The new book Goat Song ought to come with a warning label. Even before thumbing the dust jacket, worker bees contemplating their escape from cubicle life might want to consider putting the book down. Further reading could lead to rash and impulsive behavior, such as cashing in the retirement plan in favor of purchasing a rural homestead.
In the ’80s, mythologist Joseph Campbell urged readers to follow their own bliss. While most of us are willing to make small lateral moves in pursuit of happiness, Brad Kessler made the quantum leap from New York literary writer to erudite goat scholar.
The premise of Goat Song is simple: A contemplative J.D. Salinger-type goes “Green Acres” without the laugh track. Instead of a comedy of manners, Kessler forgoes concrete-bound city life for rambling in the woods with goats as companions.
However, he’s no hermit bachelor. A decade ago, Kessler retreated to the north woods of Vermont. After a long search, Kessler, along with his photographer wife Dona Ann McAdams, purchased an abandoned 75-acre farm and immediately began restoring the property.
The subtitle of the book is A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Heading and the Art of Making Cheese, and Kessler delivers on that promise.
Heeding Thoreau's call to self-sufficiency, Kessler and his wife began raising livestock, specifically a rambunctious pair of goats. These are domesticated farm animals that he dotes on, calling them “working-class gazelles.”
In the process, Kessler ruminates on the country life by placing his tale of 21st-century pastoralism into historical perspective. Evoking a lifestyle almost forgotten to contemporary culture, he investigates how Western civilization emerged from the domestication of hoofed animals.
The book is packed with allusions, proverbs and natural history. Kessler reaches back in time to the era of the shepherd-turned-prince, King David. At its core is the search for Eden — and the notion that paradise lost and found persists as a powerful metaphor even for artists, authors and consumers living many generations removed from the farmhouse. In many ways, the rural idyll is the mother of idealism.
Because of it, powerful myths travel through time. Pre-Christian goat gods become demons. Old Testament invocations for deliverance resurface in pop culture, illustrating how not much has changed in terms of human nature in the search for perfection.
Kessler finds a vocation in restoring a craft tradition — he turns his hand to making cheese. Like the artist hewing prose from raw life, the artisan makes products from raw materials.
“When we tried the fresh chevre the following afternoon, it tasted like nothing we’ve ever eaten before — custard, creamy pudding, a cheese so young and floral it held within the curd the taste of grass and herbs the goat had eaten the day before,” he said, describing an early attempt at making cheese. “It seemed to me we were eating a meadow.”
Lyricism aside, Kessler’s description of farm life is both gripping and precise. The graphic account of goat reproduction is at various times gross and hilarious. Drama and pathos unfolds: a favorite goat named Lizzie becomes dangerously ill, and vulnerable livestock fall victim to coyotes roaming the hillsides.
He also introduces fascinating non-goat characters, such as Caroline Gatti, a French cheesemaker living beside the spine of the Pyrenees Mountains. She shares her secrets on making tomes, a hard cheese made from little more than milk curd and microbes that transform over time into a near perfect food of rich and complex flavors.
Environmental writing as of late have been jeremiads as to how we’re all hell bound. Kessler takes a different tack. He rediscovers how food, landscape and culture intertwine. Goat Song is the Whole Earth catalogue for the soul, and it might just change your life.
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