The Accidental Nanny Goat

A few weeks ago I drove up to Youngstown to collect my weaned goat sire, build a half-assed milk stantion in trade – that has since been painted a rockin’ shade of hopeful kelly green – and spend the rest of the day searching for a missing milking dam. Except for coming up empty on the goat hunt, it was actually a profitably good day that ended with me finding a local source for $1 square bales of beautiful, fragrant virgin hay.

The big story that eventually unfolded, though, went that the nanny was bought at the auction the month before I knew about her, and she eloped the moment the car door was opened in the driveway (I’ve transported live cows stuffed into the back seat of a Ford Escort; this is a more common potentially-lethal occurrence than you realise. Hold my mason jar of ‘shine and stand over there…I’ll show you…). Of course, I didn’t know that she’d been missing for a month, already, until I’d spent a couple of hours driving up and down railroad tracks and pasture access roads searching for her. So, I secretly told myself that she’d been eaten by coyotes, and I told her tender-hearted owners how best to coax her into the herd enclosure “when she [came] around,” before I took Butch home to mow my messy acreage. And, then, I promptly forgot about her.

This past Sunday, I’m told, the police called. Turns out that this miraculous marauding nanny had not only survived out in the world all alone, she had recently ensconced her scraggly emaciated, dehydrated self with a commercial sheep herd ten miles away from her would-have-been home, and the rancher in charge wanted her picked up post haste. Not long after, I got a call and a flurry of messages from my frantic friend asking how to get a wild, pissed-off NOT-A-TINY-PYGMY goat to eat and drink. The simple answer to this question is you don’t. Not until she calms down and decides she wants to. But I offered to my tired, exasperated friend that they could drop her off at my place, and I’d work on her for a few of weeks to tame her down again for them. My friend’s husband immediately threw up the white flag of surrender without any hesitation.

I ended up going back up to their place yesterday to rescue the rogue goat from her perceived jailors. By the time I arrived this go around, she had trashed their car, their garage where they had her thankless bony ass quarantined, and obliterated several perfectly good bales of hay and a seriously pricy lawn mower in the process of raging against the looming prospect coerced domesticity; I was tempted to call her Eliza. She had also injured my friend in a fit of thrashing anarchist’s fury (hence my trip to them), and when I arrived, my friend’s husband met me at the truck with a stern look and a wagging finger and told me that this goat is “just no good” and he doesn’t want me bringing her back. Why? Because she doesn’t want to be loved on…. <le sigh> Patience of Job, that one.

After spending the better part of the past three years on my own in the forests, I get exactly where this goat is coming from. People are freaking scary, man. And life is not a damned bit of fun when you’re forced into confined spaces and have to wear clothes all the time…or a collar. So I stuck around whilst my friend did a couple of loads of my laundry for me (to make space in the truck) whilst I made nicey-nice with the feral eloper in short visits, and caught her twice to hold her stabby, horny head whilst the visiting veterinarian did a physical, inspected the long, hairless wound healing along her spine where she had torn the skin off going under a fence somewhere not long ago, and dewormed her. Hours later, after I vaccinated my friend’s shy, rather angry cat (the vet had left long before), we ate together, and my laundry was dry, we loaded the goat into the back of my truck, and I drove her home, radio blaring, Baby whining with concern, in the moonless, starless night without killing anything but Peter Rabbit’s distant fifth cousin, thrice removed. Poor bunny.

I didn’t realise until after midnight last night, when I was reclining with the dogs on the cool, grassy hillside above the house with the strong, rich smell of doe on my hands and skirts, and foehn-feeling winds blowing over us under the deep, roiling sky, just how much I have been missing all of my animals. I love the smell of does (not bucks…*gross*) almost as much as I love the smell of cattle…which I love almost as much as the smell of fresh horse sweat, which is almost, but not quite, as intoxicating as the divine scent of Spring lambing that carries for miles, which is right up there with the heavenly odors of pine forests on hot days, orange trees in fresh bloom, a butt-polished saddle, new-mown hay and angelica wine. It’s not just the smell of farm animals that is home to me, but the feel of them, too; the way they lean into you like a fence post when they show their trust, and lie alongside your lap with their heavy, sweet breath filling the space when they want to nap with you. The rhythm of daily feedings, the sound of water being poured from buckets into waterers and troughs, the sound and feel of the rasp when you’re trimming hooves and capping horns, the growing, radiant heat of birthing – all of it is just warm, sedate, and pregnant with quiet purpose. It amazes me, in moments like these, that society has grown so divorced from the land because the older I get, the more aware I am that I cannot be comfortable apart from it for very long. Cities may glow and twinkle, but it’s a cold, false light that fades to a hardened, sterile grey when the sun comes up; concrete will never be as inviting or as useful as forest litter and sweet, fragrant hummus.

