Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dubious Panegyric

Another one of Rixford Knight's articles from the Atlantic, and a couple more photographs. My father was particularly fond of the line "I'd walk a mile to kick a goat."

Dubious Panegyric

by Rixford Knight

The poor man's cow is a sensitive index to business conditions because, when things get tough, lots of people begin to think about getting a goat. Correlation is inverse, of course – the more goats the less business.

Possession of a goat may also be an indication of intellectuality. Even in dire circumstances, only a person of considerable originality would think of getting a goat. Several of my friends have goats and they are all originals.

We may have something here, and I hope so because I have been rationalizing for years trying to justify my keeping a goat. I have hitched her to a wagon, taught her tricks, eaten her progeny, and milked her, and have not yet found a reasonable basis on which to excuse my ownership of her.

Whatever it indicates, the goat population in Vermont is on the increase. People are becoming "goat conscious." I have this from the lady who sold me my goat and who wished me to understand that the expression meant that the demand for goats was increasing, and that her price was not unreasonable.

Another goat dealer whom I interviewed assured me that once I had kept a goat I would never be without one. I can appreciate this too, because once you have a goat it is very hard to get rid of her. There are sound economic reasons why it is hard to dispose of a goat, but there are other reasons also. It is hard to love a cow, who has no personality and does nothing but give milk, but a goat abounds in personality and becomes as much a part of the family as a mischievous dog – even more than a dog, because a goat's capacity for mischief far exceeds a dog's.

Legend has it that goats will eat tin cans, but this is not so. They will eat only the labels from tin cans, and even here they are fastidious and will not eat the labels from corned-beef cans. This is not out of sympathy for a sister ruminant, because they will eat dried beef scraps if the scraps are salted.

A goat likes apples but will not accept one from which you have first taken a bite. She will accept it, however, after the offending portion has been cut off with a knife, provided the knife has not previously been used to slice plug tobacco. A goat does not dislike tobacco, because she will eat cigarettes. I know one poor woman who denied herself a package of cigarettes a day in order to feed them to her goat who loved them so. The goat is dead and the poor woman is still alive – but this does not mean that cigarettes were bad for the goat that her deprivation of them was good for the woman because the woman is in better health now than when the goat was alive.

It is said that goat meat tastes like mutton, but this has not been our experience. We could not eat it, and neither would the dog or the cat. On the other hand, some mutton that we bought tasted just like goat and yet we ate it, and so did the cat, but not the dog. Once we were given meat which was said to be goat and tasted like beef. We ate it gratefully and said nothing to anyone about the bullet we found in it. The dog and cat watched reproachfully while we ate.

People who keep goats are even more interesting than the goats themselves. Not all peculiar people keep goats, but all people who keep goats are peculiar. This does not apply to foreigners, but it applies without fail to Americans not brought up in the goat tradition.

People keep goats believing them to be a cheap source of milk. They need a cheap source of milk because they do not fit into the present established American way of life, and they do not fit this life because they are peculiar. Yet they are peculiar only if the American way of life is unpeculiar, which is not established.

This makes a hard problem. If a person does not like singing commercials, baker's bread, working for a boss, or keeping up with the Joneses, he can avoid these things by moving to the country and keeping a goat. But keeping a goat involves many hardships. The person must decide whether he is inherently antipathetic to singing commercials and the like, or merely allergic to them from environmental causes. If the latter, it might be easier for him to train himself to like them – say in ten years – than to keep a goat and avoid them.

Of course it is possible to graduate from a goat to a cow. I have a cow but still retain the goat. A friend was more fortunate. He didn't like his goat and got rid of her. "You can't keep one behind a fence," he said. "So you have to tether her out – by a chain, not a rope. A goat is not like a pole bean that always runs anti-clockwise. And whichever way she runs she will stick to it and will immediately wind herself up on the stake and then tie a knot in the chain. She will stand still until you have got a knot nearly untied, and then will give you a jump and catch your thumb in the loop. I'd walk a mile to kick a goat."

But a cow is not the solution either. A cow gives lots of milk but she also eats lots. There is a saying that you should keep a number of cows or none at all.

The man with one or two cows can't afford expensive haying equipment and will have to work by hand. A cow lives on pasture for six months and on hay for six months. While on pasture, she operates by wrapping her tongue around a tuft of grass, pulling it into her mouth, seizing it between her lower teeth and upper lip, and tearing it off. She does this steadily and stows away grass at about the rate at which a subsistence farmer, armed with a scythe, can cut hay, turn it, and lug it into the barn.

Now get the mathematics of this: six months pasture, six months barn. Farmer cuts hay at same rate as cow in pasture eats grass. Of course the cow must rest at times, and when she does, the farmer may feel free to drop his scythe and relax with his wife. But he must watch out. The minute the cow gets up from her nap he must go back to his scythe or he will be short of hay next winter and will have to buy some – which is fatal to the man who has been hoping to get away from Wall Street and the American way of life.

My goat has kidded three times, the first time giving us one buck which, by a shrewd business maneuver, I succeeded in giving away. The next time she gave us two bucks, and the third time three bucks which didn't live for the christening. I am now holding my breath and wondering how the goat population manages to maintain itself, to say nothing of increasing.

Two lusty kids will take about all the milk an average doe can provide, and before being weaned may need more. It seems illogical to keep a goat in order to save the expense of a cow and then have to get a cow to feed the goats, but that is what one goat raiser had to do. He had two goats he wanted to sell. One, for $20, gave three quarts of milk a day. The other, for $40, gave three and one-half quarts a day. I detected an interesting, possibly formidable, mathematical progression here and, after several moments' thought, asked if a four-quart goat would cost $60 or $80. My efforts to discover the combination of his pricing system finally irritated the man and I left him and bought my goat from a woman who had only one for sale and whose pricing system therefore, as I have explained, was based on the immutable law of supply and goat consciousness.

My doe gives a little under three quarts a day when she freshens, but keeps this up for only a couple of months. For a family with children it is necessary to have two goats and stagger their breeding dates six months.

Five or six goats will eat as much as one cow but will not give as much milk unless they cost more than the cow. Supply catching up with demand is unlikely to alter this cost ration in a way favorable to the goats, because it is not too hard to raise one calf, but raising five or six kids will drive a person crazy.

Looked at in another way, it is not economical for me to keep a cow that gives fifteen to twenty quarts a day when all I need is four or five. Of course there is butter, but by the time the utensils are washed we have spent two hours making it, and even at a dollar a pound we could do better with our time by buying butter. As for cottage cheese – don't mention the word to me.

Here is an odd fact about dairy products. A given quantity of milk sells for a higher price than the cream taken from that milk. Butter made from that cream will bring less than the cream. In other words, the more work you put into it the less you get out of it. This is actually true if you can get retail milk customer who will pay up.

The same is true of goats as opposed to cows. In respect of time and the work involved, keeping a goat is an expensive way of getting one's milk. Yet the people who get their milk in this way seem healthier and happier than those who court efficiency and get their milk in a bottle. As I've said – people who keep goats are peculiar.


  1. Hi Alan, I am laughing because in the course of writing my memoir I googled Rix and saw your blog. I have always remembered that Rix said "I'd walk a mile to kick a goat"-- in fact every time I see baby goats I think how cute they are and then I remember what a pain in the ass they are when grown. Abd then I say "I'd walk a mile to kick a goat"!

    I remember your parents well and I remember Margaret but not you. We went up to Hatley about once a year to visit them. Do you know or remember that Rix and my father died within hours of each other on 15 April 1993? Best wishes, Dereka

  2. Thanks! So nice to hear from you. I don't remember you, but I'm not sure how old I would have been.