It’s New Year’s, so let’s talk about cow magnets.
Recently, I was sorting through boxes of old papers and came across one filled with things I’d collected while writing a book, “Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf” (Harmony Books, 2002) about the life of a dairy cow. In the bottom of the box, under notebooks, photos, and farm hats, were two cow magnets.
Most people don’t know this—and I certainly didn’t know before I wrote the book—but dairy cows, soon after birth, are made to swallow powerful, cigar-shaped magnets.
As I wrote in the book: “Stray metal—nails, fence wire, gear shavings—is hazardous to dairy cows. Ingested with feed or licked up off the barn floor, it can seriously injure an animal’s internal organs. To prevent this, farmers give their cows magnets.”
At the farm where I observed, dairy calves were given magnets at about six months old. I watched as the farmers inserted the magnets down each cow’s throat with a metal plunger. The magnet would rest in the bottom of the reticulum—the first of a cow’s four stomachs—and grab any stray metal, thus preventing it from moving farther through the digestive tract.
The magnets stay in a cow’s stomach for life. At the slaughterhouse, by the time work on a cow is done, the only thing often left is the magnet.
Holding those magnets again, I’d forgotten how heavy and strong they are: If you put two together side to side, it takes real effort to pull them apart. I also thought of how clever farmers are to give the magnets to their calves to protect them from danger as they grow.
And that got me thinking: As parents, we sort of do the same thing with our own kids. We don’t give them magnets, of course, but we do give them words of wisdom. Call them precepts, maxims, or aphorisms—they’re rules to live by that we hope they will ingest when young and keep for their lives to help from being injured by the dangers and temptations they’re certain to encounter. These precepts are, to my mind, the human versions of cow magnets.
For many hundreds of years, children were taught penmanship by use of what were called copybooks. At the top of each page was printed a saying—maybe “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” or “All that glitters is not gold”—and the student would copy it out line by line down the entire page until the penmanship was correct. In the process, the idea was that the child would learn and internalize the saying itself.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” memorialized the lessons known at the time to millions of children.
“These copybook headings,” John Silber, former president of Boston University, has written, “were the efforts of an earlier generation to pass on their moral heritage to their children, to acquaint their children with nature, not merely physical, but moral and spiritual.”
Copybooks went out of fashion long before I started school, but my parents—who themselves had been raised on such maxims—passed along some of their favorites to my siblings and me. A few I recall: one about choosing friends wisely, “Run with dogs and you’ll get fleas”; another about worrying too much about the future: “Today’s the tomorrow we worried about yesterday and all is well.” These and other maxims have been helpful over the years—even so, I’ve made my share of unforced errors.
When my kids were little, we shared other maxims, sometimes framing favorite ones for display in the kitchen or study. One about friendship was “To have a friend, you’ve got to be a friend.” Another was about persistence: “Character is what you do on the second, third, and fourth try.” Sometimes now when my adult children repeat back some of these sayings, I know they’ve stayed with them.
New Year’s is a time for stock-taking and resolutions. Perhaps we can resolve this year to give the children in our lives the benefit of some words of wisdom—some human “cow magnets” if you will.
Did your parents teach you some when you were young? Have they stayed with you and been of help through the years? Are there other favorites that you shared with your own children?
If so, the Beacon would like to know. Write and leave a comment. Let us know about some of your favorite human “cow magnets.”