by Kate Tvelia Athearn
As much as I love the early summer, with its fresh herbs and salad greens, its blossoming fruit trees and buzzing pollinators, farming has made me keenly aware of all the work involved in growing food. Gardens must be tilled and planned and planted and watered. Adorable baby animals must be fed and contained and cleaned up after. And the sheep all really need a haircut. Shearing season can vary from farm to farm, but usually takes place in springtime.
On Martha’s Vineyard, shearing happens around Memorial Day Weekend, when our shearer, Andy Rice, drives his pick-up truck down from Halifax, Vermont, loaded with fishing poles, electric shears, and his Border Collie, Codfish. My husband and I knew nothing of Andy’s training or experience the first time he came to shear our sheep. We didn’t know he had been shearing for 30 years. We had no idea that he had learned to shear because he didn’t like the way a shearer had treated his sheep. We had no idea he had always been more comfortable around animals than people.
We just knew that someone had to shear the sheep, and this was one farm chore we were eager to pass off onto someone else. Andy’s skill and compassion for sheep were evident the moment he touched the first ewe in our pen, and we’re still reminded of this when we see him every May. How gracefully he wrangles sheep through a series of the most un-sheeplike of positions—sitting up with all four legs out in front of her, then head down between his knees, or down on her side with her head up in the air. There is purpose in every movement, however unnatural it looks.
“If I keep her comfortable, she won’t fight me,” Andy says, and oddly enough, she does look relaxed, head flopped to one side, gazing into the pasture on the other side of the split-rail fence. He takes his time, not wanting to stress or injure her (I never realized how many soft, dangly bits sheep have until one of mine was so close to professional grade electric shears). In a matter of minutes, the entire fleece is removed from the sheep in one fuzzy blanket-like piece.
My husband bags the fleece while Andy inspects the sheep and trims her hooves (they grow like thick black toenails on steroids) and gives her a dose of wormer. Then he steps back and lets her find her own footing. Off she runs into the barn with her sisters, looking more stunned than afraid, perhaps surprised to find herself suddenly 10 pounds lighter and her waistline several inches trimmer. As relative newcomers to shepherding, it’s hard to image where we’d be without our community of sheep people. It’s not just Andy, though we are forever grateful for his contributions and guidance. It’s the spinners and knitters who teach us about the spiritual benefits of working with fiber.
It is the farmers who breathe life into our newborn lambs and help us bury those who can’t be saved. We could do it all ourselves, and we would. But it wouldn’t be the same. No part of farming is particularly complicated, but you’re always left feeling like you could use an extra hand or set of eyes. So it helps to have friends who will come by and spin a yarn or share a lamb roast. Or just sit quietly by the pasture, admiring your newly shorn flock—the lambs bounce and play, the rams ram each other, the nursing mothers graze frantically, all together. Though there are all kinds of sheep—the friendly ones, the shy ones, the ones that headbutt you when you turn your back, the fence jumpers, the one with that weird baa—there is just one flock.