Island Voices


By Elizabeth Van Deventer

Stella taught me one of the most important spiritual lessons of my life. Yet, you wouldn’t find her sitting in the lotus position in an Ashram or giving a sermon behind a church pulpit. She wasn’t a guru with a great following or what anyone would think of as a spiritual teacher at all. Instead, Stella was a beautiful brown cow.

I’d always been drawn to cows. As a child growing up on a farm in Virginia, I loved to sit under a tree with a herd of black and white Holsteins chewing their cud. They emanated a peaceful stillness, their dewy eyes glassed over, hind legs cocked, hips sloped. As I watched their jaws circling, I too became deeply still, sinking into the moment, feeling myself melt into the herd.

For decades, I longed to be near cows again, without fully understanding what it was that drew me to them. Then one day, my deepest longing manifested. Four glossy, big-eyed, brown cows magically stood under the dappled shade of our apple trees. They looked at me in a knowing way, like we’d all agreed to this plan in some other time and space.

Stella was born to one of those cows. She was a sassy little heifer who’d sidle up to me, pushing her belly into mine so I’d scratch her back. When her mamma died unexpectedly, Stella and I bonded. She followed me everywhere. She grew up to be the lead cow and taught the whole herd to follow my call to fresh pasture. As the matriarch, she became their voice. When I’d hear her lowing in the distance, I learned to be still and listen to decipher what the herd needed by the different qualities of her call.

Each morning, when I went to move the herd, Stella was waiting for me. She was there through hurricanes, blizzards, droughts, and floods. She was there through the birth of my children and when they grew up and moved away. She was there through disasters and deaths. She was there when I showed up in tears, or angry, or anxious. She’d simply sashay up to me and press her belly into mine for her back scratch. For a few moments, I’d forget my problems and melt into her as she gifted me the joy of the present.

When Stella was eight, we moved to Vashon Island. Her photo sat on my desk in front of a view of Mount Rainier. I longed to be near her, fearing she’d forget me, or I’d never see her again. Three years later, we came home. I ran out to the pasture, calling her. In the distance, I heard her mooing. She left the herd and began to walk toward me and I to her, like lovers in a romance film. Then Stella pressed her belly into mine and I flopped over her, scratching her back, tears soaking her fur. I promised Stella that I would never leave her again.

I kept my promise until the day she died at age 20, just a few weeks ago. Then it hit me all at once why I’d been drawn to cows. Stella, like the Holsteins of my childhood, was free from the dungeon of past and future fears that imprison us humans. Stella was the stillness in the storm of my life. She taught me to live in a state of non-resistance to what is – just like she did. By the very nature of her loving being, Stella taught me the immense joy of how to simply be, despite it all.

June 6, 2023

About Author

elizabeth van deventer Elizabeth Van Deventer is a former anthropologist turned farmer and writer. You can typically find her on her Virginia farm out in a pasture, meditating with her cows, horses, chickens, and dog, Molly. In return, they tell her all kinds of secrets about life. Elizabeth and her family were fortunate to live on Vashon Island from 2011-2014, and if they had their druthers, they would be back for good. It is indeed one of the most magical places she has ever lived.