we yearn for black/white, right/wrong scenarios with clear-cut, coherent answers that run with the grain of our beliefs as an integrous piece, reality is likely to take a buzz saw to that.

If there is a theme to this magazine, it is that life is a balancing act of simultaneously holding on and letting go. You see it played out in Brad Badertscher’s story, a paean to his family heritage of farming, even as he moved on. (Sort of.) Viva Bartkus presents the incredible complexities of addressing the deep problems of Colombia. And the cover story especially presents business coming to terms with sustainability in ways that require a new way of thinking about its very purpose.

Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” We desire simplicity, but the ability to accept larger truths while still exerting the will to care about the minute and the everyday defines us as humans, however difficult this may be. We are uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance, and yet negotiating the complex world we live in is a necessary condition of humanity.

One evening, I sat with Mr. Conrad on an old, rusty glider sitting on the patchy grass outside his house. His wife Sally had died the year before. The pastures were empty. It was very, very quiet. He talked of his dad and of his four daughters showing cows at the 4-H Fair, and of Sally’s pot roast. I realized that everything was all still there for him.

If there’s a universal lesson in these stories and Mr. Conrad’s “calling of the cows,” perhaps it is this: There is a terrible cost to caring. But also an immeasurable reward.

Carol Elliott, Executive Editor