1: It was pigs for my dad. I can’t get on board with that. He spent his life staring at pigs. He was a research scientist. I’m just a guy with a computer and unlimited access to photos of goats to stare at. An hour spent staring at goats might sound like a waste. But day by day the hours accumulate, like hair gathering on a barbed wire fence. And a life spent staring at goats speaks for itself.
2: Here’s a favorite. I’ll describe it. The setting is a well-kept paddock, green fields visible in the background. The photographer and paddock apparently stand on top of a hill, the fields sprawl downhill. The upper right-hand corner of the picture contains the barn. The lighting is soft and gray, imported from Yorkshire.
Three goats occupy the center of the frame.
3: Months ago, before I renounced it, I was strolling aimlessly through the perpetual aisle of social media, miles of it. As I scrolled on through the middle of our life, I stopped at a picture. A light did not go on. A hay-filled barn loft in my head caught on fire and the entire structure was consumed.
4: The central goat looks at the camera. He sees that someone is taking his picture. He looks at someone taking his picture and thinks — nothing. He has no idea what it means that someone is taking his picture. The photographer is thinking, “I want to show people this wonderful goat,” a sentiment which (I speak for all of us) is greatly appreciated. The goat thinks, “the person is holds a thing” and probably not even that.
5: My dad followed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s path. He would remind me what Hawthorne said: “There is something deeply and infinitely interesting in the swinish race. They appear the more a mystery, the longer you gaze at them; it seems as if there was an important meaning to them, if you could but find out.” He’s almost right. Or that’s the path for him. For me it’s goats.
6: That photographer takes the photo, adjusts it in Instagram, sends it into the grinder of social media, and we crowd around to behold the goat. But the experience is entirely one-sided. If the goat had memories, it might recall—in images—a moment in which someone with a match-box-sized object stood in front of them holding the object up. Maybe.
But why would anyone, or any goat, remember that? Besides, given the high-demand for goat pictures, this must be occur on a near constant basis. Further, the goat remembers nothing. The goat brain is a bottomless swimming pool filled with fog. Throw in an event. The event is gone.
I believe that about the goat brain. If the goat has no capacity for language (evidence seems strong), then the goat has no capacity to think (unsupported, but likely). If the goat does not think, then experience and memory cannot be discerned, distinguished, or divided out into little compartments like the tiny high-rise of plastic shelves and drawers that someone might use to organize species of beads, screws, or Legos.
This means that to the goat the world is incomprehensible. Whereas for the human, with our capacity for language and thought, the world is easily known and fully comprehended.
7: But my desire to impute narrative to the goat is so strong. In this other picture a goat cocks his head as he fixes a gaze on the camera. How can he not be thinking “What are you doing with that?” But instead of a thought which processes the moment, the goat’s only experience is of the moment. I can’t help but empathize with him and supply thoughts.
And we’re left with this: from my vantage, the goat does everything he can to appear curious, to appear to have thoughts. But I must assume that the actual narrative in the goat’s head is something like, “Chewing, looking, moving foot, grass, person, chewing again, person lift small box, done chewing. Where grass?”
As blank as the back of an analog photograph.
8: Right now, my dad is learning to forget everything, in a class on dementia, taught by Alzheimer’s. I’m learning to look at him the way I look a goat. I keep importing a narrative to the space, increasingly empty, behind his face. I’m trying very hard to believe more in the responsive vibration of the soul than in the mechanism of the brain. I’m trying very hard to believe that my dad is in there.
In his room he has a picture of himself with pigs. He looks into the camera my mom holds. He’s wearing a teal windbreaker, and has an expression whose meaning I import. That he’s beholding an infinite mystery. He sits in front of it now and stares so that the him in the picture stares at the him in the world, and they equal each other.
I replaced it with another picture for him to look at. I took the one of him and pigs out of the frame and found the back of it inscribed, “November, 1980.”
I’ve replaced it with a picture of a goat.
Image by Gabe Stevenson