Friday, November 22nd, 2013
When I was little, I used to like to watch the Andy Griffith show – I think it was actually Mayberry, RFD, but no one called it that – it was just the Andy Griffith show. I lived in New England and so southern accents were exotic to me, and even though Providence was small enough that one would almost always run into someone one knew going to the shops, Mayberry seemed ever so much cozier. The ambiance of a town on the edge of rural life was very appealing, and the kind of soft small talk that is, in many ways, the essence of human culture, is something I treasure in Boyds and relish during shearing season, as I explore the back roads of rural mid-Atlantic America.
Despite a high falutin education, years abroad, and even more years put in wearing suits and panty hose in offices whose purposes I now cannot quite remember, I now find my greatest ease travelling around Maryland and surrounding states in spring and fall, shearing sheep, llamas, alpacas, goats, and the occasional dog and pony. While I admittedly enjoyed a quite distinctly non-blue collar educational experience, it was, in fact, my German professor Peter Demetz who introduced me to the notion of socialist labor. I had worked a service summer job and one of my best essays, according to Herr Professor Demetz, was “Ich war ein Dunkin’ Donuts Fräulein”. While in college I worked in the Yale Dining Halls (literally wearing a blue collar shirt), and I found that while a mind is a great thing to use, so is an able body. So I’ve always liked physical work. It seems to me now that it doesn’t matter a whole lot what you do, so long as you try to do it well and honestly – the money earned feels that much more real. Well, this idealism certainly freed me from the compulsion to go to law school.
And so 30 years later, when I’m not cranking out web sites, doing WordPress migrations, conducting technical training, and troubleshooting ornery computer issues for my web business, I shear. It’s the best part of the year – sort of like having a Star Gazing Farm times 100 – all those neato animals I get to meet, up close and personal. Most say it’s really an awful job (Dr. Pete, owner of 9 little old lady Karakul sheep, pronounced “you all are nuts to do this!”) Indeed, it is extremely physically demanding and often dirty, and I admit the job is not for the faint of heart. I’ve seen udders turned inside out with bluebag mastitis, have shaved maggots off of wounded skin, sheared sheep who were so caked in manure that it was almost impossible to find the body underneath all of it. I have been spat at, peed on, kicked, and occasionally thrown on my butt. But how happy the animals are to be shaved, groomed, manicured, and once again set free. Often sheep will do a straight-up-in-the-air jump when they are released from the shearing shed. How happy I am to have been with them for the day, and just by the way, I will note here that the best human invention ever was the hot shower.
Aside from the delightfully difficult physical labor and the personable animals I get to meet, my shearing travels introduce me to wonderful people. Working at their farms is like being able to go backstage at hundreds of different theaters. No, it’s even better – it’s like being paid to be a tourist in an America that, I dare say, many think no longer exists. However, Mayberry does very much still exist. The stories of both people and animals could fill a book. Most of the farmers I know have “day jobs” – so they have to bridge the same gap I do, balancing earning a living and caring for their animals. It gives us lots to talk about.
I guess farm life used to be the way most Americans lived. I do love big cities, but I also am sad about how far most people have moved away from the land. It’s true, farm life is a hard life, and, at least in this region, nearly impossible to make a living at. We all know that we will probably have to sacrifice a great deal when we choose to have animals. We know they will bring us joy, pain, and tremendous expense in equal measure. But this life is palpable, real. It is not electronic. It is not plastic. It has no “spin” on it. Farm life brings you face to face with amazing reality, things you thought you were utterly unequipped for, like a 2000 pound steer almost choking to death on an apple, or a goat hanging himself upside down by the hoof, or finding a bantam hen with her secretly hatched out 19 little chicklets. These things have a way of happening at night, and on the weekends ….. and isn’t it great to know all these farmers who will know just what to do!
These amazing farmers, my clients, are attorneys, college professors, journalists; they are auto mechanics, stay at home moms, office workers, horse trainers, and businessmen. They are active military and veterans. They are unemployed. They work in law enforcement. They work for big corporations, they work for the school system, and one is even currently running for office. Some have big families, and some are single, like me. Some of them drive more than 2 hours a day off their farm to earn their living, feeding in the dark morning and night during the winter months. That’s hard.
I’m sure we don’t see eye to eye on lots of things – but one thing I do know we share: these fine farm folks love their animals. This past summer I travelled an hour to shear just one llama for a retired man. He took both my hands in his and shook them, saying “thank you, thank you for taking care of my friend. “ I hope I can be just as gracious to all those who help at Star Gazing Farm by saying “thank you, thank you for taking care of my friends.”
Til next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats http://www.stargazingfarm.org