Thursday, August 8th, 2013
Someone has been slipping my sheep copies of old Far Side cartoons.
Night-time feeding has become an ordeal where I take my life in my hands, plunging into wooly, bleating throngs while carrying feed buckets on my head (thank goodness that was one of my more salubrious learning achievements during my studies in Egypt), trying not to be tripped or otherwise tricked by wiley, wooly beasts. The pathetic thing about this is that it’s not like I have a herd of thousands; there are only eight sheep at Star Gazing Farm, and until recently, they have been polite, docile animals, sweetly taking a molasses cookie from my fingers and saying thank you courteously. So I don’t know quite what has brought on this ‘get-the-biped’ mentality. In particular, two of the sheep with identity crises (bottle-fed and unconvinced they are actually sheep), Madison and Angel, have learned how to jump up on their hind legs, placing hard hooves on my back and hooking their heads around to grab mouthfuls of feed, sometimes having the unbelievable luck of tipping the whole thing over onto the ground, curiously heedless of my loud profanities.
What makes me really suspicious of conspiracy is that most of the time they pretend to be sleeping. Easy going, relaxed, soft, fluffy, and cute in a 200 pound kind of way, they’re a bit like large dogs with extra bad breath. But come meal time, and the Inner Sheep Beast emerges. Gary Larson, I shake my fist at you!
My fascination with these animals started quite by accident. Back in the day when I was a city dweller, I thought I was goat-bound, for sure. Goats were where it was at. Smart, attractive, clean and sleek — and they give milk. How cool is that. Squeeze yer breakfast. Now that I know all about morning and evening chores, however, I’m glad the goats here are boys. But I digress. The story goes like this: nearly 2 decades ago I was caring for a friend’s large farm and one of her sheep was ill and couldn’t get up. The ewe was shy and scared of me; she was gentle and beautiful and I so wanted to gain her trust and to get her up and walking again; I massaged her legs 4-5 times a day, hand-fed her, talked to her softly, gazed into those huge, green, soulful eyes that spoke of nothing but sweetness and humility. Alas, I fear it was no magic spell but all part of the same conspiracy to rope me into the indentured servitude of the Sheep Life.
At age 11, I had accompanied my parents on an ancestral journey to Scotland, where I found I was far more interested in the funny horned, black faced wooly sheep who seemed to be everywhere (including right in downtown Edinburgh) than in the old family castle or gravestone rubbings. My poor dad would wearily sigh when he saw me about to squeal with delight, and would utter, “yes, yes, ‘sheepie weepies’”. We had a 16mm movie camera and I took no fewer than a dozen full rolls of film of the sheep of Scotland. I’d give a pretty penny to find those tapes again, and would watch them avidly.
The intervening years were spent in cities, ostensibly escaping the sheep thing, but here I am in my fifth decade of life intimately involved in the lives of sheep of all sorts. Recently I was called out to a job trimming hooves at a “Serious Sheep Farm”. Admittedly Maryland sheep farming cannot compare to the herds of thousands of the western ranges or the millions of New Zealand, but 160 turned out to be quite a lot of bodies all in one room. While they didn’t present the (admittedly annoying) independent mindset of my sheep, who are likely to make bad and inconvenient decisions on a whim, the sheer volume of bodies all moving as one white, hairy wave was alarming in quite a different way. As we corralled them into the trimming pen, the farmer on the far side (no pun intended) of the pen stepped forward and then that wave of white bobbing bodies was running straight at me. “Don’t worry”, I tried to calm myself as 30,000 pounds of sheep hurtled in my direction, “you’re taller than they are.”
I suppose that each of us has his or her own destiny and try as we may to force ourselves into some box that doesn’t fit, at some point fate simply takes over, being stronger than our own will or common sense. When my father finally accepted that I would spend more than 25% of my year bent over sweaty, wooly sheep doing a laborer’s job instead of gracefully perched at a desk covered in scholarly materials whilst wearing tweeds, he began composing limericks: “Shearer Shroeder shears sheep”. What a great guy.
Sometimes I think about the sheep who don’t live at Star Gazing Farm. The sheep who all move as one, and haven’t been hand-fed molasses cookies; or who are selected (culled) because of one undesirable trait or another and sent to the livestock auction, separated from friends and family; the sheep who are destined for probably something distinctly unpleasant. I know that sheep are more likely than most animals to accept what comes with quiet resignation but that doesn’t mean that they don’t mind.
Sometimes the forces of nature don’t come at us as tornados and hailstorms, but as a soft breeze lightly scented with the honeysuckle of early June or a low baa of a sheep contentedly munching on green grass at dusk. Being trampled by a herd of hundreds is one way to wake up; but stilling the noise of traffic, electronics, and information overload is quite a different one. Stop and listen. And make sure to hug your sheep today.
Till next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats