Your 2020 Step-by-Step Guide

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Retreat for the summer to your family’s weekend cottage in Minnesota for what you adorably believe will be the last few months of a pandemic. Optimistically anticipate it will be over by July 4th. Settle in with a collection of family members who all had the same idea, an obscene number of dogs, and way too many WIFI-enabled devices for the “cozy” little river cottage to handle. Wait until you have one moment away from Zoom calls to notice that, while fighting the good fight, the family homestead is in dire need of some love.

In particular, note the ridiculous jungle surrounding it that threatens to inflict poison ivy upon unwitting children and forces you to machete your way to and from the front door. Realize that 8/10th of the property is completely unusable because of suffocating foliage and thick vines. Imagine using that space to get away from everyone sheltering from the world alongside you. Consider burning it all down and starting over.

Go jogging to suppress urge to light fires. While running down the quiet country road lined with similar river cottages, all possessing much tidier curb appeal than yours, notice the contractor sign at the side of the road.

Do not ignore this sign. This sign is simple. This sign is for you.

This sign contains a name, a phone number, and a graphic of a goat’s profile.

Hear angels signing. Listen. Angels don’t lie.

Without taking a beat to pause your podcast, dial the number and leave a message. Call six more times before dinner. Follow up with a lengthy text, containing several details of your whole life story. Hope that a modern-day goatherd, who might have already concluded you’re nuts, will drop everything and get back to you.

The goatherd, who has a few dozen goats to worry about and is Minnesota Nice-enough to indulge your crazy without adding to it, will eventually respond and schedule you for an estimate. Don’t be surprised if you are not his first priority. Turns out, hungry goats are in extremely high demand, so you may find yourself standing in line behind parks, golf courses and schools. Don’t let this deter you. Deep in your soul you know that your property is a semi-rural goat grazing utopia, with water on one side and mostly in-tact fencing on the other. Not to mention its three decades of feral foliage long-overrun by several invasive species known to be irresistible to endlessly voracious goats. You are prepared to impress your goatherd, and every last one of his goats, with this rare, symbiotic opportunity.

Turns out, your particular goatherd is a very recently retired psychiatric nurse. This is fortuitous on so many levels, but maybe wait a beat before letting your freak flag fly. Instead, walk the perimeter of the property with your goatherd/psychiatric nurse and calmly explain how the property came to be so hopelessly suffocated by such a botanical horror show.

Acknowledge that most of it is a loss but be sure to point out flowers you know your mother might like to try to save from hungry goats as they go about their work. Call his attention to potential goat hazards, such as septic tanks and wobbly boat lifts. Promise to lovingly care for the goats like they are pets while you shoo away all of the dogs running amok on the property. Allow yourself to ramble a little bit while the goatherd, whose name is Tim by the way, patiently lets you work through your feelings and clueless ideas about goat care in general. Eventually shut your mouth and let him tell you exactly how this is going to go.

“I’m thinking a dozen goats need two weeks for you to see the light day around here,” he tells you. “This looks like a good project for them,” he adds, which floods you with pride for reasons that make absolutely no sense. He ballparks an estimate and suggests an approximate start date for later in the summer when twelve of his goats are likely to be both hungry and available.

“Do I need to get anything for them?” You ask, thinking of the dogs and how each of them has an endless supply of preciously specific beds, bowls, and bones.

“Nope,” is all he says before hopping back in his truck and backing out the long, overgrown driveway.

Prepare a group text for all family members who have a vested interest in the property about to be grazed. Explain that you have arrived at an unorthodox solution to one of several items on the maintenance list. The key here is to inform your human cohabitants that goats are happening, rather than work to build consensus. The concept of goats will sound like a joke, or perhaps a euphemism. Hold firm and be clear so that no misunderstanding will occur. Exude confidence in both concept and execution and patiently answer their predictable questions:

No-they don’t have to feed the goats. Look around. The goats will be standing on their food. And most of their water too, it turns out, as they get moisture primarily from greenery. Like koalas.

No-you don’t have to leave the property while the goats are in residence. It is safe to be around them- they are curious but not aggressive. The goats will quietly do their job while you Zoom into yours.

Yes-the goats will poop. A lot. But they will also trample their own poop into the soil which is part of what makes them useful. No, it’s not like dog poop. Or cow poop. More like bunny poop. Just relax about the poop, k?

Your goal is to make it impossible for anyone to be surprised when they wake up and find twelve socially inappropriate goats staring at them through the bathroom window one morning. Because you’ve been warned they might do that kind of pervy stuff, and it’s best if everyone knows that in advance.

Since you have neighbors on two sides, it is best to warn them that you will be hosting livestock temporarily. You don’t actually know the neighbors, so embrace the opportunity to introduce them to your charming whimsy.

