Issue #10, 1998
Learning from Goats
Learning from Goats
" … a symbiotic relationship with ruminants opens an unguarded back gate to Eden ... " --"Goatwalking," Jim Corbett
When I was a kid, my mother was so busy and so often harried I thought she didn’t love me. Sometimes I used to feign illness in order to be permitted to stay home from grade school. I thought, what if Mother looks up from her housework on this particular day and turns, lovingly, in my direction between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., but I am in school?
As a rebellious, sexually adventurous teen-ager, I got Mother’s attention, all right. But finally I gave up the whole struggle and became just like her, so for all these years since I’ve had the inner comfort of knowing Mother would approve of my incessant busyness.
You’d be amazed what I can accomplish before 9 a.m. on an average day. You’ll never find me just sitting around. I am constitutionally unable to watch daytime TV; I’m not even sure it’s OK to watch TV at night. My daughter and my sister, independent of one another, each gave me the book "Meditations For Women Who Do Too Much" by Anne Wilson Schaef. Naturally I haven’t made the time to read it straight through. God forbid Mother or I ever simply stopped, sat down and for a moment, accomplished nothing. Some urge from within that was not on our daily TO DO list might well up, or worse, nothing might. How would we know we existed? To be on the safe side, we never sat down.
I married, completed college, began a career as an alcoholism counselor, attended graduate school at night, maintained a home and raised a child. When Mother thought my daughter needed a sibling, she suggested that if it were another girl I name her Belinda. But instead my husband and I divorced, and I had my tubes tied. It wasn’t until many years later, when my new husband, Henderson, and I moved to a farm in northeast Pennsylvania, that we were given two baby goats, and I had the opportunity to name my first kid Belinda.
Mother, who has been dead for 21 years now, would have liked Belinda. They are really very similar, both ladies, both thin and fastidious about their appearance. Mother never wore slacks in her entire life; Belinda, for her part, finds it unpleasant to step into water. Both have long thin noses. And an expression of disdain finds their faces a congenial surface upon which to reside.
But of Belinda’s love I am certain; she’s never too distracted for affection. She discreetly positions herself next to me whenever possible. I can comb her endlessly, although she’s not fond of any roughhousing. She’ll step aside and wait for me to calm down or transfer my exuberance to her big brother, Capricorn, a gentle, somewhat bewildered buck. Like all the goats, Capricorn is mesmerized by my stroking. He sways slightly in a trance, but if I stop, takes his big front hoof and paws at me till I continue. He is a big boy and this sometimes results in bruises. It’s best to keep on stroking or get up and call it a day.
I name these goats, nickname them, and then re-nickname them with names that play upon their original nick-names. While one doesn’t take too many liberties with Belinda’s name—Linda B’Linda or just a backward LindaB—Capricorn doesn’t seem to mind Corny Two Shoes or Sweet Corn at all.
For a few years, Capricorn impregnated Belinda each fall when she came into heat, and the dear girl produced, for our amazement and delight, dancing baby twins each spring. We kept the first generation, born the following year, and named them Ivy, as in "little lambsy divy" and GG, for Gray Goat, a take-off on the name we gave our farmhouse when we first saw it in 1985, the Gray Ghost.
The gestation period for goats is five months. They go into heat in the fall and are supposed to give birth in the spring. But because our girls have always bedded down right beside their buck and therefore get pregnant as soon as the first heat is upon them, "spring" births always seem to land during a bitterly cold week in February. One baby was even born on a cold night before Christmas. We called him Billy Bejinks because Mother used to say it was as "cold as Billy Bejinks." I don’t know who Billy Bejinks was or where the expression came from, but my daughter and her husband have further edited it. When they’re shivering, it’s "coooold as Billy!"
Capricorn knocked up his daughters Ivy and GG when they came of age. I’d read in my goat books that incest is OK as an animal husbandry technique to encourage desirable traits. With us, it was not for genetics but on account of what we saw as the friendliness of keeping all the animals together, and because of the impossibility of housing a pawing, moaning, thrashing male goat apart from the objects of his desire. However, after a dozen or so offspring we decided to bring in a new stud just to keep things on the up and up.
