The Cow Telescope

by Jens Alfke ⟿ March 3, 1991

WHEN I stick my head out of the skylight and look to the left I can see the Cow Telescope atop its hill, red light at the tip blinking to ward off low-flying aircraft. You can see it from Interstate 280; from the back of my parents’ Volvo I used to watch it as we drove past, a big metal parabolic dish pointed at something in the sky, on a grassy hill alone except for the odd ruminating cow. And so it was obviously the Cow Telescope, searching for radio emissions from peaceful cow civilizations across the galaxy — civilizations that might have the answers to problems like flavorless grasses, painful udders or the great mystery of being ground up into hamburger. The cows built their radio telescope in secret, and hope that no one will notice it on that hill, or that those who do notice it will attribute it to bearded Stanford researchers, the same ones who stretched a linear accelerator underneath the freeway where electrons doing 99.9999% of the speed of light excite the thoughts of motorists who would eagerly match them in a chicken-race if only the slowpokes ahead of them would get out the damn way — the slow cautious drivers with hats on, hats covering their horns, badges of their secret cowness, waving them with a surreptitious toss of the head at their gallant compatriots, as they cruise slowly past the blinking light of the Cow Telescope.

PERHAPS the big dish summoned me back. Perhaps I represent an advanced civilization, illuminated by knowledge in Southern California, then baked in Arizona. Skeletal desert cows heard the call in their bleached skulls and sent me back by bovine mind control techniques. Made me milkshakes while my belongings were packed into an 18-wheeler, licked my face with the memories of their wet tongues before they sent me home. Three miles and one freeway exit closer than ever before to the big dish. So close that at night out of the corner of my eye I see blue glows crawl over the backs of the cutlery marinating in the sink. Open the skylight and, bathed in it, I hear its voice speak to me as it heads outwards.

THE Cow Telescope has a lot of questions and I don’t know how to answer them. Perhaps I am not expected to. If I were the receiver they could just call. (The wire stretching miles from a crudely-spliced overhead cable, snaking across the fields, wet with dew but insulated in red plastic. It ends at last at the top of the hill under the moonlight. A hoof gently knocks the receiver off the Princess phone and earthworms escape in terror from the dial tone. The receiver is righted. The same hoof presses and the cacophony of every button sounding at once is misinterpreted by the switching office. A vacuum cleaner salesman in Rio de Janeiro is awakened and responds with angry words. Cow hearts sink low, but another attempt is made, this time using the tip of a horn to tap out the number. I answer the phone and a momentous, hushed conversation ensues…)

BUT their questions are not for me. To think otherwise is mere egotism. I can barely even understand their terminology, their phrasing. I am eavesdropping, alone at night, on an uncompleted call. No one answers. They have been at this for decades but no one answers. They go on with their lives, chewing cud, watching cars to see license plates from all 50 states. They are a patient race and their problems are not new ones.

IF I went to visit them they would misunderstand. I have their blood on my breath. I don’t have answers to bring them, don’t even know the questions. If I simply sat in the field they might sit down around me; uncomfortably at first I would tell them things I had learned, about vector calculus, My Bloody Valentine’s last album, Loteria cards, how to drive a stickshift (it’s important not to be too embarrassed when you stall the engine; everyone else has done it too), how metal type is cast, John Crowley’s novels, CGrafPorts and other Macintosh programming mysteries. They are a patient race, but in time they would shake their heads and I would know that what I had said was not of use to them, was not what they had waited to hear. It had made no more sense to them than their questions overheard in the loft had made to me.

I would probably cry, though I had not expected to succeed, and drying my eyes would sit with them wordlessly and gaze with them into the sky past the blinking light and the creaking girders above. Gazing into the chill night sky whence could come their salvation.

AT dawn I would wake up and, in doing so, realize that I had dropped off to sleep. Some of us are not cut out for this life of vigil. I would get up from the warm flank against which I had leaned, and walk stiffly away toward home. I believe that I would feel inexplicably better, as though some cathartic moment had passed during the night. But I would probably have caught a cold.

IT may be that the questions the cows ask are meaningless even to them. The questions may be inextricably tied up with the rest of their being, not merely something their minds came up with. The questions may lie at the heart of what it means to be a cow, and they might not be as important if the cows understood what they meant. The answers might just take the form of an understanding of the questions. By broadcasting the questions, then, they are broadcasting the shape of the empty space around a cow, and so the definition of the cow itself. The cows may not be seeking answers. They may be propagating the idea of cowness, a cow manifesto, the æther made flesh in the shape of the cow. In hearing their questions I have eaten of that flesh and been saved.

(This short piece just wrote itself one evening as I struggled to keep up, writing by hand in an old Caltech exam notebook. I have no idea where it came from; the idea of a “cow telescope” was an old joke Diana and I shared, but the rest just came out of nowhere as I sat at my kitchen table while Slowdive’s eponymous first EP played on auto-repeat up in the loft. Or perhaps the cows put those ideas in my head?)