Charging the Fields of Michigan’s Highlands

My vehicle jig-jagged north through the misty morning fog toward the Mackinaw Bridge on a well-known route (well-known because this was the same route one would take to our Family’s get-away on the rocky shoreline of Drummond Island). I was en route to meet with an individual whose farm is within a stone’s throw of the international bridge in Saute Sainte Marie, Michigan. He’s a university professor and ornithologist who raises an ancient breed of cattle: the Scottish Highland breed. This rare foggy morning in November, reminiscent of the opening scenes from Brigadoon, set the stage for an encounter with with these stately, primordial beasts. The fog enshrouded the Mackinaw Bridge, with the bridge’s towers–obscured by the mists–seeming to descend from some infinite point on high. The fog broke as I crossed into the overlands of Michigan’s northern peninsula, which far enough west, you’ll find the highlands of Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains. Rolling up to the farmhouse, I was greeted by Tom, who invited me in for a hot cup of coffee around the kitchen table where we soon began ruminating about the fascinating herd that was grazing just outside.

Highlands are quite docile and require very little maintenance. Their docility is such that hundreds of years ago inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands would live under the same roof during the winter months as the cattle that were in their keeping. From these humble beginnings, so renowned has this breed become for its quality of beef that one herd now is kept not under thatched roofs but on the grounds of the British Royal Family. Through natural selection in a harsh environment, they have developed into a hearty breed, requiring very little maintenance. Their thick, shaggy coats of fur offer suitable protection from the cold, and they are particularly resistant to disease and infection. This is in stark contrast to other breeds, engineered by man to be made suitable for the feedlots and whose management requires prophylactic antibiotics to fortify their more fragile immune systems which have not benefited from the process of natural selection. There are, of course, other factors that make conventional beef cattle more prone to disease, including their grain diets and cramped living conditions.

Also unlike conventional beef production, in which an animal can be born and brought to slaughter in as little as five months, Scotch Highlands take time: as many as two to three years to be ready for harvest. But, as the old adage goes, “Life imparts flavor.” Just ask Angus Mackay, whom I encountered in the writings of Mark Schatzker. In his book Steak Mark writes about his odyssey to find the world’s greatest steak [please see also “Steak“]. After a disheartening trip to Texas, Mark goes to France, then to Scotland. While partnered with France’s primer beef enthusiast, Mark is able to find meat that he grades as an “A-“. It wasn’t until he reached Scotland and met Mr. Mackay that he found in Mackay’s grass-fed Highands meat that he considered “A+” beef. On he went to Japan, home of the world-renowned Kobe beef, and Argentina, a country succumbing like the United States, to grain-fed beef. 3/5 the way through the book, Angus Mackay’s cattle win out. When I mentioned this anecdote to Tom, he corrected me on my pronunciation of Angus Mackay’s last name, “It’s Angus [mic KIE].” How did Tom know? He’s met him. I was bowled over: I was sitting just one-degree of separation from the world’s greatest beef. I just finished watching The Godfather Part II (again), and here’s what jumped out at me this time, “[Michael Corelone, the Godfather] If anything in this life is certain–if history has taught us anything–it’s that you can kill anyone.” [That scene, incidentally, can be watched by clicking here]. Put in a slightly more positive way (lest anyone feels that this post contains a veiled threat), “No one is out of reach.” How true! How right! To return to what Mackay has to say about beef:

“Me [Schatzker]: ‘Would you say your beef is any better, or different, than the beef other people sell in Scotland?’ Angus Ruadh Mackay: ‘I think beef can be every bit as distinctive as a glass of single-malt Scotch, depending on where it’s made and who makes it…'[Mackay’s cattle] eat clover and ryegrass, a diet that won’t get them fat for two years, an eternity compared to the five-month turn-around achieved with steamed, flaked corn…it’s Mackay’s belief that they taste more like beef when they are more mature, which is not what the USDA thinks. The secret to good steak, he says, is time. He likens supermarket beef—in either Scotland or the United States—to three-year-old whisky, a substance ‘you simply wouldn’t want to eat.’ ‘All the modern technology in the world,’ he told me, ‘hasn’t sped up the whisky-making process. The same is true with beef,’ (Schatzker, 117 – 18). [For more on this topic, please see “The Terroir of Beef“].

My visit ended by jumping into Tom’s truck where, in four-wheel-drive, we drove out onto pasture to get up close and personal with what felt like prehistoric animals. It is here that I must return to my original remarks about these creatures for what it is that makes them so remarkable. It is precisely the docility of these wooly mammoths that I find so astonishing: how, in them, strength and docility meet; brute strength and gentleness. It tames in a man the impulse for a negative aggression (to be distinguished from a positive aggression) which, after all, is probably more about trying to prove a dubious strength as opposed to knowing one’s true strength. In contrast, here is a beast in possession of both meekness and strength. Where else do these twin, but contrasting, qualities co-exist in unity? Perhaps in the heart of the ennobled Scottish themselves. And so my thoughts turn to the final scene of Braveheart, where “…patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the field of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets [italics mine]. They fought like Scotsmen…and won their freedom.”

Epilogue

It would appear that another paradox can be added to the list (please see “On the Paradoxes of Life“), that of having, at one and the same time and without diminishment of either: strength and meekness (gentleness).

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