We sold as pets all the baby goats that were born after GG and Ivy, but we enjoyed the privilege of spending two early spring months with each set of newborns, the only creatures I know of who literally jump for joy when they’re only 2 or 3 days old. Apart from watching them prance sideways down the hill when they are a week old and able to join the others on our daily walks, there is nothing more delicious than cuddling on one’s lap a ribcage as thin and fluttery as a bird’s, tucking the tired legs up under its soft furry little body, and kissing the face of a dozing baby goat.
Henderson and I resist using the proper names for the animals we’ve met in the country. It would sound pretentious and formal for me to call Belinda a doe and Capricorn a buck and the kids, kids. A bitch is an awful name for a female dog. So a cow is a cow, as is everything else out there in the farmer’s field, male or female. (I’ve been told but I keep forgetting what a heifer is, or a steer. I believe these names refer to the state of the animal’s reproductive organs: either she has not yet become pregnant or he has had his testicles lopped off so as not to get her pregnant.) In my lexicon it’s all very simple: boy animals are boys and girl animals are girls. But I suppose my anthropomorphizing might amuse the local farmers who rightly look upon their barn inventory somewhat less fatuously.
The only goat we actually bought was Sweet William, a purebred Alpine, to be the new husband of our girls so that we didn’t carry this incest thing too far. We bought him from a neighbor farmer whose name is Bill, and as I was considering wildflowers as a category of future names and boy goats are called billys, I thought this name apt. However, it was a pretty limp-wristed name for the buck who was to be our main stud for the next four years.
He was the first and only goat we imported, and we found ourselves shocked and cringing at the bad luck that befell him once Belinda perceived him to be a threat to her girls, who, like him, were adolescents. Belinda, the light of Sweet William’s eyes, the replacement for the mother he’d just lost, his future bride, tried to break Sweet William’s bones. Sweet would moon around after Belinda from a distance, hoping she’d notice him. She noticed him all right and charged, again and again, bashing him sideways against the fence so hard we heard the slam at the house. She’d swivel, rear up and charge again. She was possessed with the idea that Sweet William should die right there in the goat yard. All he wanted was her love.
Finally, as he inevitably gained on her in size, her will to kill him flagged, and miraculously that fall she let him mount her. They’ve been inseparable since. However, I do not think we can extrapolate from this any parallel to human male/female relations.
We had to castrate Capricorn because Sweet William, younger, bigger, and now the herd queen’s main squeeze, tried to eradicate him. Once again the sounds of foreheads thudding together rose to the house, and appalled, we watched as they even drew blood.
The vet came one late spring day and tranquilized a humbled Capricorn, who stood, legs apart and swaying, while the vet injected Novocain into the testicle area and when it had taken effect, sliced down both scrotum to expose what looked like huge veined eyeballs. He gathered the two eyeballs in his left hand, pulled them down firmly and sliced through the cords with which they were attached to the body. I don’t remember much blood. Then he sliced off the bottoms of the now empty scrotum, left them unstitched, and when they healed they just hung there, tiny reminders of Corn’s former prowess. For several days afterward Capricorn walked gingerly, his back legs slightly apart.
I may resist using the proper nouns for livestock, but I’m enough of a farm girl to appreciate an opportunity to recycle. I threw the dogs one testicle each and watched, intrigued, as they chewed them right up.
From the coupling of Sweet William and GG came Daisy, whom we nicknamed Daisy-May (and Daisy-May-And-Then-Again-She- May-Not). She was an exceptionally affectionate little goat, and Henderson relented and said we could keep her. The next year, all four girls delivered babies; all babies went to good homes. But now I began to feel that allowing our girls to become pregnant year after year might not be good for their bodies, and I suspected that, even with my head-over-heels amore for those of the caprine persuasion, the goat population of Susquehanna County would eventually peak: The pet market would be saturated and we’d be trucking the babies to auction just prior to Easter and Passover where they’d be bought up by Greeks and Jews, we were told, and eaten as the holiday treat, chevron. This time Sweet William stood legs apart, trembled and walked gingerly for several post-op days.
Mating season, while offspringless, occurs each month now. The girls go into heat and Capricorn is best advised to show no interest. Sweet William’s still herd buck and spends his days in a miserable frenzy sniffing the girls’ bottoms, hanging his mouth under their stream of urine, lifting his head, pulling back his upper lip so it comes closer to his nostrils to better smell the odor of their urine, and then suddenly, out of the corner of one eye, takes notice of poor, innocently-standing-by Capricorn who gets charged and flattened.
