Lessons We’ve Learned From Goats

  • Posted by: karl


On election day, Margaret and I gave a lecture at the University of Southern Maine, part of the Osher Lifelong Learning series, on “Lessons we’ve learned from goats.” Margaret read the following excerpt from towards the end of her first book, The Year of the Goat, about our impressions of America in 2004 after 40,000 miles and 43 states. She wrote this over a decade ago, but the spirit is one that we need to remember and embrace now more than ever. Can we as a country reject racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, bigotry of all kinds, and once again find the love-thy-neighbor common ground that we share as Americans and citizens of the world? I hope so. -Karl

“While we were on the road, visiting so many agricultural communities, Karl and I often asked each other, “Could we live here? Could we imagine ourselves as part of this community?”

Overwhelmingly, we could answer these questions in the affirmative. In northern California, southern Indiana, even central Texas, we found land that was beautiful, towns that were idiosyncratically charming, and people who were both engaging and welcoming. Strangers had opened their homes to us, we’d arrived dusty and disoriented, sometimes at the wrong farmhouse, sometimes late at night, and we’d been fed with cold chicken, offered a bed, given a direction. We’d found political tolerance, religious curiosity, and above all, a true human concern for us, however briefly we were a part of people’s lives. There was the tow truck driver who saw our license plate and flagged us down outside Plains, Georgia, to give us a calendar from his body shop and tell us how much he’d loved his single visit to Maine in the 1970s. There was the moderator of Yahoo’s Goats 101 list serve, who lived in Delta, Colorado, and invited us and our unruly dog into her house of prized Scottish Fold cats. There was the owner of a shop in south Texas, who gave us each a hand-knitted mohair stocking cap to ward off a cold snap. People took care of us both physically and emotionally, even when we didn’t know we needed it. And they did it without any expectation that we would return the favor. They cared for us simply because that’s what people do. In our exploration of its back roads and rural outposts, this great country and its constellation of communities shone with an embarrassment of riches.

Before our travels, we’d considered ourselves to be open-minded and free of prejudice. In truth, however, I’m not sure that we were. We had fallen into a trap, I realize now, of classing America as red and blue, city and country, faithful and un. We had adopted these kinds of simplistic shorthands because they were easy, and because from our perch in the city, the deep textures woven through the rest of the country were somehow glossed over and smoothed into stereotype.
Traveling through America, covering more than forty thousand miles in forty-three states, we found that generalizations just don’t apply. Rural ranchers turn out to have Ivy League degrees, slaughterhouse managers are married to animal rights activists—the country and its inhabitants are complex and compellingly, unfailingly interesting.”

—Margaret Hathaway, from The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese

Author: karl