Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jennifer Bowen Hicks, “Night Cows” (nonfiction) from The Sun, August 2020

The Icelandic Forestry Service is encouraging people to hug trees while social distancing measures prevent them from hugging other people, RÚV reports. Forest rangers in the Hallormsstaður National Forest in East Iceland have been diligently clearing snow-covered paths to ensure that locals can enjoy the great outdoors without coming in too close a contact with other guests, but can also get up close and personal with their forest friends. “When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head,” enthuses forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson. “It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you’re ready for a new day and new challenges.”

Iceland Review 4/10/2020: “Forest Service Recommends Hugging Trees While You Can’t Hug Others”

Many of us took up new habits and activities during the pandemic. Flour disappeared from store shelves as sourdough baking soared. A rush of creativity gave us all various musical collaborations, some window-to-window, some over TikTok. I bought houseplants for the first time in twenty years; there were a couple of failures, but most of them are lush and bountiful today.

Hicks made friends with a herd of cows. Especially one named 3214.

The cows showed up just as the world began to end. They were there when I returned to Minnesota from Manhattan, where I’d gone to pick up my older son after his spring 2020 college semester had been canceled…. Number 3214 is the one I look for. She’s not the softest or the sleekest. She doesn’t have the biggest eyes. On the bridge of her forehead, where most of the cows have black fur, she has a thick swirl of dirty white. She is bony, and her coat has lost its shine. But isn’t it always the case that we can’t help but love those who seem to love us? I make this bold claim because 3214 — “Fourteen,” for short — recognizes me, or so it seems. She moves to the front of the herd deliberately and looks right at me, as if trying to hold eye contact.

I’m still not completely clear on where the cows came from – I gather they were delivered to a nearby university – but it doesn’t matter. It’s this odd connection in an odd time that feels so genuine to those of us who also had some odd connections.

Hicks was dealing with a great deal at the time. She worried about the students in her writing class at the nearby prison, students at great risk she was now unable to  contact. She had drive a fair distance to pick up her son when his college closed for spring semester, and also pick up his ex-girlfriend – a “bonus daughter” she calls her – to shelter in place with her. The girl came down with symptoms soon after, then recovered. Hicks’ divorce became final.  So if she found comfort in Fourteen, who’s to blame her.

It’d one of those oddly appealing nature-adjacent non-nature essays The Sun likes to publish, a way of reminding us how connected we are to the natural world no matter how cosmopolitan we think we are. In Iceland they hugged trees. Why not make friends with a cow.

It’s the first piece in this collection that overtly addresses the pandemic. I don’t know if there will be more this year, or next. Or what we’ll be doing next year. Never has time felt more capricious. But there’s sourdough to make, plants to water, trees to hug, and cows to pet, music and art to share, until then.

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  • Essay is available online for a limited time at The Sun

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