Out on the Midway at the San Diego County Fair, the pavement jumped with music. Screams spewed from the Fun Zone. “Goat milk!” a woman shouted. In front of her, plastic tubing pulsed with white fluid.
“I can’t believe it! I’ve never seen anything milked! Look at that! Fantastic!” She was pointing at a goat, its udder full as a Nordstrom’s shopping bag. “You only see this when you come to the fair.” A mother wheeled a baby stroller in front of the goat-milking demonstration. The father knelt down and snapped a photograph of his wife and baby in front of the goat.
Evidence. Real life. Right here.
After a decade of falling attendance, county and state fairs, or at least some of them, are experiencing a slight upsurge in attendance, and a few changes. The Baltimore Sun reports: “Herb-infused olive oils have edged out canned beans, bathroom attendants hand out towels for tips, snack bars have air conditioning, and alpacas — not cows — are the new must-have animals.”
Still, to many folks, hand-raised live animals are more fascinating than the yawning House of Mirrors, the Crazy Dance Spinning Pods or even the Falling Star Swing from Hell.
Sometimes that fascination seems a bit…bizarre. A friend in Minneapolis reports that, at the Minnesota State Fair, which starts this week, “you literally have to wait in line and allot hours to get through the barns, especially the birthing barn where live births are projected on big screens all day.”
Real is the new virtual. As our lives become more electronic, the wonder of life itself draws us. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking
I mentioned my theory to a no-nonsense goat farmer. She shrugged. “People ask a lot of really stupid questions,” she said. Muscled and tan, she was wearing a Desert Shield T-shirt and wrestling a goat. “People ask: ‘Does it hurt the goat?’ And they ask: ‘How often do you milk ‘em?'” The goat did a backward rump toss in her arms.
“How often do you milk that goat?” asked the dad with the camera.
The goat farmer hooked her thumb in his direction. “See?”
The question didn’t seem dumb to me. She snapped the goat’s teat into the tube. “I get half the football team at my house. They want to drive the tractor,” she said. “And I tell ‘em, ‘You want to drive the tractor, you load the manure spreader.'” Regarding the benefits of rural life to children, she’s succinct. “My kids don’t have time for TV. Too many chores.”
None of this is news to the good people at 4-H and other organizations that connect kids to farm life. With the growth of the organic food movement and the trend toward local food, all kinds of new opportunities could open up for young people and families–including “new” green jobs in urban agriculture.
Writer Courtney White describes this trend as the rise of the “New Agrarians.” But that’s a topic for another day.
I also watched a woman at a spinning wheel transform goat hair into soft yarn. She had a different take on the questions people ask. “Women are more inclined to ask questions, but men are more likely to linger,” she said. She offered no explanation. But she knew she preferred real reality to virtual reality. She said she’d traded life in the fast lane for a farm in the country. “It blows my friends’ minds. I used to wear designer clothes and work nine to five. Now I wear blue jeans and a hairpiece and I work five to nine.”
An hour later, I met a blacksmith from Nickerson, Kansas. He described himself as a working smith: a blade smith, a farrier, a coppersmith, and a certified horseshoer. He met his wife a few years ago at the Bakersfield fair. She watched him pound and she came back to watch a few more times, and then she stayed. Now she works beside him.
For years, he’d done high structure iron work, 300 feet in the air, but more recently he and his wife had begun to tour the West’s big fairs. Traveling fair to fair in their rolling blacksmith shop, they demonstrated the reality of smithing to people who can’t seem get enough of it.
“Kids see in 3-D,” he said as he pounded red-hot horse nail. He was smudged and stolid and bearded. “They can see the thing take shape, but the parents can’t.”
The banging of his hammer rang across the grounds, above the Midway’s rock ‘n’ roll.
“For a while the fairs got too commercial,” he said, “but people got burnt out on the glitz. Now they’re coming full circle. People want to see the largest ear of corn.”
He handed the nail to his wife. “Hot?”
“Nope.” She said she checks her husband’s work because, after all these years smithing, his hands can’t feel heat or sharpness. So he took the nail and heated it again and pounded more, and then he let the nail cool, and finally handed it to me. I looked at the nail. He had pounded it into a tiny sculpture of a wizard.
“Keep it,” he said kindly.
Then he pointed to the calf-birthing pen. Children were watching a calf take its first steps on wobbly new legs, its cord still hanging wet and red.
Evidence. Real life. Right now.
The blacksmith smiled. “One o’clock, the fair PA system announced a calf was being born,” he said. “Sixty-thousand people at the fair. Seemed like most of them stampeded this way. They come bucking’ outta the barn. To see a calf being born. Can you believe that?”
He picked up another nail.
Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network and author of “The Nature Principle” and “Last Child in the Woods.” This piece was adapted from his book, “The Web of Life.” Follow Rich Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter
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Photo by Matt Hintsa, Creative Commons