“Which Do You Like Better, Up or Down?”

*Finalist in EVENT Magazine’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest

How a question posed by Zen Master Paul Reps on a B.C. Gulf Island finds an answer
14 years later on an isolated goat farm in the Pyrenees of Southern France.


Over breakfast, Christian had been telling Evan, our two children, and me that the bad weather in the Pyrenees Mountains in this part of Southern France came from both the plains below and the mountains beyond. “This valley has better weather than the rest of Europe,” he said, though we soon learned a goat farmer’s version of “good weather” is relative. The winds that blew in from the southern sea were called Sirocco, flowing from desert regions between Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, while the winds from the north were Tranmontane. Sirocco. Tranmontane. The words echoed as we stared out the large kitchen window of his handmade, dome-shaped, family home.

“The rain here is sometimes yellow and even red if it comes from the direction of the Sahara,” he said. The four of us, newcomers to this wild land, looked out the window again, this time imagining coloured rain.

The steep, twisted, and rutted dirt road that wound up the mountainside ended in the farmyard, providing us with a 270-degree view of the valley below and the peaks beyond. The bleak and rugged beauty of the Pyrenees caught me by surprise when we were driving up the winding, one-and-a-half lane road to the farm. It was a grey and barren world, sharp rocky sides and mountain tops that looked like they’d been slashed by a giant’s sword. The only exceptions were the green valleys of pine, fir and beech trees.

When Christian’s wife Hedda first stepped out of the dome-shaped slap-dash wooden house, she looked so serious and brooding, her unfriendly, curt nod of welcome made us nervous, but we soon learned it was her manner, not her intention. Although they were originally from Germany, like so many Europeans we met they spoke perfect English. She told us they’d built this house to imitate the teepee they used to live in. It had an open ground floor holding kitchen and living room space, with three bedrooms built onto the sides. In-between the kitchen and main living area, there was one wood stove. Just like Trudy and Dario’s olive farm in Tuscany, Italy, our last organic farm workplace, the stove was the sole heat source for the farmhouse. The wood box beside the stove was almost empty. Nine-year-old Alyd and I made eye contact. He sighed dramatically, guessing what one of his chores was going to be.

Christian patiently answered our questions and didn’t laugh at our city ignorance, but we quickly discovered that Hedda, who radiated health and vigour—her cheeks a perpetual rosy flush from all the hours she spent in the mountain winds—made sharp, impatient responses, regardless of what was asked. After one, then two back-to-back irritated exchanges first from Hedda over the dirty mess of farm equipment left in the car and then by Christian’s dislike of Hedda’s plans for dinner, it also looked like we’d stepped into relationship undercurrents between the couple.

We still had six months to go on our family, year-long, round-the-world backpacking trip, and after travelling for half-a-year through Thailand, Indonesia, and India we were finding it hard to acclimatize to the expense and cold weather of Europe. Since leaving Southeast Asia, we’d made our way through France and Italy as WWOOFers (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), working in exchange for room and board. We’ve had no trouble finding farms willing to accept our family of four. Evan and I would take on the harder farm labour, while 18-year-old Emily often ended up working in the kitchen and Alyd fed the animals. And filled wood boxes. In our WWOOFing experiences so far, we’ve pruned olive groves, weeded organic vineyards and gardens, looked after donkeys, and made Miso in a farm kitchen in Tuscany, Italy.

On this isolated, biodynamic, macrobiotic goat farm high in the French Pyrenees, we’d arrived in the middle of goat birthing time, with 73 nanny goats either recent mothers or ready to give birth at any moment. By our fourth day, 31 kids had been born.

There was one huge black and white ram who ambled leisurely around the farm. Unfortunately, his macho impression was tarnished by the leather apron he wore strapped over his underbelly to cover his genitals. It kept him from successfully mounting the nannies. His job was done for this season. He looked fierce, his large horns curved and intimidatingly sharp, but there was always the sight of that apron to tarnish his image.

In this harsh landscape, there were even hardier creatures. Within an hour of arriving at the farm, while we were all organizing our backpack gear into the two small, single-room caravans that would be our homes for the next two weeks, Emily and Alyd started yelling, “Mom! Dad! Get over here!” Evan and I found them a wriggling, incoherent pair as they pointed to the tiny twin beds and furiously scratched their bodies at the same time. I lifted their shirts and discovered their backs covered in what I initially thought was a red rash. Until I looked at the bed and see fleas, hundreds of fleas, jumping in and under and out and on top of the sheets and pillows.

Fleas became central characters in the stories we told about weeks on that farm. They played as big a role as the goats we grew to love, the ruggedness of our surroundings, and the few locals living in this isolated area who dropped by to check us out.

