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Culture

Zac & Ike

In August we brought two new boy goats onto our homestead. We do this every few years in order to avoid inbreeding in our herd. Over the winter we researched goat farms with different genetics from our animals who shared similar values and practices. We wanted them to allow the kids to be raised by their mothers, to keep the goats horned, to minimize medications and to breed for a good milk supply. When the kids were born in the spring, we checked them out online and reserved two: a buckling from their best milker for breeding and his polled brother, who would be wethered (neutered), to keep him company.

We manage our herd to maximize environmental sustainability and the well-being of the animals. To me, their well-being includes paying attention to their social needs. I know that some people think I’m silly, maybe even “not a real farmer” because of this. However, so many of the problems people tell me about their goat-keeping attempts trace back to their not understanding those particular needs. One of the most basic of those is that as herd animals, goats should not be alone. This is why I don’t sell goats singly, and why we brought home two when we really just needed the one buck.

The farm we were buying them from is two hours away from us. It was a fine trip there, listening to Sproutlands by William Bryant Logan. On the way back, though, each in their own dog crate separate from each other and taken away from their home, the little guys had many loud, scared complaints that I tried not to let completely break my heart.

Our New Boy Goats Arrive!

When the boys got here, they needed to be separated – quarantined – from the other goats. Although the farm they came from is reputable and does the appropriate disease testing, sometimes issues are missed and we take biosecurity seriously, prevention being worth so much more than cure. The newcomers are supposed to be adding value to the herd not infecting them with diseases or parasites. Also, giving them time to get to know the other goats from afar makes for a more

Marley, Our Resident Buck

peaceful eventual integration. These two would be going to live with our other two boys, who were years older and at least double their size.

So, we fenced off an area and set up a shelter with food and water and bedding. I was proud of the little home we put together. However, they had other priorities. From the moment they got here their focus was on our resident goats. The boys called and called to them, stood looking at them, and slept in the corner of the yard that was closest to them despite how unsheltered it was and its lack of food, water and bedding.  Listen to them here: 

 

I wasn’t terribly surprised by this behavior, figuring they are herd animals and thus want to be with the rest of the herd.

Right around this time, I happened to watch a talk from Biodiversity for a Livable Climate entitled “How Animals Shape Ecosystems” featuring Carl Safina talking about animal cultures. He mentioned programs that raise endangered animals then release them into the wild and how much more successful they are if there are still some wild animals of the same kind there for the newcomers to learn from. The way he defined “culture” amazed me. Here’s a quote from his Living On Earth interview: “Culture is the behaviors, the habits, and even the attractions that we learn socially and that are transmitted socially. The amazing thing to me is that, whether it’s human, modern, Western technological culture, or whether it’s sperm whales, culture basically does the same things for social beings. It answers the question of, how do we live here, where we live?”

My shortened version is: Culture is how we learn to live successfully in our specific place on the planet.

Suddenly, my view of what the little boy goats were doing

The herd likes to be together

took on a deeper meaning. They weren’t just looking for safety in numbers, they wanted to join the existing group to learn from them how to successfully live in this place that was new to them.

It also shifted my view on current human cultures. Previously I thought of culture as a collection of stuff (music, dance, dress, etc) that people in a place ended up doing that became important to their group identity. I appreciated and found the diversity fascinating, but saw it as somewhat ephemeral and random. Now, I see that those acts and items are an expression of what culture really is – an understanding of what to do, what to eat, what to wear, how to work together and connect that helps a group fit sustainably into a particular place (Darwin’s survival of those who best fit into their environment comes back to us here). I see also that the way so many of us have been forced out of our traditional places has us confused.  Our carefully created ways of living don’t necessarily apply to our new environment, but the work of developing new strategies takes time – and sometimes fails, especially if we cannot connect with those who have belonged to that place before us.

Maybe this is part of the reason why so many cultures right now are dysfunctional enough to not live up to the title of “culture” as they seem to teach people ways of being that actually destroy our ability to survive. It also sheds more light on why Indigenous people comprise less than 5% of the world population but protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity. Respecting and protecting their rights, saying no to market schemes that push them off their lands, and humbly turning to them as our teachers and leaders could be a key to our surviving and thriving – our goats could tell us that!

