Sophie

“And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old—or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.”
― Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

Today is Sophie’s last day on this good, green earth. She has given us many years of all that makes dogs such blessed companions: unswerving loyalty, unbounded affection, reasons to smile in the midst of deep gloom. At sixteen, she can barely see and seldom hear. She has pretty much stopped eating. Although there are flashes of her old love of walking through woods and the pastures on our farm, she is mostly exhausted and in need of sleep. Acupuncture treatments have lost their efficacy, and I’ve had to have that difficult discussion with the vet and family: what is the responsible and loving thing to do?

Sophie had been rescued from a kill shelter in West Virginia and brought to New Jersey. We had adopted a Katrina dog before her, and nursed Sam back to good health, only to discover that his owner (who had been searching for his beloved dog ever since the hurricane had passed over New Orleans) wanted him back. Some months after that heartbreak, the shelter called to tell us that there was another rescue dog that we could love just as much: Sophie. They were right. And we have, these last fourteen years.

Suburban New Jersey was tolerable for Sophie, but she came into her own as a farm dog these last five years. Free of a leash, she has roamed far and wide, inspecting every inch and reveling in every view. She, too, found her piece of heaven, and that was a gift to us.

It is hard to say goodbye to those we love. Still harder, though, is to see them suffer. But there will be green fields where Sophie goes, and many sticks to be able to chase again…and we must draw some small comfort in that, some how…

“I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head

and her wet nose
touching
the face
of every one

with its petals
of silk,
with its fragrance
rising

into the air
where the bees,
their bodies
heavy with pollen,

hovered—
and easily
she adored
every blossom,

not in the serious,
careful way
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way

we long to be—
that happy
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.”
Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

Poetry Friday: Praise What Comes by Jeanne Lohmann

So many conversations this past week have coalesced around the question of Thanksgiving: is your family coming? will you be alone? how weird is this pandemic Thanksgiving? how are you coping?

Yes…it’s weird.

My kids travel up from Brooklyn. One is here already, after having being tested. But, Covid has spiked again in New York City, and getting tested has become tricky to well nigh impossible. So, the other two may or may not make it up. We’ve never spent Thanksgiving apart, through the college years and the ongoing partnering up years. Not to have my children home for Thanksgiving is the unthinkable, but 2020 is the year of exactly that.

Walking through the pasture on Friday morning, I felt burdened by concerns: for our little family, for the Trumpian America, for the planet, for the… what does one think about when the world seems to be falling apart? What is worthy of considered thought?

Later that day, we were gifted with an extraordinary sunset. In the quiet of the moment, in the beauty and grace that is this farm I am lucky enough to live on, I thought to give praise and find joy. Both are fleeting, both are unexpected, and both come when least expected.

Praise What Comes by Jeanne Lohmann

Surprising as unplanned kisses, all you haven’t deserved
of days and solitude, your body’s immoderate good health
that lets you work in many kinds of weather. Praise
talk with just about anyone. And quiet intervals, books
that are your food and your hunger; nightfall and walks
before sleep. Praising these for practice, perhaps
you will come at last to praise grief and the wrongs
you never intended. At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,
finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God? At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another
ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

Sheep on the move…unsupervised

From my short but generally uneventful work as a shepherd, I’ve come to think of my flock as a placid group of routine loving creatures motivated by grain and the occasional need for a chin scratch. It has been easy to move them around the pastures behind the farmhouse simply by opening and shutting various gates. Moving them to the pasture in front of the house, however, is another matter entirely, because it entails getting the whole crew across the narrow dirt road that runs from the village and up the hill on which we live.

Our hill is steep and rugged, and it is as sparsely populated as is the rest of our village and county, nonetheless, there are a few cars and trucks going up and down throughout the day. The lower pasture has an electrified fence, an artesian well that provides water continuously (no need to lug buckets, a huge benefit), and plenty of lush grass. But…there is that road to cross.

Last week, with some quick footed help from my husband, I began moving the flock down to sample fresh pasture, and finish off the last of the year’s grass. Day after day passed without incident: the flock raced down in the morning, and back up to their pole barn when daylight began to fade. So far so good…until…

I looked up from doing dishes, through the kitchen window overlooking the back pastures, to see a line of sheep standing by the fence line – my sheep! The evening’s promised storm was already blowing through, but the flock looked calm, mildly curious about seeing life beyond their fence line, and generally unperturbed. When I dashed out of the house, coatless and panic stricken, they showed very little surprise, more of a “Ah, there you are!”

Bowie was in the pasture itself, barking excitedly at this unusual sight, and running back and forth in the hopes of herding the sheep back where they belonged. It took some quick thinking and even quicker movement to get the flock safely behind the fence again. Only then did it dawn on me that somehow the flock had managed to nose the gate open, cross the street as a group (the four new lambs included), and find their way behind the house. The only one worse for the wear was their shepherd, who was a panting nervous wreck.

This morning, I took pains to make sure the gate was secure, but I have a feeling that I will spend the rest of the day glancing at that gate, checking to see if my sheep are back to being placid and rule conforming, as opposed to being independent minded and up for adventures of their own.

