Saturday, November 1, 2008

SuperForester Savanna May Milks Goats!

Hello Lovelies!

SuperForester Savanna has said "Aloha!" to the big city and hightailed it up into the woods in Maine to raise goats.

When I first learned of this, my first thought was: "I'm so jealous."
My second thought was: "Maybe she can be convinced to tell us all about it?"

You'll be thrilled to learn that after much convincing, Savanna sent along the following post!

Take it, Savanna:

"Weeks with goats-

Of my weeks with goats, this is #1. It is the beginning of an attempt to chronicle the goats and the various little activities, theirs and mine, mind and matter, that comprise our relationship.

7am: Milking time. First Pearl, then Hilde.

Pearl gets close to the milking stand when she knows it’s time, but acts as though she doesn’t know what “milking stance” (sort of a goat equivalent of Mountain Pose) looks like. She wants to put her head around the head-slot to get at the grain from the side of the trough, which is cheating. But she also knows that I won’t put any grain in the trough until she’s in the right position. Goats follow a perverse but consistent logic of their own. It’s no use trying to imagine what they are thinking, because if you don’t speak Goat, then you don’t think Goat either, and you will never understand how things really are.

Pearl’s udder is full and tight. Her milk comes out in tiny little streams, and there’s a lot of it. When it stops, it stops – you know there’s no more. Her little daughter, Quimby, whinnies halfheartedly from her stall, wishing she had the milk. Quimby, though now fully two-thirds the size of her mother, still spends all her days wishing she had the milk. For this reason she spends much of her time closed up in her stall. Sometimes when the stall door is open too wide, and my body isn’t blocking it quite enough, she goes for the gold.

I have no manifesto about my winter with goats. No manifesto, but hundreds of reasons, like the hundreds of raisins in the jar in the cupboard, all stuck together, a mass of intuitive sense if not a cohesive political statement. I am here as an apprentice, October through December. I am writing, gardening, milking, and making cheese. I’m experimenting with the kind of time you can buy for yourself by committing to farming in the winter, a rather peaceful affair, and with the temporary affinity you can try to claim for yourself by identifying as a farmer for a little while, even if the farm you work on is not your own. Okay, so I’m not a farmer per se, I’m not Farmer Savanna, I only recently learned hay from straw, but I’m serious about all this. There’s no irony in my love for these goats, only love.

I already know that to farm today is a political act. For the things you truly care about, the purest and most basic relationship between man and nature that you can find, you vote with your feet, your hands, your back, your life. For the idea of community, of a supportive and carefully supplied local food system, you vote with the baskets full of rutabagas that you load onto your truck or bicycle trailer. You do this because there are so few ways to make your vote count, and to see products from your political labors, in a world gone mad. But before farming became resistance, this was done and is being done by people all over the world. I am no great innovator, I’m just following the path that most of my recognizable ancestors before me have tread.

I finish with Pearl and take the milk inside to weigh it. Next is Hilde.
Hilde knows exactly how to get on to the milking stand; she puts her little head through the slot and she waits. But when I’m working on getting the last milk out of her, she starts to stomp. Sometimes the stomping is connected to one teat and not the other. Left teat: squirt! Right teat: squirt! STOMP! She gets her hoof, which has a disturbing array of things stuck to it, into the pail when she can. The message is that enough is enough, but I keep on milking. I have the upper hand – she can’t go anywhere. It’s an amicable struggle, a ritual.

Hilde’s udder is smaller and has a strange lumpy feel – scar tissue from a mastitis infection before she came to this farm. Her milk comes out more readily, loosely, but it starts and stops. It and has to be coaxed out bit by bit, with repeated massaging of the udder and a few friendly smacks, probably a good bit gentler than what a baby goat would give. It is wonderful to feel the teats filling back up with milk again after each massage. You can imagine that hidden, hesitant milk trickling down inside.

If we are all really honest with ourselves, farming is about the life that comes with it. We wouldn’t do it if it involved 12-hour marches or a dentist drill. Okay, let me back up. As a goat dairy apprentice, my days do involve backaches, bitter cold winds, ornery animals, being dragged through the dirt on my bum by same, big pots of boiling water, hot wax on my hands, shit all over my clothes, and no money. Before he was really famous as an advocate for sane food policies and whole foods, Michael Pollan wrote a whole book called Second Nature about the relationship that a person has with nature when they keep a garden, and what this tells us about our strange notions of nature today. I would perhaps not be so quaint in my analysis. I am too dirty at the end of the day. Maybe Michael Pollan gets really dirty too when he works in his garden. Maybe he goes inside to warm tea and thinks, this is the life, somehow, but there is manure in my hair and sometimes I think I am losing my mind.

But the deep secret of farming is that your quality of life is high. Excruciatingly, tragically high. You get to spend time outside on a beautiful piece of land, usually. You are in good shape. You daily eat things that, without salt or seasonings, are more delicious than even you could have possibly imagined – that are biologically just meant to be in your mouth, with all minute moving pieces intact, exactly as they are.

