Friday, February 17, 2017



Shengifr, (pronounced Shengif, the “r”  is silent- he was named by 2 year old grandson Jasper) is our bellwether. A bellwether was defined originally as a wether, a castrated male sheep that leads the flock, often wearing a bell so that the shepherd can find the sheep when they are out on pasture or in the mountains beyond sight. Shengifr is a wether, but he doesn’t actually lead our flock because he never gets a chance to hang out with the ewes. He keeps track of the rams – moderates their behavior, tags along where ever they go.

The second definition for bellwether is a person who assumes leadership. Does that mean that our political leaders should be bellwethers? In 1980, musician and song writer Tom Paxton released a funny, protest record called The Paxton Report. One of the songs on that record,  We All Sound the Same, spoofed political leaders.  

"We'll fearlessly take our positions when we know how you feel
We've taken the polls, and we know it's the safe thing to do
We've studied the trends for the feelings that we're allowed to feel
We'll be out there leading, about two or three steps behind you."

Sound familiar?  I thought it was hilarious when I was 32 years old and have continued to make disparaging remarks about political leaders who need to look at the polls before they speak or vote. Today, I wonder if we really do want our leaders to be to be followers rather than leaders.
The third definition of bellwether is a person or thing that shows the existence or direction of a trend. Who are the bellwethers today? Are they  Patrisse, Opal, and Alicia, the women  who created the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013? Is it Brian Manley, the police Chief of the city of Austin, Texas, who said Austin police officers are not concerned about a person’s citizenship status and are instead “absolutely 100 percent focused on the safety of citizens.” Are they the hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who are protesting the ban on people from seven nations which are primarily Muslim, who already have Visas allowing them to enter the United States, from entering the country. Is it Standing Rock Elder Brave Bull Allard who established a camp as a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. He gave people a space and a chance to consider the pipeline as a threat to the region’s clean water and to ancient burial grounds. Who is the bellwether? Is it an individual? A political system? An organization? A movement?

The real bellwether in our flock is not a wether  nor does she wear a bell. Waffle, a two year old ewe, was tamed by friends Budd and his daughter Kate. Waffle knows that good food comes from people and she eagerly greets each person entering the pasture. That means that people who visit the farm are charmed. Also, when Waffle rushes toward people, she draws the rest of the flock behind her into a new pasture or into the barn.  Both of those traits make her a valuable resource for our farm.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

At the border

At the border between sleep and waking, my mind plays with itself, frets, plan,s and worries. Some of the worries are ludicrous. Did I finish my homework for algebra? (Who knows – it was all irrelevant 50 years ago.) Will Simon like his birthday present? (Probably not as much as I enjoyed making it, but that’s okay.) Will my Muslim friends be safe? (I don’t know – all I can do is write letters and make phone calls to congressmen.) Do we have new lambs in the barn? Do we have new lambs that need help? Finally something I can actually affect.  But not by worrying. 

Most of the ewes are wandering around the pasture in the light of a half moon. I hear the lambs before I reach the barn. Inside I find two lambs being mothered by two moms. One lamb is up and trying to nurse, the other lies unlicked against a cold block wall. Our first two lambs! A joy and a possible problem.

I grab the step stool off the wall and unhook a heat lamp from the nail near the ceiling. I plug in the lamp over a jug and then go to get the lambs. The black ewe with the lamb who is nursing has amniotic fluid running down her udder.  The white ewe with the quiescent lamb shows no physical signs of having given birth. She has stolen a lamb. I pick up the quiet lamb, clutch it to my chest and then pick up the active lamb. Both ewes weave back and forth around me trying to stay close to their lamb. I open the door to the jug and lay the lambs under the heat lamp. Then I step back holding myself between the white ewe and the lambs, giving the real mother, number 27 orange, a chance to blunder into the pen. Then I shut the panel and tie the pen closed. Both lambs baaa.

Number 27 orange mutters, sniffs the lambs, and begins licking the quiet one. Satisfied, I retrieve a knife, several towels and Iodine from the barn cabinet. First I pick up the quiet lamb, hold her in my lap and dry her white curls then I cut her umbilical cord to about an inch and dip it in iodine. I place her in front of Orange 27 and dry off and dip the second lamb, a little boy who struggles to get out of my lap and return to his nursing.  The little girl still isn’t standing. I touch her nose. Cold. She probably hasn’t nursed yet. I express some of 27 orange’s milk into a cup and dribble it into the lamb’s mouth. She doesn’t even swallow. 

I dash back to the house, grab 60 cc gavage syringe, a short piece of plastic tubing and a thermometer. Back in the barn I fill the syringe with fresh milk expressed from 27 orange, slip the plastic tube into the lambs mouth, down its throat and then slowly squirt life giving warm milk into the lambs stomach. I slip the thermometer into the lamb’s rectum. The little red line stops at 97°. Too cold. A lamb should be between 102 and 104°.

I hurry back to the house for a bucket of hot water and meet Dave on the way out to find me. He gets the water, I return to the barn to feed and water 27 orange. Then I set up a new jug for the next family of new lambs.

Dave returns with hot water. He submerges the cold lamb up to her neck and we wait until she struggles to get out of the bucket, a good sign that her body temperature is up to normal - 102°. We dry her off with towels and a hair dryer. Then we feed her another two ounces of milk. She’s standing, her belly feels full, and no one else seems to be lambing. We return to the house and bed.

