Goats probably matter a lot to more people in the world than Texans do, but in general Texans themselves don’t know or care much about goats. It is possible to consider this peculiar, in the light of a couple of facts. First, the state can be regarded as a northern outpost or petering-out of Latin American civilization, and Latins, whether at home along the Mediterranean or over here, are among the world’s goat experts par excellence. But all this lore boils down to for most Texans—including I fear most modern Texas Latins—is an occasional expensive encounter with cabrito and maybe a remembrance of the savor of the good stout fibrous goat cheese, pale in hue, that used to give enchiladas and chiles rellenos their whang, until even Mexican cooks went down the primrose lane with Kraft.
Furthermore we Texans have within our boundaries, or had until just lately, one of the world’s great concentrations of goats: the big herds of long-haired Angoras that thrived on the live oak and other hardwood scrub of the Edwards Plateau and similar limestone regions. But despite their numbers—over four million strong at their peak in the sixties—I suppose the Angoras were never a big part of most Texans’ consciousness, restricted as they were to some fairly lonesome parts of the state and usually hidden from the eyes of motorists by the brush in which they browsed. More than once when traveling with city friends, I have heard them referred to as sheep. The herds shrank hugely (most were shipped to Mexico for meat) when mohair fell out of fashion and the market collapsed. And though mohair’s vogue and its price have lately come back strong, ranchers’ caution about further fluctuation as well as other factors such as predation—chiefly by coyotes and dogs and hybrids thereof—have kept hair goats from regaining their old status. Much of the world’s mohair is now produced by South Africa, and when you see goats on the Plateau and roundabout, they’re as likely to be of the tough, unhairy, common sort known as “Spanish.”
Both Angora and Spanish goats control brush and furnish kids for barbecue, and both are the subjects of a considerable body of ranchers’ folklore involving mainly their ability to get out of where you put them and into places where they’re not supposed to be, such as grainfields and neighbors’ pastures and highway median strips. If you want an adequate goat fence, one story goes, you build it as tight as you can with closed-spaced posts and lots of upright stays, filling all dips in the ground beneath the net wire with rocks or stumps or something; then you wait for a big rain and if the fence holds water it will hold your goats. Another tale describes a scientific experiment conducted at A&M wherein three goats were stuffed into a steel drum that was then welded shut. When it was opened a week later, one goat was dead, another had screwworms, and the third one was missing.
When we used to keep a good-sized herd of Spanish goats here on our place, a few of each year’s crop of weanling kids, newly independent and capable of squeezing through holes impassable to their parents, would form a teenage gang that ravaged the neighborhood. Since they usually returned and their isn’t too much to ravage in these rocky cedar hills, problems resulted only when they tried to come back home through a part of the fence that had no holes, or when they got far enough afield to discover somebody’s yard shrubbery or vegetable garden. The resultant telephone calls—beginning most often with “Are you missing any goats?”—were not invariably friendly.
A generation or so ago in harder but more easygoing times, goats were known and taken for granted by a good many more Texans, and for that matter Americans, than know anything about them today. They existed even in cities, sheltered by crusty codgers in backyard sheds and sometimes tethered during the day in vacant lots or out among roadside weeds. Scrub milk nannies for the most part, with an occasional aromatic billy kept for propagation, they soothed many an aging or unquiet stomach with the rich liquid from their udders, furnished roly-poly manure for garden compost and kids for delicate meat, gave jesters a focus for worn boffo humor concerning tin cans and old inner tubes and grateful tumblebugs, and developed evil tempers under the teasing of small boys, including me. Without ever being what you might call chic or even reputable, they hung on.
But prosperity is even harder on goats than it is on human picturesqueness, and in the unreal, increasingly homogenous glitter-island of time that urban Americans currently inhabit, there is not much place for subsistence livestock, which is what goats fundamentally are. Public opinion and the public nuisance laws that reflect it have turned against them and other such creatures, and you usually have to go out beyond a city’s limits to its unzoned, often unincorporated fringes to find any goats at all, and not many are even there. Milk comes less arduously, though not cheaper, in cartons, and there has been among us a dwindling of stubborn country-bred old folks who cling to subsistence ways. If city vegetable gardening, based on poison-fear and anger at market prices and quality, is on the boom these days, city goat keeping has not been following suit.
Father away from cities, though, goats are in pretty good shape, and I’m not talking about big ranch herds. How much of the new population trend away from metropolitan centers, confirmed by the Census Bureau, represents flight to a less hectic but still supermarket-centered existence in small towns or urban “developments,” and how much consists of neo-homesteaders moving whole or part hog back to the land to live and subsist, I have no way of knowing. But in a time like ours when many view the urban future quite dimly, there are notable numbers of these latter searching