Going with the goats

by Guest Blogger

Molly Dektar ’12, an associate of Dudley House who concentrated in English with a secondary concentration in Visual and Environmental Studies, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship this year to travel to northern Italy to research post-World War II depression for a writing project. Dektar, a recpient of the Charles Edmund Horman Prize for Creative Writing (2011) and Cyrilly Abels Short Story Prize (2010), has had her work published in The Harvard Advocate and served its Art Board and Fiction Board. She was also involved in campus theater, providing visuals including paintings and photography for shows, and designing sets for Working: The Musical. Dektar plans to pursue a career in writing and teaching.

I came to a dairy farm in the Italian Alps to try to learn about the changes in Italian culture that happened during and after World War II, to gather material for a writing project. This is a bit like going to an opera to learn how to play violin—which, actually, some of the other Artist Development Fellows are most likely doing right now. But I am easily overwhelmed by the singers onstage. The history, like the violin section, is always in the background, but only sometimes do you hear it clearly. Similarly, I would be conducting rigorous and thorough research, were it not for the 60 goats, 30 cows, 15 chickens, 11 geese, nine pigs, nine kittens, four cats, puppy, and 34-year-old-horse, who assign no consequence to my scholarly agenda.

Most mornings I lead the goats out through the steep meadows of daisies, buttercups, chamomile and marjoram. I chase the goats around and wave a branch at them for several hours, until either they or I become too exhausted. This task is called "going with the goats." I’m learning about the gradated way you get animals to listen to you. If the goats start going the wrong way, first you just look at them. Your front-set eyes already indicate to them that you are a predator-type animal. If they keep browsing blithely on, you raise the branch. Then you shake the branch. Then you make noise and shake the branch. Then you can start throwing things or hitting them, but my favorite last-ditch way to get them to move is to sprint straight at them. This technique also works well on humans.

There have been births and deaths. Four healthy cows, two pregnant, were taken to Cogne and slaughtered because their blood contained traces of a disease that the Aosta Valley has decided to eliminate. A day later, I cleaned their last waste out of the trailer. I watched four kittens tear apart a bright-green, panicky lizard. The mother pig got pneumonia and aborted all of her piglets.

Meanwhile, more kittens keep appearing behind the bales of hay. The baby calf sucks on my hands, and more calves are due this week. Attilio, the wiry 72-year-old who owns the farm, somehow woke up in the middle of the night and saved a cow whose chain was slowly throttling her. "How did you know?" I asked. "I heard," he said. But I sleep right above the barn and heard nothing.

Most of what I’ve learned is a different attitude towards time. It’s better not to flick flies off as soon as you feel them, but wait for them to settle, and then kill them. I got a splinter in my hand. Instead of trying to pull it out, or telling me to wear gloves, Attilio recommended that I wait for it to infect so the splinter rides out naturally on the pus. When the goats start wandering off with no one guarding them, instead of intervening early, you wait for them to go too far.

And milking takes two hours each morning and two hours each night, and there are no weekends. One night when he was milking, Attilio told me that when his father escaped from a German prison he was so weak that the farm women who took him in fed him like a calf.

And there are your violins!

[Caption: Molly Dektar in the Aosta Valley, Italian Alps.]

[Caption: Four of the 60 goats under Dektar's charge.]