The ancient remains of Gla in Greece.
Gla. What a fabulous name – one that would be great attached to an ancient underworld monster: “And lo, Gla emerged from the fathomless depths and did ravage the cities of Yoshum, Pandarok, and Kaladrum.” Gla. It’s in fact the name of a city inhabited by the ancient Mycenaeans – the ancient Greeks of the Homeric epics. In the fall of 1994 I visited Gla – when it was still in the Greek countryside, before the abomination of the Greek national highway ruined the site forever by pummeling the site with the permanent hum of automotive traffic.
Little Ary was our first born kid this season – hard to believe this cute little fur ball is now butting heads even with the queen of our herd, Miss Marguerite.
The ancient city was situated with a lot of foresight by its inhabitants – on a rocky outcrop on Lake Copais in central Greece in a region known as Boeotia; part of the city jutted out into the lake on a finger and was protected by water in antiquity, though the Mycenaeans drained a substantial portion of the lake. Its ruins, which consist mainly of impressive walls and a citadel, are still quite striking today. In 1994 the area was rural countryside, with only tumbled masonry to indicate any ancient human presence. The countryside was farmland – cotton, potatoes, sheep. It was the end of a long day when I was there with the American School for Classical Studies in Athens; it was still the fall (late September), and the day had been hot. The heat had just broke, and the countryside was bathed in a beautiful golden pink twilight.
Kidding is not the whole story this month – we also built a permanent coop for our layers in the barn so that we wouldn’t need to haul food and water to three separate flocks and so that we wouldn’t lose eggs to renegade layers. Not to worry – they still have plenty of access to green pasture!
I had gone off on my own and was just taking in the Boeotian countryside. This is the land where the free Greeks, Thebans and Athenians, made their last stand against the power of King Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great. Where Lysander, the great Spartan commander who defeated the Athenians, met his violent end. Where Thebans and Spartans clashed time after time in the fourth century. In the evening light, before the highway came and exorcised them, you could still hear the anguished spirits’ clash of arms echo in the air just about this time of day. The only other detectable noise was that of distant bells and bleating from the herds of sheep and goats in the countryside. It was the sound that must have echoed in the valley and been heard since antiquity.
We converted a part of the poultry shed to the coop – we wanted to make sure they had plenty of light and ventilation to regulate temperatures in both the summer and winter.
And now we will replicate that same sound with aplomb. As of this week, we have a true herd – or, technically, a “trip” which is what the true term is for a herd of goats. When we started March, our flock was seven in number: our five girls who live in the barn and occasionally head out to pasture, and our two bucks who live together in the lower paddock. As we bring March to a close, our herd now numbers 17. Leah was the first to birth when she had Arya; we initially thought it a girl but soon realized our mistake, so now Arya has been rechristened Ary. Marguerite went next when she gave birth to twins on the 22nd, a doe and a buck named Cat and Ned. Eris followed the next day when she birthed Brienne (a doe) and Brand (a buck); Pandora two days later had a pair of twin girls, Mary and Sybil. Finally on the 28th Janet had triplets, two does and a buck, Isabelle, Violet, and Robb. Against my violent protestations Lori and Nancy refused to stick to a single theme and so have mixed Game of Thrones names with Downton Abbey names. Consistency people!
The harsh winter really took a toll on our greens crop this year – last year at this time we had a profusion of chard and spinach. This year, not so much – but we’ve got lots of milk and eggs! Our mescaline boxes are finally starting to get up a head of steam.
Of all the girls our skittish little Miss Eris was the most surprising. Usually some cater-walling attends birth; while Eris did her share for the first baby, her second literally simply whooshed out and she just gave her hind quarters a bit of a glance as if to say “Oh – another!”. Her buck Brand was pretty amazing: even while he was still covered in gooey amniotic fluid and laying prone in the straw he latched on to his mother’s teat (Eris was still lying down cleaning him) and started to suck – it was the fastest we ever had a newborn latch on, and of his own accord.
Nancy holds Ary with his mother Leah before disbudding him about ten days ago.