Socializing the New Guys

In the case of our new guys, we had good reason to keep them by themselves for awhile, and we were here to help them survive during the quarantine period. We took our cue from them about what they most needed and created a plywood lean-to in the spot they picked up against the barn. After two months with no health concerns coming up, we shifted fences so they could have some nose-to-nose contact with the boys they would eventually live with. The little buckling had a romantic day with Diana which seems to have resulted in a pregnancy. To be extra safe, Steve built a secondary shelter in the older boy’s yard with entrances too small for the adults to fit through. When we actually did bring them

Shelter Only Accessible By Smaller Goats

together, there was a lot of sniffing, a little pushing and shoving… and then a lot of welcome quiet for me! After months of those little boys calling and crying and worrying me that something was terribly wrong with them, it seems they really did just want to be with more of their own kind. Phew!

As a bonus, I have another book to add to my winter reading list: Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace. The promise of more rest and great learning makes the cold and dark less daunting as we enter December.

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Filed under Goats, Interdependence, Uncategorized

Another Busy Busy Season

I may have planted too many beans this year!

During growing and harvest time, its easy for me to feel overwhelmed. I have systems and plans and projects that are bursting with life as I’d hoped – but not always going quite as I had planned. Control is elusive… ok, impossible. I suppose the whole experience is a good lesson in how much control is an illusion (or delusion) of the human mind. At the same time, to have any success as a farmer/gardener is to be organized and proactive about taking care appropriately and with good timing.

It feels like a contradiction: I should not try to control life, but I can’t lose control. That edge is really uncomfortable. But, I have been trying to be more accepting of contradiction after hearing author John O’Donohue’s opinion of it: “We should allow the different sides of what is contradictory inside of us to come close and meet each other. There is a secret life in contradiction… it’s always a place of fecund energy. And where there’s energy, there’s life. The force of energy within your own contradictions can actually bring you to a new level of growth and possibility.”  Permaculture principle 11 does ask us to Use Edges and Value the Marginal for that same reason: “The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”

Goats love to climb – it’s just who they are!

As I think about it, the goats are good at teaching me the difference between control and appropriate action. First of all, accepting that our land was not suited for the Jersey cow I had dreamed of was a way of listening to reality rather than imposing my will. Then, we heard so many distressing stories about the bad behavior of goats when we first started keeping them. Everyone wanted to tell us about how they escape, eat your garden or poisonous plants that kill them, violently butt people, scream all day, etc. We did have a few escape incidents early on.  But we studied goat behavior, talked to others, and through trial and error we created systems that properly channeled their normal goat tendencies in ways that help rather than hurt them and our homestead. It was a practice of observe, interact, accept feedback, self-regulate and respond to change (more permaculture principles). We learned how to channel the flow instead of fight against it.

So… what has kept us busy this year?

Our spring planting season was manageable, although we did have an extensive tree order arrive during April. At least it was raining back then.

It was when the drought settled in that we began to struggle to keep up.

Serious rain collection for a changing climate

That started in mid-June, adding daily (sometimes 2x a day) watering to our list of tasks. In what we used to think of as a “normal” year, we did almost no watering after plants were established in the spring. In the new climate of droughts here in New England, this becomes a necessity. We were grateful to have installed a robust rainwater collection system last year, able to hold over 1,000 gallons. We got towards the bottom of the supply a few times, but it rained enough to have continuous use of them through the summer.

Harvest time!

Being able to keep up with watering did lead to a prolific harvest for most of our crops. I had an especially good season for summer squash, snap beans, cucumbers, leeks and basil. Nearly every day I put something up for winter, which led to my next round of excess activity. I dehydrated peaches, apples, pears, grapes (raisins), kale,

Peaches! Not as many but super sweet in the drought.

summer squash, and winecap mushrooms. I froze beans, eggplant, summer squash, cheese, and pesto. I canned peaches and froze a lot of other smaller fruit that I will can now that it’s not so hot: strawberries, blueberries, grapes, currants, and elderberries.

