As it often happens with the best of friends, I cannot pinpoint exactly when I first met a llama. And just as with the best of friends, I knew, even before sweet little Jean Claude came to live here, that somehow I had always loved them: their enormous, expressive, liquid brown eyes, their wonderful earthy smell, the softness of their fiber, and the majesty and muscularity of their bodies. Everything about them is elegant, sweet, and powerful.
Now, alpacas are vaguely related to llamas and in a dark room while wearing sunglasses one might possibly mistake one for the other; however, alpacas appear to have none of the charming traits of llamas – merely all of their occasional bad habits. Minus the intelligence.
They spit (a euphemism for a truly disgusting trick whereby they bring up contents of absolutely foul smelling, semi-digested gunk from their rumens and spray it all over those unfortunate enough to be, well, within spitting distance).
They kick hard and fast and, if they are so inclined, quite viciously. They scream and urinate all over you when you are shearing them. And when they run they look just a wee bit like someone from the Ministry of Silly Walks.
Umm…we don’t have any alpacas at Star Gazing Farm (please don’t report us to the animal anti-discrimination league). Those who love alpacas, however, really love them. Their fiber is shockingly soft and almost other- worldly, and each animal has unique color combinations and markings that make their
shearing quite the visually aesthetic experience.
Folks, please forgive me if I now tell a story that is more human than animal and is “off the farm”. It’s one that needs telling, though, and you might even enjoy reading it. Even Newman and Little Boy said that wandering
off the main path sometimes leads you to some undiscovered treasures (though they probably were referring to blackberry bushes and such).
Yesterday I sheared a large herd of these alpaca dudes far, far away in a beautiful corner of Maryland I’d never before visited. The owner’s name is Ben. He ordinarily does everything on his farm, including shearing, but he
has been ill – so his family arranged for me to come out.
The day was a very long one. It started out tense. I arrived late, having gotten bitten by beltway rush hour traffic; Ben slightly intimidated me (his family had warned me he was cranky due to medication and fatigue, and he had Frankenstein stitches all over his shaved head, the sight of which, at first, certainly, took me aback); the brothers and sisters were walking on eggshells around him; one of my key shearing machines died; we were working in the full sun; and the alpacas were rude. I wondered how we would soldier on through this day.
I made an executive decision to not worry about the family’s warnings. I asked Ben about all his animals, made sure he knew I would be careful and thoughtful with them, and asked him after each one is he wanted any adjustments done to the cut (alpacas get a sort of funny looking poodle cut and some owners are quite particular about the “do”). It was obvious he loved these animals. He had spent countless hours in the field gentling and
socializing them, and knew every little detail about each of them (this is not, by the way, the case at many farms where the owners often don’t even know how many animals they have).
I figured Ben to be in his late 60s or early 70s, and while he was clearly getting tired, he spent the entire day out in the sun with the shearing crew. He blew the dust off the animals, leading them gently over to us, making sure we always had animals tied and ready to be put on the mat. Many of my regular, young, able-bodied clients aren’t able to accomplish that.
Every hour or so he’d sit down and watch the shearing thoughtfully. I felt his eyes on my work all day – I was glad. I sensed that he needed to feel that I was shearing just as he would have. At lunch he confessed that it
was nice to see the alpacas sheared professionally (I wisely did NOT mention the fact I’d had to consult my shearing diagrams before setting out because this was my first gang of alpacas this season!). We also talked about other animals – his cute old Jack Russell dogs, his turkeys; we each shared sadness about our old dogs we have recently lost – and we both agreed that more than 5 minutes’ discussion of these dead friends would bring us to
I guess kindred spirits know each other.
At the end of the day when we settled up, I extended my hand, but he said, “NOOO, we can do better than that” and he reached out and hugged me. He then told me he was selling the entire herd of alpacas and asked me if I
knew of anyone who was buying. I said I was surprised as he seemed to love them so much.
Then he said, “you know, I’m dying.” His bravery and simplicity choked me up.
And I wept as I drove off the farm: for his parents, brothers, sisters, his children, the imminent loss of his animals in which he’s invested so very much, but most of all for his sad knowledge. I wondered briefly if it makes it easier to know when we will go … but I rather think not.
While numbers are largely irrelevant to me (witness my non existent checkbook balancing skills), there were two figures that stuck in my head – figures I learned just as I set out: the flock I had just shorn was worth
$100,000 and Ben is only 51 years old.
Heading home near midnight, high on the endorphins of 9 hours of vigorous shearing, I listened to some marvelous old Steely Dan and bounced around in the car. Perhaps not so oddly I realized that while I might live a long while yet, I could also die on the road that very night. Ben had told me he fully intended to “play” in whatever time he has left. He doesn’t know how much that is – and I suppose in that way we are all the same. But he is a man who is full of life.
It might be a cliché, but never mind – death does make us value life more. I vowed to play, too: to listen to more music, go dancing, bake cakes, paint my toenails, plant flowers, hug my animals more often, tell my friends and family I love them, and, of course, to shear lots more alpacas.
Till next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats