The Scent of the Field

AFTER BREAKFAST one morning last March, I walked into a cavernous, high-roofed barn in eastern Washington State and watched a stillborn calf get flayed. It lay on a butcher block stained with blood. The calf’s tongue extruded beyond its teeth; its eyes stared ahead; and its neck declined toward its chest at an unnatural angle, as if in sacrificial supplication. Ranchers skillfully sliced and sawed their way through this animal. Their charge was to excise a perfectly intact hide.

Feedlot by Sue Coe. Copyright 1991 Sue Coe. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York Sue Coe /

Only a few days before, at an identical hour, I sat down to a very different postprandial labor: grading midterm examination essays. I teach history at the University of South Carolina, and my students had written about the eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher and savant Moses Mendelssohn, and assessed his vision of Judaism’s future. When Mendelssohn arrived in Berlin from his childhood home in Dessau at age fourteen, he entered the city through a gate reserved for Jews and cattle. Premodern Jews knew where their meat came from; their descendants often do not. That knowledge meant that they led lives in consonance with natural processes. It also made the stories of the Bible and classical Jewish literature, which took place in a preindustrial world, easier for early modern scholars like Mendelssohn to understand. As I observed the flaying of a calf, I realized how lucky I was to visit the inland Northwest during calving season: I sensed my time there would help me understand the world in which Mendelssohn lived, as well as a much more distant Jewish past. A German Jewish philosopher of the eighteenth century, the biblical patriarchs, and American ranchers in 2015 are divided by many things, but they are united by an intimate knowledge of food production.

Life on the Farm

My sister is married to the son of a cattle rancher whose property is near Spokane, Washington. Well aware of my attraction to the countryside, she urged me to spend spring break with her and her family. Sensing an antidote for my sedentary life as a professor, I leapt at the chance. The Belsby ranch sprawls over 9,000 acres in Washington. Besides sprouting hay, alfalfa, a bit of winter wheat, and the odd cluster of apple, cherry, and plum trees, the ranch gives the Belsbys their living through its animals—some 700 head of cattle and two endearingly out-of-place geriatric water buffalo, old gifts from a rancher friend. Inside the house itself, calving paraphernalia was everywhere: sacks of milk powder slumped on the floor; syringes and vials of probiotics cluttered every surface; drying esophageal tubes hung from the backs of chairs; and rinsed bottles, recently separated from their plastic areolae, dripped into the sink and onto counters. Outside the house, vistas are expansive, and the openness of the landscape invites gales of wind and a nourishing sun that bestows its blessings all day. The men and women who work there are hearty and hale; the cows content; and the dogs, with huge bales of bound hay to leap over, livestock to bark at, and bubbling springs to quench their thirst, are in their own terrestrial paradise.

On my first afternoon I cruised around in an all-terrain vehicle with a seasonal worker: an eighteen-year-old Brigham Young University–Idaho student named Kelsey. Kelsey and I journeyed through muddy flats up and down precipitous hills to reach water holes guarded by clusters of willow trees, where heifers sometimes retreated to give birth in peace. One of our jobs was to find newborn calves, mark them by piercing their ears with plastic tags, and, in cases of postpartum constipation, inject them with laxatives, all the while fending off solicitous mothers irked at the approach of humans bearing syringes. Another responsibility was to lead cows from pen to pen, which meant wrestling and shoving them. Expectant moms are kept in a heifer pen until they give birth to their calves. Subsequently, mother and calf must be led, sometimes across a considerable distance and often against their wills, to the neonatal pen, where the other cows are used to the young and where there is less risk that a ten-minute-old calf will be trampled by her ruminating and absent-minded aunt.

During calving season on the ranch this is all routine, albeit a routine far removed from my cave-like, windowless, and stale-smelling university office where I spend many days pecking at a keyboard and squinting into an eleven-inch screen. The ranch thrilled me and thrummed with energy. Humans scurried about with purpose, cows plodded around knowing their parts, and the smells and sights of new life were everywhere: placentas dangled from swollen bovine vaginas and inflated in the breeze like sails, falling limp and fluttering to the ground, wafting their syrupy scent. Though I didn’t know it yet, I had journeyed in time as well as in space, and I was about to enter not only the world of the Old West, but that of the protagonists of Genesis.

Two Surrogates

After breakfast on my second day, Gary, the septuagenarian patriarch of the ranch, entered the house, knocked clumps of fecal dirt from his boots, and grumbled, “Time to graft.” This was the reason a stillborn calf had been flayed that morning. Gary is a tall, gangly man of Norwegian stock. He walks with a slight limp. His glasses sit askew on the bridge of his nose, three-day stubble shadows his face, and his Wranglers are riddled with holes. One of his ranch hands once said of him that he is “not the kind of man to give up on a garment on account of some wear.” The phrase stuck and is often repeated, in good humor, around the table at meal times. As for “time to graft,” everyone but I knew instantly what this meant, and I detected a gleam of excitement in my sister’s eyes, mixed with concern for her brother’s fragile professorial constitution.

