Posted on April 19th, 2012
It’s so loud, the heat–the birds scream, sing. It should be summer, but it’s April. The sky is a violent pale blue from a star casting its hot light into our atmosphere. The wings of these birds – volatile dinosaur offspring – beat as they battle for gutter space. Their feathers and shrieks pierce the air, adding to the oppression of the day.
Last year, summer felt like spring: it rained, it was cool, and I was in the Italian Alps with the Chindemi family. If a better person than Gerard Depardieu could fill the shoes of comic character Obélix, Matteo Chindemi is that person. His presence, though physically imposing, is nothing if not kindness. Not a day went by that his eyes didn’t smile demurely. His stature, much like his dark beard, had an atmosphere of the apologetic about it. Yet for being only 29 years old, his knowledge of goats was profound. Matteo was the fastest milker I had ever seen. He milked each one of his 35 does personally, by hand. They came to him eager for relief, udders so full they squirted milk in every direction when they ran – a rustic breed of goat, black like Matteo’s wild Sicilian hair.
A stainless steel milk pail between his feet, Matteo sat on a mesh stool that had lost all but a few strands of weaving. The stool was comically small for this herdsman as he leaned forward, one teat in each hand, his forehead resting on the goat’s rump. The jets squirted from his fisted fingers with such intensity that the sparkling pail filled with fragrant foam. My beige plastic bucket matched my inadequacy and caught all the black goat hairs I was unable to avoid contributing to the milk. (Luckily for me, a massive steel filter saved my contribution, removing the contaminants.)
Seated on a stool of my own, the does approached me for relief as well. Donning a pair of latex gloves and calling “Vini, vini, vini!” a few does came near enough that I could spin them around and latch my fingers onto their udders. After the first squirts of milk were stripped into a cup for quality, I subsequently attempted to imitate Matteo’s rhythm into my own pail. Perhaps my tempo was similar, but the sound of the milk hitting Matteo’s pail was strong like a bell. Mine was a pathetic thud. I hoped the end of the month would see me achieve Matteo’s prowess, but it didn’t.
Late one evening the goats were unforgiving. Matteo could milk a doe out in under a minute. I was three or four times slower, and goats are not patient creatures. This milking was the final chapter of a diluvial day and the ladies were weary. Crammed into the barn when they normally strolled in the courtyard, the goats personified the weather of the night. Horns cracking, bodies butting, the herd was savage. One lady with a mild horn rip in her side – a tremendous milker – unwittingly found herself in my hands. I set out to milk her as fast as possible, but after many minutes of struggling with flies crawling on my skin and goat bodies pushing me from all sides, the tremendous milker actually sat on her udder in protest: “Stop touching me.”
I fought tears and screams of frustration. I was tired. I was dirty. But I had not spent a year learning about cheesemaking and farming, miles away from home, to be defeated by this feisty, uncooperative lady. I was going to finish her. I would get the milk. Because there would be uncountable days ahead on my own farm when I would not be able to hand over a goat bitch to someone else. Most days and nights would bring on one stress or another. Most of the time, a problem would need solving. Owning a farm would be all me all the time. So in wet socks and manure-caked garb, I took deep breaths, caressed my goat in question, and eased her back up to milk. I think I finished her. But I guess it doesn’t matter. I just know I didn’t walk away.
Later that month, on an evening milking following a more forgiving day, Matteo and I sat on our stools in the courtyard calling to the does. I sang “Cervo!” and the skinny lopsided one came and pressed her side into mine, telling me she was ready. Obligingly, I guided her forward until I could reach her teats from behind. As I milked, Cervo gradually leaned to one side before I could finish. While I admit I wasn’t milking as efficiently as Matteo, this tilt in her body was beyond Cervo’s control. “I shouldn’t be frustrated,” I thought to myself. “Cervo isn’t being fussy like ‘tremendous milker’ was the other night.” But no matter how many times I picked up Cervo’s hind legs to bring her udder back to me, she kept leaning away.
This skinny doe was simply being the best goat she could be. As my knees ached from holding the pail tightly at my feet, and as my body twisted into strange positions while attempting to retain my grasp on her udder, I remembered that Cervo was once an ordinary young goat with a straight spine. Matteo thought that she must have nibbled on grasses one day and ingested a parasite that attacked her spinal column and possibly also her brain, causing Cervo to look perpetually off balance. Naming each doe according to her personality, Matteo named this unfortunate creature, “Brain” or “Cervo” in Italian. He and his wife Gaia were surprised Cervo outlived her illness since a meningeal worm like Parelaphostrongylus tenius normally kills a goat.
But there she was, still kidding, still producing milk, still eating and getting knocked around by the others. Due to her physical impairment, Cervo could be culled – replaced by a healthier, stronger, more manageable doe. After all, efficiency is the highest aspiration of any business, and milking Cervo was not an efficient process. I suppose keeping Cervo in the herd is what makes the Chindemi farm and other family farms different from the industrial agriculture that feeds us. Whether it is the transparency of the business or whether it is the innate essence of small-scale agriculture, the family farm often appears to include an element of compassion.
Compassion that keeps a swaying goat, and a slower apprentice, as part of the flock.