Monday, January 19, 2009

Goat Nostalgia


I've been missing my goats. In this cold, terrible weather, I've been missing my goats.

The last time I had goats was just over a year ago, in Vermont. I had two lovely Nubian does—long, elegant bodies, refined necks, pendulous ears, distinguished Roman noses, and “textbook” udders.

Parsley and Sage were twin sisters who had never been apart from the moment of conception. They were fabulous milkers. And that was the problem. Although I bred only one of them each year, which meant only one of them was milking, I got a gallon of sweet, high-butterfat milk a day, seven days a week. That is a lot of milk, especially for a household of two.

So I made cheese. Lots of cheese: fresh cheeses flavored with garlic and rosemary, mozzarella, and even a farmhouse cheddar that had to be aged for months in our basement and turned out amazingly well. Cheese was a handy thing to have. Not only did we eat it, but our friends liked it. When people dropped in I had something more than peanuts to offer them. And homemade cheese makes the best hostess gift in the world.

But seven gallons of milk a week was a lot to keep up with. I was always in a race to dispose of the milk in the fridge before the next milking. I fed milk to the dogs and the chickens. I gave milk and cheese to the local food bank. And I poured the leftover whey from cheese making into the vegetable garden (which in turn produced huge yields of veggies).

Then one terrible day Sage strangled herself to death, and Parsley went crazy with sorrow and loneliness. Goats are herd animals, and are miserable living alone. If I was going to keep Parsley, I needed to get another goat immediately, and hope that they would get along. On the other hand, there was a good woman nearby who dearly wanted a milker of Parsley's line. And so, in sorrow and exhaustion, I let Parsley go.

Being without goats is not unlike being without a dog. A goat that has been bottle-fed from birth thinks that you are her mother, her friend, her love. She will come and rub herself against you. She will climb on your lap if you let her. She will follow you everywhere. I used to take Parsley and Sage on walks, leading them to the hedgerows where their favorite stuff grew, but no favorite berry or thorn bush would hold their attention if I disappeared from view. The minute they lost sight of me they would scream like lost toddlers in a supermarket and come after me as fast as their legs would carry them.

In winter I would take them hot water spiked with cider vinegar. They would leap up as soon as they heard me coming, more eager for my rubs and scratches than for the grain and hay I delivered. After their meal they would settle down to ruminate, Buddha-like, and I would sit with them and try to emulate their serenity.

In spring I would take them out to the field, where they would get drunk on new grass. I would sit and watch them eat and feel utterly content. There is nothing more calming than sitting in a field with a couple of grazing animals. It is no wonder that our spiritual literature is full of sheep safely grazing and pastures where we may rest.

Then came dandelion day, when I would go out to the yellow-dotted field with a gallon jug to collect dandelions for making wine. I would let the goats come with me and they would eat until I thought that their entire insides must be a glowing yellow. It took two hours to gather a gallon of blossoms. By the time I finished the goats were full to bursting, and waddled off to their stall to digest in peace.

Parsley and Sage were born herbalists. They knew exactly what to eat and when to eat it. As soon as the St. John's Wort bloomed, they were on it like they hadn't eaten in a month. This would go on for three or four days. Then, while to me the plant looked as good and fresh as ever, they would turn away from it as if it were poison. For a while, when the moon was waxing or the planets were in syzygy, they would gorge on clover. And then suddenly they would refuse to touch it.

Spring culminated in the birth of babies, a nerve-wracking, exhausting, wonderful time. My sheep- and goat-herding friends, who coolly oversee dozens of births, must have laughed at my anxiety. But in these things, as in killing chickens, practice makes perfect, and I hadn't had a lot of practice.

So a couple of weeks before the due date I would set up the baby monitor in our bedroom, and make vain sorties before dawn sure that the birth was in progress, but it would just be the goats munching, or grunting as they ruminated. Sooner or later, however, I would hear the unmistakable sounds of birthing, and I would rush out bearing iodine and vaseline, and string and scissors for the umbilical cord, yelling to Ed to come with towels, lots of towels.

I would stand there talking softly to the laboring mother, giving a few empathetic grunts myself, and when things looked like they would go on forever, a weird, skinny, shiny thing would slither onto the hay. I would sweep it up immediately and after much rubbing and iodine dipping and colostrum sucking the most amazing little creature would emerge, all new and lively and ready to take on the world.

Like I said, I miss my goats.


7 comments :

  1. They sound deserving of being missed.

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  2. I only have one goat story, really. In the Virgin Islands we lived up a long, long dirt road that passed next to one very smelly herd of goats and through another. Frequently we'd have to stop the car to wait for them to saunter out of the way long enough for us to go through. One afternoon on my motorcycle I found the second herd strangely scattered, but I slowed to a stop anyway. And I heard the most pitiable bleating—almost screaming—coming from the brambles just off the road. I walked over to investigate and found a nursing mother, her pendulous teats entangled in the scrub acacia. I extricated her, and while she was eager to get away and get back to the herd, she paused for a moment and looked at me, and gave out a small bleat before disappearing. There's not a doubt in my mind she was saying "Thank you."

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  3. Oh, Craig, you saved a goat! How lovely!

    About the smell--you know it's the bucks that have it, right? Especially in breeding season. It's also what has given goat's milk its raunchy reputation. But fresh, high butterfat goat's milk that's kept away from bucks and properly handled is delicious. (Sorry--didn't mean to get overly intense here!)

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  4. You have been "goatless" for a year now - so you are certainly not rushing into this thought. As you well know large animals are a lot of work - we have to provide room and maid service. But the joys of having these wonderful creatures around us greatly outweigh the work. AND the work is good for us. We do not have to go to the gym. And our work has such tangible results. There is a direct relationship between the quality of our husbandry and the health of the creatures we are responsible for. Also in these troubled times it is so centering and rewarding to raise some of one's own food. If need be we "hobby farmers" could actually feed ourselves. And in your case you donate some of your product to the local food pantry so you are also feeding others! For sure if you go down the goat raising path again they will supply endless material to entertain your readers! Who needs TV? Go for it!

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  5. Ah, Vermont Shepherd, what an enabler you are! And how good it is to read such an impassioned defense of the herding way of live.

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  6. I love other people's animals, as you know. Including your goats, one of whom, as a baby, jumped onto the hood of our car in its excitement.

    It would be fun for your friends to—each time you give up some animal/activity—start a pool as to when you will take said animal/activity up again! You know, like ice out.

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  7. It would be fun for my friends, not to mention my family! Still, I've stuck to one man for almost longer than I've been alive, so I'm allowed to be a dilettante in other stuff.

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