Stewards of Animals and Earth
When I was a kid, I had a favorite game involving one of my dolls, Sharon. Her short black hair was in a perpetual cyclone of disarray; her body was covered with a mean case of pencil-hole-poked measles. The other dolls would discover her glowering, sickly self and take her in (off the streets, away from a cold, lonely castle or out of an evil stepmother’s clutches). They’d nurse Sharon’s wounds, feed her food fresh from their garden, encourage her to explore the surrounding woodlands and fields while sharing their love and their home. Step by step, Sharon would begin to get betterhealthy, happy, even glowing.
This childhood yearning to participate in the miracle of transformation wasn’t mine alone. We all want that, for ourselves, for the world. That yearning is what spawned this recent interest in urban homesteading. And a young couple living outside the village of Cerrillos, JoAnna Conte Durham and her husband, Erin Durham, are its poster kids. Along with their eight playful goats.
“Goats are the best anti-anxiety medicine there is,” says JoAnna. “Yes, they give milk, they give meat to some, they cut the grass and fertilize it. They’re amazing pets—intelligent, loving, affectionate. I try to name it, but they are just magic!”
As we near their pen, goat faces begin to bunch up, poking through the bars of the gate. With their horizontal pupils, they look like aliens. To enter, we have to push past them. JoAnna introduces me to each one, sometimes several at once, as they nose me, nudge me, sniff and eyeball me. You can’t be afraid of them—they’re just nosy. Nosier even than Curious George. In fact, they make you want to laugh.
Inside their pen are a number of wooden plank ramps at various angles, leading up to the roof of their home and across the yard. They can’t really balance on those, can they? “Yes!” says Erin, who built the planks—along with everything else out here. “They’re hilarious. Sometimes they stand on top of their house and just stare out to the highway. Friends have said they’re driving by and look over and there’s this goat standing above the fence line.”
JoAnna, an artist who also does art therapy, includes the goats as her assistants, similar to the way horses are used in equine therapy. “They’re so entertaining! Their comic lightheartedness helps everybody relax into that deep state of being in the present moment, which activates our body’s abilities to heal. They connect us to our hearts. Someone who was abused and has trusting issues, even they automatically fall in love with the goats, feeling safe. Goats have their own mission.”
“And if we’re going to have ’em,” Erin adds with a smile, “let’s milk ’em.”
JoAnna’s love affair with goats began when she was a little girl growing up in Maryland. “Trashy. He was my garage goat. I walked him around the neighborhood, and my mom used to load him in the back of the jeep to pick me up from school.” JoAnna’s always loved farm animals and has had what she laughingly calls “a paragraph” of them all her life. “Animals are medicine for me. They help me; they’re a divine gift. They’re always there for you. They teach me to be like them, to walk without separation.” She knew ten years ago, as she first discovered the Cerrillos Hills, off Highway 14, that she wanted to live within view of them and have goats. Recently graduated from art school, she’d come out west to enroll at Santa Fe’s Southwestern College to begin her art therapy study.
She found her house, a turn-of-the-century adobe. It matched up exactly with the floor plan she’d previously drawn. She fenced in the land. Then she got goats. Her first two, bought from a nearby ranch, she named Basil and Nova. Nova was a strong and healthy kid, she says, but “Basil was teeny, just one week old. Her mother wouldn’t feed her, so she was traumatized.” JoAnna brought her home and fed her from a bottle. That’s how, soon afterwards, she met Erin.
“She had goats,” Erin laughs, “I had hay.” He’d grown up surrounded by chickens, pigs, horses and a potbellied pig on a 40-acre ranch up the highway in Lone Butte.
“I knew I could trust him,” JoAnna continues, “so I asked him to watch Basil and Nova for me while I was away. Then we stared dating.”