Poetry Friday: Neighbors by James Crews

Photograph by Sue Clary

Until my late twenties, when the babies began arriving, I had lived and worked in big cities. As an introvert who preferred solitude to being out and about socializing, the anonymity of big cities felt comfortable. People left you alone, and yet you were surrounded by buzzing activity and endless possibilities to people watch and take notes about all the city eccentricities one sees.

We moved to the wasteland of American suburbia so that the children could have a yard to play in, and sidewalks to ride their bikes on. I had done neither, but I enthusiastically bought into these notions. So, we moved to Westchester, Virginia, Maryland, and finally New Jersey. The kids had their yard, and rode their bikes to school, town, and their friends’ homes.

I hated suburbia, and couldn’t wait for the kids to grow up so that we could sell our house and move to Manhattan where I could be one of two million or so going here, there, anywhere. Instead, we fell in love with a beautiful farm in the middle of nowhere, a place with more cows than people. That farm spoke to me as no other house ever had, and so here I am.

Our broker initiated us into the local ritual of raising a hand in greeting to other drivers on the road (one or two, on a busy day), and anyone who drove by the farm when I happened to be outside. As I settled in, I began to notice other little gestures with which the local residents acknowledged each other, always in a way that did not necessarily mean that a conversation was expected…just that you had acknowledged a fellow resident of these parts.

Every venture here, from a farm to a village store, depends upon all of us pulling together to ensure its success. Shopping local has taken on a whole new meaning and import. Some of us are well off, but a great many are not, and many efforts are made to ensure that neighbors have Thanksgiving meals, winter coats, funds to pay winter’s heating bills, toys for children to look forward to in the holidays.

Where I now live could not be more unlike the suburb I came from, where no one wanted, and over indulgence was the norm. This poem captures something of where I now live…where small gestures of humanity and kindness are noticed, and valued.

Neighbors by James Crews

Where I’m from, people still wave
to each other, and if someone doesn’t,
you might say of her, She wouldn’t
wave at you to save her life—

but you try anyway, give her a smile.
This is just one of the many ways
we take care of one another, say: I see you,
I feel you, I know you are real. I wave

to Rick who picks up litter while walking
his black labs, Olive and Basil—
hauling donut boxes, cigarette packs
and countless beer cans out of the brush

beside the road. And I say hello
to Christy, who leaves almond croissants
in our mailbox and mason jars of fresh-
pressed apple cider on our side porch.

I stop to check in on my mother-in-law—
more like a second mother—who buys us
toothpaste when it’s on sale, and calls
if an unfamiliar car is parked at our house.

We are going to have to return to this
way of life, this giving without expectation,
this loving without conditions. We need
to stand eye to eye again, and keep asking—

no matter how busy—How are you,
how’s your wife, how’s your knee?, making
this talk we insist on calling small,
though kindness is what keeps us alive.

Bowie…

Bowie is a year and a half old now, still more puppy than livestock guardian dog. My research says that LGDs don’t reach “maturity” until they are past two years of age, so we have a while to go.

She is full-grown, though, weighing in at 150 lbs. of pure muscle and boundless energy. The pastures are well-fenced, so she has plenty of room to race around and keep track of whatever is happening on the farm, and our hilly setting allows her to keep an eye on the village and valley below. Added to this is a warm barn to sleep in at night, with Lewis the barn cat for company, and an old sofa upon which to rest herself. The barnyard is littered with her chew bones, and she has regular playdates with Alfie, a friend and neighbor’s dog. Auggie, the Cotswold who at 300 lbs. is the only animal bigger than Bowie, is her best pasture friend, and the rest of the flock tolerate her with wary affection.

Clearly, for a working dog, Bowie has a good life.

Unlike most LGDs, Bowie likes people. We’ve had construction going on ever since she first arrived last Spring, so she’s used to workmen coming and going…and paying her a good bit of attention. Our picnic table and grill are set up barnside in a pole barn meant for sheep; it’s just about the only flat area here, so we’ve taken it over as a space to gather when the weather is nice. All of this allows for Bowie to have equal time with people as well as sheep, which is unusual and not by-the-book for a working livestock guardian dog.

My friend Sarah, an expert dog trainer and dog whisperer, has helped me manage and train Bowie…somewhat. LGDs are bred to be independent decision makers, and are therefore hard to train. Bowie will obey some basic commands, but you can see that she’s weighing her options and thinking the situation through before she makes a move to obey. This makes life with Bowie interesting in the Chinese sense – i.e. at times challenging and rather too “exciting”.

I spent a good chunk of my early childhood with my grandparents, dog lovers both. We Great Danes, German Shepherds, assorted retrievers, and my grandmother’s Pomeranians running around the grounds and in the house. Bowie surpasses all of them in terms of what she requires in consistent management and patience. I did not know what I was getting into when I took on this Maremma/Kangol mix…which is kind of the story of my life: “I’ll think about it tomorrow”, carpe diem, etc.

