We first saw our place in the Shenandoah Valley last February, when the grass in the meadow wasn't growing. By April, when we'd settled, it had been bushhogged down once. Then came the spring rain, which fell every weekend. The meadow kept growing.

All 10 acres of it.

Finally, one Saturday dawned crisp and clear and my husband set out to mow the meadow with his bushhog. Four hours later, he showed up in the kitchen and announced: "That settles it. We're getting cows."

For the record, neither of us knows anything about cows. Considerations that might deter me do not necessarily deter him. We both have to deal with my two younger children, however, and they are notoriously soft in the head about animals. It is impractical to have milk cows on a weekend place because they have to be milked every day. Feed cattle was the only answer. But given the children's attachment to animals, it didn't take long for us to construct a scenario in which we would end up being the proud owners of a herd of 20-year-old feed cows, all of whom had cute names like Napoleon and Josephine, huge veterinary bills, and life estates in the farm.

We abandoned schemes for becoming cattle barons.

Not long ago, a neighbor named Dave said that a farmer down the way needed some grazing land for his cattle. Dave was managing the farmer's cattle. A deal was struck and by the next weekend there were 16 head of cattle on our meadow.

We're talking bucolic, now. With 14 ducks and geese in the creek and 16 head of foster cattle in the meadow, I'd gone back to nature faster than Thoreau.

For hours that first weekend I sat on the porch watching the cows munch their way across the meadow. I watched them climb down the banks into the creek and wander up into the two fenced paddocks near the road. I watched them standing in the creek gulping huge quantities of water. And I realized to my horror that the pristine creek was not going to be so pristine if they stood in it for long.

The following weekend the cows were nowhere to be seen. Turns out they were huddled up by the barn. We went up to visit. Turns out also that one of the cows was outside the fence. My husband said he would call Dave. Dave wasn't home.

After lunch, I started watching the cows again. They started coming down from the barn across the meadow. There were only 14 of them. Suddenly a cow circled the barn to the other side. She was mooing a great deal. In a moment it became clear why: her calf came out from behind the barn, but it was on the wrong side of the fence. It was mooing too. By divine providence, I'm sure, the retired minister who lives on the nearby mountain drove up. I told him what was going on and he and my husband went up to the fence. They opened a gate and the minister chased the errant calf back into the meadow whereupon it started to nurse. Move over, Dale Evans. I was ready to take on the King Ranch.

The next day we were driving across the meadow in the pickup. My husband went to examine a fence. He came back and announced: "I think one of our cows is a bull." Our cows all seemed docile, but I thought this was a suspicion worth checking out. We drove around the suspicious cow. It was no cow.

"Maybe it's what they call a bullock," said my husband. "I think that's a bull that's never been bred." We decided that's why he was docile.

The next day Dave came over. We were chatting in the meadow and the cows came over to watch us. I said: "One of those cows seems to be a bull."

Dave said: "He sure is."

Dave didn't seem to share my concern over whether this docile bull might turn into a raging bull. I said, "Has he ever been bred?"

Dave looked at me. He looked at the bull. Then he looked at me again and he said: "That's what he does."

On the way to the house, my husband the cattle baron said that if any cattle attacked I should hide behind a tree.

My daughter, the 11-year-old animal rights activist, recently had filet mignon for the first time. She observed on a recent weekend that no one was milking the cows. I told her they weren't milk cows. "Well, what kind of cows are they?" she demanded.

"They're feed cows," I said, dreading the reaction.

"You mean like beef cows?" she said.


"I don't want beef in my front meadow," she said. But apparently the gourmet met the animal rights activist and wrestled her to the floor. Not long after that she walked down the steps of the front porch and pointed to the cows and said: "We should call them FMs."

"FMs?" I said, rather puzzled.

"Yes," she said. "As in filet mignon."