Thomas Thwaites made his name, in certain circles at least, with The Toaster Project, a book for which he spent nine months trying to build a toaster, launching into an exploration of consumer culture, environmentalism, and the frightening intersection of the two, in the process. It introduced not just an interesting (and, yes, eccentric) young man but also a whip-smart and very funny writer and, in many ways, Goat Man: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human is a natural progression for him. To be clear, this is not a joke book you pick up while in line with your actual purchase at the bookstore: It's published by Princeton Architectural Press and is actually extremely scientific. But it's also an engrossing read, buoyed by an irrepressible sense of humor and an insatiable curiosity that, quite frankly, the world could use much more of.
Hi Thomas, tough to know where to start with this one…. Perhaps with Noggin. Early on in the book, on the second page in fact, you have a picture of Noggin the dog next to a picture of the Queen and compare her concerned expression to the dog's benign, worry-free face. Not to oversimplify, but this is how you ended up on all fours, living with goats on a mountainside, isn't it?
Yeah. I was dogsitting my niece's dog, while in this melancholic slump, and the dog was just oblivious. Totally fine, happy, in the moment, no worries. And I had that thought: You're so lucky! I wish I could be you for a bit. It's a thought I remember having when I was a child, too: If only I was the pet cat, then I wouldn't have to trudge off to school in the cold.
Originally, you wanted to be an elephant, right? Build yourself an exoskeleton, turn yourself from a biped into a quadruped, and, I quote, "use transcranial magnetic stimulation to switch off the forward planning and language centres of my brain so as to experience life from the perspective of an elephant." It's fair to say that not everyone has these kind of ideas. What made you think of that?
For practical reasons, but then I actually went to see some elephants, in the wild and in zoos, and found that they're such emotionally complex and intelligent animals. They are, I decided, almost too human.
Right—eventually, you abandoned the idea. The whole idea was to escape the "existential pain" of being a human, and elephants experience mortality, and have those pesky trunks. But it was Annette the shaman that really sealed the deal, right? Can you explain that encounter?
I'd gone to see her as I wasn't sure which animal to be. She told me I should be a goat. She also pointed out that some of the oldest human works of art are of human-non-human animal therianthropes—like the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel [ed note: Google it], so I started to think of the project as just a modern version of that, with these ancient human ideas.
Coincidentally I recently finished The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis, which is all about Lascaux (and I've been lucky enough to go there—the transmogrification paintings are particularly eerie). Annette's right: we've been trying to bridge the gap between animals and humans since the dawn of time. But what was it that made you want to express this primal desire this way?
I wanted to live my dream and gallop through the fields.
And, perhaps just as importantly, can you explain how you went from elephant to goat? And also, how could you be sure they didn't worry, didn't experience mortality?
Dr. McElligott [ed note: Dr. Allan McElligott is Britain's foremost expert in goat expert behavior, and works at Buttercup goat sanctuary, down the road from Thwaites's house] told me, "While goats don't worry, they will certainly have concerns, and these concerns will be based on how they've evolved. In the wild, an animal like a goat is a prey animal. They have to eat and go to the water hole to drink and so on, but they have to balance these needs with the risks inherent in trying to satisfy them. So at the same time as eating or whatever, they're being vigilant for predators, always being slightly on edge."
I'm glad that goat farmer didn't try and milk you, after he'd finished milking his 60 other goats. So, you were a goat wearing your goat suit. What was your first realization?
Well, on the first day the goat farmer was herding his goats from the high alpine pastures down into the valley where they would spend the winter. This was a painful and scary experience. I felt very fragile, very human when faced with a cliff edge, heading head-first down steep rocky paths, with no hands to stop myself from falling.
Can you talk a bit about the grass-eating? Why? How? You know.
I ate quite a lot of grass from the pasture, but mammals don't produce the enzyme that digests the cellulose in grass. Goats and other ruminants [ed note: a ruminant is an animal with a four-compartment stomach] have a rumen which is filled with microorganisms—bacteria, fungi, etc—which can break down grass.
I was consulting with some biologists who specialize in ruminant gut biology. They were great, and showed me around their lab and how the artificial rumens they use work. But they got very agitated when I said I actually wanted to eat the product of my homemade artificial rumen. There was some question of whether I could accidentally give myself a long-term gut disease. I still had a sort of artificial rumen, which I spat my chewed-up grass into, but I had to resort to cooking what I had collected at the end of the day in a pressure cooker, to avoid giving myself worms, or something much worse.
Right. Did you ever think: there must be easier ways to escape the existential pain of being a human than pretending to be a goat, eating grass on a cold mountainside in Switzerland?
Becoming a goat was much tougher physically than I thought, but I did get a new perspective on the world. Being on four legs, amongst a herd, at the same level as everyone else, you really realize that, to the goats, they're the people. They're goats and we're non-goat animals, if you see what I mean.
You were on the mountain to escape human worries, concerns. Weren't you concerned about falling down the mountain, being head-butted, or how you might feel after eating grass?
Yeah, I was just completely outdone by the goats (of course), who could happily flow down mountains while I was petrified of falling flat on my face and knocking all my teeth out on a rock or something.
Did the other goats welcome you with open goat arms?
I think I made a goat friend. They're social animals, and have a strong hierarchy, so will fight, butt heads, and so on (they've even been known to break each others' legs) but they also tend to have friends—goats they get on with and hang around with. I think I kind of made a goat friend: she was always following me, grazing nearby, and so on.
Were there any awkward situations? If so, how did you diffuse them?
There was a moment when I looked up and saw I was in the middle of the herd, and everyone else had stopped chewing and was staring at me. It was like I'd inadvertently committed some sort of goat faux pas. Their horns suddenly looked pretty sharp. This was a scary moment, really. But then, a single goat—my goat friend I think—walked right through the center of the silent, staring herd and sort of diffused the tension, and we all moved off along the hill together.
So did you find peace out there, Thomas?
There was a moment in the alps when the Swiss goatherd said he thought the rest of the herd accepted me, and when we were in the fields as opposed to heading down a mountain I was quite happy as a sort of cyborg goat.
Goat Man: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human (Princeton Architectural Press) is out now priced at $25. Next up, Thwaites is working on a project for the 2017 St Etienne Design Biennial about "the future of work." We can hardly wait.