Friday, September 17, 2010


I usually think of myself as level headed, clear eyed, one to see almost every aspect of a plan before I begin. But this week has shown me just how fully I can participate in self deception.

Because we have decided to spray herbicides over our east hay field in preparation for reseeding it to alfalfa and prairie grasses, we can harvest the food off of it as late in the fall as we want without worrying about damaging next year’s crop. So we decided to pasture the ewes on the hayfield and save the grass in their pastures to use later in the fall.
We have used temporary electric fencing in the past to sequester sections of hayfield. We turn the sheep out onto the field, secure in the knowledge that they can’t get through the fencing, and let them graze until everything is gone – actually until just before everything is gone. If we make them stay too long, they break through the electric fencing as if it wasn’t there in search of better feed.

It takes time to set out the fencing and haul the waterer and the hoses out to the hay field so I announced that I would spend the week being a traditional shepherd, sitting out in the field with the animals and letting them graze unrestricted (or protected) by fencing. I had ten interviews to transcribe, work that could be done sitting in a lawn chair in the east hayfield as easily as at my desk in my study or curled up on the couch. Monday and Tuesday, I had too many meetings to bother herding the sheep out to the hay field if I would just have to herd them back to the fenced pastures an hour later. Wednesday, I would begin.

Wednesday dawned dark and rainy. My vision of traditional shepherds with their flocks had not included rain. I could sit out in the rain as well as anyone. I had done so on many canoe trips. I can work in the rain too – tending animals, hauling wood, collecting sap. But I couldn’t transcribe interviews in the rain. A digital recorder and a paper notebook or a lap top computer were not up to the task. I couldn’t justify sitting out in the rain all day doing nothing but being a shepherd, so I gave up the idea for Wednesday. And if, in the back of my mind, a little voice said ‘you could sit in the car and work,’ I ignored it.

Thursday did dawn beautifully. This day I would be a real shepherd. I put on boots and a jacket, but decided to leave my shepherds crook, a tool I still hadn’t mastered, behind. I began working my way across the pastures, opening gates for the sheep. First the hole cut in the fence that borders the hay field. I untangled rusty wires and pulled the gate open. It seemed smaller than I remembered, barely three feet high and four feet wide. Perhaps the fence was sagging with age. Next, the wire reinforced gate into the south pasture – a tribute to farmer ingenuity, it consisted of an old metal gate reinforced with a layer of livestock fencing on both sides. Nothing could force it’s way through this gate. The third gate, into the south woods pasture, was the exact opposite of the second. It was two practically useless metal gates tied together with rotting baling twine. Not only did it have holes big enough for most of our sheep to get through, but it weighed a ton and was hard to open and close. The sheep had already knocked down the fourth gate and were standing there in the opening, waiting patiently for me to find them some better grazing land.

I smiled to myself; look how docile and well trained my sheep were. I would be a great traditional shepherdess. “Hay ewes!” I called. The sheep streamed from their pasture and around me like a river around a rock. They separated and ran to the farthest corners of the south woods pasture. I called them. They ignored me. I circled behind them, chuckling, shouting, singing. They seem to move best to old nursery songs sung at the top of my voice. Finally Christmas saw the next open gate and darted through into the south pasture. The rest followed slowly as I chivvied them closer and closer to the gate.

The same thing happened in the south pasture. The sheep were intent on finding the best grass and couldn’t read my mind at all. I took off my jacket and kept singing. Finally Christmas saw the gate to the southeast pasture and wandered through. I encouraged the rest of the flock, dropping back for stragglers, outflanking the more conservative who kept turning back, until every sheep was in the south pasture.

I only had to get them through that tiny little opening and out onto the hayfield. By now, on this 45˚ morning, sweat was running down my face and the older sheep were panting. They didn’t seem to recognize the gate as an opening in the fence. Time after time I chased them up to the opening, but not through. Once again, Christmas recognized it by some dim memory of a past autumn. Kali the alpaca wandered back and forth in front of the opening, but finally ducked her head, bent her knees and stepped through, determined to stay with her flock.

The sheep stopped moving as soon as they hit the hayfield. Even as sparse as our hayfield had become over the last few years, it was still more interesting to graze than the pastures. I looked at the little cluster of sheep in the fifteen acres of field. They would be fine.

I thought back to my hour of herding independent sheep across three pastures. Would I be able to force these sheep back through that little gate come evening? Could I leave them on their own long enough to go get my recorder and notebook? Could I leave them long enough to make lunch?

Finally, my rational brain stepped in. Of course I’d get them through the gate come evening – I always had before. But did I want to be herding sheep in the dark with no help? Of course I could take the time to run back to the house for my recorder and notebook, but did I want the sheep to wander into the slough and fill their fleeces with burrs while I was gone? Of course I could take the time out for lunch, but the mosquitoes were already feeding on me.

I ran back to the yard, loaded the car, and drove back to the hayfield. The sheep were still quietly grazing in the same spot, but I was taking no chances. I was going to be a traditional shepherdess in a twenty-first century sort of way. I set up the electric fencing.

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