Dung Beetles, Goats, and Unschooling: How I Became a Writer




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A guest post by my daughter, Shiloh Ohmes




© 2015 Shiloh Ohmes

One of my clearest memories from 1999 is squatting down in the middle of a dirt road with my Mom and brother while cheering on a dung beetle as it rolled its expertly packed ball of dung across sand and through ruts.  When it came to the lip of the road that rose up almost impossibly high (if you’re a dung beetle) we started giving it encouragement.

“Come on, you can do it!”

“Just a little more to the left.”

“Oh, no, he lost it.”

(Dung rolls away)

“He’s trying again.”

“Come on, you got this!”

I imagine that scene was quite a strange sight to the oilfield pumpers who passed us by on their way to check their wells.  One grown woman and two kids huddled together, cheering on a dung beetle just trying to go about its normal, everyday business.


What would you think if I told you that had been part of my school lesson that day?

Most people laugh until they realize I’m serious.  “But how can that be?” they ask.  “That’s not real learning!  That’s just play.”


My Mom is a big believer of infusing work, play, and learning all together in nature’s classroom, no need for walls or desks.  Everything is connected, like a spider web.  You can’t touch one part of the web without affecting all the others, and that’s how she approached our schooling and our homesteading.

I was in public school until mid point in fifth grade.  I never had a problem with it, I loved learning and the playground and being with my friends all day.  I was the perpetual teacher’s pet, always seeking to please my teachers, to get good grades, and read as much as I could.  A regular little Hermione, until the day one of my teachers insulted me and questioned my integrity over how fast I read a book.

I know, it doesn’t sound like much, does it?  But to little me, who had always strived and devoured learning like they were air, the idea that a teacher would dismiss me so quickly without even allowing me to prove I was telling the truth, that was all I could take from the educational institution.  That afternoon, when Mom came to pick my brother and I up, I spilled everything I’d been keeping inside me all day and told her I wanted to be homeschooled.

Though there were other issues with my brother’s teacher that came to light and ultimately cemented the decision, I got my wish.  Then my Mom made a choice that blew my mind: we started un-schooling.  If you’re unfamiliar with that term, un-schooling is a method of homeschooling that puts the desire, drive, and responsibility of learning directly on the student.  In essence, I was in charge of my own schooling.  I got to decide what kind of books I read, instead of sticking to a state mandated reading level I’d long surpassed (take that, Mrs. X!).  I could go off and learn about the Mayans one week and the American Revolution the next.  I didn’t have to stay confined to a certain textbook.  Instead, I had an entire public library available to me, as well as the Internet.  I could learn about the habits of wild animals by going on hikes with my Mom during the middle of the school day, watching red tailed hawks, jackrabbits, and dung beetles.  I had the absolute freedom to stretch my mind as far as it would go, not just as far as the educational system deemed important.  Not to say that my Mom wasn’t available when I needed help, but it was my responsibility to initiate the learning.

It was during this time I became more invested in my writing.  As a child, I’d had three major aspirations for my future: to be a pirate, an English knight, and six feet tall.  Though I never quite managed any of them, that freedom gave me the tools and desires to pursue stories that allowed me to be all those things, and more.  Soon, though, I ran into some roadblocks.

Grammar and punctuation.

I’d mastered some of the basics in public school, but paragraphs, dialogue, and more complicated punctuation for fiction wasn’t something we’d covered much, and the English workbooks we got from a teaching supply store did not cut it.  The way they presented grammar and all the technical terms, it might as well have been ancient Minoan to me.  I kept hitting a wall with it, and the frustration grew and spread until one day, in a fit of exasperation, I threw the workbook at the wall.


It hit my expansive bookshelf and a novel fell off, landing halfway open.  The proverbial light bulb clicked on.  From that point on, I ignored the grammar book and learned writing skills straight out of novels.  By studying a story I’d read fifty times before, I learned how to pick apart structure, how to begin and end a paragraph, what to do for dialogue, and how to write engaging chapters.  As if I wasn’t reading enough at that point, I began checking out ten books at a time from the library and studying those as well.  Novels then became my English lessons, and I began writing in earnest.

Like the dung beetle, grammar and punctuation had been the steep incline standing in my way of getting to where I wanted to be.  It was hard to see for a while, just like the beetle.  If you ever get to watch one for a while, you’ll notice that dung beetles will stand atop their dung balls to orient themselves with where they want to go, and then they walk backwards, rolling their dung ball with their back feet, to get back to their little homes.  They only see the path once in a while, so they have to rely on persistence and memory to get where they want to go.  Much of the time they’ll hit an incline and lose their grip, sending their prize tumbling away.  They put a lot of hard work into that little ball, though, so they go right after it, get situated, and try again.

Dung Beetle Fight


Learning the basics from novels wasn’t easy, but it was more compatible for my brain than a dry textbook I wanted to set on fire.  I just had to change my direction, exactly like a dung beetle that comes up against an incline they can’t climb.  They never stop trying; they just find a different route.