The metal lid of the milk pail clashes like a cymbal against the pail as I put it back on. I go inside to weigh the milk. The pail rings a long metallic note when I remove the lid. 1.40 pounds. With the cool season coming in like a railroad train, the goats are making less milk. Like the sensible creatures they are, they keep their fat on their bones, readying themselves for hard frosts and the next round of baby kids.

Here is the thing that I really like: on a farm, you have a natural seasonality to your life, something many of us crave but have lost. The nature of your work changes over the course of your year. The colors you look at change too. In the summer, you sprint. In the winter, there’s time. Fundamentally, I believe we all need predictable, cyclical, macro-scale change, the swelling kind, the kind that empties your heart of sadness, like a fluid, in the fall, and fills it up with dashing joy in the spring. Seasonality is like the original four-day work week. Everybody deserves a little temporal space that they can crawl into to see out the old year into the new, to think in lengthy paragraphs, to make small things quietly with their hands, to stay in bed with their loved one during a long cold morning, and that’s what winter is for. In this day and age we are lucky enough to have fire, warm houses, fat larders, and stoves with the kettle on, but we have lost our winter with its calm original purpose. We sit it out stressfully in work spaces that see and feel no quiet season except for the starkness glimpsed through a window, the mitten left casually among shuffled papers. It is easy to set up office work as a straw man to knock down over and over again with a frivolous, anarchist glee; but I nearly went mad doing office work, so a straw man it shall be. I love my winter.

After each milking we weigh and cool the milk, then feed grain and hay to the kids, trying to keep them from eating each others breakfast. The fat one always tries to steal. I heard yesterday about someone nearby who has 24 goats and milks them all by hand. I wonder how they work out the timing. It must take them hours. I wonder if they have a small troupe of hand-milkers, all just like me, who file in at the appropriate hour to milk the place dry. I suppose this is why people decide to have children.

There are so many truths about how our agrarian past shaped us, truths that now escape conscious recognition. We hear that presidential elections happen in November because of the end of the harvest season, and on a Tuesday because of the day of travel needed from farm to town voting post and back. We consider ourselves so enlightened in our postmodern notions that things can be done any way we want, value-neutrally, and yet there are certain social structures that our society has developed over time to cope with the challenges of hard outdoor work and the diverse hand-labor needed for self-sufficiency. Very true that our traditional way of doing things is not the only way, whether we are Scotch-Irish north Americans, or Quechuan Ecuadorians, or Maori natives, but can we scrap the old systems altogether?

Even among innovative young farmers in the United States, marriage or life partnership stands as the cornerstone for so many farms. It is so difficult to undertake something like this by yourself. With four legs to stand on instead of two, you have socially-accepted structure around which to build your dream, another pair of hands to pick up the baskets that you drop. Me, alone, I’d always be dropping the basket.

Once everyone is fed, we open the doors to the stalls and goats peek out into the light of day. Today it’s sunny, so they’re full of verve and a good bit of head-butting takes place – dominance games. The mist is no longer rising over our planted garden beds; it’s full daylight now. Time to get on with cleaning, with a breakfast of oats, with the garden.

It’s not so much that the agrarian system needs me, though I know that one person can feed a lot of people with an acre of land. But I need agrarianism. I’m lost. I’m found. I’m in search of where I came from, a guiding moral, ecological, and generational logic that no longer makes itself apparent in my tampered-with life. At times I think I have all the answers, but a mistake made in the garden changes all that. Waking up with the sun and going to bed early is a blessing in an empire where the sun never sets, a civilization that knows no winter and no night. Given time, my circadian rhythm may just find its own truthful logic, and carry the rest of me along to safer shore.


I for one would love to get out of the city and raise me some goats for a while. It is great to hear that it can be done, and that it brings with it a delightful sense of satisfaction and connectedness.

My deepest thanks to Savanna for the post. Let's hope she can be convinced to tell us more!

If you have questions or comments, simply ask them in the comments section.




goaterflies pic via
little lady and goat pic via
full udder pic via
nuzzling goats pic via


Able Oaks Dairy Goats said...

I could not agree with you more about what a satisfying lifestyle it is to live on a country farm. I love your goats with butterfly wings.

jackson said...

So glad that you enjoyed the post!
Savanna was so kind to send it in. I hope that she will provide further insights into what sounds an idyllic life.

And I wish I could take credit for the goaterflies image. Alas, it was another talented soul, whom I credited at the end.

niki said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us! It was great to read and I look forward to hearing how the rest of your apprenticeship goes. Please keep us in the loop. It's great to hear the specifics of the daily routine from an 'insider'!
Enjoy it (even with the poop in your hair)!!

Christine Norrie said...

This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.

I liked very much that I learned a bit about goats, but I loved even more Superforester Savanna's brilliant insights into our civilization, our culture, and what much of it fundamentally means.

This human, earth, animal experience could not have been written more sweetly succinct.

Thank you so much.