Follow your goats

There are few things I love more than goats and chickens. Stumbling across this guy in the middle of London made my day, my week, and quite possibly my month:

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This is not your typical picture of London, is it? Hackney City Farm is tucked away from the street in such a way that the corner view is mostly fence, what looks like weeds (in winter), and a few rough signs. A little bit of green in the midst of a grey-blue city is enough to catch my attention, though, so my friends and I, killing time after brunch, stumbled in to check it out.

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This is a more typical London view. [from the National Gallery]

First I find bees in Lyon, and here I am communing with chickens just minutes from the center of London. We then passed through the chicken yard and I found myself having a moment with one of the resident goats, an incredibly sociable one who climbed between two fences to get a better angle on some crisps being offered by a nearby child.

photo thanks to Dorothy Fisher

Climb through the fence for crisps, stay for the backrub. Photo thanks to Dorothy Fisher.

This goat and I became fast friends, and I didn’t want to leave. As I stood there scratching his back, I was filled with a sense of calm, energetic purpose. I felt like I could breathe again. It’s not that I have a particularly hard or stressful life. After all, there I was, ambling about London after a luxurious brunch with good company and nowhere in particular I needed to be for a few hours. 

At the same time, there is a disconnect between what I value and what I gain energy from and the rhythm of my daily life in its present state. You’ll often hear the expression, “Follow your bliss,” and I guess you could say that goats help me bliss out, and I want more of that. That’s partly it. And I think if I hadn’t had agricultural experience already, I’d be tempted to romanticize this little agrarian oasis and particularly the communion with this little beast.

As it is, I know what it’s like to wake up every morning and have 60+ animals waiting for grain and hay and to know that no matter what else happens that day, they’ll need to be fed and watered and taken care of at least once again, in the evening, if not in the middle of the day as well. I’ve felt the rising panic of not being able to get the ancient tractor started when said animals are starting to get restless on a wet and cold winter morning.

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Will fit in carry-on? My only question.

As much as I enjoyed scratching the goat’s back, other life experiences provide me with a valuable reality check: I know that goat keeping is not, in fact, all back massage. In fact, most agricultural labor is back breaking while we’re on the subject of backs, and at the same moment that I step in manure with a little bit of glee in the middle of London, I know that part of my glee is possible because I can take off these boots later, change into clean clothes, and have the reasonable expectation of staying manure-free for the rest of the year.

A summer spent living alone on a rural property–a summer in which I always felt dirty and never truly warm–caused me to later confess to a friend that you know, sometimes I just want to feel clean. Yet my real-life experience, grounding in a sense, is also the basis for a lot of my yearning. Though I could still have a job at the horse farm where I worked throughout college, I realized that for me, operating a riding stable seemed far more monotonous than vegetable and livestock farming. It wasn’t quite right, but it was close. I’ve been lucky that most of my jobs and life experiences have felt this way. At least they’re close.

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I was petting the goat, but petting the goat wasn’t important. The chickens sorting through compost–that was important. The donkeys keeping watch over the sheep? Also more important than my caprine joy. Finally, it was a combination of battling emotions that really sparked my attention.

I noticed the pleasant smells of hay and warm animals on a damp midwinter day. I was tickled by the way the goat closed his eyes and leaned into my scratching fingers, even to the extent of swaying side-to-side on his so-relaxed limbs. Simultaneously I felt the unpleasant sense of unbridgeable divide from this place and these animals and this life. I felt aligned with the fellow tourists visiting the place, and I hate that.

Because of my previous experiences, there were elements of this scene that were very familiar, almost nostalgic, and definitely comforting. Since my daily life involves no livestock (unless you count toddlers), I sometimes forget how much these animals mean to me. Livestock provide a certain amount of symmetry to your days, with the addition of nuanced variation that is interesting to observe. To me, it is riveting to become so deeply acquainted with another species that you notice subtle changes and you start to feel connected to these other beings. The combination of repetition and variation brings a sense of both progressive and cyclical action to agrarian life.

There are also continuous puzzles to work out in the larger system of the farm. The rotation of plants, the breeding cycles of animals, the integration of making bread into the rest of daily life–this all requires a deliberation and a dance that I find weirdly thrilling to execute. When making bread, it always gives me a kick to find a second activity that perfectly fits into the 45 minutes of first rising. At college, when I had a small kitchen, I became adept at timing bread-making around my daily routines and class schedule.

But I digress.

Standing in this farm and pausing with my normal routine–almost having a physical flash back, if you will–I felt recommitted to closing the gap between myself and everything that this little farm represented for me. I was reminded of passions that were once a more active part of my life, and I felt a more clarified vision of how I should be aiming to design my life.

Past experiences have shattered my overly idyllic images of farm life, but experiences like this one manage to reassert that there is something in there I find moving and valuable. As I live away from “home” yet start to call this place home, I am really searching for a more spiritual sense of home than a physical one. Odd as it may be, I tend to feel at most at home with the goats. And the chickens. And the manure.

Not new. Not goats. But London!

But, ya know, I can still appreciate some mighty fine London architecture too!

Home, Sweet Home

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home;
A charm from the sky seems to hallow us there,
Which, seek through the world, is ne’er met with elsewhere.
Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!

An exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain;
Oh, give me my lowly thatched cottage again!
The birds singing gayly, that come at my call —
Give me them — and the peace of mind, dearer than all!
Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!

I gaze on the moon as I tread the drear wild,
And feel that my mother now thinks of her child,
As she looks on that moon from our own cottage door
Thro’ the woodbine, whose fragrance shall cheer me no more.
Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!

How sweet ’tis to sit ‘neath a fond father’s smile,
And the caress of a mother to soothe and beguile!
Let others delight mid new pleasures to roam,
But give me, oh, give me, the pleasures of home.
Home, home, sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!

To thee I’ll return, overburdened with care;
The heart’s dearest solace will smile on me there;
No more from that cottage again will I roam;
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
Home, home, sweet, sweet, home!
There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!

— John Howard Payne
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