The one great thing I realised last night is that this nanny goat, who lost her original harness and lead ages ago whilst running amok, has managed to keep a USDA herd tag in her ear, and it dawned on me whilst watching the heavy sculpted clouds sail on that the USDA keeps registration records on livestock for 20 years minimum so, early this morning, I called the State of Ohio USDA commissioner to do a herd search. This girl is less than two years old. She’s a purebred French Alpine milk doe with a superior papered pedigree and has yet to be bred. How the hell did she end up at auction? I don’t know, and I don’t care. French Alpines do incredibly well in extreme temperatures, love hills and are skilled at harvesting buried winter forage without destroying the turf…I’ve seriously lucked out. This is a valuable goat, capable of producing the media for some of the finest yogurt and cheese on the planet. If I take care of her well, she can be producing for the next decade or more.

…I went out to water everybody around noon, and Baby and I sat under the ancient, gnarled orchard trees betwixt Butch and the nanny, who still visibly shook with that now-familiar wild-eyed panic when she first spotted me coming up the hillside. The secret to making friends with any animal is something that I learned early on as a preschooler when Daddy taught me to fish at Cripple Creek: sit very still on the big-rocked bank, be very quiet, and watch the wind in the sparkling evergreens instead of the racing water; let them come to you by touch, and when they do, reel them in without hurry. It could take hours, it might be minutes, it all depends on how likeable you are, and that you don’t spook them. There’s an additional step to making friends with livestock, and I was still very young when I learned this, too, but I don’t think anyone ever told me, I just picked it up by instinct whilst wandering around like a fearless idiot amongst the heifers in the dry cow pastures near our house: sit or stand very still so that you’re at eye level, keep your open hands soft and slow, avert your gaze but pay attention, and when they bring their face close to yours, take a deep breath, and exhale through pursed lips long and low directly into their nostrils so that they can pick up your true scent; keep doing this until they’re satisfied and relax their stance. That’s when they decide that you’re safe to be with. When they get to the point that they’ll turn their backs to you to graze, or lie down in your presence, you know that you’ve been adopted.

I made friends with the rogue nanny goat on this blustery day today whilst the sun shone cold. My fingers were stiff and aching, my cheeks stung with tears, and my ears burned like fire by the time she determined that I wasn’t really a monster, I just resemble one from afar. She willingly followed me and Butch to the barn tonight without a fight – which did surprise me, as I was certain it would take at least a week to get her in there at all – and she let me tether her to the loadbeam before lying down in the deep straw to chew her cud and rest until tomorrow. All is well, for now….

I’ve named her Calypso. It means “she who hides.” It’s weird to think you have a lot in common with a goat, but I do.

Starting From Scratch

Farmers, as a general rule, don’t live by clocks. At least the vocational ones don’t. They live by days and seasons. Unless, of course, they have an appointment with the bank, or there’s an auction afoot. Then they’re right on time with a watch and cowbells on, because it’s unacceptably rude to keep people waiting on your sorry butt.

Days are divided Hobbit Style:

Morning Chores

Breakfast with newspaper & Farm Report

Second Breakfast

Noonday Chores

Lunch

Nap

Evening Chores

Supper

Nighttime Chores (especially during Harvest Season)

Dessert & Entertainment

Sleep…Unless the cows get out. Then you’re screwed. Ain’t nobody sleepin’!

