Goat Song: Romancing the Pastoralism (Not)

Goat SongPeople today seek a connection with the earth in many ways. The shape of that seeking takes many forms.

First it was buying a house in Tuscany, making dreams of Paradise concrete. Or at least set in rough stone.

Now it seems to be goat-herding and cheese making.

Truthfully, there’s something about herding that calls up the pastoralism that birthed all of us, although we tend not to remember that in our frantic day-to-day rush to connect to something, anything, via Facebook, Twitter, and text messages.

And that’s why Brian Kessler’s book, Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese (2009), enthralled me from the very first. Kessler — an avowed fan of Thoreau’s Walden — and his wife Dona raise Nubian goats and make cheese on a seventy-five-acre farm in Vermont.

Like a Swiss alpenhorn, Kessler’s words communicate something that I know is missing from most of our lives. That something is a connection with animals, and not just of the pet variety. Kessler’s account of his life as a herder touches so many deep places and reminds me of things I’d absorbed about goats over the years but had forgotten.

Nubian Goats

Nubian Goats

The god Pan, the Christian image of the devil as a creature with cloven feet, the alphabet we use, the words we toss about carelessly (think “capricious”), Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats — all of these common aspects of our lives originated in the herding of goats. Kessler plucks vivid example after vivid example from the history of herding and goats, in writing that sometimes borders on Annie-Dillard flowery (Kessler dedicated the book to her).

Unlike many “I-did-this fascinating-thing-and-you-must-read-about-it” memoirs, Kessler’s story contains very few dull moments. Some of the Henry-Miller-like chapters on the mating of goats probably would be censored in another age and time. In other words, things get pretty graphic, especially Kessler’s description of Hannah-the-goat’s first mating dance with a male goat named Sonny.

None of the hard work of farming escapes Kessler’s graphic pen, either. Take his description of haying: “All flesh begins as grass. … The rains held off all morning, and by three the sun burned hot. Eighty degrees in the shade. Jean had been turning her hay all afternoon with the teddler.  … I hadn’t lifted a single bale yet, but was already drenched in sweat. Jack mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. The air smelled of scorched mint.”

But the satisfaction of a life well-lived, and well-examined, comes through. Not to mention lots of information about goats and their history as providers of food for humans.

Not all of us will herd goats. But we certainly can do some of that same examining that Kessler does.

Other books on herding, plus a Web site from Africa:

Goat Song : My Island Angora Goat Farm by Susan Clark Basquin (2000)

The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese by Margaret Hathaway and Karl Schatz (2007)

The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O’Reilley (2001) (about sheep)

Burundi Goats http://burundigoats.tripod.com/

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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One comment

  1. dianabuja

    ah yes, goats are pretty randy! Goats are becoming a very ‘in’ thing with increasing numbers of farmers and wannabe farmers in the States – the nich markets for both goat meat and cheeses are very appealing.

    Thanks for the plug!

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