Sometimes I imagine, and not in a morbid way, that I’m lying on my deathbed, remembering my life. Like everybody else, I’ve had moments of high joy: wedding day, childbirth, work-related stuff. But there are also more subtly-flavored memories. Pregnancy, once the initial excitement abated, was one. I would lie on the sofa in the afternoon, not reading the book on my lap, not crossing items on my to-do list, not writing letters to my mother, but content to simply gestate.
Nursing my babies was another. Those enforced breaks from the brouhaha of early motherhood allowed me to put aside laundry and work. Rocking slowly, listening to the little slurps and gulps, I might have been a mother cat, blinking in the sun and purring as she nursed her litter.
But that was long ago. The last time I felt this kind of contentment was in the field in front of my house, in southern Vermont. It is a cliché spring morning. The grass is bright green, and the dandelions are glinting in the sun. Up high on the house roof, against the clear sky, the bluebird sings his wistful little song. And, for the first time in months, I am letting Lizzie and Emma, my goats, out of their yard.
They are twin Nubians, one black, one fawn, with droopy silver ears and Roman profiles. The moment I open the gate they dash out to the field, their long ears flapping, and set to gobbling great handfuls of grass.
The field is not fenced in, so I need to stay with them. In the past I’ve tried bringing a book to read, but the moment I open it Lizzie and Emma rush to look over my shoulder, reaching their long necks to nibble the pages: “What’s this you’re reading?” Another time I brought paper and pencil, intending to draw them. But again, as soon as they spotted me doing something with my hands, they cast aside all thoughts of grass and ran over to see, and taste, my drawings.
Since multitasking is out of the question, I watch my goats eat. They tear off amazing quantities of grass and shove them down their throats with a few mighty chomps. Later, when their stomachs are filled to bursting, they will lie down and regurgitate the contents, give them a proper chew, and re-swallow them. It’s what ruminants do.
I sit on the grass and do nothing. Cleaning out the hen house; getting the garden beds ready for the chard and kale and broccoli seedlings that are waiting on the kitchen windowsills; thinning the baby apples that are starting to swell now that the blooms are gone will all have to wait until the goats have eaten.
For now, I watch and I listen. A lulling rhythm soon establishes itself as the goats move across the pasture: step, yank, chomp; step, yank, chomp. The bluebird has stopped singing. Maybe his mate has arrived and they’re at the back of the house, stuffing old grass and twigs into their nest box.
The sun—surprise!—actually feels warm now, and I discreetly take off my down vest and sit on it, to keep from attracting the attention of Lizzie and Emma, who will want to investigate. I breathe the clean Vermont air, chew on a grass stem. Is this what they mean by “pastoral peace”? It’s a very ancient human thing I’m doing, sitting in a field, watching goats pasture. I think about the shepherds watching their flocks on Christmas eve two millennia ago, and about the even older psalmist who identified with sheep being led to rest in green pastures.
I think about those other peace-inducing states—being pregnant, nursing babies. Like watching goats graze, they are only seemingly passive. Lying on the sofa, rocking in the chair, sitting on the grass, I am doing nothing, but accomplishing a great deal: growing a fetus, feeding an infant, keeping goats safe while they pluck dandelions.
These are things that nobody ever taught me. For once, I didn’t have to take notes, or memorize lists, or practice techniques. They arose in me naturally, without recourse to the frontal lobes of my brain.
I hope that death is another thing that comes naturally, without conscious effort–something that, along with our animal brothers and sisters, we humans instinctively already know how to do. And I take comfort in the thought that in some future spring the molecules of my body will turn to grass for somebody’s goats or cows or sheep, and I will be part of that pastoral peace forever.