As a budding historian, I think books and written records are pretty awesome. Written records in particular are pretty great because that’s is what history is really. History began when people started writing things down, and everything before is lost in the mists of prehistory, ultimately unknowable.
That’s what I used to think, anyway. This week’s readings, among other things, changed the way I think about the supremacy of the written word. Archaeology lends so much insight into early human populations. Actually analyzing animal bones and charred seeds and what they mean is a little beyond me, but I can recognize the insight they can give. I think one of the most interesting aspects was how bones can tell the age and gender of animals in a settlement and this in turn can tell whether the bones came from wild or domestic horses. This is obviously important for determining when people domesticated horses.
Bit wear is incredibly interesting, and the fact that it so recently became studied is interesting to me. As someone completely ignorant about horses and bits and such things, it seems pretty obvious that sticking a piece of metal in a horses mouth would change the horse’s teeth. The matter is not so cut and dry as it appears though. Assuming that bits do cause ware, so much can be gleaned from old horse teeth. The question of where horse back riding originated can be answered by bit wear patterns on teeth. The question of where it spread can be answered by the same thing. It seems like such a small thing, a bit of ware on an old tooth, but it can tell us so much about early humans and the domesticated animals around us.
Linguistics are another source that can tell us a great deal about the movement of peoples before there were written records. Again, the specifics of it go mostly over my head, but I trust that people smarter than I can trace how Indo-European languages developed over the years and can figure out what this means in terms of early humans. And from what I understand, so much information can be derived from language. We already knew this though. As Kessler taught us, we experience vestiges of age old pastoralism in our language every day. Language is so central to our lives and can tell us so much about our past.
I suppose part of this class was about looking at history before the written word made everything so easy. There’s so much evidence about early humans and their animals if we know how to look. As a historian, it has been so interesting to learn so much about a time that I, like so many others, think of as being prehistory.
So, after thinking about our discussion in class yesterday, I feel like I didn’t contribute enough. I’m making this extra blog post to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about and that we touched on a little in class. I would also like to share a piece of art that I made that is relevant to class (tangentially).
In class, we talked for a while about if cheese or food in general can be considered art. After thinking about it after class, I’ve come to the conclusion that cheese, food, and most other things are undeniably art. Ultimately art is experiential. We look at a painting or listen to a piece of music or watch a play and experience the art. The experience engenders some kind of emotion in us. A painting makes us happy, a piece of music makes us sad, drama excites us, in every case, the actual “work of art” is less important than what it makes us feel. A painting, after all, is just pigments on a canvas, nothing about that is particularly special. Viewing the painting and experiencing how it can affect us is what makes it art. A Rothko painting is just squares on canvas, but it becomes more when we view it because it makes us feel.
Cheese is the same. It is elevated to art because eating cheese is an experience. It can evoke feelings just by tasting it or looking at it. It is art because it can make us feel something. Yes, at the end of the day it is just calories that we put in our mouth, but the experience of putting it in our mouth and what that can make us feel makes cheese art. Cheese took Kessler to a pretty emotional state and, to me, that makes it art.
Now, for something slightly less serious, this is a fingerpainted cave painting of a reindeer I made while working with a kindergarten class in Christiansburg. Before you criticize its poor quality you should know that a roomful of kindergarteners have already told me everything that is wrong with it. Among their observations were: it doesn’t have enough antlers, its legs aren’t long enough, it’s tail isn’t big enough, reindeer aren’t red, it’s to skinny, it’s to fat, and so on. With that in mind, I humbly submit my masterpiece for your viewing pleasure.
I enjoyed reading Goat Song. Kessler is a gifted writer who made his story engaging and interesting. While reading I was struck by certain tensions in how I felt about goats and Kessler’s experience. On one hand, I found myself wanting to do something similar, go out and herd goats and farm or something. On the other was the realization that Kessler’s experience couldn’t possibly be how farming really is because at the end of the day, he’s a successful writer who is not relying solely on the fruits of his labors with his goats. I feel like Kessler romanticizes goat herding and pastoralism very much in ways similar to paleofantasies. He has an idea of what herding goats is and was, an idea full of spiritual fulfillment and happy, almost carefree living, and wanted to recreate this pastoral ideal in rural Vermont.
I don’t really fault Kessler for romanticizing animal herding like this. Romanticizing shepherds (and shepherdess, there is plenty of that) has been an institution in literature since there have been writers and shepherds. Writers romanticized most people who worked with animals or farmed as people who had a strong connection with nature and lived better in general than city-bound intellectuals. This romanticized view shows up in all shorts of literature, the only specific examples I know are from Russian literature, but I’m fairly certain it was a common trope in 18th and 19th century literature from all over.
So, Kessler is just continuing a long tradition of idealizing pastoral life. I don’t think this is a bad thing to do, since I think to some degree, everyone who isn’t a farmer or herder idealizes it to some extent. It just means that Kessler created a way of living that is further from real life pastoralism than he would care to admit. I highly doubt pastoral people in the past or present named all their animals or formed the close emotional contacts that Kessler and his wife did with their goats.
I found Kessler’s discussion on language to be incredibly interesting. Other things I’ve read showed how much words and their origins can tell about societies. I had no idea so many words came from goats. The way the words arose from how one culture viewed goats but also showed how important goats were to that culture is very telling. A few other people mentioned “scapegoat” in their posts, and I am just as amazed as everyone else at the origins. The fact that “capricious” came from the word for goat was also interesting because it uses a facet of goat behavior to describe humans. I found myself wondering, when the word was coined, did people use it in the same way that we use it today, or did they mean something different when they called someone capricious?
Overall, I liked Kessler’s book. He had a pastoral fantasy in his head and he made it come true. I don’t think he got an authentic pastoral experience, but it seemed like he enjoyed doing what he did.