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Years ago I fell in love with a farmhouse in West Virginia. The house sat at the head of a hollow wide-board floors, a rusted tin roof the last outpost before impassable mountains. You drove up a dirt road beside a murmuring creek and came to a cattle gate. When you hooked the gate again it felt like you were leaving the world behind.
I lived in Manhattan back then but never felt right in the city. I longed for fewer people and more trees. The rented farmhouse was an anodyne. Between semesters and on long weekends my wife, Dona, and I escaped to West Virginia. I adored the long drives, the eight-hour commute, the layers of Manhattan peeling away with each Mid-Atlantic state New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia. It felt like stripping out of formal attire; by the Alleghenies we were down to underwear.
We were about to shake hands on the West Virginia farmhouse when a phone call came one night. The seller had burned down the house. Turned out he never really owned the homeplace his sister did. He burned the house for spite. A family feud. An Appalachian story. The night the call came I mourned, convinced we'd never find such a perfect place again.
My whole life it seemed I'd been searching for a retreat in the mountains, a patch of land where I could grow my own food. I was a writer, Dona a photographer. We made our living our art with paper but we longed to make it with earth as well. Ever since reading Walden as a teen I'd nursed Thoreau's old dream of self-reliance, his cabin along the lake, his meticulous lists of peas and beans. I admired how he wove literary culture and agriculture into one fabric pen in one hand, hoe in the other and how he understood that alongside civil disobedience, the most active thing one could do on earth was produce one's own food.
For five years we searched for a home. We scoured the whole Northeast, looked at a hundred plots of land. One week a realtor called from Vermont. He'd found an eighteenth-century farmhouse on a dead-end road in the western part of the state. The asking price was absurdly low; the farmhouse had sat empty for years and nothing inside was expected to work. We might have to tear the place down, he confessed, and start anew. Yet the land was apparently stunning, worth the asking price alone. There was an orchard, a pond, outbuildings, a brook. Seventy-five acres of sheepland grown back to forest.
We drove there late one October afternoon when the trees had shed their leaves. The valley looked promising; narrow and forested with folded hills. An opalescent river tumbled aside the road. The pavement turned to gravel, then we jostled up a rocky drive and the house swung into view: bone white clapboards, mountains all around. We both knew right away.
This was over a decade ago. Back then neither of us knew much about animal husbandry (we'd both grown up in the suburbs). But soon Dona began photographing neighboring dairy farms and helping with chores; and that led to a familiarity a friendship with animals, particularly with goats.
This is the story of our first years with dairy goats. A story about what it's like to live with animals who directly feed you. I tell of cheese and culture and agriculture, but also of the rediscovery of a pastoral life. Rediscovery because the longer I lived with goats the more connections I saw to a collective human past we've since forgotten, here in North America at least. I saw how so many aspects of our everyday culture from our alphabet to our diet to elements of our economy and poetry arose from a lifestyle of herding hoofed animals, and how unbeknownst to most of us, pastoralism still informs so much of the way we live today.
Goats had intrigued me for years their intelligence, their seeming disdain of human dominion. I once trailed a herd of goats in India through the Thar Desert back to their homes at night. A herder led them into the walled city of Jaisalmer. The goats marched single file, hoofs clicking cobbles, while scooters and trucks squeezed past. At each narrow curve another doe broke from the parade and turned in to a home where a member of the household a child or a woman held open a wooden door and greeted the returning goat with a palmful of salt. The does had returned from the desert to be milked and bedded with their family at night. In the morning they'd gather again with the herder. I'd never seen such a wonderful arrangement before goats and humans living side by side but it was one of the most ancient continuous relationships between mammals.
In Vermont, Dona milked a neighbor's goats when the neighbor went away. She brought home the raw milk still warm in a glass bottle. I made a queso blanco, the simplest cheese in the world. (You heat the milk, add a spoonful of vinegar, and the curds separate from the whey like magic; drain the curds in a cheesecloth, let them drip for a few minutes and voilà you've made a cheese.) The queso blanco was tasty but a bit rubbery. When the neighbor went away again I tried my hand at making chèvre. I had a small bottle of rennet and the right starter culture. The curds set up overnight and the next day I drained them in a cheesecloth. When we tried the fresh chèvre the following afternoon, it tasted like nothing we'd ever eaten before a custard, a creamy pudding, the cheese so young and floral it held within its curd the taste of grass and herbs the goat had eaten the day before. It seemed we were eating not a cheese, but a meadow.
The French used to call cheese "the drunkard's biscuit." That afternoon we were intoxicated without drinking a thing. We devoured the creamy chèvre smeared on slices of bread, ran fingers across the plate. We couldn't understand why it tasted so good. Was it the raw unpasteurized milk, or that we knew the goats their labor and ours? "Who has not sometimes derived an inexpressible satisfaction from his food, in which appetite had no share?" wrote Thoreau. "I have been inspired through the palate."
That afternoon we decided: it was time to get our goats.
Copyright © 2009 by Brad Kessler