We ended up having two distinct sets of clothes. After dinner, we stripped off all of our daytime attire and put everything we wore, right down to socks and underwear, in plastic bags. After a fast shower in the freezing, unheated bathroom in the basement of the main house, we quickly pulled on nightclothes of Indian cotton pants and a T-shirt. The plastic bags filled with daytime clothes went into the freezer overnight so that by morning when we retrieved our chilly clothing, the bottom of the bags contained a puddle of frozen fleas. Each morning we reversed the evening process and put our nightwear into plastic bags, stuck the bags in the freezer, and after supper, shook out our frozen nightclothes, leaving behind a little black pile. This was our regime every day of our stay. Although the itching lessened, it was because we became acclimatized, not because the number of fleas decreased. Hedda and Christian were never bothered by them, immune after 12 years of goat farming.

Our days had quickly fallen into a routine. After a breakfast of tea with Hedda’s homemade bread, jam, and goat cheese, it was time to go to work. Hedda left first for the bergerie, the goat barn. Evan and Christian headed up the mountain to check out 10-foot-long compost piles. I cleaned the kitchen with Emily, who was enjoying a gap year before college and had agreed to come along on this trip to meet “cute guys with accents.” Once the dishes were washed and put away, I’d get Alyd organized with his grade four schoolwork, which he did for two hours at the kitchen table before joining us outside.

Emily and I would leave Alyd muttering to himself while we joined Hedda in the barn. We trudged up the mountainside, the first of many climbs every day, to the bergerie, the biggest flea area of the farm. We learned that on this farm, goats and fleas were synonymous. Goats were loving, curious, clan-focused animals. And it was a female world in that barn. Emily and I quickly become goat fans.

Goats are the world’s oldest domesticated animals, and mountainous landscapes like the Pyrenees were the perfect environment for them. They had lots of space to roam free, plus they needed the stony ground to smooth down their hard hooves. This was Hedda’s world. From the lactating nanny goats she made organic goat’s cheese, which Christian sold, along with her organic vegetables and hearty homemade bread, in markets throughout the valley below us.

Each morning when Emily and I entered the large, two-storied bergerie, Hedda was already at work separating nanny goats into two, fenced-in pens. She separated 12 goats at a time, prodding them up onto the feeding stall onto an elevated platform. The well-trained goats immediately stuck their heads through bars to reach the feeding trough. Hedda then pulled a long neck yoke into place, effectively and painlessly trapping them while they ate. At that point, Hedda, and later Emily, began the repetitious, calming chore of milking 73 nanny goats.

Emily and I walked through the herd of goats, all of them either pregnant or having just given birth, picking our way through the daily increasing number of young kids. Every nanny goat we passed gently butted or sniffed us. The kids came bouncing, running, and hopping up to us, keen to inspect this new activity in their world.

The mornings began with a count of the kids. I’d often feel pressure against my leg. The closest nanny goat had shifted her stance and was leaning against me. Working with those goats turned out to be some of the most spiritual moments of our trip, contemplative times when I scratched the back of a nanny or sat on a pile of urine-soaked straw with three or more kids crawling all over me: Bernstein nibbling my cap, Happy asleep in my lap, Melanie scratching her head against my boots.

Emily had done the unthinkable and named as many kids as she could differentiate by colour or mother. Hedda shook her head impatiently. “This is a farm. We do not have pets, and will only keep five females to add to the herd. The rest will be weaned and sold for Easter.” She said “crazy” cow disease had been good for her goat business.

Once the goats were milked and fed, I opened the gate and they were free to forage their way up—or down—the mountain. The lead female had a large, tone-pure bell around her neck and often throughout the day I could hear a faint tinkling, telling me exactly where the animals were.

When I was higher up working in a mountain field, I could look down on our tiny, isolated group of buildings, a hodge-podge collection of hand-built houses, barns, work sheds, chicken coops, and pigpens. The five resident families—cattle and goat farmers, a musical instrument maker, and an older woman who taught yoga and English down in the valley—were connected in this small intentional community by a common desire to live away from any town but still to be part of a fellowship.

Once I’d taken care of the goats, I hiked up—or down—the mountain to whatever field Christian and Evan were working in. This was part two of my day—working with compost. There were huge piles of fermenting two- and three-year-old goat compost scattered around the farm. Christian wanted the compost spread on specific fields to prepare the ground for the spring hay.

By the time I arrived, Evan had already been working for several hours, throwing endless shovel-loads of compost from the pile of the day into the open back of a slowly filling trailer box. Being the smallest adult, I was volunteered to climb up in the trailer and spread the compost weight evenly so the trailer box wouldn’t tip over. Evan and I discovered that compost piles were another flea haven. Once the trailer was filled, Christian attached it to an exhaust-spewing tracker and drove the trailer to the field he wanted to be fertilized. While he was driving slowly on the single-track, winding dirt mountain roads, Evan and I hiked down—or up—to the farmhouse to replenish water bottles and collect our children, and the four of us would head off to the field-of-the-day.

