An Evening in Millbrook


Philip Hackbarth

As the three of us headed back to George's family home that evening at dusk after a very HOT but fun August day of cavorting about: touring the Samuel Morse estate in Poughkeepsie, supper in a Mexican restaurant with real Mexicans, and a walk through fields and meadows in Millbrook (spotting many deer)-little did we know or suspect that the "main event" of the day had not yet even begun.

It was true of course that when George suggested going on this walk through the meadows he never did mention that they were full of poison ivy and that we would have to crawl under barbed wire fences and electrified fences and make our way under some difficult low lying branches and underbrush-not to mention the mud flats, pricker bushes, the crossing of the stream, groundhog holes and the cakes of fresh cow dung that were placed here and there and everywhere.

Neither DeHaven or I being weekend guests had brought any clothing with us for this kind of an event. She was wearing some borrowed boots from the house (she had only brought some delicate little shoes pink trimmed with gold beads) and a pink shirt, white pants, plus very long combed-out hair. I was in an expensive, custom-made, monogrammed white Egyptian cotton shirt and nice pants, the kind of ensemble one might wear to a church service.

Nevertheless, when we finally reached the distant field that he wanted us to see (infinitely more distant than I was either mentally or physically prepared for perhaps a mile or more), it made all the trials and tribulations seem minor; it was very picturesque indeed. A sort of Grandma Moses landscape, without people though, just farms and hills and a winding road with a number of deer grazing in the distance a field of cows also.

We sat absorbing the beauty and wonder of this peaceful vista and then when the sunset had done its thing we started back again. The light was beginning to fade, I was beginning to itch and beginning to be apprehensive about making it back through this obstacle course again. Would we have to do it in the dark?

Even though the curtain of darkness was dropping, DeHaven wanted a bouquet of those tall, purple spiky flowers to bring back. What are they called?.....You know, those things that grow in great profusion in the more marshy areas sometimes they go on for miles along the roadside. I can never remember the name of them if indeed I ever knew what are they called? I really must find out and try to remember. I really should.

I really must..... Anyway, after we got under the electrified fence on our way back to the house there was a whole large area of these flowers, and another kind too; we stopped to pick some. We had to be careful though because they were growing in the muddy slip and your name was mud.

From the corner of my eye I could see that the cows in the lower field were quickly arranging themselves into rows a kind of formation of some sort almost like the Rockettes in lines. And they were swiftly moving towards something back to the barn I thought. Besides they were separated from us by a fence. I didn't give it another thought or even mention it to the others, they were busy picking flowers anyway. I started picking some too.

Not thirty seconds later we turned and saw that the cows were quickly very, very, very quickly-moving up the hill towards us (gee whillikers-there was no fence between us as I thought-Oh Lordy-WHAT'S THE STORY HERE!). We all saw them coming but didn't know what to do.....however they were moving so swiftly we had to act quickly (like five seconds). Talk about distress!

We frantically ran to a small cluster of nearby trees and bushes in the middle of the field, there was no time to make it to the fence. We stood there somewhat protected by the trees, face to face with this herd of cows-about thirty of them, all in one huge clump.....and one sneaking around the other side towards us.

DeHaven said he looked mean and she didn't trust him. It seemed like real impending trouble, this herd of cows trying to push in on us. George was screaming, screeching and yelling and throwing rocks at them. They didn't budge. They were just pushing clo ser through the trees. We couldn't seem to really read their facial expressions at all.

None of us really knew very much about cows-and here we were in direct confrontation with this menacing, threatening, bovine assemblage. We were in a panic-a real panic. "This one looks very dangerous and mean-this one over here-the one on the right" DeHaven yelled again.

We didn't know what to do to get out of this. DeHaven for some reason was in gales of laughter. She was suffering extremely from the heat of the day-it was a real sizzler, and she didn't particularly even want to go on this evening "stroll" in the first place-and now this.....maybe her laughter relieved some of her distress, but it seemed to add to mine.

George was shouting and yelling and in the most direct confrontation-almost nose to nose. I don't remember what I was doing besides hiding behind a bush, but I had a large rock in my hand if any of them came near me, boy were they going to get a clout. It was all fear, fright, and frantic hysteria-"make a run for it." "No, we can't make it"-Wild squealing.

