Posted on May 17th, 2013
I’ve spent no small amount of time feeling that I needed to be more rooted to the here and now. That my life was something that I was constantly sliding off of. Life as greased pig. I’d fling myself on top of it, only to have it run squealing for the fences again. Half of the time I’d feel the sharp loss, and the other half of the time I’d want to sit back on my haunches in the mud, light up a cigarette, and say ‘fuck you too, mister.’
Farming, in my mind, had always seemed a sure-bet way to anchor oneself to the present. There’s nothing more immediate, after all, than dirt, than weather, bare and uncaring. The last time I worked up the juice to leave the slow ebb of love, it also seemed like something I could pin future hope to—a bright thread I could follow back home, wherever that was.
After a month of riding my bike around a city that had never really been mine, interviewing young urban farmers with a pocket audio recorder, I successfully pestered a literary agent into being interested in my writing. Only, she didn’t care for the stories I’d gathered from countless lot-sized patches of dirt across the northern neighborhoods. Go back to where you came from, she said, and tell me what you do once you get there. Go put your hands in the dirt. I want that.
And, leaving, I thought that I wanted that too. Could see it, shuffling behind the atmosphere on the plane ride back across the country. Could feel it, geography snapping back into place along my bones disembarking in Boston, rising with the low-slung hills of my hometown. Their reasonably-sized trees. The west had perpetually overwhelmed me with its grandeur, and I’d rattled around in it, a grain of sand in an auditorium, hoping for purchase, skittering in every slight wind. So I came back, looking to scratch the ache for the familiar. Wanting to know, and be known, by the right landscape.
I got a job. I moved in with an old friend, who was living in the childhood home of another dear friend. A little house high on a hill, hidden by trees, inconvenient to anything in western Massachusetts. There were chickens and ducks. And, out at the other end of our dirt road—goats.
The woman who owns them is intimidating. If she wants to do something—cheese making, weaving, martial arts, biochemistry—she Does It. To someone who’d just recently spent the better part of a year Not Doing It, it was gut-knotting stuff. She was a woodcut. I was…a watercolor. I was going to try it anyway. Convinced of its rightness. I was going to try goats.
And this conviction is how you find yourself, stupid-thumbed once more, pulling on cold-stiff overalls in the thin dawn light. Over your pajamas. Over your hoodie. Thick socks, someone’s borrowed boots. Your tin can car rocking across the ruts that have frozen overnight. The high cry of the rooster chasing you down the hill.
But the goats are warm. Their flanks leak steam, and their noses are soft, lipping at you, curious, shy, indifferent. You learn their names. They each have a song. You’ll hum these self-consciously while milking them, later, but for now you’re punching ice out of nighttime water buckets. Plunging a heating coil into the waiting refills. Hay, tickling down into your shirt, your hair, your lungs. And that first day, that first week, is magic—the prep cook, pre-dawn part of you coming back to life in the quiet repetition of chores. Hands hauling water. Hands distributing hay. Hands stroking flanks, learning personalities.
You are ham-fisted when it comes to milking, and know that your first goat tolerates you, barely, jerking the teat around in your confused adolescent way. You’re told to go home, get a rubber glove, fill it with water, poke a hole in a dangling finger. Practice. The first time that you get this right, and the ripple of your fingers yields a steady stream of water into the kitchen sink, it feels like singing. Or cutting cucumbers, rapidly, or any activity that is the simultaneous remembering and forgetting of a thousand thousand things. The first time that you fill a large mason jar with warm milk, and carry it home, it feels as snug as a newborn in the crook of your arm, and some broken corner behind your rib re-inflates with it.
And for a short while, there are early mornings that pass in a growing surety of purpose, and there is homemade cajeta in your coffee, and the largest dog that leans contentedly against your legs when you come in from milking and sit at the kitchen table.
But, then, the new year. You get bronchitis. A week passes, fevers and strange dreams and texted apologies. The pattern breaks. And you hear that high squeal again, something running for the fences. Some will, departing.
Farming, of any kind, with any animal, requires the now. It requires it daily. It requires your sweat, and it wants your stubbornness in the face of illness, weather, sleepless evenings. And if you are lacking these things, it will find out, quickly. And I was. I let the hiccup turn into prolonged radio silence, and allowed the chatter of outside life down the hill to flood away the quiet animal mornings. One week, then another, and then the sudden realization that it had been months since I’d stood in the half-shadows of the early morning barn, watching the light take the walls.
I hadn’t meant to. But it had happened. The present had packed its bags—leaving only the echo, and the anxious anticipation. I’d lost it.
I’d also long since stopped sending pages to that agent—and hadn’t resumed. The thing about farming is that it’s a marvelous way to anchor yourself to a particular ground—but you have to be ready. You have to be sure.
And then, even with the surety, you have to be willing to get up, and get on with it, in the face of farming’s indifference about your infirmities. The goats don’t know that you won’t be getting married. The goats shove their rough heads into the bib of your overalls, asking for breakfast. There is the barn. There is the pasture. That is all the world.
For now, I’ve failed at goat tending. And sometimes, it seems that aging is just a progression of losing the romance of different notions, each in turn, and waiting to see which facts will stay. I don’t have the fact of the ringing stream of milk steaming up from a cold bucket. But. I have the hands that know that motion, secretly, in my pockets. And you have to think that it’s a small hope. Riding it out. Ready, for when I’m sure.