From snatches of table talk, I pieced together what grafting was and why we had to do it that day. The night before, a heifer had given birth. The birth was bloodier than normal, and the birth wound, redolent of dinner for any carnivore, attracted the attention of a band of coyotes who fell upon the stricken mother, plunging their gnarling jaws into her sanguineous and swollen pudenda, feasting on flesh and opening an even larger wound that ended the poor cow’s life. At the site of the coyotes’ attack, a blood stain on the ground and some shredded organs were all that remained of mom—except her infant. My nieces assume responsibility for naming the calves, and they named this orphan Barbed Wire. There she stood, only one night old and in need of nourishment, comfort, and raising. In short, in need of a mother.

Barbed Wire was being bottle-fed in the mud room of the Belsby home. But formula feeding is expensive and inconvenient: it requires at least thrice-daily human energy, attention, and investment. Gary had a plan. Another cow, Sue, had lost her calf two days before; the calf was stillborn. Sue needed a calf; Barbed Wire needed a mother. It was a match made in, well, a barnyard. The solution was this: since a cow will not give suck to any creature that isn’t her own, you have to trick her, and the trickery entails skinning the hide from the dead calf, perforating it, and tying it to the interloper, in this case Barbed Wire. Heather Smith Thomas, author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, writes that “a first-calf heifer is often the easiest to fool, since she is inexperienced …. The oldest trick,” Thomas informs us, “and the one that works best, is to skin her dead calf and put the hide on the substitute calf.” My brother-in-law looked up at me, grinning as he finished his bowl of Captain Crunch, and said, “Goes all the way back to the Bible, doesn’t it?”

Indeed it does. Most of us remember the story. Isaac, growing old and blind, was duty-bound to bestow his blessing on Esau, his eldest child. Esau was a hunter, a “man of the fields,” ruddy-skinned and hairy. His brother, Jacob, was a “dweller in tents,” a peaceful boy beloved by his mother Rebecca. Favoring Jacob as the heir, Rebecca hatched a plan: Jacob would slaughter a he-goat, she would cook it up as Isaac liked, and they’d use its hide to disguise Jacob’s hairless arms and neck so that the blinded patriarch would think he was Esau. And it worked, but not, in the Bible’s telling, because the stew was so scrumptious, nor, as many assume, because the hair was convincing as a tactile ruse, but because when Isaac called Jacob near and kissed him he smelled “the scent of the field.” That was what convinced him and drew out the blessing, which, once uttered, was irrevocable. So when Esau came along and the ruse was exposed, Isaac was beside himself with grief: he had given away his firstborn’s birthright to his imposter son. All because of “the scent of the field.”

That scent is powerful, powerful enough to convince a bovine primipara to give up her udders and their colostrum-filled contents to another imposter: Barbed Wire.

The Test

Sending Barbed Wire into an alien pen to procure her meals under Jacob-esque guise was not easy. Sue had to be left alone to sniff the skinned carcass of her stillborn calf for a few hours. When I asked Gary why that wouldn’t backfire and convince her that her offspring was dead, he answered, “Well, she’s just hoping she’s gonna come back to life again.” A few hours later we removed the skinned stillborn the way we had brought him in: on a grimy black sled that Kelsey and I hauled through thick mud and around a bevy of grazing cows, totally indifferent to the carnage of one of their own in their midst, fixated with single-minded devotion on the freshly cut alfalfa brought in to distract them while we tended to and tricked Sue.

Carcass removed and freshly flayed hide retrieved, we had to negotiate a squirming and noncompliant Barbed Wire as we secured the disguise that would be her life-saver—and Gary’s money-saver—under her belly with nylon chords. A newborn calf is worth several hundred dollars, and one who is weaned and ready to be sold to a feedlot fetches up to a thousand; Gary’s stake in this operation was significant. True to plan, Barbed Wire ventured into the pen without embarrassment. She subjected herself to our proddings, which consisted of turning her butt towards Sue so that she’d smell only the fetid but familiar blood- and feces-smattered posterior rather than the foreign and alien head or neck. Understandably, Barbed Wire wanted to spin around and face the hulking mammal near her. She wanted to see her surrogate mother—after all, she had as much, or more, riding on this as did Sue.

Sue, for her part, was having none of it. She sniffed and huffed her disinterest; Gary, after producing a series of expertly pitched and timbered cattle calls, somehow communicated to Sue that this was her calf, and to Barbed Wire that she had to find the milk-giving organs and quit pussy-footing around. Still, Sue wasn’t fooled. We had to tie one of her legs to keep her from retreating to the farthest corner of the barn. Who would want to be forced to nurse? The dance went on: Sue rebelled and fell to the muddy ground, pathetically and with a great earth-shaking crash. Chastened, she rose, and after a prolonged and forced flirtation, Barbed Wire found the teat and Sue resigned herself to her biological duty and her lactating destiny. “Well, that’ll do it,” Gary remarked as we beat a silent retreat so as not to disturb surrogate mother and child. “But what if the hide falls off?” I asked. “Won’t Sue know it’s all a ruse?” “Nope,” Gary said, shaking his head in denial, amused at the ignorance that underlay my question. “That’s her calf now. Once she sucks she’s gonna keep on sucking. Don’t matter if the hide falls off. It will. Time to go.”