At the border between wake and sleep, my mind wrestles with itself. Sheep okay? Just checked. Grandchildren okay? Talked to them this evening.  Politics? Oh, that’s a hard one. But in the morning, after my first cup of Earl Grey tea, I’ll make some phone calls and share my worries –

White House switchboard 202- 456-1111
Congressional switchboard 202-224-3121
The switchboards have been overwhelmed with calls. If you can’t get through, try an email. Go to your Representative or Senators web page. It should give you an email address.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Finding peace

“Would you join Al-Shabab?” I asked a young Somali man. He helped us bale hay on our farm a few years ago and I felt I knew him well enough to ask that question.

“No!” He was amazed. “First of all, I’m a religion person. I love my religion. My religion teaches me to be nice to everybody. Even if somebody hurt you, be kind.” Anwar came to Pelican Rapids when he was 13 years old. He graduated from high school here, played on the football team both in Pelican and at M-State in Fergus Falls. Now he holds down three jobs.  “Before I came to America, I had a hard life. I grew up in the worst place you could grow up in, a war. I didn’t think I could have a job or ever be happy.”

Anwar is concerned about the terrorists in Somalia and other African and Middle Eastern countries, like we all are. “I think ISIS is corporate, not religious. They have their own interests, their own agenda,” he said.  “I ask my family, my friends, myself about what I see the TV every day. Islam is not like that. Islam is beautiful.”

Ayan, a friend of his, nodded her head. She is a young Somali American woman attending MState in Fergus Falls and working as a para in Pelican’s Head Start program. “Islam is peace,” she agreed, “That’s what I’ve been told since I was born. Islam does not teach people to be terrorists. You can’t kill people.”

Why do we talk about Muslim terrorists? People don’t seem to realize that it is just as offensive to write “Muslims convicted in (World Trade Center)  Case” as the Associated Press did in a headline, as it would be to describe Timothy McVay (Oklahoma City, 168 dead) or Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary School, 26 dead) as  “Christian terrorists”. 

Our Muslim neighbors struggle daily with the increased tensions in their lives due to their neighbor’s fears. “The media is making people fear Islam more,” Ayan said. “I have a lot of friends who are Christians. I ask them ‘If an explosion happens, who would you blame?’” She shook her head. “The person who looks like a Muslim.”  

Between 1990 and 2010, there were 348 murders in the United States committed by white, right wing extremists. That is twenty times more murders than were committed over the same period by Muslim-American extremists.  Simple, scary stories sell better than complex, thoughtful stories and so our national media is all about selling fear. Recently, that fear has been directed at Muslims. If white guy goes to a school and kills a lot of children, the media describes him as mentally ill; they don’t call him a Christian terrorist. If someone who looks Middle-Eastern or African goes to a school and kills a lot of children, he is a Muslim terrorist, period. Perhaps we  need to look at the definitions of the word “Muslim.”

Ayan is not an expert, she is a Somali Muslim, and our neighbor. “The media are sensationalizing Muslims being terrorists,” she said. “They should not be listening to those people saying this is what Islam is. Islam teaches peace and love, not hate or killing. I encourage people to study it more, not listen to bad people like ISIS who are advocating bad stuff about Islam.”

“We are not thieves or terrorists,” Anwar said. “We immigrated to America to find peace.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A larger world than the farm

Pelican Rapids on a summer day
I’m a shepherd. My blog Sheep Notes allows me to write about our sheep, our land, and occasionally my grandchildren. It gives me a place to talk about the things I love. But shepherd is only one part of me, actually, a small part. Since our kids have grown up and moved away from home, our community has become one of those things I love, partly because I have invested myself in it, and partly because of the amazing people who live here and the ways they have chosen to live their lives. I think it is time for my blog to expand to encompass all the things that I love. I’m not sure what my title, Sheep Notes means anymore. Perhaps I will comment on activities that we seem to rush into without much thought, like my sheep rushing for corn when the gate is opened. Perhaps Sheep Notes will be more of a report, notes on the world around us as seen through the eyes of a shepherd. Whatever direction it goes, Sheep Notes will continue to be a blog about the things that that are important to me. First, let me introduce you to Pelican Rapids.

Pelican Rapids is a small town in west central Minnesota. Over the last thirty years, our community transformed from a collection of farmers and small businessmen with Scandinavian or German ancestry (population about 1800) to a village including refugees and immigrants from Somalia, Bosnia, Vietnam, Ukraine, Iraq, and Mexico (population about 2500.)  Fifty years ago in Pelican Rapids it was sort of iffy if a Norwegian married a Swede. Today in Pelican, people speak at least 8 different languages. Mixed race marriages are not unusual. In fact some of the Bosnians living in town are here because there is nowhere for them to live in their home country.  Two Catholic brothers married a Muslim woman and an Orthodox woman before the war in Bosnia. They are not welcome in Bosnia or Serbia today. They are welcome in Pelican Rapids. 

The major similarity between these disparate peoples at first seems to be employment at the turkey plant in town. However, people are just people all over the world, no matter what color their skin, what religion they follow or what political party they support. Residents in Pelican Rapids have struggled to create a new definition of community that includes bridging between people with very different life experiences, building useful conversations between people who don’t even speak the same language, and imagining a set of goals which address and then solve the barriers to community, that replace the word “stranger” with the word “friend.”