I have been writing a weekly column for the town paper this summer. Since most of you don't live in my town, I wanted to start sharing some of them here. This is from a few weeks ago...hope you enjoy!
It’s getting close to weaning time for my bums lambs. It may even be past time, but I figured we might as well finish the last bag of milk replacer. This is my third batch of bums -- the other two years’ worth are in the little pasture as I write this. That includes the wether I brought home the first year, not having a clue that he, like most boys, was not meant to be a keeper. Two of those babies have babies of their own now. In the circle of life, they are passing me by. I started out as their mother and have been demoted to a kind of semi-trustworthy, younger sibling. They allow me in the vicinity of the lambs, but they would never let me babysit alone.
Pearl and Theo were my first two lambs, the beginning of this grand experiment that is slowly becoming a way of life. I can’t remember when or how I decided to take them home, but I do remember walking into a barn full of ewes soon after arriving in South Dakota and feeling like it was love at first sight. The dusty smell of fresh straw, the warm, musty air soft with the sounds new mamas make, and the gentle eyes following me as I entered; I loved it all. And bottle feeding those first two babies? Well, what can I say -- it seemed like I’d been waiting to do that all my life.
Last weekend, me and my sweetheart went to Hulett, Wyoming to visit a ranch where he used to work, and where he is summering some cows. Aptly named the Lake Ranch, it is situated in a round bowl beside Devil’s Tower and the Missouri Buttes, and therefore, beside a sparkling, sky blue lake. It is home to an odd assortment of folks: a soft spoken Italian called Ferdinando; a tough, no nonsense German gal called Heike; and another Italian who wears a silver feather in his ear, and is never without his cowboy hat, called Roby -- just to name a few. All of the folks who make the Lake Ranch their home, at least for a few months a year, share one thing in common: hippophilia, or love of horses. Many of them came from office high rises in European cities, where sitting in their cubicles, they planned vacations to the great American West. Once here, they discovered they could not go back to their old lives. In almost every case, it was a passion for horses that started it all, and for many of them, their lives now revolve around the daily care and keeping of members of the equine race.
Where does this passion come from? This singular love of a species? Early on in my time here, I discovered that most ranchers come down pretty strongly on one side or the other in a sheep versus cattle debate. As a rancher, you are either a shepherd or a cow(wo)man, and never the two shall meet. Of course, I’m exaggerating -- but only a little. Folks may keep both, but they are usually pretty opinionated on which they like better. Since my first time in the barn with the ewes, I’ve known which it was for me, and it was as clear a feeling as I’ve ever had.
I think horses are beautiful, I think cows are useful, I love my dogs and consider them something akin to family, but I am, inexplicably and inextricably, a shepherdess at heart. What does this say about me? Possibly something unflattering, especially if you take a cattle rancher’s word for it. Most consider sheep stupid, or at least capable of making spectacularly stupid choices (and they are, even a sheep lover like myself can admit that...)
In fact, it is a relatively universal idea that sheep are extraordinarily unintelligent. In the common vernacular, sheep are often used as a metaphor for humans that are foolish and easily led. Thus, the modern expression, “sheeple.” However, sheep are also mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible -- more than any other animal -- and frequently as a metaphor for God’s chosen people. In that context, being easily led is not a bad thing. Or, it’s not bad as long as you are in the “chosen flock.” If you end up with a bad shepherd? Well, then you are in trouble.
In my adulthood, I’ve come to recognize that I am neither easily led, nor a good leader, so where does that leave me? Perhaps, I am attracted to sheep because they represent something I’ve always craved, but previously lacked, namely, a sense of community. Sheep, on occasion, may make life threatening choices to stay with the flock, but the center of the flock is still the safest place to be in the vast majority of dangerous situations. Outliers are easy targets. To extend this metaphor to humans, I often wonder if our desire to get just what we want, just the way we want it, and the ability to actually achieve these desires, (often vicariously via the digital world) leaves us exposed to more harm than we realize. Like sheep, most humans find they are happiest in the company of other humans. More and more, we find ourselves in flocks of a virtual nature, with characters in television shows or movies being the other humans we spend the most time with. What does it mean to live with these new versions of flocks as the center of our lives?
It’s the kind of question I can spend a great deal of time pondering, but I don’t know that I’ll ever really reach a satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, my little sheep dog and I will continue to take our daily ramble around the pasture, stopping where we find the flock grazing, gathered peacefully together. The puppy is new to this, so she keeps trying to play with the lambs like they are puppies, confused when they don’t want to wrestle. Sometimes though, we get around to doing the job she was bred for -- waiting quietly, part of the flock, but not really. The birds over our heads twitter conversationally, the horses in the next pasture shuffle by, the grass and the wind chat in whispers, and Ellie and I sit on the outskirts, content. Being an outlier isn’t always bad, especially if it means finding a sense of belonging where you could never have anticipated it. Like the folks at the Lake Ranch, I feel blessed to be in the center of a life I could never have imagined until I arrived, breathless and bewildered. I know to some the choices I’ve made looked impossibly stupid, and certainly many of them were; but, I still believe if love is your shepherd, you will not be led astray.