 

As autumn settles in we fill our cold storage – garlic actually comes in earlier, then apples and pears, with the winter squash curing in the greenhouse first, and the roots are packed up for the root cellar.

Rotational Goat Grazing

There is always animal care to be on top of. Happily, that went smoothly for the most part. The goats had a good birthing season and our rotational grazing system is working well. I kept up with the heavy summer milk production by making (and freezing) mozzarella along with my usual yogurt and soft cheese. We had solid planned poultry hatches, and a surprise batch of 14 that one of our hens orchestrated out in the field without our noticing. We are now in poultry harvest and processing season, which is a lot of work, physically and emotionally. I took the year off from the bees which did free up some time for me.

The well-mulched annual garden needs very little weeding

There was weeding to do in the orchard and pasture areas, which is not a job I love and is always needed at the hottest time of year. Our annual garden system with my heavy mulching needs almost no weeding and that’s how I like it. But in other larger areas I am encouraging a mix of plants, mostly groundcovers or animal forage and still need to be on top of pulling out the plants that I don’t want there.

It’s really not until mid-October that I notice the pace slowing – and have time to start catching up on writing, reading and rest!

This year I had the added complication of deciding to continue extra off-farm work. Most years I suspend a lot of activities – True Tales Live takes a summer break, my drumming classes stop, Seacoast Permaculture offerings slow down, and I step back from activist work. However, this season I felt called to stay more connected to my work with NH Peace Action and the Friends Committee on National Legislation as it was an important moment in the struggle to end US involvement in the Yemen War – a war causing a terrible famine. So, I’m a little more behind than usual, but I am glad I did it. Underpinning all of our work here is the desire for a more peaceful and just world, and growing a little less of our own food to help others get any food at all was the right choice.

Packing carrots for the root cellar

Long Pie winter squash curing. We eat year-round from our garden with long-lasting crops and food preservation.

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Filed under Food Preservation, Gardens, Goats, Permaculture principles, Uncategorized

Springing Back

My favorite spring flower!

News and global issues are impossible not to stress about right now. Many of us are taking action for change, which I see as the best antidote to despair (as Joan Baez said). However, as is always the case, grief and joy exist side by side in the world and in our lives. So, I thought taking time here to marvel at the turning of the year to Spring and the reemergence or start of new life would be worthwhile.

One of my winter reads was Sproutlands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees by William Bryant Logan. It’s a beautiful book that teaches about the skills of coppicing and pollarding and other ancient tree management techniques while celebrating the people and cultures who live or lived in such a sustainable, symbiotic relationship with forests.

A Pollarded Red Maple Tree

In it I learned that May is “the time when the coppice springs.” Here is a condensed version of the beginning of his chapter The Spring: New-cut coppice springs. After you cut to the ground, the wood jumps back into the sky. A coppice wood cut down in winter comes up in the season of flowers. Springtime, the name by which every English speaker calls the May, means exactly that: the time when the coppice springs.

Here is some of what has been springing to life for us…

Plants, especially perennials, showing us how well they weathered another winter.

Rhubarb Rising

Asparagus Emerges

Garlic, planted last fall

Blossoms setting us up for lots of summer fruit.

A Lars Anderson Peach Tree in full bloom

Pear Flowers

Juneberry Flowers

 

 

  

 

 

Three baby goats from two successful births, leading now to plenty of milk for yogurt and cheese.

Lily with her two kids and Georgia’s kid (Lily’s grandson), too!

Nice green pasture to rotate for the goats to eat – grass into milk.

New pasture, just opened to the goats in our rotational grazing system

Lots of amazing eggs, bright orange from fresh spring forage.

Duck Eggs

Of course, the wheel will keep on turning and there will be endings and deaths, which are a lot harder for me to write about even though they are just as sacred and worth holding close. Maybe I’ll speak to that one of these Falls.

Meanwhile, happy season of growth and fertility! Let us remember to be grateful for living in a world that gives us so much. May we emulate the persistence and resilience of the trees springing back after a hard winter or an intense pruning.

Crocus, our earliest flower

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Filed under Gardens, Goats, Interdependence, Uncategorized, Weather