For 30 years I helped my husband realize his dream of a small farm, while I continued working as an artist. We both came from urban backgrounds and both (separately) charged out into the wild world at age 17, inventing as we went along. That fearless approach continued with the farming many years later.
We started with sheep and cows but soon turned to focussing on goats. We wanted to farm organically from the start (1988) and that, combined with a lack of childhood indoctrination into Big Ag Culture had us devouring all the information we could while carefully observing the animals and applying our shared humanistic approach to daily life to the care of goats.
What we consistently observed made it clear that all the various farm and wild animals we encountered are individuals in a community of their kind, and it is only from a warped kind of habitual thinking that they could be seen with all the implications of the word, “herd”.
It’s also my opinion that all our human behaviors are just human versions of what we derisively call, “basic animal instincts” — that is, the impulses to survive, to reproduce and nurture, and to avoid pain — and to that list of shared traits I’ll add, the impulse to play (more pronounced in the young in all animals), to have some level of curiosity about the larger world, and to exhibit spontaneous acts of both empathetic altruism and of cruelty. Following are some fun and/or enlightening incidents that have stayed with me. I’ll limit these to the goats, but we’ve seen plenty in others, even guinea hens.
We never separated the babies from their mothers, as is standard practice in the dairy “industry”. Happy new families create lifelong family bonds — these nuclear groups always slept together in a pile, sometimes there would be four generations all cuddled up.
Not every mother cares about her newborn, that instinct has become less consistent since animal keepers so frequently separate their charges at birth. However, sometimes the natural bonds are incredibly strong and easy for humans to identify with. One bitterly cold Adirondack day a first-time mother was inside the barn giving birth quite noisily. Her own mother was outside with the rest of the herd (as was custom, for maintaining vigourous health). But on hearing the birthing mother’s screams, Future-grandma leapt the fence and stood outside the barn door hysterically demanding to come in. Once inside, she stood over her daughter until the babies were born and then immediately started cleaning them up and nudging them into place to nurse from their mom. We just stayed way back and watched.
Conversely, one particularly cheeky yet also especially charming goat, who came to us named Kunik, was full of sly mischief. She never did any serious harm, but the following is typical of her abundant, complex attitude. A mother was standing in the field nursing her baby. Kunik started her notably exaggerated sashay straight toward them and continued without pause precisely between the two, so that baby was sheared away from mom. Kunik continued on her merry way, acting as if she hadn’t noticed anyone was in her path, and the baby resumed nursing.
Fencing is always a challenge with goats. In the early days we used electric netting, which is said to work well for sheep, cows, and horses. Goats just take it as a game. One tactic they used for getting out was for a big strong one in the herd hierarchy to position herself fairly close to the fence and wait. When another who was weaker and far down the pecking order would haplessly walk by, right along the fence, the big one would slam the weak one into it, looking for two possible results: either the weak one will have broken that section, or will bounce back screaming, thus confirming the fence is working that day and not shorted out by wet grass somewhere. If the victim didn’t scream but the fence didn’t fall, they’d all start working at it until it did.
Another escape method we saw repeated often, after we had switched to woven wire panels on deep-set posts, was for the adults to take turns at digging a hole underneath as best as they could with their front hooves. Then they would elicit the still-small young ones to push their way back and forth through the hole until it was big enough for adults to pass through.
A hilarious incident, typical of goats’ irreverence (that irreverence perhaps being why the bible associates goats with the devil and sheep with Jesus): We had to record some bureaucratic details for a governing entity, so were standing in the barn, me with clipboard and a pile of papers, hubby milling among the sea of bodies surrounding us, giving notes on each individual as I wrote. I had most of the papers rolled up in a back pocket. All the goats looked entirely blasé, pressing up close to us and each other as it was a nasty winter day outside; though the barn door was wide open they preferred to stay in and dry.
In a flash worthy of any professional pickpocket team, one goat whipped the roll of papers out of my back pocket, the sea parted, and she ran out the door and up the hill. The sea instantly reassembled locking us in, except the outer ring who all followed her up the hill to investigate the loot. I laughed so hard and long I could barely stand up.
There are countless other incidents, all I think easily relatable to our own experiences, but here’s one last transcendent incident which may have been solely my experience of the moment, or may be what other lifeforms experience all the time, but which we humans have become habitually blind to.
It was deep winter, the goats were all on break from lactating, and my family had taken a two week trip to visit relatives. I decided to spend the time in silence. If you have done a silent retreat you may have experienced a shift in consciousness like I did. It didn’t significantly reveal itself most of the time, but one evening when I went down to the barn to check on them and close everything up for the night, an epiphany occurred.
Because of the topography, as I got to the gate, they were standing a bit higher than me. As usual, several came toward me out of curiosity. But I didn’t see goats. In the dim light there were only floating masks of gods, turned toward me and hovering about, with fathomless darkness where the eyes normally are. I was literally in awe and stood still there for several minutes. I don’t even remember how the experience concluded; perhaps it just stopped, like a dream. I’ve never had that direct apprehension again, but the memory and knowledge didn’t dissipate.
Laurie Goodhart is an artist immersed in the mythic, the mystic, and the cycles of Nature. She focuses on making deeply rooted totems for liminal times. Follow her for daily artwork posts and an upcoming opportunity to score many original pieces as fantastic incentives during a crowdfunding campaign to publish her completed book, Sustenance For A Wild Woman, and deck of playing cards, The Cuisine Cards.