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!

Poetry Friday:”Home” by Warsan Shire

Heidi Mordhorst hosts today’s Poetry Friday round-up at  My Juicy Little Universe 

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (article) | Khan Academy

Today marks the 57th. anniversary of the March on Washington.  Looking at photographs of the signs people carried then, I was struck by how many of them (just about all, actually) are sadly true and relevant today.  We have such a long way to go as a nation to be that “more perfect Union” promised in our Constitution.

Marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963] | Library of Congress

I discovered the poet Warsan Shire in a New Yorker profile written some years ago.  She is brilliant, and this poem of hers really resonates with me on this particular day:

Home – Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Alex and Arnie come to live at the farm

My flock of nine sheep (four lambs from Foster Sheep Farm and five yearlings from Wing and a Prayer Farm) came together nicely last Summer, and I pretty much thought, “That’s it for me – no more sheep!”  Oh, there was plenty of temptation on my Instagram feed, adorable lambs are everywhere, every day.  But, I resisted…until Allison posted these pictures:

…and what’s a shepherd to do?  So, I drove over the hills of Cambridge for a look-see.  They boys had grown a bit, of course, but they were just as adorable.

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And, always a weak spot for me, they came with a story.  Arnie has injured himself somehow, and lost a good chunk of his tongue.  His intrepid and spunky nature showed itself early, for this little fella found a way to eat and nourish himself, nevertheless.  The only drawback to his new way of feeding was that he drools while ruminating – foamy, icky, green drool which gets on his fleece, and because he cuddles with his brother at nap time, he drools on Alex, too.  Allison needed to bathe both boys frequently, and Arnie  needed to wear at coat to protect his gorgeous Cotswold fleece; most likely, Alex would, too.

My buddy Amos, a fine wool Cormo, needs to wear a jacket to protect his fleece – and I find it an enormous ordeal to get those coats on and off.  So, at first, I hesitated.  Allison let me know that I did not need to adopt both boys – Arnie had other sheep to keep him company  Lilac Rain Farm.  When I saw these two together, though, I felt they belonged together – and Arnie’s will to survive pulled at my heartstrings.  Yes, the drool  was unsightly, but coats and the occasional hosing down will help mitigate that.  And the fleece has to be washed before processing, anyway.

You know how this story ends…the boys came to live at Hebron Hills Farm:

As Allison suggested, they’ll start wearing their coats after shearing in late October.  Until then, rain and the garden hose will have to do.

The flock were a bit startled when the lambs first pranced into the pasture on Monday.  A bit of shoving here and butting there went on, just to let the new comers know their place in the hierarchy of sheep order here.  The little ones took it all in stride, and kept trying to ingratiate themselves any way: a friendly nuzzle, giving way at the grain trough or the water tub.  By Thursday they had been allowed into the pole barn when it rained, and were grazing alongside the big guys when it did not; by Friday, Arnie had figured out how to finagle an entire grain trough all to himself:

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I now have a flock of eleven, and that’s it for me – no more sheep!

Poetry Friday: “The Work of Happiness” by May Sarton

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Ramona @  Pleasures from the Page 

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This Friday feels more hopeful than many Fridays past; I firmly believe that this is due to faithfully watching the Democratic Convention, and hearing words that call to the better angels of our nature.   After three and a half years of watching our democracy being torn down by the people we expect most to protect its foundations, three and a half years of despairing and disturbing news, it was such a relief to be reminded that there are a whole army of good people willing to run for office to restore good government, and an even bigger army of concerned citizens who are willing to work to elect and get these candidates elected.  Joe Biden concluded his acceptance speech with these words: “May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here, tonight as love and hope and light joined the battle for the soul of the nation”, and I said and felt a huge sense of “Whew!”.

Here at the farm I’ve learned to find happiness in small ways – everyday moments of noticing something joyful and moving in the animals and gardens I tend to.  A short stint of teaching summer camp made me realize how much I missed my teaching life, where I found happiness in a “bigger” way: connecting to the young people in my care, and helping to open their eyes to the power of language and of a commitment to social justice.

At the farm, I harvest flowers and vegetables that I’ve grown from seed every day.  I go for walks followed by my beloved flock and faithful dog, pausing every once in a while to scratch a chin, or just take in the view.  When I polish our furniture, I find comfort in the dents and scuffs that mark the chests of drawers, tables, and chairs that we’ve inherited or rescued and refurbished – the signs of the life we’ve shared as a family.  And, I find happiness in the reassuring sounds of nature that is the “silence” of farm life in the middle of nowhere.

I have even learned to find happiness in accepting my need for solitude, for, as the poem says: “But where people have lived in inwardness/ The air is charged with blessing and does bless”.

Happy Poetry Friday, friends!

“The Work of Happiness” by May Sarton

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall––
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.