Saturday, July 11, 2009

the society of lamb and wool

I arrived at Merck Forest and Farmland Center early. My car pulled into the dirt parking lot a little after 8AM. My heart was beating faster than usual. If you're new to this blog (and my story) know that being a full-time shepherd is the dream. There is nothing I want more than to own a little land, raise lambs, harvest wool, and herd with my collies by my side. I was about to enter the world of people I idolize: The Society of Lamb and Wool. A scrappy, but thriving subculture of the 21st century: modern shepherds.

I had emailed a few folks in the club letting them know I'd be there and willing to help, but I had no idea what was in store for me. Volunteering a sheepdog trial can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it means running water bottles and bagged lunches to judges across the field, and other times it means wrestling with Scottish Blackface ewes... (I know. I had done both over the past year.) Just in case I was asked to work the pens, I wore my favorite old boots and put a fresh change of clothes in the car. I would do what I was asked, and I'd do it gratefully.

I also brought my banjo. I did not know if there would be a time and place for music, but I feel that acoustic instruments are like guns or condoms—it's better to have one and not use it than really need one and not have it. I threw my 5-sting in the back and considered myself protected.

Anyway, back to this trial.

I walked the quarter mile through the forest into the open fields. As the trees parted and the morning light filtered through the branches—I stopped to take in the whole picture, like a still from a movie set. A team of horses was coming down the path in front of me, pulling a wagon (taxi service from the parking lots). I sighed the sigh of a woman who had found the life she yearned to live. Relief and panic swept over me like falling in love, which I was.

And it's hard not to fall hard for this world. It really is beautiful. Open Northeast woods with rolling hills of sheep and cattle. Footpaths going in every direction. A fishing pond with children and poles. Post barns with heavy horses in harness outside, waiting their turns to carry their loads. Under the white tents people sat and watched the trial as an announcer explained the course. Sheep bleated from side pens while border collies trotted everywhere—my future partners in labor and crime.

I wasn't there five minutes when Steve Whetmore walked up to me. Steve's been in the New England Sheepdog scene for years. He's one hell of a breeder and trialer. He smiled, shook my hand welcome, and asked me if I wanted to Scribe today? I told him I would be happy to. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I walked down to the judges area and let myself into the trial field to find out. The gate was nothing more than some bailing twine holding a plastic panel. I smiled warmly as I unraveled it to let myself in. This green twine from haybales has found it's way into every corner of my life now. It was only proper to find it at the gates of heaven as well.

Scribing means you sit next to the judge and write down scores as he calls out points being removed. You also keep time. The man of the hour: David Young (a Quebec shepherd and trialer of twenty years). David judged from the bed of his beautiful Ford 250 and I sat next to his tires in a folding chair with a clipboard and a kitchen timer. I was too shy to ask if I could sit in the truck alongside him. (To me trial judges are a form of royalty and pages don't ask to share the thrown.) I knew my role and set the clock for seven and a half minutes. I watched the dogs. I tried to learn all I could.

Scribing a sheepdog trial means you get a front row seat. It's like being the umpires water boy at a baseball game. You sit right by the post (home plate) and as the handler sends his dog out to gather the sheep you watch it all happening right in front of you. David was a friendly and easy-going guy. He answered all my questions and explained when a dog did something exceptionally well or horrid. I quickly realized how invaluable of a learning experience this was, and shut up as he explained about proper outruns and healthy lifts. I am learning this more every year. I watch the dogs like normal people watch fireworks - calm awe and constant wonder. Every time a dog was finished and the handler patted his hip and said "That'll do" my heart stopped. If they only knew how much the chubby girl in the bandana sitting behind them wanted to say those words to her own sheepdog...

I swear to god, in the field above us a man played the bagpipes. Perfect.

I did this all morning. For hours in full sun, I sat by David's truck and watched the advanced dogs work. When another scribe came to relieve me I took a short walk around the farm. I walked past the shearing demonstrations where Jim McRae was trying to explain to come summer vacationers why it's okay for lambs to be weaned from their mothers. Jim was the man who sheared my sheep this past spring. I said hello and chatted with him for a bit before walking up to the hog and chicken pens. Merck focuses on heritage and sustainability. The animals on the land are all historic livestock breeds of New England. Barred Rock hens, Randall Lineback Cattle, and Tamworth hogs. I walked around their pens and houses under the shadow of the giant windmill that generates much of the farms electricity. Grazing animals, renewable energy, farmers and happy people... If Vermont has any say in the future of this country it is very bright one indeed. I'm a proud patriot of this state.

It's hard to believe that last year, while watching this same trial, I was brand new to this life. I walked onto the fields as a spectator last July. Back then the idea of having sheep was ridiculous. Yet here I was a year later and so much has changed. Somehow I managed to get hoofstock and today I am shepherd. (Yes. I only have a few sheep, but I do indeed have them. And I promise you they are only the beginning...) And now after a year of clinics, and trials, and lessons and the failed-adoption of Sarah, I stood before that whole world mildly competent.

I stayed for the whole trial and ended up scribing the last ten dogs. I was slightly shocked to see Donald McCaig come out into the field with his bitch June. I read Donald's book Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men last winter and loved it. I was so very inspired by it. And here before me was the man who's story about finding a border collie in Scotland had kept me company in my cold winter cabin... (They say people never forgot seeing Elvis live? Well, McCaig's kinda like that for me, but with lanolin on his mustache.) I took down his scores like everyone else's. How the hell did I land here? I could not stop smiling.

Tonight as the thunder rolls outside the cabin I'm just plain happy. All the bad vibes from the past week are washed away and replaced instead with this pounding hope in my fiddle-stringed heart. A hope that I too will be a charter member in the Society of Lamb and Wool. But in the meantime I am here.

In the bathroom the next generation of CAF poultry is chirping away. (I can hear them as I write you.) Outside the garden is soaking up every drop of this summer rain. Another litter of rabbits is on the way soon, and so is the possibility of a new black ram lamb. On Monday Finn and I will hit the trail. On Tuesday I'll go back to work refreshed. Everything is happening slowly, but it is happening. And that isn't to say everything is perfect. (Hell no and far from it) But I see no reason to focus on the poorer half of my heart this weekend. Tonight I'll fall asleep tired and happy with kind dogs and a novel by my side.

Tomorrow I'll return to help again. Every day at a sheepdog trial is another step down the right road to life I can't wait to turn around three times on and lay down in. Which I will walk down past trotting horses and their carts in my comfortable boots. I'll find my farm, and when I do I'll meet you there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I came here after reading a great article in Mother Earth News. I have to say how impressed I am. Happy to hear you how great your day was. I will be popping back in to read more and more :)

July 11, 2009 at 11:43 PM  
Anonymous annie said...

What an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing your day with us. It brought a smile to my heart.

July 12, 2009 at 12:20 AM  
Anonymous René said...

Sounds like your hard work at the last few trials got rewarded today. Although who knows what they'll have you up to tomorrow! I had to chuckle at your description of seeing an author you've read out on the field since I'm sure a few of us would feel just as chuffed to get to see you in person. Speaking of writing, I hope the book proposal is going well. Looking forward to hearing more from you.

July 12, 2009 at 2:40 AM  
Blogger MrsL said...

That's a wonderful post; hope you achieve everything you want in the world of sheep. Growing up in Scotland, I saw a lot of working dogs, and most of my ancestors were shepherds, so it's in me somewhere!



July 12, 2009 at 3:22 AM  
Anonymous Erica in San Jose said...

AH! Jenna, you are a fantastic writer. I tell you, your words draw me in and I was there!! Almost brought me to tears to read your heartfelt wonder and awe and respect and just plain out-loud-in-black-and-white dreaming!!! I love it. Thank you for sharing your day. It made mine.

July 12, 2009 at 3:45 AM  
Blogger Chance said...

So vivid I could hear the sheep bleat. I commend your work to be a Modern Shepard, I'll celebrate with you when you tell us about your land and your huge flock of heirloom sheep when you get there, but please don't ever let being a shepard stop you from expressing your True Gift, which is writing...thank you for that wonderful post.

July 12, 2009 at 4:25 AM  
Blogger Vera said...

Hi Jenna, My first blog...thanks for sharing. I am in awe of these beautiful sheep that provide us with wool so that I can try to make hooked rugs after it is spun,woven and dyed. I picture them in my mind when I am working on another fiber project. Thanks again!

July 12, 2009 at 6:47 AM  
Blogger Patsy from Illinois said...

I giggle to myself when reading today's post. I know you have a smile on your face and a satisfied heart. God provides joy for us in the simplest of ways. For the simple ways are indeed the best.

July 12, 2009 at 8:53 AM  
Blogger finsandfeathers said...

Super dooper mondo cool day!!

Hope you have another one today. Sounds like you're having a pretty nice birthday weekend.

July 12, 2009 at 12:02 PM  
Blogger nancmcp said...

Jenna, I love the way you write. Thanks for sharing your farm and life w/ us!

July 12, 2009 at 3:21 PM  
Blogger Conny said...

Thanks so much, Jenna, for writing about your experience at the Merck trials. I was hoping that you would. :>)

Erica in San Jose - I too live in SJ. Sure wish we had that kind of thing here. 'though I'd be willing to drive a few hours to see it.

July 13, 2009 at 2:57 PM  

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