While dung beetles have mastered their own form of perseverance, they have nothing on the goat.

1999 is also the year we began setting up our animal homestead, starting with two little goats.  The goal was to move out of town and become as self sufficient as possible and, while we ended up with a variety of animals, the goats are what stand out most in my mind.  We began with Chili and Snow, brother and sister half Angora’s Mom bought so she could work with their mohair later in spinning and weaving.  They were then joined shortly by a milk goat and her baby, and from there the herd grew into five milkers, numerous babies, four wethers, and a buck.  The herd fluctuated between ten and over twenty goats at a time depending on the time of year.

Our goats didn’t spend all day in a pen, or even confined to a small pasture.  With permission from the nearby rancher, we were able to take our entire herd out on daily hikes.  We’d travel anywhere from one to five miles on any given day, depending on the weather and how early of a start we got.  But what does any of that have to do with writing?

Well, for one, goats have a damn near endless well of stubbornness.  They are nothing like sheep, which will follow you wherever, whenever, without a care.  They will take one look at what you want them to do, snort alfalfa breath in your face, and go do whatever they wanted to do in the first place.  They’re a lot like cats that way, except they have horns.

Goats are also problem solvers.  They’ll attack a problem from every angle until they solve it, and once they do you won’t be able to get ahead of that easily.  By watching and interacting with them, goats taught me a lot about dealing with blockages and impossible situations.  I have watched a goat struggle with climbing a small, vertical cliff face riddled with unstable sand, cactus, and shale trying to reach the top.  It was quite an entertaining afternoon.  They started from the bottom and jumped to a small ledge, then worked at scaling the other fifteen to twenty feet to the top.  They fell and tumbled so many times.

I laughed from the sidelines.

They would get up, shake their heads, glare at me, and then try again.  And again.  Then, by the time we were ready to head back to the barn, one of them finally found a zigzagging route that got him straight to the top.

It was quite a moment.  He was so proud of himself, sticking his chest out, backlit by a setting sun, surveying the rest of the herd with an imperious gaze.  He only lacked a crown.

Then he gathered himself, made sure we were all watching, and leapt right off into the sandy creek bed.


Goats know everything there is about overcoming obstacles, but they also know that you don’t just stop when you reach one height.  You either keep going up, or you go back down to do it all over again.  That was the best live action analogy for writing a story I’ve ever seen, and so far nothing has topped it.  He worked diligently to get to the coveted top, where there were untouched weeds and grasses and superiority waiting for him.  Then, once he’d had his moment, he took the short terrifying plummet back to earth, dusted himself off, and made that climb all over again.

Every story is a struggle to write.  I begin at page one and see the long, mountainous climb standing between me and The End.  I’ve made it before.  Several times.  And yet it is still a daunting enterprise with each project.

Will this be the time I fall for good?  Just go kersplat at the rocky bottom and never get up again?

No.  If I’ve learned anything at all from those goats, they’ve showed me there is always more than one way to scale a mountain.  It takes some time, some patience, and a substantial amount of bull headed determination to find the right path.  I’ll fall down, but I’ll get back up and try again.

And then, when I reach the top, I can sit there and bask in the glory of everything I’ve accomplished.  When I’ve had my fill, it’s time to jump right back to the bottom again.

Because the very top, that’s not a done and stop destination.  That’s a tasty reward for hard work and ingenuity, but the real prize is in the climb itself.  The act of overcoming, of conquering, and in doing it more than once.

Un-schooling and homesteading gave me some of the greatest opportunities to mature, grow, and develop as a person and a writer.  My learning took place 24 hours a day, both at home and out in nature, where I was unrestricted from my interests and was taught to blend learning and living and writing all together.  Because none of them are actually separate.  You do not stop learning just because you are outside doing chores or playing with your brother.  You don’t cease building skills by going inside your house or visiting a friend.  Everything is a web.  One strand is connected to and affects the rest of the strands.

By living this lifestyle, I was actually afforded more opportunities than I would have had by staying in school.  My first job at a library came about because I volunteered almost year round with the local librarian most afternoons as well as during the big summer reading programs from age 13 throughout high school.  I also had the chance to meet and interact with people of all ages, from toddlers at the library story time to archaeologists and anthropologists through the museum’s history programs up to seventy year olds, one of whom I had fascinatingly intelligent conversations about Roman toilet paper dispensers with.

For me, the different aspects of my life homesteading and un-schooling in relation to my writing are too tightly woven to be discussed as separate entities.  They all bleed into each other, a complicated but sturdy array of knots and twists and loops strung up between the branches of knowledge and life.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience it all.



Shiloh Ohmes’ Blog:  Crazy Inkslinger, A Writer’s Blog

10 Fascinating Facts About Dung Beetles

Recommended Reading:

Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World

The Backyard Goat: An Introductory Guide to Keeping and Enjoying Pet Goats, from Feeding and Housing to Making Your Own Cheese

Extraordinary Goats: Meetings with Remarkable Goats, Caprine Wonders & Horned Troublemakers



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