The Dwellers on the Plain

Once upon a time—in the far distant past, or perhaps in a future yet to come—a herd of mountain goats dwelt atop a high plain.  Steep jagged cliffs fell away from this isolated mesa on all sides.  At some point in their evolution the goats had, it seemed, lost their ability to climb, for they never set as much as one hoof on the surrounding slopes.  Some thought that their ancestors must have been climbers; how else would the herd have gotten up there?  Other goats dismissed that idea as silly, declaring that it simply wasn’t in the nature of their species to climb and that the terrain itself must have changed over the years.

Far below in the valleys, broad rivers twinkled in the sunlight amid bright ribbons of green.  Most of the goats had little curiosity about those unknown lands.  There was grass enough to be found on the plain, and water flowed reliably from a spring except when it dwindled to a trickle in the dry season.  Besides, who could say what predators might roam those deep river valleys?  The occasional mountain lion might find its way onto the plain, true, but that at least was a known danger.

The goats carefully watched their young ones to ensure that no unwary kid wandered too far away from the herd.  Going anywhere near the edge of the plain might lead to a disastrous tumble, after all; and a hungry mountain lion could easily pick off any foolish young goat that did too much exploring on its own.  Whenever a kid was found near a cliff, the adults of the herd would give it a hard nip and lead it back at once, while worrying at great length about its future or lack thereof.

One summer a very dry weather pattern set in.  Not even a drop of water flowed from the spring at the center of the plain.  Water could be gotten only by licking the dew off the scorched grass and the yellow curling leaves of the shrubs.  The older goats thought little about it.  Drought was just something that happened in the world they knew, and a sensible goat learned to put up with it.

Some of the younger ones, however, started to range farther away from the herd while foraging.  They explored the cliffs, at first tentatively and then with greater confidence as they realized that they might be able to climb, after all.  In deep shaded crevices they found cool trickling water and tasty bushes.  A few of the bolder yearlings ventured all the way down the slopes, drank their fill from the rivers, and ate the grass and berries on the banks.

“This is horrible—they’re not behaving at all like proper normal goats,” the herd’s elders bleated in panic.  “It must be a disease!  Something terrible has happened to our kids—there can’t be any other explanation!”

But the more they scolded and chattered and furiously stamped their hooves on the hard dry ground, the less their offspring listened.  Many of the younger goats had by now ranged so far away from the herd that they could not hear their elders.  They saw wonderful new landscapes where the elders saw only sharp crags and jagged rocks.  Looking at the bright sunlight reflecting from the rivers made the older goats’ eyes ache, and they had become convinced that the lush grasslands had to be a mirage and a delusion anyway.

The long dry days of summer finally came to an end.  Cool winds from the north brought with them a solid line of thunderclouds along the horizon, broken by an occasional flash of lightning.  The older goats sniffed the moist air and sighed in relief, thinking that surely the young ones would stop their foolish climbing when water could again be found on the plain.  The clouds came nearer, along with the rumble of thunder.

Before any rain had fallen on the drought-scorched plain, a huge bolt of lightning struck a dead tree very near where the herd stood.  The flames jumped to the parched grass, spreading in all directions without anything on the plain to break their path.  Very soon the herd found itself backed up against the cliffs, left with no choice but to climb or perish.

Guided by their more adventurous offspring, the older goats picked their way carefully along a narrow path that led down to a ledge where they huddled together trembling while the wildfire blazed overhead.  At last the rain fell, quenching the fire and bringing cool relief to the dwellers on the plain.

The younger goats never did give up climbing, of course, now that they had discovered so many new and fascinating places.  Nor did their elders feel comfortable leaving the familiar flat expanse of the herd’s longtime home.  But no matter how far they traveled, the climbers always stopped to visit whenever they were passing by.  After a while, some of the older goats overcame their fear enough to venture a short way along the slopes, often meeting the climbers along the way.  They belonged to the same herd, after all.

related: Mountain Goats of the Uncanny Valley

on 01/26/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    I’ve updated the “related” links at Mountain Goats of the Uncanny Valley to point back here as well as a couple other places. There’s also Laurence Arnold’s Rainbows End (a landscape model of autism) and A Tale of Two Rivers. If this keeps up we’re going to need to find a cartographer.

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