Love’s Labors Learned: Goats and Other Mentors
“There’s nothing more you can learn from me.”
I heard those words come out of my boss’s mouth the other day, and mine hung wide open. Untruer words were never spoken; we can never stop learning from one another. I still consider myself new at goat-keeping, having only come to it professionally (and personally) three years ago. My boss has been my greatest mentor in learning the ways of farming that have gone back centuries and evolved to suit modern needs.
The goats have been my other best teacher.
If you pay attention, you learn things in all kinds of unexpected places. Legend has it that New England weather is completely unpredictable. Fact of the matter is that you start to see the signs of rain coming in, you come to smell snow before it arrives. Books are a great resource, but they’re certainly not the end-all and be-all of learning. Experienced farmers will gladly teach an eager student everything they know by example and helping hands.
Goats, though – they’ve got their own style of instruction…
For someone fairly small in size, I never knew how strong I was until I had to hold down a 200-pound buck so he could have his hooves trimmed and receive injections.
Never did I think I had a maternal bone in my body until I was handed a special-needs newborn kid and a bag of milk replacer and wished the best of luck. She needed special massages to correct the tendons in her hind legs. She needed to be fed four and five times a day. She overcame her potential disabilities and decided to leap off the sofa in the break room at work, nearly giving me a heart attack in the process.
Standards change. Once upon a time, I tried to keep my house spic-and-span and I read every word that Martha Stewart published on the subject of housekeeping. Then I got that goat. And she lived in the dining room in a dog crate. I found out that it is impossible to remove every last bit of hay chaff from your home, but it’s amazingly simple to sweep up goat berries. Nowhere in the showplace homes featured in Martha Stewart Living did I find goats nibbling on freshly-laundered afghans or farmers pulling bales of hay out of their dryer vents. What I did find is that I longed for a better place to keep my goat, and that I wanted more of them – outside. But somehow hay chaff everywhere became the new normal in the meantime.
I had no idea how fast I could run, or for how long and far, until I had to chase seven fairly wild-tempered goats all over the property to wrangle them back to where they belonged.
Humans are not the only creatures on earth that use tools, it turns out. Never give a disgruntled goat access to a broom. She will grab it by the bristles and whack you deliberately over the head with it when you take too long to milk and then suggest that she has to go back out in the rain.
And on that subject, goats are very smart – baby goats in particular – but I bet you know that already. So smart, in some cases, that they can undo a ratchet strap, escape their pet carrier, and close it behind them. And then they go on a spree through your house while you’re not at home, leaving a trail of chaos the likes of which no other phenomenon can create. And you find them gleefully bouncing on your bed, and somehow, it’s all right.
No matter what you studied in school, goats will give you an education in veterinary medicine whether you like it or not. I’ve learned to watch for the symptoms of every common caprine malady out there, and some uncommon, too. I know how to treat many of them now, whether the goat likes it or not.
But the hardest lesson I’ve learned from my goats is how to love your animals unconditionally, even when it breaks your heart.
Our firstborn goats at our own farm were adorable twins, the sunshine of our days (with no disrespect to the other inhabitants of Withywindle Farm). They danced and skipped and did all the things that baby goats do to melt your heart. And then our little doeling took sick unexpectedly at just four months old. Her brother stood guard over her, protecting her from the adults in the herd despite his truly tiny stature, until we discovered the problem. We rushed her to the vet when I realized it was beyond my expertise. We did everything he told us to do. She got better… And then worse. She was the first goat we lost.
We cried for days after we buried her. The pain seared for both me and my husband. But that little goat taught us the greatest lesson of all. Even if my grandfather thought that people like us, people who love animals so much that they will bankrupt themselves to pay for their care or bawl for hours when they suffer, should never keep animals, she taught me that he was wrong.
Because when you truly love another creature, human or not, you are the hope for the future. And that, I think, is the best lesson of all.
Norah Messier is the somewhat hapless Farmerette-in-Chief of Withywindle Farm, a backyard homestead nestled in the woods along the idyllic Tremont Mill Pond and Weweantic River in West Wareham, Massachusetts. When she’s not trying to persuade her goats to get bred and give milk or cajole the chickens into laying eggs, Norah is most likely found puttering in her garden, attempting new and exciting vintage cooking experiments, or plotting farm expansions. She lives with her eternally supportive husband, Christopher, an enormous Great Pyrenees puppy, and four cats who are variously found in the cupboards or atop doors or otherwise causing mayhem. The goats, thankfully, now live outside. In her other life, Norah works full-time as a farm educator (and goat chaser) at a living history museum.
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