Visions of being chased by this herd of cows, perhaps being trampled, visions of being squashed-a vision of these enormous cows rearing up on their hind legs! We didn't know what these cows wanted or what they might do. "We can't make it to the fence, get some more rocks." EXASPERATION: what can we do? "Run to the right" "NO, we can't make it."

What was happening, what to do next to end this nightmare we couldn't just wake up-we were very awake and very hyper. (This somehow made a nightmare seem easy). Whatever to do, what was going to happen? The cows were pressing closer through the trees and bushes now. It was becoming more frighteningly ominous.

Then, I don't remember what happened or how we decided, but we made a mad skitter and skidoo up the hill through the mud flats towards the electric fence-I was the first under it-in my monogrammed shirt, I just dove under-don't believe I ever moved so fast. Safe-we were safe. The cows came right after us but stopped a yard from the fence-they knew. They all stood there staring and glaring at us (or so it seemed). We had survived. Hallelujah-I just want to go to sleep.

We couldn't go home the way we came though because we would have had to go through "that" cow pasture again. So here it was getting dark and here we were branching out into the unknown. And so it was under another barbed wire fence and through some more mud and into a vast field of pricker bushes. The sky began to flicker: a lightning storm was coming up.

Exhaustion-bewilderment-disbelief-that was the way I felt. OH GLORY--what else can happen? I didn't have any idea where we were or what direction to move in. George knew the general direction and finally after walking through more fields and pathways we made it out onto the road and we were home just before it got completely dark and before the storm came. Our walk home was very quiet interspersed with gales of laughter (a slightly hysterical laughter-a little bit unsure that we should really be laughing at all).

We spoke about this all evening after we got home. Were we really in any danger? Maybe these cows just wanted to say hello (but it sure didn't seem that way). Were they even cows? I don't remember seeing any milk bags. DeHaven and George remember seeing some they thought-I never really looked (no time, never gave it a thought). We didn't really know. What ever really was going on there anyway?!

We ruminated about this the next day too-trying to somehow figure it all out, trying to digest what had happened. Maybe we will never know exactly.....

Later in the week after returning to New York I spoke with Lois Long. She said that when she and John Cage used to go looking for mushrooms they would often go to farms because many mushrooms grow out of cow dung. The farmers would tell them what fields they could go into and what fields they could not.

For breeding purposes the farmers would often put in with a field of cows-one bull. It was very dangerous to go into this field because they become very territorial. She said it might also have been a field of young bulls who can be very territorial and aggressive.

Someone else who knows cows said sometimes mothers and young cows often stay together in a field and the mothers are very protective, to enter this field could be very dangerous. Shirley Carlson who was brought up with cows said that the cows were usually very peaceful and gentle and curious, but they were not all that way and some could be very mean and cantankerous.

Clifford Gastler said he thought that the cows thought we were going to lead them back to the barn! If they did indeed think that we were going to lead them back to the barn, the poor things must have been in complete bewilderment when they found us cowering in the bushes and throwing rocks and then darting frantically to the other side of the fence and disappearing!

Bob Wollman said cows are very nosy and like to keep a check on what's going on.

We will perhaps really never know what happened for sure. But there is one thing I think I will remember from this (besides of course not entering so freely into a field enclosed in an electrified fence). When I got back to my apartment, I took out my Audubon Guide to American Wild Flowers and looked up those tall purple spiky flowers that I can never remember the name of; they are called "purple loosestrife."

And those other purple flowers that grow in round cluster groupsþthey are called "spotted Joe-Pye weed." Whenever I think of this incident, besides remembering the attack of the herd of cows, the frantic tension, and the mud-I think of "purple loosestrife" and "spotted Joe-Pye weed." I must remember those names: purple loosestrife and spotted Joe-Pye weed.

Just yesterday DeHaven presented me with a gift. It was a refrigerator magnet. It was of a cow peering out from the midst of a cornfield (yes there were plenty of corn fields there too). Before I stuck it up on my fridge I wrote on the back of it

"In commemoration of the evening in Millbrook, New York
August 14, 1993."

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