I’ve never had much experience with livestock. My uncle had a 40-acre cattle farm when I was a kid, but the extent of my skills were calling in the cows each morning and scooping oats into their feed trough.
One morning a few weeks ago, Paul said that one of our work projects was shearing the fleece herd. As you can imagine, the idea of wrangling sheep was a bit intimidating.
OK—it was more than just a bit intimidating, but it was also exciting and new and something I couldn’t wait to try. They were sheep. How hard would it be?
Kelly caught Lucy, the farm’s bottle-raised ewe, and wrestled her onto her hindquarters. Watching her kick and fight was impressive. Her hooves were suddenly very present and very intimidating. After learning how to hold Lucy still, I swapped places to hold her for shearing. Kelly snipped as best he could, cutting clumps of mud and manure away from Lucy’s wool.
I propped up Lucy’s back with my legs and held her front legs still as best I could.
I felt powerless. She was heavy, she was hot, and I was a mix of anxiety and adrenaline. Life was suddenly very real, very tangible, and very on-edge.
All this from one sheep.
Lucy looked rather pitiful propped up on her hindquarters, her hind legs no longer feebly kicking out for the traction of escape. Several other farmers and I took turns holding Lucy and catching her when she wriggled free.
Later, completely out of the blue, Lucy started gurgling. I wasn’t sure at first whether it was her or me or some unseen machinery somewhere in the barn.
Lucy gurgled. She wriggled and kicked her hooves. I panicked. I held on.
And then she burped.
I was floored. It is the foulest thing I’ve smelled to date.
Lucy burped again. I couldn’t let go, so I fumed and huffed and tried to turn my face away from the smell. No such luck. We all laughed.
Except, maybe, Lucy.
Slow and Subtle Ways
“Spooning” may best describe how we held Lucy that afternoon.
No part of my college education prepared me for those moments I spent intimately acquainted with Lucy’s every nervous belch and frantic twitch.
The shearing was a trial run, the farm’s first attempt without outside help or electric shears. All things considered—the heat, the burps, the awkward manual shears—things went well for all of us. Lucy left at least half-way sheared. The rest of us left without major injury, the scent of lanolin soaked into our hands, and only the occasional haunting whiff of Lucy’s breath.
The more important lesson from this moment—even more important than the gastric physiology of ewes under duress—was that of control, or the lack thereof. In my weeks at the farm, I’ve quickly had to face the startling beauty of this truth: that we, with all our modern theories and technology, are ever at the mercy of our earth.
Whether I’m learning how to weed and harvest carrots by hand in summer heat, standing by to help wrangle a sheep, or shadowing the daily cycle of the friar’s prayer and work and study, I find myself continually reawakened to the physicality of the land and the frailty of our lives.
Even Lucy seemed to have shared in this lesson. For all her struggling and fuss and belching, she seemed to give in to our shearing and our wrangling—to know when things were beyond her control. Holding her living, dynamic, burping body against my own was a humbling, extremely odorous, lesson.
I’m learning with the Common Friars to do my best with what I’m given and respect those things beyond the scope of my power. Things like furious wind storms, power outages, and belching sheep. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it’s working now in slow and subtle ways.
2012 Summer Intern