Studies of a Cow

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For the next few months, the farm is fostering Seymour the cow on behalf of the Ahimsa Milk Foundation – a not-for-profit dairy company that  produces slaughter-free organic milk. Inspired by the Hare Krishna-run Bhaktivedanta Manor, Ahimsa is researching innovative and sustainable farming methods using oxen, including a pension scheme and hospice for non-productive cows and bulls. For a little insight into the farming at Bhaktivedanta Manor, watch Donna Lipowitz’s short documentary film Gokula – A Place of Earth for Cows (2011).

It is a daunting business getting in close proximity to a juvenile bull who is still adjusting to new people and surroundings. I sat with Seymour in his cow shelter, stroking his nose and photographing different parts of his body. He was restless with the heat and flies incessantly buzzing round his face. Last Tuesday I recorded him mooing. As I stood by the gate, he licked my knee, his tongue large and rough.

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The process of taking the photographs reminded me of the beautifully stark, fragmented self-portraits of John Coplans that I first saw at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh when I was 17. I remember how exciting I found them – the forensic examination of his ageing, hairy, male body, its otherness glorified in large black and white prints covering the walls. I still have a certain fondness for those images, and the exhibition catalogue sits on the shelf above my desk.

 Picture 1Then there is Helen Sear’s photo series Grounded (2000), where the furry backs of animals become vast  landscapes against the backdrop of her skies. I remember her showing them to us in an artist lecture on the first year of my photography degree when I was 19. I remember the pearl necklace she was wearing.

I remember the summer in France when cows were calfing in the forest surrounding our house. There was a particularly inquisitive ginger one, whose attempts at affection were hindered by her large horns. I remember how it felt to be living a wild life amongst boar, bear, vultures, vipers, deer and dormice. That feeling came back to me as I stood surrounded by large scale pencil drawings and oil paintings of animals in Clara Drummond‘s recent exhibition at Flowers Gallery on Cork Street. A strong longing to be immersed in nature.

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1. Samantha Sweeting, Lying with Cows, 2006
2. Clara Drummond, Running Hare, 2013

The Sensuous Snail

Fiona
She used to massage slugs and snails.
I remember one crawling over her hand, across her palm and up her wrist, tracing its journey with a thin trail of slime. She brought the tentacled beast close to her face, planted a kiss on its large foot and said she loved it.
Slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails, that’s what little boys are made of.
But the snail is both female and male.

Since I have been on the farm, I have been assisting Esther in education, working with local school groups from nursery to secondary level. One of the favoured activities with the younger ones is the minibeast hunt, collecting and identifying invertebrates from the gardens, normally a lot of Helix aspersa garden snails – the same species used in French cooking. These lucky snails are then released, whereas other snails found on the farm are fed to the ducks and chickens. Then we bring out Esther’s pair of Achatina fulica giant African land snails to much excitement.

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These gastropods can grow up to 20cm and, like other terrestrial snails, are simultaneous hermaphrodites, meaning that they contain both male and female sexual organs. Snails of a similar size carry out bilateral mating, where each snail in the pair is simultaneously fertilised. If the two snails are different sizes, the larger one acts as the female. They breed rapidly, sometimes laying as many as 200 eggs five or six times a year, and are considered one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.

Drawing of the reproductive system of Helix pomata by Johannes Meisenheimer, 1912.

For more details on the sexual behaviour of snails, watch Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno made for the Sundance channel: