V: Ox

How can we keep plowing along on our lonesome?

V: Ox
Yoked oxen. Photo by Ana Cernivec / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is quintidi, the 25th of Vendémiaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le bœuf, the avatar of work.

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There's debate about the exact definition of terms, but a steer can only be a castrated bull, while an ox can be any domesticated bovine that has been trained for work, male or female. While it's most common to raise steer to be oxen (given that cows can provide milk and, you know, more cows), a lady can still be an ox if that's what the farm needs.

The ox has virtually disappeared from our world, thanks to technology. As ubiquitous and ancient as the ox is in human civilization, I was surprised at how many basic things I didn't know about them. Really, when someone says "ox," I just immediately think of "The Little Drummer Boy" and its best line about an ox and ass keeping time. (That's right, my church didn't paper that ass over with a lamb. Go hard or go home.)

As anyone who's ever set off on the Oregon Trail knows, oxen come in pairs, or yokes. While it's perfectly possible to have an ox draw a cart or a plough or a tractor or a hayride by itself, it's common farm math that 1 horse = 2 oxen, so you have to pair them up for the best ride.

This means that you need to match your ox teams carefully, pairing them off in terms of size and weight and strength. Generally, once a pair is created, they work together, side-by-side, for life. Being herd animals, they'll even eat and sleep together when not in the yoke. In England, it was customary to name a pair of oxen with one single-syllable word and another longer one: Pert and Lively, White and Hawthorn, Bert and Ernie.

These co-workers who become family are so effective because, unlike the other beasts of burden we've encountered this month (horses and especially donkeys), one dull cow + one dull cow = two absolutely mindless cows, and they never refuse to go forward. That's why oxen are referenced so often as the way to get something unstuck from the mud. Tell them to go, and they'll look each other in the eye and start stepping, without fail, until the task is done.

Which brings us to the pandemic.