On one winter walk, Sweet was busy sniffing and empty-humping his girls and Capricorn, although minding his own business, must still have seemed like a threat. I was walking ahead, goatherd, minding my own business too when Sweet charged Corn, who bolted, looked back in surprise at Sweet, and without watching where he was going, charged right into me. My legs flew straight up, at right angles to my body. I hung a few seconds in mid-air before landing, sharply, on my bottom in the snow. The blow floored me, knocking my teeth together, immediately banging out a migraine, hurting my feelings unreasonably, embarrassing me and causing me to look around nervously to see if my awkward mishap there in the woods had been spotted. Of course we were quite alone and the heartless goats, used to blows of this sort, ignored me and kept on cramming white pine needles down their throats as fast as their smug, lipless lips could work.
Out of all this coupling, productive and not, out of all the hours feeding and milking goats in the barn and making cheese seven months out of every year, and just before SW gave up his balls, came the best-loved little goat princess ever born at Gray Ghost Farm, my own bottle-fed, breast-fed if I could have, lovingly hand-nursed four then two then one and now, sadly, no times a day, my own last-of- the-lot, light-of-my-life, Rosemary. I was considering herbs as a name category when she was born. Her brother, whom the mother, Miss Ivy, did not leave to wither, the fat, warm, well-licked Basil, eventually went to auction. Rosemary came to bed with me.
What else could I do? We checked the barn as soon as we got home from Cape May after my daughter’s 29th birthday, and found Basil doing well beside his bemused mother. But off near the milk stand, squished against the cold wall of the shed, was a wet and trembling jumble of bones, and it was a girl. Girls are more desirable because they give milk, obviously, don’t become as big as boys and don’t pee straight into their own mouths if the opposite sex is near and in heat. Besides, I like a goat in bed with me, under the electric blanket.
I put down a towel, naturally, should she pee, but with death on its way, all systems are down and you have to worry first about cold, and then something to put into the little body before something can come out. I’d read goat books, which served mostly to terrify me into assisting at births when I really wasn’t needed, but because of their advice, I’d frozen some of last year’s colostrum. We thawed it, and with a large plastic syringe, squirted tiny amounts between Rosie’s locked jaws. She’d given up hope and was calling it a rather cold and unenviable day. We weren’t.
We got her to agree with us. We took her out of my bed (if we were lucky her little system eventually would work) and placed her on a towel on an electric heating pad with a moisture-proof cover in a big cardboard box at the foot of my bed. During the day she gathered strength as I forced more and more colostrum down her throat. We moved her in her box to the shop where I work, so I could cuddle her on my lap and give her ever increasing portions of colostrum and then milk from her mom. Finally she agreed to suck. Then suddenly she sucked with such certainty she swept the bottle out of my hand!
By the second day she was standing. By the third, standing and walking were no big deals. By the fourth night, when we went to bed at 10 p.m., Rosie in her box, I in my bed, Rosie stood right up in her box, head tilted smartly over the side of the box, indicating she was ready to play. I called Henderson. "I don’t think Rosie’s a house goat any more." He took her to the barn. My sleep matters to me.
Of course she bellowed, but somehow managed to find enough warmth among the others to get through the night; her mother never has recognized her and I am proud to be the only mother Rosie’s ever known.
I am unabashedly head-over-heels in love with goats.
But about Rosemary in particular I am rhapsodic. In the barn, it’s Rosemary May and Rosie May and Rosie Pay and Rosie Posie Mosie Dosie Bosie May until I nauseate even myself. We have a hugging and kissing bee each morning after I milk. Rosie, now a 1-year-old chunky adolescent, jumps up on top of the feed bin and leans forward, all in one motion, against my body which is simultaneously there, arms open to gather her in. She licks the salt off my neck and cheeks and I pummel and scratch her and gather up her thick skin and hair in folds and look for itches which all goats have along their sides and backs and which they can’t reach with their teeth. When I do her armpits, her licking tapers off as she concentrates on the pleasure, her amber eyes close to slits and she leans into my chest for balance so that if I stepped backward suddenly, which I never would, she’d topple.