Christian would be disappearing down the track when we finally arrived at the field, and a huge, steaming pile of odourless compost awaited us. To give variety and rotate which muscles were in use, we shared the jobs. Emily and I filled wheelbarrows with compost, pushed wheelbarrows to a far corner of the 45-degree mountain field, dumped the load, and headed back for more while Evan started spreading it out with a rake. Or Evan filled the wheelbarrow and Emily and I raked compost out over rock-strewn land. Alyd’s job was to follow behind the rakers and pick up any rocks he found, throwing them over the edge of the mountain. He liked this job and turned it into pitching practice for baseball.

In the first week, I often had to pause and rest while hiking up and down the mountainside on my way to a field or to check on Alyd. It took a few days to develop my mountain legs, but each morning my thigh muscles felt stronger. All signs of my three bouts of dengue fever in India were gone and I was as healthy as I had ever been in my life. A feeling echoed by Alyd, Emily, and Evan.

Hedda reminded me of my mother and prairie aunts, all strong women with an inner strength reflecting confidence about their place in the world. As Hedda and I got to know each other working together in the barn, making meals, or digging in her large organic vegetable garden, long hours of companionable conversation lead from one story to the next. There were moments of soft silence. We told our stories the way women often do, talking first about our children, then our husbands, and finally sharing our dreams.

Hedda laughed when I told her that even though I’m genuinely happy in my life, my theme song continues to be U2’s, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” She’s content in these mountains with her goats. But I learned Christian wasn’t, and that’s the problem between them. She loved the Pyrenees. She and Christian had been married for 25 years, including their first eight years living in a teepee on a nearby mountainside until they built the dome farmhouse and set up this goat farm. All three of their children were born and raised in that teepee, each child riding bareback with Christian on their one horse down the mountain in order to catch the school bus when they were old enough. Hedda never wanted to return to those primitive days, though her grown children and husband remembered the time through a haze of fond memories.

I loved hearing her stories about those teepee years, living so isolated with three young children. She was reticent at first, not quite trusting my curiosity. But one day working in her terraced vegetable garden, me squatting while I weeded a row of radishes, Hedda using a small shovel to dig up leeks and potatoes for soup that night, something opened. She told me about years she doesn’t recall with any rose-coloured hues, about long, cold, winter days living in that teepee. Times of struggle. Of living in poverty, surviving on milk and cheese from her small herd of goats and food from her vegetable garden tended on small patches of rocky mountain soil.

Apparently, Christian now wanted to leave the mountains and become a massage therapist. The two of them were at a standstill, neither making the final decision.

Meanwhile, all around us, nanny goats continued to give birth. The first morning, when Alyd had finished his schoolwork and begun hiking up the mountain to join us at a compost pile, we heard him call out excitedly, “Mom, Dad, this goat’s having a baby!” We found him standing beside a goat lying on her side, grunting like any woman in labour. The kid had been born by this time and the mother was licking it clean. Christian appeared and gently picked up the newborn. With the mother following, her afterbirth dragging in the dirt, he took them both back into the barn for a day of safety and quiet. Hens instantly appeared, pecking at the dangling afterbirth. Nothing was wasted on a farm. By the fifth day, seeing a goat give birth was no longer anything out of the ordinary and Alyd just kept walking, only taking time to call out, “Goat giving birth behind the shed!” or “Goat givin’ birth near the chicken coop!”

The days blended into one another: bergerie in the morning, garden or fieldwork after lunch, then bergerieagain, dinner, and going to sleep contentedly exhausted.

One afternoon, when the men were both having an afternoon nap and Emily and Alyd reading French graphic novels by the kitchen wood stove, I decided to climb up the mountain to a stone outcrop I’d seen that morning from the lower field. I came upon Hedda squatting in the middle of a pile of bonfire ash, leftovers from an old lumber pile Christian had burned earlier in the month. She was sorting through pieces of glass and metal and picking out all the nails left behind. Everything was eventually used on this farm, a belief visible in the stacks of multi-sized pieces of lumber and metal, and the hodge-podge of tools, gear, and equipment stored in outbuildings. And in the back seat of the car.

I asked if she wanted help, but she shook her head and said it was quiet, the sun was shining, and the work was outside. “When I have a spare hour, I like to do this.”

I left her, making my way up to the grey outcrop where I sat for 30 minutes, any heat from the intense sun whipped away by the strong mountain winds. I huddled into my borrowed man’s coat, my head wrapped up in the multi-coloured sarong I’d bought in Ubud, Indonesia, several months earlier. I looked down and across the valley at the 1,800-meter (5,900 feet) village of Baillestavy, population 50, the orange–tiled roofs and grey stone walls tightly clustering together like a bunch of children’s blocks. My North Vancouver home felt very far away.