And then it was on to more tagging, injecting, feeding, hay bale moving, fence repair, and pen construction for the growing group of young calves rejected by their mothers for one reason or another. In spite of our success with Operation Save Barbed Wire, I was only just starting to ask questions. My thoughts flew to Genesis and Jacob’s trickery. Of course it was the smell that fooled old man Isaac. Of course the Bible’s authors knew which sense awakens instincts and activates memory and affection. Of course the taste of the stew and the feel of the fur are only preludes to the real drama: smell.


Back in South Carolina, I reached for my copy of the Miqra’ot Gedolot, a Hebrew Bible surrounded by a host of medieval commentators that was first assembled and printed in sixteenth-century Venice. I took the Genesis volumes from my shelf and sought to learn more about this tale, and the centrality of smell, from the commentaries. Ovadiah Sforno, a Renaissance doctor and moneylender who lived in Bologna, noted that Isaac inhaled Jacob’s garments in order “to smell his soul via the flavor of scent, for as our sages said ‘what is the thing that the soul delights in but the body does not? It is scent.’ ” Jacob would have smelled of husbandry, feed, and excrement; in other words, like a shepherd.

But, I quickly saw as I scanned the densely printed pages, many rabbis dance around and euphemize the real smell of the fields, at least where animal husbandry and grafting are involved: blood, dirt and pervasive shit. One twelfth-century French rabbi wrote that Jacob’s clothes were “perfumed,” and one of his Spanish contemporaries claimed that his garments smelled of “tree blossoms,” since it was the “first month” (Nisan) when this story took place, corresponding to March or April in the Gregorian calendar. The great Rashi—a man who, it is said, made his living as a vintner in northern France—knew a thing or two about what a farmyard smelled like, and noted that “although there is no smell worse than washed goat skins” (recall that Rebecca had ordered Jacob to kill and skin a goat), “even so Jacob carried with him the scent of paradise.” The “smell of the fields” that God gave Jacob was, according to Rashi, “a good smell, the smell of apples.” I saw only one commentator who did not try to perfume Jacob’s clothes with apple blossoms. He notes with refreshing simplicity that “the garments he [Jacob] was clothed in had a smell of the fields, for in them Jacob emerged from the fields.” This commentator, like the biblical author himself, knew that smell is too primal and too affecting to be qualified with adjectives. It delves down directly to a place where words are irrelevant.

Words are processed in our neocortical brain, but smells bypass this advanced, exterior layer of our neural networking and proceed straight to our limbic and reptilian brains, cerebral anatomy we share with other mammals. And that is why, perhaps, mute brutes like cows can be the best illuminators of a world many in our society are curious about—out of faith or humanistic exploration—that was one of powerful, unmediated experiences that tap down deep into our prelingual, unevolved animal selves. The gap between Jacob and twenty-first–century urbanized people is a chasm; that chasm can be narrowed to a crack through the sense of smell.

How many more mythological or historical episodes might be unlocked, enriched, and demystified not in the library but in the field? I study Talmud with a brilliant Semitic philologist and ordained rabbi. When I returned from the ranch, I spoke to him via Skype and told him about my trip. Born and bred in Brooklyn in the middle years of the last century, before “locally sourced” and “DIY” were on everyone’s lips, he had limited opportunities to visit rural places—the setting, after all, of so much of the literature he loves. Reflecting on a talmudic episode we had studied together regarding an injurious cow, I told him that cows sometimes eat their own placentas not so much for their nutritional value but to avoid leaving around an olfacting, steaming, succulent item that could attract wolves or other predators. At this he smiled, nodded approvingly, and said, “you have to be in the fields to know this stuff.” True. It turns out that the fields are helpful not only in clarifying abstruse talmudic debates, but also in explicating scripture. Not only were the rabbis of the Talmud “in the fields,” but the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, Jacob, Isaac, Esau, and Rebecca, were, too. Their drama, and countless others like it, unfurled in a place where agricultural rhythms drove life.

Most city dwellers in contemporary America are alienated from preindustrial ways. In order to live ecologically responsible lives we must make a concerted effort. Few of us experience, in any meaningful way, how proteins are converted from placid ruminants to our evening meals. Biblical patriarchs and modern ranchers alike are luckier: their lives of husbandry acquaint them with these processes in a visceral, immediate fashion. Our ancestors in the book of Genesis did not take the question of where their food came from—including how it was killed, transported, and prepared—for granted. We readers of Genesis need not take it for granted, either, for it provides a key that can unlock the inner sense of scripture.

(To return to the Spring 2016 Table of Contents, click here.)


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