Press "Enter" to skip to content

Conversations with Goaticus

By John Mattingly

Several years ago, my wife and I walked into the barn to be greeted by a two-week old male goat bleating insistently. We then saw that his mother, an ancient nanny we knew as Osho, had died.

Osho was the acknowledged superior in the herd. With a passing resemblance to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, she schooled pernicious older goats as well as impertinent young goats with a mere glance, and was always the first to sample a strange food, such as cull potatoes, cabbage, or corn stalks, while all the other goats awaited her judgment as to its suitability for consumption.

As Osho aged and became more and more infirm, she ate lying down, and even as she faded, had an extremely large, single kid in her final gestation, a kid who now looked at us with startling prescience. He had quickly grieved the loss of his mother and now wanted to know what we were going to do about it.

Typically, if a kid goat is orphaned after a few weeks with mother, it’s a challenge to catch, let alone start on a bottle. But Osho’s kid came right up to us that day in the barn and willingly followed us to the house where he started on the bottle immediately.

All creatures on a ranch are part of the family, but there are always a few who are special. So it was with Osho’s last kid, who we named Goaticus. Following castration, he became a sage. We knew because he grew Hasidic wattles and often groaned and sub-bleated while bobbing his head back and forth in apparent prayer.

On a recent spring afternoon, during a repeat episode of social distancing, I noticed Goaticus bedded down in the straw stack, positioned between bales in a way that resembled the shape and color of the famous throne of the Bhagwan.

I see you’re wearing that coat with the torn sleeve that needs a little tasty tailoring, but I’m doing a corn-alfalfa cud at the moment.

I can wait, Goaticus. Today, I’ve decided to be good at waiting.

One thing goats know: a human waiting on a bale is impossible. Either it isn’t a human, or he isn’t waiting. So it is. Humans have a hard time waiting. I mean waiting: just waiting. Look at us goats. We browse, we eat, we cud, we wait.

Granted, Goaticus, impatience is probably a side effect of human civilization. Everything has to be more efficient when there are too many people. You have the advantage of being able to chew your cud. If we had to chew our cud, we’d probably be more sensible, and patient.

We do feel sorry for you on that, but frankly, we expected you to come up with something.

Like what?

You’re the human. You tell me. You’re the one making tools and always running around changing things. Not all the time, come on.

We know how to take it easy.

Excuse me while I swallow … ah, much better. Let me tell you something. Long ago, our prime mover, the Holy Goat, warned us that humans were going to get us all in trouble with their tools. You can’t wait to invent a new tool. For what? To make the world more to your liking.

Nothing wrong with that.

Except, if you look around, you see that other species don’t change their world so much with tools. If they need change, they change themselves, physically.

And we’re changing, physically. We’re becoming more and more virtual. Some say we may not need our bodies a few decades from now.

Good luck with that. Maybe you’ll even grow horns.

You really are a nasty goat sometimes, Goaticus. Can you ever allow that humans are clever?

You humans are indeed clever in many ways. Yet, after you re-tool your habitat, you get all proud of yourself and take a vacation, or worse, go on an ocean cruise.

Ouch! Ocean cruises! Did you really have to bring that up!

Wake up and chew some oats for a change! All creatures on Earth have the good sense to know you can’t take vacations on this planet. The only reason for travel is to get necessary food or gain reproductive advantage. To travel to gawk and relax wastes energy. On Earth, wasting energy will eventually get you wasted.

Okay Goaticus, that’s enough of that. In all fairness—I mean no disrespect—humans are more complex than goats. We have places to go, people to see, things to do. We have intricate cultures. We generalize. We express abundant curiosity. We create elaborate fictions and live by them. We need motion to propel our intelligence, to solve problems, to change the world, to …”

Right, right, right … change the world. Here’s a hint: you’ve succeeded. You’ve been so busy changing the world you forgot the world can change you. And it will. Earth can waste you in a blink. Along with all the other reminders, Earth has just given you this novel virus to figure out. It’s a tricky one. It’s a dog that will keep on barking.

We will figure it out. What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.

Of course, from the point of view of goats, it’s sometimes hard to tell which is virus and which is host.

What are you suggesting?

A little ol’ virus is no more than a strand of information, encased in fat, with instructions to replicate itself to the exclusion of the host in which it landed. Sounds a bit like human civilization, from the point of view of all the species you have given the gift of extinction.

Look, I agree we are ahead of ourselves on a lot of things, but all species try to corner the market on their food and fun. Besides, a virus is not a life form. It’s a … thing. Humans are capable of change. We can turn this morbidity around because we are Intelligent Life.

Ask a super nova and a few neutrinos about intelligence.

I admit, a lot of humans are overweight and we reproduce like a virus sometimes, and we are probably the only species that consumes and hoards to absurd excess, but even after all those flaws, look at the magnificence of our culture.

I’m looking at it. What I see is that viruses have steered more of human history than any feature of magnificent human culture: more than war or agriculture or religion or industry or laws or anything else. The last big virus to attack you killed more than both World Wars.

So Earth is a dangerous place. I get it.

More so than you can imagine. You wouldn’t be here in the mountains of the Americas if it weren’t for smallpox wiping out the natives. Islam probably would not be a religion except for the bubonic plague some 1,500 years ago that took down the Holy Romans in Constantinople. Agriculture wouldn’t exist were it not for the ergot of rye. Pestilence, plague, and pandemics have been a dominant force steering your magnificent culture. And all through this carnage and achievement, going back millions of years, goats were roaming the planet, waiting.

For what?

For you to feed us.

John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Moffat.

A Farmer Far Afield is sponsored by Cheryl Brown-Kovacic and Larry Kovacic.