“Hi there!” you holler from your dock one morning to theirs as they quietly prepare to speed off for a morning fishing trip. Sheepishly explain that this might sound a little weird, but goats. They’re coming. Assure them that there is no chance of them wandering to their property and messing up their meticulously tended lawn. Cap off your explanation by acknowledging that your own yard is a disaster and apologize for that. Like with your family, confidently explain that goats are going to fix it, and ignore how insane you sound. Even to yourself.

“Goats?” they say once you are done with your breathy explanation, clarifying that they heard you correctly across several yards of water.

“Yeah,” you say, and prepare again to answer a litany of questions. But your neighbors exchanges blank looks, shrugs, fend their boat off the dock and speed away downstream. Consider this box checked and move on to Step 6.

At long last, when the goats finally arrive, expect vindication.

This is the moment when everyone will realize that when you said “goats” you really meant hooves and horns and the cute little nattering sounds they make to one another as they stampede out of the goatherd’s trailer.

Actual goats.

Your family will look up from the screens for the first time in weeks and stumble outside to watch. The pack of semi-conscious dogs laying around waiting to trip humans will look up and twitch their noses at the smell. Other people’s children from down the lane will peer through the gaps in the fence while the goats immediately swarm the intractable jungle that is your property. They will be utterly purposeful and completely silent except for the sound of their munching, an occasional coo, and the satisfying crack of a mostly dead tree being felled as they work together as a team to consume everything in sight.

Faster than you can imagine, light will stream through the trees and warm spots on the ground where it hasn’t shone in decades. Stunted pine saplings, sensing an opportunity, will tentatively stand a little taller as they are passed over by the herd. A gentle breeze will start to push through new gaps that emerge in the shrubs and as it does, swarms of mosquitoes that have plagued your family for generations will be forced to flee for stagnant, humid air elsewhere.

Take a moment to appreciate the fact that you had an awesome idea. And for once in your life, your entire family, plus a few impressed neighbors, unanimously agree with you.

This is a critical step.

Sometime between the moment the goats arrive and when they finish their job, you will find yourself standing there, early one morning, holding a cup of coffee and watching them mindlessly graze. You will experience peace and a feeling of accomplishment. You’ll say to yourself “Maybe we should just buy some goats and keep them forever…”

No.

Stop.

Maybe it’s the week-old baby goat that Tim sent in with the herd so it could nurse from its mother (who looked pretty friggin grateful to be out with the other goats doing her working-mom-goat thing, frankly.) Maybe it was the charming way they all yelled “Baaaahhhh!!” at you in unison when you opened your kitchen window and yelled “Hey Goats!” Maybe it’s the fact that they basically made your role as family lawnmower completely obsolete. Whatever it is that makes you stand there, coffee in hand, imagining yourself caring for a herd of goats year round and making you feel utter pastoral oneness with the newly tamed world around you, just ignore it.

At some point, they will run out of fuel on your property. They will grow anxious and demanding. One of them might even try to climb a tree to reach some greenery and get hopelessly tangled, horns to tail, with all four cloven hoofs dangling in space. You’ll be expected to know exactly what the problem is and how to use your opposable thumbs to fix it when eleven other goats come running up on your front porch in a state of panic and head butt you into action. These are living creatures, not lawn ornaments, and their needs will rule your world even as the days shorten, grow cold, and the leaves they’ve been tasked with eating start to turn.

You are not the goatherd. Tim is the goatherd. Write the man a check and this former-psych-nurse-turned-goat-whisperer will bring you out of your chaotic, untamed pandemic wilderness into order, sunshine, and fresh air.

When Tim comes at the end of the graze to get his goats, stand in the driveway and have a good-natured conversation about what this goat or that goat did that was noteworthy. Like a counselor handing back a happy camper at the end of summer, it’s always a good idea to take a moment to connect with the one to whom your charge is being returned. After all, you want Tim to know that you appreciated their hard work, positive attitude, and teamwork in addition to the results. Plus, you’ll be sad to see them go, and you might need a minute to sit with that.

Eventually Tim will pack up his goats but before he drives away, be sure to get on his schedule for your Spring graze. You’ll notice that he won’t write anything down, which means you’ll have to call him six times and follow up with vaguely manic texts about your out-of-control poison ivy problem in about six months. But as you know, the man is uniquely qualified among goatherds to handle your unique brand of crazy.

“They are a great herd,” you say lamely, trying not to seem too emotional, even though that’s exactly what you are.

“A group of goats is called a tribe,” he tells you as he throws his truck into gear. The trailer lurches a little, and when it does, the goats all let out a shortened and irritated collective “Bah!”

“Hey Goats!” You yell at them. One last time.

There goes my tribe, you think, as you watch them drive away.

Writing about whatever I feel like. Mom with a career. Filled with love and rage. It’s cool- I’m not for everyone. twitter @lesliezacks zacks.leslie@gmail.com

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