Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese

August 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Brad Kessler

Scribner  2009   

Hardcover $24 

Review by Chris Thompson 

Brad Kessler, as the jacket blurb tells us, is an award-winning fiction writer (Birds in Fall, Lick Creek, The Woodcutter’s Christmas).  Goat Song is a foray into non-fiction, chronicling Kessler’s recent entry into the business of goats: setting up a farm (in Vermont), establishing a milking herd, and making cheese from the milk.  Along with his wife, Dona Ann McAdams, Kessler chased down a lifelong dream of living off the land and in the country. 

This could sound pretty pie-in-the-sky, but Kessler brings a writer’s focus and persistence to the farmsteading and makes a good go of it.  He also brings his substantial writerly skills to the project of chronicling two years in the life of a goatherding, farmstead cheesemaker.  Goat Song is kind of a cross between Walden and Moby Dick, with goats instead of whales: not nearly as long as Melville’s magnum opus, but as encyclopedic, frank, meditative, digressive, and celebratory, and all this built on a sturdy chronological narrative–taking us through seasons not seas–but to similar effect.  Keller lets us know of his project in the Prologue, as he meditates on a wandering graze in the hills:

A goat path in the wild leads to mountaintops where other animals can’t go.  Some afternoons I follow my goats and others they follow me.  The Igbo of Nigeria tell their children, if lost in the wilderness follow a goat; she always knows the way back home.  I’ve been following these goats back home each day, but where they lead surprises me still.

I want to take you there.

And take us there he does.  Kessler’s growing herd of Nubians feels to the reader like family after a while, and when, for example, Lizzie, one of the herd’s original females, takes sick, our hearts sink with every worsening symptom.  Cheese Enthusiast lost sleep to keep reading.  Equally engaging is when, toward the end of the chronology, the herd is established and producing both milk and kids, and coyotes show up in the hills around the farm, keening out their dire warning by night.  The whole household, and barn, go on alert, especially Kessler’s dog, Lola, who releases her own howl into the otherworldy choir.  Soon the snows come, and Kessler sees the coyotes’ tell-tale tracks circling ever closer to his herd.  He and Lola (a star of the story, in my eyes) take to the woods and, well, you’ll want to read all about it.  This is a tale well-told.

          Kessler spares us no details in the reproductive behavior of goats.  It becomes pretty evident why past cultures thought up things like scapegoats, and goat-hoofed, horned, and promiscuous creatures like satyrs and Pan (and Kessler gives us those mythologies as well).  Male goats (bucks) when aroused are astonishingly vile, it turns out, and any analogical similarity to males of our species must be put from the mind or one’s own romantic life might just come to an end.  Be warned.

          Kessler is well-read and spiritual, and we hear a lot about the ancient herding cultures, the origins of pastoralism in literature, and the analogy of the pastor and his flock in organized religion.  He does his etymological homework as well, giving us the sort of meditations one might have in the long hours of walking a herd to and from pastureland, or while waiting for curds to set in the cheese “make room.”  There is a lot of Jewish lore (his Jewishness is a subtext of the book) as well as a good bit about Christian monasticism (a life he once yearned for).  We only noted one misstep, on page 57, in a fascinating discussion of the agricultural origins of the pictures that became letters of our Latin alphabet, in which Kessler claims that the Latin letters that are like pictures of animals (think of an A as an inverted ox head) came from similar Hebrew letters.  Most scholarly sources agree that the Latin alphabet we use today derived from the Greek alphabet (partially via an intermediate Etruscan version), which itself descended from a Phoenician predecessor.[i]  Kessler’s larger point remains, however.  Pastoralism—the life, concerns, and worldview of the animal herder—is deeply ingrained in the history of Western culture, even in the letters we use.  His own return to pastoralism, and his deep and lyrical sense of its effects on the humans who practice it, make up much of what is best about this excellent book.  And, in a similar vein, here is his meditation during the process of weaning a kid from its mother’s teat so he can get the milk himself, a meditation which Kessler, characteristically, turns into a philosophical insight:

The word mammal comes from the Latin mammalis, “of the breast.”  The first food a mammal tastes is breast milk.  They drink their mother’s milk only in infancy.  Humans are the only mammals who’ve effectively prolonged their infancy by continuing to drink milk long into adulthood.  They do this by exploiting the breasts of other mammals—namely those with hoofs. 

          Something for all of us in the cheesemaking universe to ponder…  As far as cheesemaking goes, Goat Song has a chapter near the end that all aspiring cheesemakers ought to read.  It’s called Affinage, and it provides a minute-by minute record of a night’s cheesemaking, as Kessler creates a Tomme–following the recipe of a French cheesemaker he met in the Pyrenees in the previous chapter.  He walks us through the process, not just the technical details of what he is doing in his Vermont make room, but also what his milk and curds feel and smell like, and what he thinks about as he steps out into the twilight while waiting for the flocculation point to arrive, including, as he looks up the hill to a nearby Carthusian monastery, how many uncanny parallels there are between cheesemaking and the Passion of Christ (this man knows a lot about religion).  Kessler sees and thinks about so much, that webs of connection are everywhere: the enclosed, hermetic Carthusian order originated in the Alps; he is making an alpine cheese (the Tomme); he considered the life of a monk, etc.  The monastery is called The Charterhouse of the Transfiguration, and this reader thought it would be good name for Kessler’s “make room” as well. 

          It is perhaps fortunate that all of the goats we get to know by name in Goat Song are does (it is a dairy farm, after all), and we can love them as Kessler and his wife clearly do, so that the circle of life that turns meadows into cheese also includes the circles of the goats’—and goatherds’—lives as well.  Kessler gives us a lovely, memorable, and intellectually satisfying rendering of a timeless, pastoral ebb and flow.  I don’t recommend reading Goat Song while cheesemaking, however.  You are sure to miss your floc point.

Originally appeared in Cheese Enthusiast 9

[i] Indeed, the Latin alphabet is believed to have evolved to its approximate state in the 7th Century BCE, whereas serious Roman involvement (domination, really) in Judea didn’t take place until 6 centuries later.  There were many variant and related alphabets in the Near East in ancient times, of which Hebrew was one.  But the source of the Latin letters was not Hebraic.

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