Caprine Community by Laurie Goodhart


Two recent posts, Community Immunity by Natalie Weaver on May 6, and Carol Christ’s May 11 essay, Women Invented Agriculture, Potter, and Weaving…, have spurred me to focus and finally share something that I’ve meant to for a long time.  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. I say this last part so no one imagines a slavelike situation as is often seen in images of dairy farms.

What we consistently observed made it clear that all the various farm and wild animals we encountered are individuals in a community, 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 vigorous 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 reached 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 offers deeply rooted totemic imagery for soul nourishment in our careening, liminal time.  Follow her on Instagram 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 also a deck of playing cards, The Cuisine Cards, based on the prints published here in a previous post. https://www.instagram.com/lauriegoodhart.art/   https://sustenanceforawildwoman.com/2019/12/18/the-cuisine-cards/



Categories: animals, Family, General, Humor, Motherhood, Nature, Paganism

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. Love this post. I once lived near a goat that was tied to a shed. Despite the fact that it was quite a jump to the shed roof and the rope barely reached to the top, said goat spent most of its time on top of the shed. Made me laugh. Now I laugh when archaeologists say worship on mountaintops is related to the king surveying his realm. I say: people are like goats,, if we can climb to the top of a mountain, we will.

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  2. I too loved this post. Your respect and care for your animals allows them to show you who they are – intelligent, sensitive, compassionate animals whose lives are just as important to them as ours are to us…. we are all interconnected.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this post, and Carol’s response, which made me think of Snoopy on the roof of the doghouse.

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  4. This is so heart warming. 😃😉

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  5. Thank you for this luminous and illuminating post on the Caprine Community. Despite the capricious antics of some of the caprine beings you describe, those two words do not share a root. (I just looked them up.) I loved your stories of their valiance, devotion, playfulness and resourcefulness. Your vision of them during your silent retreat will stay with me.

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    • Oh — thanks for thinking of that possible connection Elizabeth! I love knowing the etymology of words too (and am all in favor of keeping things like “through” spelled that way, for that reason — if we are going to still think of our language as a written one). So I just took a quick look online, since the dictionary is downstairs — and love that Caprine comes from Caper, which is exactly what goats do, caper about.

      I’ll always remember that vision too, and will most likely never try to paint it and risk losing sight of it in the direct looking, like watching a particular star is best with the peripheral vision.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Cool! Back when I was studying the Aramaic Bible with Rocco Errico, the class decided to talk about “the Lord is my shepherd” one day. Somebody said we were–or should all be–like sheep following our teacher. But Rocco Errico, who is very wise, said he’d rather have a class of goats. Independent thinkers. Playful, resourceful, irreverent people who think for themselves.

    There are too many sheep in the world, people content to follow some leader, no matter where or how that leader goes wrong. I bet you all know I’m referring to at least the MAGA people. But now we’ve got lots and lots of goats on the streets. Yippee! Hooray for independence! Hooray for irreverence!

    And brightest blessings to you and all your caprine friends. Thanks for this post.

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    • Thank you Barbara, we send you brightest blessings too.

      I love that jewel of wisdom from your teacher. We did have sheep for a couple years, but they just weren’t any fun. Boring, unhealthy, and way too easily unnerved. I suspect much of that may due to human domestication practices, since the wild ones still carry on just fine in remote places.

      Hopefully goats won’t be bred into mindlessness too. I like to think the (human) world is truly changing right now. On our farm we certainly chose who to keep based on vitality and intelligence, not placidity and production, for the sake of the species’ survival when humans are no longer around; and for the Goat Spirit. Really. Hubby was/is totally there with that also.

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      • On reflection, not inconsistent with the current zeitgeist, the crux of the difference between sheep and goats as I know them could be said to be that the sheep were full of fear, and the goats were open to knowing and being there with the world.

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  7. I have run into free range herded goats in herds in the mountains in Lesbos many times and though they are not like goats the seem interested in life and always came to look at me.

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  8. I once lived with a goat named Tinkle – for good reasons: first because she had a beautifully tuneful bell and also because she – never mind. Tinkle never bothered to beg me for treats, she simply walked up the trunk and out along the limbs of whatever tree was in fruit. She kept the marigolds trimmed, her tail twirling in circles of pure pleasure. When she wanted to consult with me about something, she picked the gate latch and came to the kitchen door, which usually stood open. Eventually we found her a new “position” with a crew of brush-trimming goats, a definite career move.

    Shortly after that I realized that I too could move on from putative security to fascinating new endeavors, no matter how scary the escape vehicle and the whizzing scenery on the way.

    I swore for years that I heard that little chuckling bleat when time to evaluate the status quo had come again. I kept looking for that beautiful French Alpine face with the golden eyes and long, soulful pupils, until I knew that time had come and gone.

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  9. I am so grateful to you for sharing these experiences. The vision at the end was truly fascinating. And it really warmed my heart to read about these capricious goats. They really keep you on your toes! What beautiful and precious creatures they are, as are all the precious animals. How they bless us, if we let them.

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