The six bells were a casual purchase in a hardware store in Switzerland. “I want six goats,” said Chuck, who was charmed by herds of Alpine goats jingling across country roads, their bells echoing into the Alps as they stopped traffic. “That sounds nice,” I said, without much thought. I knew that the bells would gather dust along with the old maps and other artifacts Chuck had collected during thirty years of marriage.
The bells were all but forgotten a decade later, when Chuck spoke with Roger (not his real name), a neighbor with whom we had a relationship that consisted mostly of a honk and a wave when we passed one another on our narrow country road. This time, Roger spotted Chuck in the pasture as he was driving by, and stopped to chat over the fence. “What happened to your cattle?” said Roger, who was among those who had seen our small herd grazing in a neighbor’s yard more than once. Chuck gave him the short version. “We decided to get out of the cattle business,” he said. Then, in an off-hand statement that would change our lives dramatically, he added, “I really want goats.” Roger said, “I have a friend who wants to sell some goats.”
“Are you serious?” I said, as Chuck pulled up an email message that included photos of three French Alpine goats. Roger’s friends, Renee and John, wanted to sell one doe, plus a wether (neutered male) to keep her company.
It seemed to be a done deal. Chuck wanted goats and Roger vouched for these people. I was an observer. “Shouldn’t you do some research on this, and explore other options?” I asked. Chuck was more inclined to think that we should trust Roger’s recommendation. Chuck has a mystical bent, and he probably sensed that these goats were being mysteriously sent our way. Renee and John were still negotiating with one another about which doe they would sell. John’s favorite was Jitterbug. Renee’s was BeBop. Having just sold two steers and a bull without shedding a tear, I was not yet aware of the emotional trauma involved in selling a goat.
When it came time for them to deliver the goats, it was BeeBop and Bucky that John and Renee squeezed into the back seat of their truck for the journey across town. A starter-supply of hay went into the truck bed, along with a gift: a load of goat droppings and shavings freshly cleaned out of their barn. These would be compost for the garden, come spring. We were inclined to like anyone who was considerate enough to make a donation to our compost pile.
Renee and John admired the horse stall that Chuck had converted into a home for the new arrivals, complete with hay baskets and platforms. “This is the perfect home for goats,” they said, surveying the landscape and noting that we had plenty of shrubbery and forest lining the pasture. “Yes, we have a lot of pasture for them,” I said “Goats don’t graze much,” said Renee. “They browse.” As Bucky nibbled on a dry oak leaf, she added, “He will probably get sick on dried oak leaves. Just give him some mineral oil, and he will be all right.” Bucky was about four months old, and we would soon learn that he was small enough to slip under the fence in order to sample another plant very toxic to goats: rhododendron. Our initial tutorial was limited to the basics of feeding, instructions for registering ownership, and the address of an internet site with a wealth of information.
We told John and Renee about the bells. Chuck showed them all six, demonstrating how numbers and sizes have distinctly different tones. Then, to my surprise, he gave one to them. “Good,” I said. “That means we will not have more than five goats.” I had just signed a contract to raise 141 pounds of beans and 262 pounds of tomatoes for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). That was enough farming for me. As I wrote the check for the goats and handed it to Renee, I said to Chuck, “Just remember, these are your goats. Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas!” I may as well have been the parent of a five-year old telling her that the new puppy was her responsibility.
Several months later, after John and Renee had become good friends, we learned that they drove away that day feeling nervous about the transaction. “I don’t think she wants goats,” said Renee, as they considered whether or not to turn around and retrieve the animals. “Let’s give it a chance,” said John. It was perhaps Renee’s qualms about me that also prompted her to .pull Chuck aside before leaving our farm and say, “You aren’t going to eat Bucky, are you?”
We immediately renamed the goats. BeBop became Heidi, and Bucky (who was no longer a buck) we named after my father’s goat, Honus. The original Honus was a Saanan goat bred from lines on the Carl Sandburg farm near Hendersonville, NC. Giving our young wether this name evoked old memories of Daddy walking his white goat through the same pasture where our Honus would roam.
Since we had just acquired two French Alpine dairy goats on an impulse, we had not yet researched what they might need besides shelter, food and water. It turns out there are quite a few items a goat herder should have at the ready for any kind of emergency that might occur. Syringes, for example. Unless you have a serious problem, you don’t take the goats to the vet; you are the vet. I could not imagine giving any creature a shot; that would be just one among many things I would learn to do in the months ahead. I bought syringes, vaccines, dewormer, minerals, and essential treatments for minor wounds or stomach disorders. In anticipation of birthing and milking in the spring, I ordered emergency items that I hoped I would never use—like a Save-A-Kid Syringe with a long rubber tube for feeding a weak kid. A milking pail cost about $50.
That was only the beginning. Supplies for making cheese would include a colander, stainless steel implements, dairy soaps, bottle brushes, thermometers, rennet, cheesecloth, wax, molds, and various additives for particular cheese varieties.
Tractor Supply and the Hoegger Goat Supply Company loved me. Time and money, two precious resources were being spent on our little herd. Within a year from the arrival of our first two goats, we were turning down dinner invitations (it was milking time, after all), and the kitchen smelled like curdled milk. And I had to ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”
Six bells had jingled goats into my blood. I was learning so much…about goats and their behavior, about birthing kids and milking and making cheese…about my own inner call to raise these creatures who attach themselves to their human family at the same time that they retain an innate wildness. Is it too simple an explanation to say that goats are like spirit guides, generously inviting humans to renew their ancient connection with earth? I am not romantic about this, mind you. My body aches after I clean out a stall, and my arthritic fingers sometimes cramp up during milking. Cleaning milk stone from a stainless steel stockpot is tedious. Even these tasks, however, connect my body quite literally with the pulse of the natural world. Brad Kessler, author of Goat Song, describes his relationship with goats as “atavistic.” He writes, “The sound of them cropping leaves, the high tinkle of their bells, their voices calling across the lawn (become) a music tantalizingly familiar—a song just beyond the reach of an unremembered past.” Goats, he writes, like other living beings closely observed, “lead you to an understanding of their lives, and all life. They usher you into a kind of Eden.”
Yes. They do. They bring you into their world and bid you to find there an earthly paradise