I returned to work in the garden, removing weeds from around the organic vegetables that provided us with our daily food. I dug up several dozen leeks to clean and prepare for the Saturday market in the valley. It was one more quiet, contemplative afternoon, working with my hands in the dirt and accompanied by outdoor music of singing birds and distant goat bells.

Around 5 p.m. that day, Christian and the young black and white Border Collie mutt, the farm dog-in-training, stood silently together in the yard, listening for the sound of the matriarch goat’s bell, before heading up the mountainside. They were watched by the retired collie, who began each day waiting expectantly at the front door until told to “Stay!” in a gruff voice. The dog spent his days lying on the patio, waiting for Christian and the goats to return. He was ending his life in a version of canine no-man’s land, no longer a working dog, but also not a pet and allowed inside.

I could hear Christian calling out to the goats and soon ambling nannies appeared, munching on mountain grass as they made their way down toward him. Christian and the dog herded the goats back to the farmyard, where Hedda, Emily, and I waited.

 Working in companionable ease in the barn, I told Hedda about Paul Reps, a Zen Master who’d spent a year at The Haven on Gabriola Island, on one of the B.C. Gulf Islands where I’d lived and worked after graduating from university. I told her how, the first time I introduced Emily to Reps she was four-years-old, and he was in his early 90s. He looked at her, her curly red hair shining, both knees covered in bandages—as usual—and her gypsy outfit, as I liked to call her fashion style of flowered skirt layered over shorts, everything in disarray.

A painting poem by Reps

“Which do you like better, up or down?” he’d asked her. She looked at him, then at me, not sure if this adult was making a joke. But he continued to look at her calmly and with interest, so she sat down beside him and they had an in-depth conversation about the merits and shortcomings of up and down.

Hedda shook her head. “I don’t understand such questions, and would say, why do you ask such a silly thing?”

She was milking a goat but looked up when an animal rammed her horns against the boards. Whatever the cause, it sorted itself out and things went back to the familiar soft murmur of goat sounds.

Hedda affectionately slapped the rump of the nanny she’d finished milking and moved on to the next animal, commenting on her nail sorting exercise earlier in the day. “I always pick up the nails near the surface of the ash. But I know there are more buried below. So each time I go there, I wonder if I should dig deeper this time. Will the wind blow the ash away? Or maybe I’ll just let the earth absorb the nails.”

“What do you do with the nails?” I asked.

She slipped the milk pail under another pair of heavy udders. “Each time there are always more nails near the surface, so I don’t have to decide yet,” she said.

“You have a storyteller’s soul,” I laughed.

My comment made her angry. “I can’t tell things with a beginning, middle and end! I don’t understand stories with circles!”

“Reps would probably agree,” I replied. “He liked to speak in Koans, like parables that left you thinking for the rest of the day. There is a story in a book called Living in Balance. Reps travelled to Japan in the early 1950s. He wanted to go to Korea to visit a Zen master, but when he went to get a visa, his request was denied because of the North and South Korean conflict. He sat down and poured a cup of tea from his thermos. When he’d finished his tea, he brought out a brush and paper and wrote a picture poem. When the clerk read the poem, he bowed, and stamped Reps’ passport for passage to Korea. The poem read: ‘Drinking a bowl of green tea I stop the war.’”

Hedda just shook her head impatiently and put her attention back on her goat.

On our last evening together, everyone took turns having a quick shower in that unheated stone-floor bathroom. Dinner was standard freshly-harvested vegetables and goat stew. I’d made a “Canadian” dish for dessert, apple crumble, served with Hedda’s goat cheese. Later, I hammered open fresh walnuts from an overflowing bowl, accompanied by loud jazz or Armenian oboe cassette music.

“Listen to this,” Christian said excitedly, and he played a sound tape of bees in a hive in Africa. Later he put on U2 and the farmhouse filled with Bono singing, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Hedda and I grinned at each other. I smashed open another walnut and passed it to her. The exposed nutmeat looked like a swollen heart.

We ended our evening with a tisane, a flower and herb infusion, or tea, though before this trip the only time I’d seen the word was in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot detective novels. He was always drinking them to help his “little grey cells.” Lime tisane was my favourite; it’s good for digestion and sleep. Chamomile stimulated the kidneys and lemon verbena soothed the liver. Each day I’d learned something new from Hedda and Christian.

The relationship undercurrents barely rippled in the dome house. It had been a good day. Now was not the time to re-open old wounds. There were no echoes of the strong emotions in Christian’s comment to me earlier as he prepared to hike up the mountain after the goats, something he did seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

“I hate goats,” Christian said, his body slumped against the battered old farm car. Then he’d straightened up, whistled to the dog, and the two of them started up the mountain, following the sound of the goat’s bells, knowing he’d have to come down again to reach home.

#fleas#goat farms#organic farms#Paul Reps#Pyrenee Mountains#WWOOFing


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    Goat Farming

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