The goats are members of their family. There’s Basil, Copper, Clover, Watson, Wings, Teddy, Story and Vicente. They got Story from a ranch in Edgewood; she’d never been touched and was skittish. Now she’s mothered several litters. Wings was born right here, a little black guy with two white wing shapes on his back. “We knew we’d keep him!” JoAnna adds. And Watson was their first Nigerian—they got him four or five years ago. He was the size of a Chihuahua when they brought him home; his bed was a dog carrier in the kitchen. “Now he’s really loyal,” JoAnna says. “He comes and lies on our feet.”
Watson, JoAnna says, has become a crucial part of the family’s history. “Erin had made a pack for Watson to wear out of an old pair of jeans, and he left the pocket on. Watson was wearing the pack, and Erin said, ‘Let’s go for a hike.’ We took Harley, my dog, too, and went up into the Cerrillos Hills. At the top, I was sitting with Harley on one side of me, Watson on the other, and Erin proposed! Watson had the ring in his pocket!”
By now, it must be obvious that these goats aren’t raised for their meat. JoAnna and Erin need to breed the girls in order to milk them—that’s Erin’s job. He devised a wooden milking stand for them which, he says, they walk right onto, voluntarily fitting their heads over the bar in order to reach the feed container to munch from during the process. JoAnna makes cheese with the milk. They don’t sell the milk or the cheese, because they aren’t certified to do that. They use it themselves instead, or trade some and give some as gifts. But they do sell baby goats each year, to neighbors as pets or as future milkers. Because goat milk isn’t homogenized, explains JoAnna, who is allergic to cow’s milk, and there are no hormone additives, it’s a lot healthier. “Our bodies are able to use a lot more of the nutrient energy in goat’s milk. It’s easier to assimilate.”
“And,” Erin adds, “it’s the closest thing to human milk. A lot of babies go right from breastfeeding to goat milk.”
Erin built what he and JoAnna refer to as their maternity ward, a little house just off the pen, for birthing mothers. “Story just drops the baby and starts nursing,” he says. “Basil still has to have us do it for her.” How do they know when it’s time? “There are signals. And the goats tell us. Sometimes it even seems like they wait till we’re around.”
They also have several rabbits. Erin designed their cages so their waste falls down to a lower level (“Everybody has a job,” says JoAnna—the rabbits’ household contribution, besides love, is fertilizer). And they’re about to start raising a new batch of chicks. As we tour around, Erin’s on the porch setting up a large round covered home he built for the chicks til they’re ready for the chickenhouse. He’s also in the process of starting a passive solar greenhouse. “I’ve been collecting windows a long time for this,” he says.
The couple grows a surprising variety of vegetables in Erin’s raised beds, including tomatoes, corn, chiles, bell peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, squash, lettuce, onions, kale, swiss chard, beets, radishes, carrots and strawberries, plus raspberries from two bushes. JoAnna is Italian on her father’s side; he makes his own wine and gave her and Erin nine grapevines. They water their fruit trees with rain catchment.
“It’s all research,” Erin says, clearly relishing that part. “How to plant a particular thing, what soil it likes. You use a lot less water if you do it in the proper way.”
“He’s got a lot of books,” JoAnna interjects.
“We do all this,” Erin continues, gesturing around the property, “so that, no matter what might happen, we won’t have to leave. We can just trade with our friends.”
“At some point,” JoAnna says, indicating a shady space in the front yard, “Erin is building me an outside kitchen and an horno. I’m used to large Italian gatherings. That’s what we do!”
“All our friends are pretty much on the same page,” Erin says.
JoAnna agrees. “We’re a unique community out here: stewards of animals and the earth.” They’ve sold a lot of their friends on the idea of raising goats. When they sell their goat babies, “we think of it as their chance to move up.”
“Goats really increase our quality of life,” JoAnna continues. “They’re our inspiration.” One of her favorite paintings is one she made of Wings, flying through the air, his alien eyes shining. “Goat medicine,” she adds, “is joy medicine.”
Story by Gail Snyder; photos by Kitty Leaken