I kiss goats on their mouths. Occasionally I get mouth sores which Henderson says is from kissing goats. Then he says I have goatitis. I don’t care. I’m intrigued by their mumble mouths, lipless mouths, like llamas. They have only bottom teeth in the front. Top and bottom in the back, for grinding, but only bottom ones in the front and smooth gums like a baby on top. They only need bottom ones for biting off leaves and bark. In my work with alcoholics in Philadelphia, I knew men without top or bottom teeth, all pulled by the welfare system which figured one dentist visit once and for all is economically prudent. I have secretly recoiled from the toothless mouth. Now I have been right up in that toothlessness looking for the cud, and on goats, toothlessness is a most charming and sensible dental arrangement. I am gaga over goats.
I keep trying to catch a glimpse of their cud, but so far haven’t been able to. I’m fascinated by their cud, or rather, what I’m really fascinated by is a creature that thinks to chew its food again, being a bolter of food myself who scarcely chews it the first time. I cannot imagine a life placid enough to chew my food twice. I get the food in as fast as possible, as much as possible in one sitting, and I’m off. Ruminants teach me about patience.
Together Belinda and I learned to milk. Now I’m a pro. I sit down right next to each goat on the milk stand, my cheek against her side, her sweet hay smell in my nostrils and reach under with soap and a warm washcloth and clean her udder. She’s having her grain. I squeeze her teat just so and squirt milk into the container. But doing four goats takes so long I need to listen to books on tape or time my milking to correspond with "All Things Considered" on public radio not to be bored. I am not, as you see, a meditator.
My daughter found a book for me called "Goatwalking." She inscribed it, "For my Mother, the goat." The author, Jim Corbett, understands why being with goats frees one from responsibility for carrying the relationship, which humans do with dogs, for instance. "Unlike pets, goats never seem to think they’re human, but they tolerate physical differences and allow properly behaved human beings to become fully accepted members of the herd." It is my wish to become so properly behaved. Under a section titled "Doing Nothing," he writes: "Being useless uncovers despair ... " and his discovery exposes my compulsive need to be busy.
I moved to this farm 12 years ago, tired and close to an edge. For years I have held up the earth with my shoulders, and I’ve had the migraines to prove it. It’s been my job to see that between friends there are no misunderstandings. I am the cause of a party’s failure (and its success as well, I might add). I am the cause of the automobile breaking down, the source of any pain in my relationship with my daughter. I longed to live close to things that were beyond my domination, beyond even the thought of domination, things that could get along without me, like mountains and trees. Like goats.
During the long hours of the day when I’m inside working, the goats are getting along fine without me. I gaze out at them through the window. They’re all chewing their cuds or peeing, often simultaneously. They doze, heads hanging. They are caught in the moments of their life as I am never able to be. Like the mountains around them, they are implacable, steadfast, steady and present. They have something eternal running through them which is not of my making or my maintaining. That is a big relief.
Goats are concentrating, unconsciously, on the flavor of the grain, the saliva in their mouths, the grinding of their stomachs and the returning of the cud. They are certainly not accomplishing anything. They are, let’s face it, grand meditators, and that’s what I want to learn from them. To learn to focus, to concentrate so narrowly I forget myself in the moment and am unselfconscious.
I always resolve to stay longer in the barn, brushing the goats. But it’s too close to not getting anything accomplished and I’m up and off, promising to spend more time tomorrow. Yet, when I can pull myself down, sit down on the milk stand with wire brush in hand, all are takers. They gently offer me their noses and throats and press against each other to get closer to my hand. Seven big bodies jockeying to be groomed—Belinda and Capricorn and Sweet William and their children Ivy, GG, Daisy and Rosemary. All my children, too. This press of life catches me up in its immediacy and I am lost for just a minute in getting my hands and forearms and elbows to touch each warm, breathing, beloved body in as many places as I can reach and kissing as many cheeks and noses and yes oh yes lips as I can and being as much a goat myself as I can be.
I still haven’t spent a day or even a few hours up on the hillside, in a chair, with the goats, even with some distractions like books to ward off the demons of uselessness which arise from my central fear that if I quiet down too much I’ll find I don’t exist at all.
This summer, however, I might chance it.
Lucy Wilson Sherman
Lucy Wilson Sherman received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Goddard College. She completed a full-length memoir called "Laying... read more
An interview with Maggie Jones
Maggie Jones is a contributing writer at The New York Times and a National Magazine Award finalist. She writes on a wide range of social... read more
Sherman tells me "Some people don't like me at all." Straightforward remarks like this characterize her. She is someone who is both uneasy... read more