No Goats No Glory
Last night I watched vultures circle a particular corner of the ranch. It’s the sort of sight I ignore mostly. Who has the time to watch the lazy patterns of birds in the sky, around and around and around? The sight of slowly circling vultures sometimes means there was a recent death, but usually means they’re hoping death is imminent. It’s a potentially ominous sight that I no longer consider ominous since the birds are ever-present, as permanent a fixture here as the trees, the clouds, as the lurking threat of death itself. The ranch is where the cows and the wethers (castrated male goats) live almost exclusively, and I distinguish the “ranch” from the “farm” based on where we live. The farm is our original property. It’s nicely cleared now after years of beating back the overgrowth and our dairy, home, and outbuildings are clustered together across those 15 acres. The “ranch” is the land we added 2 years ago. It is wild, so feral in fact, that I doubt we can ever completely control the space, and looks exactly like descriptions I’ve read of early Texas. It can be brutally beautiful. Or just brutal.
So I was not entirely surprised when I noticed one of our LGDs (livestock guardian dogs) gnawing something in the front pasture, protecting a prize that she more likely discovered than won. She crouched and growled when another of our dogs approached, and I instantly connected what she was guarding to whatever those vultures hovered over last night. I ran to the dairy barn, counted goats, ran to the wether’s pasture, counted goats. Noted one was missing. Discovered my dog was carrying the leg of the one I couldn’t find. I have no idea how he died, it could easily have been a venomous snake bite, but is more likely the result of a particularly brave and hungry coyote, since brave and hungry often mean the same thing to our brand of wildlife.
I am not sad. Years ago I would have been sad but this morning I wiped my brow, hung my head momentarily and remembered the day this goat was born last year, the way his legs were crooked and required extra attention from me. The way he was rejected from his mama, and I bottle raised him, named him, took care of him. It’s a death that would have caused tears and regret in the past. But today it makes me angry that despite our electric fences and small army of excellent guardian dogs, we still lose these battles sometimes. Especially now, as I delicately hang my hopes on a herd of animals so vulnerable to the changes in season, to parasites, to the appetite of predators – I can never protect them completely. I’ve written before that bravery is an essential ingredient to living in the border space between civilization and wilderness, where any sense of control we may feel is fiction. I don’t control any of this beyond whatever fences we can build, whatever shelters we erect. It’s mostly just for my blinding fear of a life without goats that I keep hoping we can keep the literal (and figurative) coyotes at bay long enough to grab a toehold on this little patch of dirt we claimed.
In a rare dinner out with a friend recently, she asked me, as I was mid-story about some farm-related “disaster” related to the weather or circumstance “So, this is it, right? I mean, you’re never coming back to the city or the suburbs or any of it? Because it just sounds so hard sometimes.” I told her I didn’t really know how to respond because at this point it’s like answering a question about whether I’d choose to sever my own leg (note: I wouldn’t). The farm is a part of us, and more terrifying still, so is the ranch – that gnarled and wild place we will never tame, a space that’s become some dark metaphor for many of our choices. I told her that no, I’m never coming back. I could not survive without the space, the sounds, the constant thrilling fears, and mostly the goats. My god the goats. They led me here, they led me away from some semblance of stability, they keep me up at night, wake me too early in the morning. They are the reason for the dogs, for the fences, for the dairy. On this morning I was momentarily overcome with a distinct sense of futility and fear, staring down at pieces of a goat I helped deliver and raise. But that adrenaline-induced feeling is fleeting and quickly becomes the climax of a story I will add to all the others we are collecting, weaving together, and telling. Without these moments, without these animals we are lucky to share this life with, there is no glory, and truthfully, I withstand the perilous just for the glorious.
It seems like a good enough reason.