But I cannot imagine this farm without its white wolf. I love seeing her patrolling at night, a white flash in the deep dark. I love hearing her booming bark. And I love the way she leans into me as we sit and watch sunsets, sheep, the tilling of the cornfield below. She is, with apologies to E.B. White, “Some Dog”.

web design — Tender Human

My sheeple…

I’ve missed spending time with the sheep this summer, just sitting with them for long periods of time and having them crowd around to sniff, and ask for chin scratches and nuzzles.

It’s been the summer of gardening: new raised beds for vegetables, bringing old flower beds back to life, attempting a dye garden, and (of course) all the weeding and watering that goes along with gardening. Occasionally, one or more of the sheep would come down to the fence line to watch me at work, and I would feel guilty about choosing gardening over them, but not for long – summer gardening is short in this part of the world.

This week, the lower pasture has become available again for the flock. We’ve been renovating a workshop barn as an office space, which entailed cutting off the electricity to the fence line for a while. This particular pasture has a lovely pole barn for shelter, but is otherwise a wide open space – not ideal for summer pasturing. Anyway, I led the flock down on Monday morning, and they’ve been feasting on fresh grass all day ever since.

Yesterday, after three hours of cleaning out flower beds and preparing them for new Spring bulbs (I’ve bought hundreds, so…), I dragged my weary self down to the pole barn where the flock was gathered in the shade, and just sat with them.

Auggie, Jasper, and Malcom (Cotswold, Wenslydale, and Shetland, respectively), the most affectionate of the flock were the first to demand attention. Bit by bit, the others claimed their time, too. It was a warm, brilliantly sunny day, and a cool breeze drifted up from the valley. To the left I could see the roof tops and church spires of our village, right below lay the Black Creek valley with its cornfields of winter clover and winding stream, hawks swooped and circled above in search of their next meal.

I put away all thoughts of completing the next task on my chores list and stayed still and happy among my beloved sheeple.

Putting up the winter’s hay

Calculating how much hay I’ll need to get the flock through winter is something I am still unsure about, especially now that I have four more sheep to think about.

I over-bought last year, but a good bit of that hay was ruined by the pigeons who had moved into the rafters summer before last. Their noxious droppings made many bales usable only for bedding, a waste of expensive and nutritious hay meant for the sheep.

The lovely windows that allow sunlight to stream into the barn, also bleached dry the hay in the center of the hayloft, and my fussy sheep would not touch it. So, more expensive hay for bedding.

Managing the farm on my own, with a body reflecting 60+ years worth of aches and pains, I didn’t get around to covering the bales with tarps…actually, by the time I’d thought to do so it was too late already. But, I didn’t want to make that mistake again this winter.

By the time our friend Taylor brought this years’ hay, I was ready with tarps and a plan. I was also grateful that he’d divided the order into four manageable deliveries; last year he showed up on a steaming hot September afternoon with an enormous truck and more hay than I thought would fit into the hayloft – one efficient delivery, by his reckoning. It was a nightmare. We labored hour upon hour to get everything off the truck and stacked up, sticky with sweat and hay, each wishing that there more bodies than just the two of us to get the job done.

This year, we were also blessed with sunny and cool delivery days in which work. It was, frankly, a lovely task. The pigeons have finally been evicted for good, and all the hay is tarped against the inevitable sunlight and dust. It’s a pleasure to see all of it at the ready for winter’s use, ready to feed my beloved sheep and get them through another upstate New York winter.

Farm to Fiber Tour

I had planned to be in London taking care of my mother for most of October, but Covid has made any kind of travel impossible. Being here, however, allowed for participation in the Farm to Fiber Tour. I had my doubts: other than peerless views and a lovely barn and adorable sheep, I had little to show by way of actual wool. Past shearings had been sold to Tammy at Wing and a Prayer Farm, and I only had the current shearing’s raw fleece on hand. Battenkill Fibers had spun some of my Shetland wool into lovely yarn that was a rich creamy color. But that was it.

Luckily, my friend and fellow shepherd, Sheila, came to the rescue, and agreed to sell some of her beautifully hand dyed Romney yarn here. So, armed with that, and keeping my fingers crossed for good weather, I joined the tour and set up shop on what promised to be a glorious Fall weekend – one of those picture perfect, upstate New York days of clear blue skies, and sunshine enough to reveal the glory of our foliage season.

Enough visitors showed up to make the effort worthwhile, and the conversations I had with knowledgable shepherds and knitters were so interesting. Truth to tell, I have dropped the ball when it comes to moving on in my learning process of all things wool: washing, carding, and spinning to begin with. This past year of sheeping has been all about the care of my flock itself, and how to do the daily hard work of it by myself – regardless of weather (no small effort, as it turned out, given the Winters of upstate New York).

Meeting practitioners and devotees of spinning, dyeing, knitting, and weaving was inspirational. So, at the end of the tour, while packing up the fleeces and wool I did not sell (Auggie’s and Jasper’s most recent fleeces – Cotswold and Wenslydale – did sell, much to my astonishment), I committed myself to shifting my focus to wool stuff and actually doing all that I was reading and researching how to do.

And then, as though she had read my mind and knew of my new intentions, a friend dropped off a bag of gorgeous marigolds just begging for a dye pot to begin their second life as the source of color for my already spun wool. This week’s work can now begin!