One goat became two, then a whole farm, then a crash course in what really matters
It started innocuously enough, as many modern tales do, with a Craigslist posting. Boredom and whimsy — that’s how my wife and I ended up driving home from Seguin, Texas, with a tiny Nigerian dwarf goat in the front seat of the car. We named her Bucket, and she lived — quite illegally, we would later learn — tucked behind the fence that surrounded our house in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of East Austin.
Very soon afterward, we got a second goat, Biscuit, having been told that goats get lonely by themselves. It was a sales pitch I am apparently quite susceptible to as it explains the two (human) boys currently taking a nap in the next room.
Within a year of buying the goats, we’d have a 17-acre ranch outside Austin. By the year after that, we’d own another 25 acres, a small herd of cows, two donkeys, geese, chickens, and a lake full of fish, in addition to the wild turkeys, boars, and foxes that roamed our property. We didn’t know it but in buying that goat we were being pulled by what Kimbal Musk, the brother of Elon Musk, has recently called the "extraordinary demand and desire to be a farmer amongst the younger generation."
Among our friends, to our surprise, disbelief wasn’t the most common response when we said we’d gotten a farm. Instead, almost everyone said it had always been a dream of theirs, too.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised: There are quite a few reports that show more and more young people are choosing a rural life. According to the Census of Agriculture, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years, the number of farms with principal producers under the age of 35 climbed from 55,394 in 2012 to 182,415 in 2017 — an increase of 229%.
It certainly hadn’t always been a dream of mine, though. I grew up in Sacramento, booing Lakers coach Phil Jackson at Kings games for describing our city as "cow town." For college, I moved to Southern California and then straight to downtown Los Angeles for my first real job. Later, as a writer, I lived in New Orleans, whose Southern charm I loved, and New York, whose metropolitan energy I liked but could not find much peace in. Austin was a way to split the difference.
It wasn’t until one day, as my wife and I watched tower after tower of condominiums go up from our roof deck, we said to ourselves, "What’s the point of living in Texas if you’re not really going to live in Texas?" The goat and the farm followed in short order.
It does not necessarily follow that you buy or rent some land in the country and then immediately enjoy it. If you’ve lived in cities your whole life, there’s a learning curve. And part of it is learning that for all the inviting beauty, the land does not care about you at all.
Ours sent us the message loud and clear. Our first weekend in the country, Bastrop County was hit with record flooding. In October, a brutal drought, a heat wave, and the Hidden Pines fire combined to burn some 4,500 acres, the second major fire in the area in less than five years. A few years later, Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 20 inches of rain in just a few days, washing away in a single weekend all the repairs we’d made since the first flood.
And then there were all the harsh lessons we learned about the ways of the natural world. We had a goose that we’d raised nearly from birth named Ryan Gosling. He would come when you called, and loved to be pet. One early evening, as I wrote at my desk upstairs, I saw him struggling out on the lake. Something seemed to be pulling him down violently under the water. We ran out to rescue him. It’s unclear what had attacked him (a snake? a snapping turtle?), but he was nearly disemboweled. A trip to the emergency vet cost something like $300. We slowly nursed him back to health.
Looking back, it’s a sweet memory — and one that shows how naive we were. We still thought about life and death like city folk. That’s something you lose pretty quickly the first time you put down a sick cow at close range or dispatch a rattlesnake with an axe. Or when your donkey, a livestock-guarding animal, comes home with deep gouges on his neck and legs. (Photos sent to an old-timer in the area solved the mystery: He’d fought off a mountain lion.) It’s inspiring, in a way, to see the stoic resilience of animals up close. "I never saw a wild thing / Sorry for itself," D.H. Lawrence wrote. "A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough / Without ever have felt sorry for itself." Life on a farm is a constant reminder of how small we are.
If the farm has taught me anything — besides the unmerciful reality of death — it’s the importance of slowing down, of doing things right, of a different kind of work. I write about this in my most recent book, Stillness Is the Key. One can’t rush through a job that requires a chainsaw. If you get impatient trying to move a wayward cow, you might find yourself scaring it right through the fence you just spent all those hours stretching and crimping, tightening and testing.
Cell service is bad out here. Our internet can barely stream Netflix. But I’ve learned to gladly accept these inconveniences to be able to have the pride of standing there, drenched in sweat, seeing something I built with my own hands. Whereas our weekends were once spent hanging out on Rainey Street in downtown Austin, they’re now spent mending barbed-wire fences. We used to get queso-covered omelettes at Kerbey Lane every morning. Now my son and I go for a long walk on our dirt road before returning home to cook up our own eggs from the chicken coop. The freezer in the garage is filled with boar sausage from wild pigs we’ve killed and butchered ourselves. In the evenings, we fish and drive out to feed the cows, who come running when they hear the truck coming.
There is a story about the Zen master Hyakujo, who was approached by two students as he began his morning chores on the farm attached to his temple. When the students asked him to teach them about the Way, he replied, "You open the farm for me and I will talk to you about the great principle of Zen." After they finished their labors and walked to the master for their lesson, he simply turned to face the sun rising over the fields, extended his arms out in the direction of the serene expanse, and said nothing.
That was the Way. Nature. The cultivated soil. The growing crops. The satisfaction of good hard work. The poetry of the earth. As it was in the beginning, as it will be forever. I’m lucky enough to say, at least for the present moment, that that is my life. A life laid out before me, not by a Zen master, but by a simple goat.