Because, historically, farmers were the world’s true Hobbits, they didn’t (and don’t) leave home much. They survey the world primarily from the barn roof, the tractor cab, the front porch and the books they got from the public library, along with the occasional nature or travel show on the idiot box. In so doing, many vocational farmers also double as philosophers and poets without meaning to; you could call it an occupational hazard. When your hands and heart are busy, your mind wanders into deep places, puzzling together the meaning of things.

I’m a packrat so, naturally, I kept all the love letters given to me by the man I should have married in the beginning, a philosophizing farmer. He was a fifth generation dairy farmer with an accounting degree, just in case things went badly one day and he “got crippled up.” Most practical man on the planet. And, of course, his love letters were peppered with the earthy practicality of an eighth generation agrarian. It’s in his blood.

Believe it or not, I can still read that chicken scratch. Basically, it says that he went hunting for another farm to buy for us, but wishes he had made a better offer on the 70 acre one I loved – and lost to an auction – down the road from where I grew up (it’s now a subdivision); he installed a new pressure washer in the milking parlor (watch out!); a cow tore a teat and Doc Lange had to sew it back together (the cow later lost said teat), and his sister crashed the crop duster, dashing her husband’s hopes for a plane trip to a reunion. Mindblowing, eh? That’s life in the big…errr…country. And, man, what a life!

Other letters talk about rain, watching the light change on the mountains, waiting for the humidity to be right to bring in the silage corn, the way ice sheets covered the January windblown pasture like mirrors reflecting the heavens. These letters, at the time, made me homesick and terribly angry. It was like he was baiting a hook, trying to reel me back to the farm. I wanted to leave the city and go home. Screw college, screw the world. Go home and grow some pumpkins under the gladiolas and hollyhocks, make some sweet tea, and call it a life. But I refused to budge. In hindsight, I wish I had.

One important facet of getting back into the swing of agrarian life many years more-or-less divorced from it is learning the simple art of stopping the clock and watching the sky. When the sky is black, to go bed. When the sky is periwinkle, you’re probably late getting up. When the sun shines and the breeze blows, get everything done that needs doing dry. When it rains, clean the house and the barn and maybe sneak your favourite calf into the kitchen when no one’s around to cuddle whilst the bread bakes.

I’m not gonna lie; I’ve been sleeping entirely too much this past year, and it’s cost me dearly. I should have things established, already, but I don’t. Part of it, I know, is lingering depression and loneliness; part of it is the dreadful feeling of being pulled in different directions by the responsibilities of work and classes and making things to sell when I really need to be pounding fence posts. But I’ve been awake and alert enough to find my true North anywhere on this hillside without a compass in any light, even in the woods. I’ve watched the seasons change here and, whilst I’m dreading Winter, I have a pretty good handle on what to expect next year. I’ve walked every square inch of this earth, and I know what grows where, how to find the creek in the woods with my eyes closed, and where the morels and puffballs make their homes. I’m excited for next season, and I’m ready to spend the Winter months planning for new gardens in the Spring.

My friend, Mary, send me some comfrey roots from Georgia. I only got to plant them this morning because it’s been raining nonstop for the last week. The billie goat is pissed at me because I’ve made him mow the lawn during torrents, and I don’t really blame him, but I also want him to have gotten as much varietal herbiage as he can devour before the show flies and his diet is nothing but hay flakes, alfalfa pellets and the occasional handful of sweet feed.

The dogs are more reluctant to leave their beds to go outside…except Baby, he’s ready for anything, and loves to check in on the chickens, and whine at them when they aren’t where he thinks they should be. He likes to sit in the tall grass, all stately and dignified, looking out over the valley like a king surveying his domain. And I like to watch him. I wish I could be that still and focused.

Clouds jet across the sky, turning violent shades of violet and black; more storms coming, snow not far behind. I’m debating about making some banana bread, or zucchini bread; definitely need a chicken in the pot today, maybe some liver and onions. “Grandma” gave me two big buckets filled with apples, so applesauce is on the agenda this weekend, along with a carboy of cider vinegar. Winter is coming, Days are getting shorter, and I’m just relearning how to remember that days were always meant to be lived according to moments in season, not clocks.