The Cosmic Dance en Plein Air

25 Jan 2012

Spring in the Hills II by John Hulsey, 5 x 7, oil painting.
Spring in the Hills II by John Hulsey, 5 x 7, oil painting.
Whenever we get to feeling that there is nothing really new to be discovered in art or the world, we have to keep in mind that the "undiscovered country" often lies in our own backyards.

Recently, scientists at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany discovered that cattle and other large animals tend to organize themselves toward the magnetic poles. They made this discovery by spending six months studying hundreds of Google Earth satellite images of cattle and deer on six continents—observing more than 8,000 cows and 3,000 deer.

They noted that the cattle did not orient toward true north, which they could have done using the position of the sun, and the alignment effect disappeared near high-voltage power lines, which would have overpowered the relatively weak influence of the earth's magnetic field. No one knows exactly why cattle have this tendency, but it may have evolved to help them navigate during migrations, similar to the way birds and whales can navigate magnetically.

Ann and I often wander the fields near our studios when plein air painting, often taking the cows and horses around us as our subject. They seem to pose so picturesquely for us whenever we set our sights on them. While it never occurred to me to notice their north-south alignment, I have often marveled at how perfectly they seem to be distributed across the grassland. I never feel as though I need to redesign my outdoor painting layout of the herd to make a better picture.

Madame by Ann Trusty, 5 x 7, oil painting. The First Hot Day by John Hulsey, 5 x 7, pastel painting.
Madame by Ann Trusty,
5 x 7, oil painting.
The First Hot Day by John Hulsey,
5 x 7, pastel painting.

This has happened so often that I really have wondered if cows are tuned in to some kind of cosmic fractal equation that describes the optimum spacing for cattle in a pasture! Or perhaps they obey as-yet undiscovered rules of cosmic choreography. What if, like a Gary Larsen cartoon, the cows are actually performing a secret ballet upon the landscape to music only they can hear—a kind of bovine performance art? It can seem like a crazy and funny idea, but then it took us 10,000 years to realize these same animals were pointing to the magnetic poles! There's just a lot we don't know.

No one knows why humans have felt compelled to create works of art since the dawn of time, either. But we just do. Perhaps we too, as artists, are also performing in the cosmic dance to a "muse-ic" only we can hear. So far, the creative impulse has proven to be scientifically unquantifiable. Nevertheless, I always point south when I paint in my studio—does that mean anything?

One thing is for sure—the next time I'm out with the cows, I'm going to pay more attention. They may know something! For more great articles, please visit us on The Artist's Road.

--John & Ann

P.S. For more information on animals' magnetic sense, be sure to read the Scientific American January 2012 article by Davide Castelvecchi, "The Compass Within."

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John Philip wrote
on 26 Jan 2012 1:42 AM

Ok, the science bit just sounds too crazy. You're spot on about them facing in a certain direction when the eat.

...but surely there are a million other factors? More reasonable ones at least. What about they don't like getting the sun in their face? Or, don't like standing downwards on a hill slope, or prefer grazing on one side of the hill more because the sun rises from a certain side of the hill, creating dew on one side, making the vegetation better on the one side. And the mountains in the pictures he studied where in a similar pattern. Or maybe they don't like to face into the wind when grazing and the places the guy studies has prevailing winds from a certain direction.  ...just some immediate thoughts, and I'm sure there are even better theories.

KatPaints wrote
on 26 Jan 2012 8:03 PM

Considering they contribute towards the greenhouse effect, it maybe related to the direction of the southwestern wind and the emissions from their lower half of their body. (No one wants to smell farts.) This would also allow them to smell any approaching predators.

on 30 Jan 2012 2:09 PM

We agree. This does sound a little weird, but read the article in Scientific American magazine if you want the complete story. It is actually interesting that folks are spending lots of time looking at pictures of cows from outer space!