For those of us born and raised in the northern hemisphere, the constellation Orion is one of the more conspicuous ones in the night sky -- at least during the winter months. It was certainly the first cluster of stars I came to recognize as a kid raised in Maine and Colorado. The three bright stars that made up Orion’s Belt seemed magnetic, always drawing in my gaze. Contemplating them, or rather contemplating my distance from them (geographical scales magnifying to an absurd degree) seemed to, as weird as it may sound, orient me in my world. A kind of orientation through dis-orientation. The moment I fixed my gaze on those stars, all felt warmingly strange. My place in the universe: tiny. A speck. Relations instantly redefined. And my sudden philosophical engagement with the stars overhead—such expanding fields of otherness!—was one that left me feeling energized, liberated even. A certain giddiness would settle in and suddenly whatever little worries I carried in me dispersed in an instant.
For a dairy farmer who now wakes up with the sun, however, the experience of gazing up at the stars in gleeful contemplation occurs precisely never. It’s the sad truth. As the stars osmose into dusky view, the sun and I have agreeably set. But here’s the crux of it: what Orion the constellation did for me as a kid (that is, offered me the gift of a perspective-shift at any old time of night), ORION THE GOAT has done for me as an adult. In broad daylight.
Allow me to explain.
“Orion” was our first goat here at Big Picture Farm. Indeed, it would be accurate to say our farm was not even a farm until Orion arrived here the day before Thanksgiving, 2010. I drove to New Hampshire with my younger brother in our grandfather’s blue pickup truck and when we returned hours later, we released the bed latch and out hopped Orion, followed by a second all-white Saanen goat named Fern. Orion was not quite two years old and Fern just shy of a year. Timidly, the unfamiliar creatures followed us into the far fields, a flurry of snow filling in our footprints as we went. Fact: nothing was ever the same again. In just a couple of hours, chores would begin in earnest (and then never stop!). Thus Orion and Fern marked the beginning of our life as farmers. The founding goats. And because they came into our lives soon after Louisa and I were married – and perhaps because Louisa and I didn't yet have human children of our own – when Orion and Fern arrived in our lives they brought with them the sense of a real family.
Farming is basically the opposite of star gazing. Whereas the latter may well yield profundity, the former is loaded with mundanities. “Gazing” at any one thing for too long when farming is by definition inefficient. Feed the animals, schlep the water, set up new pastures, milk, make the caramel, age the cheese, muck, clean forever, hurry up, repeat. Then repeat again before going to bed! All the while trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing. Improve systems. Make and sell enough product to cover all the costs. For Louisa and I, having been raised absolute non-farmers, it was a crash course of the highest degree. An always painful trial by fire; and everyday a new fire (or several!). If it wasn’t for YouTube videos, a foolishly shared pastoral romanticism, and online goat forums (oh yes) I’m quite sure we would have folded. Even with those things the stress of it all – the sheer physical and emotional exhaustion it dished out—was real. By afternoon/evening chores, one felt damn weary. But that’s when Orion would offer us her daily gift should we choose to accept it. And accept it we did.
Orion, creature of light. Gentle, independent, motherly, modest, hardy, stoical, majestic, and wise. She earned each one of these attributes and more. Where other goats would cause mischief and mayhem, Orion didn’t bother. Neither a bully nor a bullee, she reigned as herd-Queen soft-spokenly, all the while sporting the longest, most elegant beard you ever saw (it seemed to sway in the wind even when there was no wind!). She was generous with milk, easy-mannered on the platform (the perfect model of milkability), and graceful in her browse-and-graze ways (except when it came to eating apples and raisins, which she did with a reckless abandon). She was the herd’s exemplary Grandmother – always had five or six newborns perched on top of her while napping during kidding season. At the height of bug season, when all the other goats would be going berserk, twitching and bounding about, fleeing from horseflies, you’d find Orion perched impossibly still atop a fieldstone, silent and statuesque, as if to meditate the pests away.
Then there were times, especially during our second and third years farming (which were the most challenging and demanding in our experience – post-Honeymoon ardor, the accumulated realities and exhaustion settling in, our farm and business accelerating so unwieldily that it felt as if the wheels were going to come whirling off the wagon at any moment), when, accompanying the goats back to their new pasture after milking, I would find myself alongside Orion, who always took her place at the very back of the single-file communion-line, as herd-queens often do. We’d arrive at the new pasture together and I would close the gate behind her. Afterwards I would wait and watch her take her first bliss-bestowing bites of dinner in the pre-dusk splendor. I marveled at the pure joy she took in those first mouthfuls of purple vetch or sheaf of maple leaves or swath of bluegrass, dragonflies brimming overhead, the buzzing insects embedded all around, the silent jazz of her interminable beard brushing softly the heads of seed stalks. Watching Orion in her natural element—always in rhythm with the seasons and their offerings—would remind me of what it was we were doing. And why. All the weight of my responsibilities – the absorption in my daily affairs – would subside. My axis, tilt. And I’d be left with a feeling akin to the one I knew as a kid gazing up at those constellations—the difference now being that I no longer felt the giddiness of cosmic displacement. In this case what followed was a renewing and reorienting sense of belonging. A blending of the self into the farm as a whole. Chores, animals, landscape, weather, forage, soil, hunger, love—all were part of the same organism. Not only could I perceive the beauty of its architecture, I could even understand (if only briefly) something of the sum of its parts. A perspective shift: Orion’s gift. And I’d feel uplifted. Calmed.
On Monday of this week Louisa and I (and our herd manager, Michaela, who has known and cared for our goats for nearly as long as we have, god bless her) were forced to say goodbye to Orion. She had been fighting a host of ailments for many months, despite our best efforts at containing them. Namely anemia from recurring parasites and – what proved worse – increasing lameness from laminitis, which had become severe (crippling her two front feet), unremediable, and increasingly painful in recent days. At our vet’s encouraging, we made the decision to put her down. It was one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make since we began farming. Probably we were guilty of waiting too long to make it. I held my head to her head during the final moments. Held it close and whispered, “Good girl. Sweet girl. Thank you. We love you.” Felt the breath go out of her, felt it slip through my tears into silence.
The loss of our dear companion is overwhelming. Suddenly the queen of our herd, our compass, the centerpiece of our farm and family, is gone. We feel her absence deeply. Our hearts hurt. As our first goat, she tended to us as much (if not more) than we tended to her. Something in the foundation has shifted.
And yet her teachings and her legacy will live on. Mother to four surviving does (Luna, Eloise, Adele, and Monk), grandmother to seven (Eva, Stella, Matilda, Eclipse, Curious George, Scout, and Fiddle) and even great grandmother to two (Pippi and Laura), Orion’s spirit will continue to flourish and her memory nourish for many years to come. We are grateful to have known her. We celebrate her, and will miss her always.
4/1/09 - 3/7/16
Written by: Lucas Farrell / Photos by: Louisa Conrad
March 11, 2016