Updated: Apr 23, 2022
John found the two just-born baby goats in the early morning light, the mother staring blankly while the little ones shivered, wet with birth. “Can you come to the farm?” He called me. “One of them can’t get up.”
I rushed over. I hoped to find the “norm” - a goat mom rigorously licking and cleaning her babies as soon as they are born. But not this mom. A first time mother, she looked stunned and only periodically nudged the kids with her nose. One stood by her crying (typical for a goat) while the other continued to flop around on the ground.
We brought them into the barn and closed the mother in with the babes, a trick that you hope results in group bonding and everyone figuring out the nursing logistics on their own. We turned on a heat lamp, checked back often, growing worried that although they were now dry and warm the lame one was still not able to stand. The mom too continued to seem uninterested in nursing, standing for a minute for the upright baby, then restlessly moving around.
We fed the kids colostrum replacement via a tube shoved down their throats to be sure they had the necessary nutrients. It felt harsh but necessary, and really, it was the only thing we could do. The problem of a goat mom not nursing and a kid not standing are things we can't do anything about. We were not in control.
Which continues to be a hard pill for me to swallow. From the vantage point of the city and in the orderly streets, culdesacs and malls of suburbia where I grew up, there is an illusion that we are in fact in control. It is a falsehood perpetuated by our organized lives: trains are scheduled, parks carefully mowed, and bugs and mice eradicated. Weather is predicted days in advance and the grocery store is full of foods (or “food-like substances”) available whenever we want them.
Even our own health, we believe, is just a matter of making the “right” choices—don’t eat gluten or cut out sugar, many say, and health is yours for the taking. Death lurks in the wings, an event for a different time and place far in the future, while sickness (we tell ourselves of even Covid) looms outside of our daily routines, something to be controlled with drugs, masks and doctor visits.
But farming reveals a very different reality. Little is within our control and Mother Nature is often brutal. Everything we want is not available when we want it (there are these things called seasons) and the weather can turn on you quicker than an angry bull. Animals and plants are born, they get sick, and—sometimes with no warning—they die. Sometimes they suffer, and while you can try to do something about it, occasionally you do the wrong thing, and often, you can do nothing at all.
The goat trio, John and I, waited, hopeful of the outcome. Hours passed. I moved the legs of the lame one like a Barbie Doll pretending it was walking along, as I talked to it and massaged her floppy appendages. She seemed stronger by day’s end, but by the next morning she had died. The mom grew more listless, rarely nursing the living baby.
We called the Vet when we noticed one of the nanny’s teats was hard and purple. And again we busied ourselves while we waited. Veterinarians in farm country are not available to run out to help your sick animal—everyone’s animals needs attention. When she finally arrived in the evening, she told us the goat had Mastitis, a condition that can be life threatening but luckily we caught it early enough that goat would survive.
We had done some things wrong - we fed the living baby goat from the infected teat, possibly exposing it to harmful bacteria. Also, the infection had gotten enough of a start that it is likely the goat will not be able to use that part of her udder in the future.
But now, about a week and several shots of antibiotics later, the mom is better, acting like the good mom that we needed her to be. The surviving little goat is healthy and capering about sideways as a little goat should.
I used to think I understood when farmers described it to me. “It is all the cycle of life,” they would say when I asked how it felt to lose an animal after taking the time and care to raise it. I thought I got that, at least in my city-minded way - nature nourishes one with the life of another and in the end none of us can avoid death. But there is more to it than that.
Death, health and illness, heartbreak and joy--it is all part of this life. To deny that is to not fully live. It hurts to lose an animal--hurts like hell--but it is not a fault of our character nor a "giving up." It just is.
David ‘Mas’ Masumoto phrased it this way in his classic book, Epitaph for a Peach. I think he nailed it as to why we all seek control and avoid "failure."
I’ve lost raisin crops, peach harvests, whole trees and vines. I’ve lost money, time and my labor. I’ve lost my temper, my patience, and at times, hope. Most of the time, it’s due to things beyond my control, like the weather, market prices or insects or disease. Even in situations where I believe I am in charge—cover-crop seeding, management of workers, the timing of harvest—I now know I can never really have complete control.
Ironically, the moment I step off my farm I enter a world where it seems everything, life and nature, is regulated and managed. Homes are built to insulate families from the outside weather…The government develops bureaucracies and statutes to safeguard against failure and protect us from risk. In America, a lack of control implies failure.
We are not a failure because the kid died, nor are we successes because the mother survived. We are farmers, which means we just keep on going, day in and day out.