A Lifetime, Washed Away

Daniyal Mueenuddin in The New York Times:

Flood I found most pitiful a family gathered around a prostrate brown-and-white brindled cow. The father told me that the cow had been lost in the water for four days, and the previous night it had clambered up on another section of the levee, a mile away. The people of this area recognize their cattle as easily as you or I recognize a cousin or neighbor — they sleep with their animals around them at night, and graze them all day; their animals are born and die near them. Someone passing by told the family that their cow had been found, and the father went and got it and led it to their little encampment.

In the early morning the cow had collapsed, and I could see it would soon be dead. Its eyes were beginning to dull, as the owner squatted next to it, sprinkling water into its mouth, as if it were possible to revive it. Its legs were swollen from standing in water, and its chest and torso were covered with deep cuts and scrapes, sheets of raw flesh where branches rushing past must have hit it. The rest of the family sat nearby on a string bed, resigned, waiting for the end. This was their wealth, but when it died they would tip it into the water and let it float away to the south. Through the past few days they had seen it all, houses collapsed, trees uprooted, grain spoiled, and this was just one more blow. Driving back to my farm, which has (so far) been spared from the flood, an image of the cow’s ordeal kept coming to me: splashing through the flood for hours and hours, at dusk or in the blank overcast night, with nothing around it but a vast expanse of water stretching away, an image of perfect loneliness. It must have found high ground, waited there as the water rose, then set off again, driven by hunger. In the immensity of the unfolding tragedy, this littler one, this moment of its death, seemed comprehensible to me, significant.

It is difficult to convey the scope of what was lost by those who had labored with ax and shovel to bring this land under cultivation. Fifty years ago, the area was all savanna, waving fields of reeds and elephant grass running for a thousand miles on both sides of the river. As a boy, I hunted there for partridge, walking among a line of beaters, the tall grasses so dense that I was invisible to the next man only 10 feet away. This was wild country.

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