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Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.

The Journey Home

Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese - Brad Kessler

If you are the sort of reader who appreciates writers like Thoreau, Chet Raymo, M.F.K. Fisher, Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Barry, etc.... if you appreciate beautiful prose, acute observation, philosophy that enlightens but never preaches, and animals... READ THIS BOOK!    


From the back cover:  


Goat Song is the story of a year in the life of a couple who abandoned their one-bedroom apartment in New York City to live on seventy-five acres in Vermont and raise Nubian goats. In poetic, reverent detail, Brad Kessler explores our ancient relationship to the land and our gradual alienation from the animals that feed us. His fascinating account traces his journey of choosing the goats and learning how to breed, milk, and care for them. As Kessler begins to live the life of a herder, he encounters the pastoral roots of so many aspects of Western culture—how our diet, our alphabet, our religions, poetry, and economy all grew out of a pastoralist setting, a life lived among hoofed animals.


My only complaint with that description is that it doesn't do the book justice.  The prologue is the hook:


Early June.  The mountains turn tender green this time of year, the skies become enamel blue.  The goats wear bells around their necks while we hike up Mason's Hill.  There's eight of us here today -- seven goats, one human.  We step through salad greens and the goats taste everything in sight: steeplebush, wild strawberries, buttercups, blackberry vines.  We're heading to the mountains soon.


Each day we wander the Vermont woods for an hour or two.  I love the leave-taking, the sound of the goats' bells, the brief nomadism.  Herding is a way of doing something while doing nothing; it asks only for one's presence, awake, watching animals and earth.  


Wind rakes the trees.  Clouds float shadows through the grass.  We enter the woods and the goats eat ash, birch, and maple.  This evening I'll milk the does back in the barn and when the sun goes down I'll make an aged cheese from their milk called a tomme.  Months from now when snow covers the mountains, I'll open that tomme and find this day again insde its rind; the aromatic grass, the leaves, this wind.


Not all books live up to the beautiful promise of their opening sentences.  This one does.


It's an earthy book -- rooted in the messy, bloody, comic, sometimes frightening, sometimes frustrating, always enriching world that comes into relief when shared with animals.  In this case, goats.  The chapter on breeding might put some readers off, in fact, so 'earthy' is it, but don't let that deter you.  The book is a marvel.  Kessler has a great gift for meditation-on-the-page, in the tradition of Thoreau.  Not only does he make pastrolism (raising livestock, husbandry and care for animals) seem like the most attractive and deeply spiritual life possible, but he uses herding goats and cheese-making as jumping off points for ruminations on God, death, monastic life, ecology, history, food and belonging.  Consider:


If today the concept of terroir [the set of special characteristics the geography, geology and climate of a particular place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products] seems foreign to Amerians, we forget that people here once knew how place affected taste. 'The cheeses of the granite hills and valleys of New England,' noted a nineteenth-century traveler, 'differ from those of the secondary soils of ... northern New York, while the latter differ from those produced in the shales of ... northern Pennsylvania; and they again are a different article from the cheese made on the slaty clays of the Ohio Western Reserve'  Granite, slate, shale, clay--we once knew the earth informed our food.




As for my own affrinage [maturing, ripening; becoming finer, as in cheese], I'm not so certain.  All I can try to perfect in this lifetime is a cheese and maybe, if lucky, a book.  My soul though, will have to wait.  I don't life in a concrete cell on top of a mountain or make a disciplines practice.  I catch what I can now and then and sometimes my soul is here and sometimes it's not home.  Even saints struggle toward perfection.  Maybe that's what makes humans so endearing, that our souls are so imperfectible, even those who spend a lifetime to that end.  That unlike other animals, humans struggle to achieve just being.  

At the end of the prologue, Kessler says, "The Igbo of Nigeria tell their children, if lost in the wilderness, follow a goat, she always knows the way back home.  I've been following these goats back home each day, but where they lead surprises me still."  I can't think of a more worthwhile journey, and how grateful I am he has shared it with us.  


My gratitude also goes to writers Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Catherine Bush, who spent time on the Kessler farm and told me about this book.