Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Lately, I’ve been letting my flock of sheep stay out later, the afternoon sun warming their backs as they graze those last bits of lush green pasture before getting locked safely into their pen for the night. They meander up when the time is right, some kind of biological clock telling them the long day is over and that it’s time for a warm bed of hay and rest.
On one night in particular, the girls headed straight for their favorite spots, all in a row, one by one. They reminded me of elephants walking head to tail, each one holding onto the tail in front of her. Behind them were the six lambs, following along as if they, too, knew it was time. The moms began settling in nicely, easing themselves into wind-down mode.
Suddenly, as if someone turned on a switch, all six lambs did a 360 and raced right back out of the pen. They ran to one side and just stood there, bunched up and leaning against one another, and I swear they were smiling. Then, from a completely still position, the two biggest ones leaped straight in the air, did a half nelson, and landed back down with very pleased looks on their faces. Like a bunch of 5-year-olds, they stood there as if to say, “We’re not ready for bed yet.”
All I could think of was the times when, as mothers, we’ve called our kids to come in from playing in the garden and have gotten the “Oh, Mom, just five more minutes” reply. I might have thought it was time to close the gate, but the babes had other plans. As I approached, they took off like a shot, ran down the pasture, did a complete once-around and then headed straight for the pen. Neither I nor their moms were in charge. “Teenagers,” I said to myself. “They’re like a pack of adolescents, feeling their oats.”
Once the babes were back in the pen, each one found its mama and then, when and only when they were ready, they started settling down. I’ve been told that, when you’re around animals long enough, you’ll come to learn that you’re not actually the boss. For me, giving up control is a good thing. I’ve always thought I was in charge, but farming has taught me otherwise. Once again I’m reminded that I’m there to keep them safe and to tend them, to feed them and to enjoy them, but really, they have their own nature. I’m learning to respect that and allow them to be, well, sheep. More than that, I’m learning to enjoy it.
I had a great experience recently in selling my first lamb, a sweet black ram who went to live on a farm in Houlton, Maine. I’m not a life-long Mainer, and I’m still learning how big this state is. When I got a call from a gentleman who wanted a black ram for wool, I asked him where he was. Houlton, he said. Since my trips generally keep me within a 50-mile radius of the midcoast, I had no idea where that was. Almost to Canada, he told me.
I was intrigued—and a little leery of how we were going to connect from there to here. He told me he is 80 years old, still farming, and has an all-black flock. We planned to meet at noon on a Saturday in Searsport to make the exchange. At 1:30 I was still waiting and feared he had gotten lost somewhere along the way. As I sat in my Volvo wagon with the babe quietly munching on hay in the back, I began to have reservations about selling this little one. The man had admitted he was getting up there in age, didn’t get around too well, and, frankly, seemed a little confused about things. But when he arrived, my reservations vanished.
He was upset that he was so late and that I had been waiting so long. He had gone the wrong route and stopped several times to ask the way before finally figuring it out. Turns out someone gave him the wrong directions, or maybe he heard them wrong. Doesn’t matter. The way he put it was: “I don’t think most people know where they are on this earth.” He was wearing—I swear—a starched pair of jeans. I know they were a lot cleaner than mine, with big suspenders holding them up. His big farmer hands rested on the steering wheel of the pickup as we talked for a few minutes, and then he made out a check for the babe. He brought out a big wooden box, a beautiful thing someone had made for him to transport a pig. He also brought a blanket to cover the lamb, “in case the wind was too cold.” He said he didn’t want the little guy to get the sniffles.
I almost cried. I did on the way home.
People amaze me. I was sitting there, annoyed that my carefully planned day was getting taken up with delivering a lamb to a man who couldn’t find his way out of Houlton. Now I’m just grateful the lamb found a home with a farmer who will tend this little guy as he becomes a daddy to his own flocks. We parted with the farmer inviting me to come visit. He said he’d even clean up the house. I told him that, when the season was over and before the flakes flew, I’d try to do just that.
I feel so lucky when I meet the greatest people and they happen to be farmers. I wish that everyone, human and animal, could have warm blankets to keep the sniffles away and somebody’s big, warm hands to guide them through life. In the meantime, I’ll keep watch over my own peaceable kingdom—a partnership of the simplest kind.
Dyan Redick describes herself as “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney-cross ﬂock, goat milk soap, lavender, woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food source, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the Earth.
Photo - Bittersweet Heritage Farm