[Note: Retired Zen teacher, Lin Jensen, wrote this essay in 1999 when the Chico Parks Dept. first introduced the goats to Bidwell Park. Today, in the summer of 2022, the goats in Bidwell Park still have something to tell us.]
The goats are telling us something. I’m possibly among the few in town who have noticed this. Most don’t know they’re being told anything at all. The goats themselves aren’t conscious of doing any telling. But the telling is real, and those who are exposed to it are getting the message whether they realize it or not. I only recently realized it myself. But its discovery serves to explain why the goats are such a compelling attraction to the townspeople.
Of course, one element of their attraction is the sheer novelty of keeping a herd of goats in the middle of town. The Chico Parks Dept. got the goats to keep down the blackberry vines that invaded Bidwell Park, choking out the native plants, cutting off access to the creek, threatening the canopy of sycamores and Valley Oaks that line the riparian corridor. The goats were an alternative to herbicides which none of us wanted the City to use. So a contract was drawn up and in the spring of 1999, just as the blackberries were sprouting new growth, Danny Mitchell pulled his trailer into Bidwell Park, set out some electric fencing around a patch of blackberry vines, and released a herd of goats into the enclosure.
You couldn’t miss them. The enclosure was within hearing distance of the community recreation center, and within sight of the parking lot at One-Mile pool with its five lifeguard stands and its picnic tables. The herd was visible to traffic on Vallombrosa Avenue and from the front yards of houses adjacent to the park. You could smell the goats from the park trails even before sighting them.
The goats were universally popular from the start. They weren’t satisfied to let you do all the looking but would study you in turn, their dark eyes curious under soft lashes peering at you from the other side of the fence. They telegraphed responses with their ears, which were soft and floppy or stiff and pointed depending on the breed. Their whole “goaty” posture was extraordinarily expressive, the slightest tilt of a head conveying an emphasis as readable as are the facial expressions and hand gestures accompanying human speech. They seemed able to express the equivalent of smiles or frowns or to even make inquiries through attitudes of body.
A few of the nannies had suckling kids. Baby goats are irresistible. To see one is to have cuteness defined for you once and for all. So Chico’s children came in droves. They arrived by bicycle and on foot. They came with parents or grandparents or older brothers and sisters. They were carried on backs, pushed in strollers, or towed along by hand. Busloads of them arrived from area grammar schools.
When the novelty wore off, I noticed something. I noticed that long after most children had lost interest, the adults usually hadn’t. They stayed on. They lingered by the enclosure, reluctant to leave, their children fidgeting at their sides, tugging at them, asking to go. It was then I began to understand what the goats were telling us. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this. It’s just that the others were, and remain to this day, innocent of having received any understanding at all. I can best explain this by describing how the goats eat blackberry leaves.
They eat them with a single and sustained concentration. By “single” I mean that their eating is all of one piece. Goats have long prehensile tongues. Their mouths are flexible and mobile. They use these instruments with an intelligent precision. They project their faces with their dark eyes into the most daunting confusion of blackberry thorns and capture leaf after leaf, extracting them without the least hesitancy or uncertainty.
To watch them is like watching the violin section of a symphony orchestra with every musician exactly on point, absorbed by the music itself. The goats eat with this kind of undistracted absorption. They show us what it really means to pay attention. For the moment, it all seems so natural. We wonder if we could learn to mow our lawns or answer the phone or fry eggs with any comparable presence of mind.
The way the goats eat, pretty well describes the way the goats live. We can see exactly how they live because, being contained as they are, they don’t go anywhere else or do anything other than what they are doing. They browse among the blackberry vines and shrubs. They eat a little grass that comes up in the clearings. They rest in the shade of the sycamores and oaks. They breed and give birth and suckle their young. They drink from the creek and bed down together at night. There’s not a whole lot to see. It’s a wonder anybody hangs around to watch.
But that’s the point. The goats live with an innate directness that calls our treasured human complications into doubt, telling us that, at the irreducible core of our lives, we are no more complex than these fellow creatures that nibble blackberry leaves on the banks of Chico Creek.