Our barn, that had seemed so spacious with our five goaty girls, now seems small, and we suddenly find ourselves with herd management issues that we knew were coming but had been only in the back of our minds: all the boys of course will be sold or slaughtered, so our herd of does will max out at 10. But if we breed everyone this year, then next year and end up again with roughly 50% girls, our herd will be up to 20. This is where selective breeding comes in. The beauty of having plenty of does is that you can keep milking your maximum of 9 constantly and give other does a year of rest in which they aren’t bred. Of course, you can always milk through, but all of our girls are still growing and we would like to give some of our girls a year off this year. That means we will likely give our three oldest the year off next year, but breed the seven youngest. We will eventually max out our herd at around 15 girls, giving five girls the year off, breeding 10, and selling the kids until we start to retire out the older members of our herd.
Janet with her set of triplets; it took a lot out of her, but she has now bagged up and her udder is producing plenty of milk to feed her brood!
We were lucky that all of the births were relatively trouble free. Ary had a hoof tucked under his chest though and Lori and Nancy had to reach in and right it before he popped out; the last goat born, Isabelle, was breech and Lori had to finish the job for Janet and pull her out. Birthing is a great process with goats, because it reminds you of how singularly astonishing and resilient these animals are: unlike cattle and sheep, they require almost no assistance during birth. The kids are out and on their feet within minutes. Usually within two days they have learned how to hop; within days they are playing and gamboling. The trajectory of physical agility, compared to a human, is amazing and leaves me somewhat befuddled as to how our species is so successful when we remain so physically frail for so long.
Janet’s buckling Robb is named, depending on whom you ask, after Lord Robert Grantham on Downton Abby or after Robb Stark from Game of Thrones. Winter is Coming!
Instinct immediately kicks in for the mothers too: they quickly will try to eat the afterbirth if not removed, lick and stimulate their young, establish recognition through the scent of their kids’ excreta, and begin to nurse. No books, no pamphlets, no manuals – just millennia of selective breeding. I wish everyone could experience the joy that these bring, for their resilience, their curiosity, for their deep sense of playfulness.
Lori and Nancy played the midwives as they comforted and assisted Janet when she went into labor this past Friday.
The Romans in their very early history, before they became an empire, before they were even a republic, had no monetary system. Instead, they measured their wealth by the size of their herds of small livestock, usually sheep and goats, especially sheep. The Latin (i.e. Roman) word for herd is pecus; the genitive form of the word is pecoris, and it’s from this word that the modern name for a type of Italian sheep’s cheese, pecorino (“a little sheep”) derives. From it also derived the Roman word for money, pecunia, and its derivatives, pecuniary and peculation. (How do we get “money” from pecunia? The ancient Temple of Juno Moneta in Rome was the state mint, hence “money” and “monetary”).
We now have eleven ducks in our fruit orchard – it’s very touching to watch how the older ones look after and tend the six newest members of our flock. They spend most of their days snuffling the grass and searching the dirt for worms and bugs – and make some real tasty eggs!
Our pasture is a real testimony to pastured birds – where our flocks were last year is thick and green; the pasture that had no animals on it is less rich both in color and in luxuriance of growth.
One can see where the notion that a large herd equaled wealth comes: it meant wool, milk, and meat. It meant the small Roman farmer would be able to feed and clothe his family for another year. It brought security and peace of mind. There is, however, a form of enrichment that they bring that is intangible: to see the kids leap as though their legs are set on springs; to see the bond created between doe and kid; to see the newborns run and climb and butt heads; it seems as though one is looking at joy in motion. I’ve always felt the Dancing Faun, that half-goat half-human creature after whom our farm was named, to embody that type of elation, the sense of happiness in the sheer force of life that makes him and us want to dance. For the moment it is embodied in ten tiny creatures prancing, leaping, sucking their mothers’ teats, butting heads, in our barn. And soon it will morph into the music of the bells around their necks. Bells like those at Gla, in Boeotia where Hesiod first heard the Muses sing some 2800 years ago. Or maybe it was just the tintinnabulation of an ancient goat song echoing in the dusky twilight.
Our goat kids have taken, for the moment, to snoozing under the feeder, safe and snuggled in the hay.