As is my habit, I’m late for my deadline once again. I’ve had an idea for my article rolling around my brain for several weeks now, but just haven’t had the time to put words to paper. So, I sit in the pasture, watching my goats (and getting pawed by my dogs, who apparently never get any attention) while I write for Mohawk Valley Living.
I’m on “goat duty” for the hour—the perfect time to gather my thoughts. My eldest daughter, Harper, did the first shift, letting the animals out at 5pm. I relieved her at 6 and my youngest, Margaret, will take over at 7. My husband will take the final hour, until the goats are finally “put home” in their goat yard sometime after 9pm.
What is “goat duty,” you ask? It may sound odd in this day and age, but it’s classic, old-school shepherding. Before fences, shepherds would accompany their flocks wherever they went, staying with them day and night as they searched for fresh forage. Sometimes they moved them with purpose—to the mountain pastures in spring and back to the lush valleys in the fall. Other times they were simply there to protect them, “keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
My husband had met many real-life shepherds as a child, when his family camped in the deserts of northern Mexico and his geologist father did research. They were miles away from the nearest town or houses and often never saw a soul for weeks. Yet, every once in a while, a cowboy would wander past camp with a “buenas tardes” and a group of 300 goats making their way through the scrub. He’d have nothing but a backpack flung over his shoulder and a staff for his day’s long journey.
In many cultures where shepherding is still practiced, it is often the children’s job. This makes sense; it is not a particularly difficult job. In fact, long stints can be very boring. Who hasn’t heard of the story “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”? The lesson, of course, is to not tell lies. Those who tell lies, as the story goes, will not be believed in the future. But as I think about it now, as someone who has spent many hours shepherding her flock, it is also a story of how boredom can lead some to manufacture their own excitement. Despite being monotonous, the job can be very important and holds some valuable lessons for the young and impetuous.
Both my husband and I have a love/hate relationship with goat duty. (My daughters would describe it the same way, minus the “love” part.) The shepherd’s main job is to keep her animals out of trouble…out of the neighbor’s corn or azaleas, out of the woods, or off the road. She also must keep an eye out for predators, and for the youngest of the flock—to make sure they are keeping up. So, although the temptation may be to bring along an engrossing book or to scroll through an Instagram feed, it often doesn’t work that way.
In addition, the black flies (or “no-see-ums” as I’ve always called them) are maddening. Wearing a hat can help, but they seem dead-set on getting into your eyes and ears. Then there’s the heat and the summer sun, or worse…the rain. We are out in most kinds of weather, keeping an eye on our goats.
The beauty of goat duty is that it forces you to just sit. And walk…a lot. But it does compel you to be observant, to be present. Goat duty demands that we slow down. My husband and I are always working, never seeming to stop—a challenge most of us face in today’s fast-paced world. So we appreciate our forced sabbaticals. He with his gin and tonic, I with my camera, we both find our minds are replenished by an afternoon with the goats. I find there’s often a great deal of splendor in the everyday things…a dandelion, a puffy cloud against a brilliant blue sky…things I’d miss if I weren’t forced to stop and pay attention. My husband particularly likes being with the goats at the end of the day, as the neighbor dairy farms’ compressors are turned off, all engines shut down, and the quietness of dusk takes over. The owls begin to hoot to one another, a deer or two may timidly step out into the open, and the fireflies light up the tall grasses. It’s a great way to wind down at the end of a long, busy day.
We don’t currently have any fencing for our pastures. Every winter and spring, I make big plans and think how great it will be when we won’t have “goat duty” anymore. Someday we will have fences, but even then we’ll have to keep a watchful eye on the goats. They get out too easily; they are masters at escape. They are the Harry Houdinis of the animal world! As long as we have goats, I will never be completely free from goat duty. Perhaps that is a good thing.