Friday, May 28, 2010


     When I walk down to the barn, the air is filled with the plaintive bleating of ewes who are penned in the barn. It’s been raining every evening and they need to be dry for their shearing. Justin oils up his clippers. He is standing on a six by six foot piece of indoor outdoor carpeting that is stained with lanolin and sheep manure from years of use.
     He and his brother Scott have been helping shear sheep on the family farm since they were eight years old. Like all farm kids, they started in the wool bag which hangs from a seven foot high frame. This splintery structure holds the wool sack vertical so the fleeces can be dropped in. When the wool froths out of the top, someone must climb up and drop down into the bag to tromp on the fleeces until they fill every corner of the bag and make a tight tube. When we were first married, that was my job. It’s stinky and hot, so when the boys were old enough I gladly turned it over to them. A well packed bag will hold around twenty fleeces and weigh around one hundred thirty pounds. After wool packing, the boys graduated to fleece gathering and then to sheep catching. Justin sheared his first sheep when he was twelve years old. 
     Everything is ready, so Scott jumps in the stall and catches the first ewe by her head. A drench gun attached to a plastic bladder bag hangs from a rusty nail on the barn wall, and he slips the metal tip of it into her mouth. She pulls back, but he holds on until the two-pump dose of wormer has been delivered. Then Scott wrestles the ewe out the door to his brother. Justin twists the ewe until she is propped up on her rump. He makes his first pass with the clippers across her belly. They chatter and click as Justin pulls the ewe back into his thighs. He shears her left hip and then steps between her back legs with his right foot. The wool falls away from the ewe like a fluffy blanket as he glides the clippers up her neck to her head. She kicks and struggles, so Justin shifts his hold and admonishes her, “You aren’t accomplishing nothing. You’re just gonna get yourself in trouble.”
     The clippers buzz as Justin swivels them around to her left shoulder, and Scott darts forward with an oil can. He drips a fine stream across the comb and cutters until they are singing their chicka-chacka song again. Then with a deft twist Justin lays the languid ewe on her right side. She seems to be enjoying the tickle of the buzzing clippers. He pins her to the ground with a knee and makes several more passes with the comb until her left side is clean. The curved teeth leave raised stripes in the wooly stubble across her ribs. Then Justin steps across her body with his right foot. He grabs her ear and pulls the ewe’s head up, shearing around her right side as he rolls her into a sitting position. A few more passes and the ewe is released. She jumps to her feet, ears flapping and trots off leaving her wool behind on the mat. The whole operation has taken less than three minutes.
     A good shearer makes the job look easy. I tried it once. I lost my ewe three times and each time Joe had to chase her down, drag her back, and set her up in the correct position. He was exhausted by the time I made the last pass across the ewe’s hip. It took me thirty minutes and the poor sheep had random tags of wool hanging everywhere. She looked like she had been sheared in a blender.
     Twenty six years ago, wool sold for around eighty cents a pound. So, the average ewe yielded $4.80 worth of wool. Shearers got two dollars a head to shear, and selling wool was a profitable venture. Now, wool is bringing around fifty cents a pound and the cost of shearing has risen to three dollars an animal. A farmer is lucky to break even. But, the sheep must be sheared. Justin told me he hates shearing. It’s back breaking work, but when I asked him why he did it, he said, “How’d you like to have to wear a wool coat all summer long?” I hope the sheep appreciate their shepherd’s loving care

Monday, May 24, 2010

No Place Like Home

After spending three days in Atlanta, I am glad to return to my serene mountain home. Atlanta is beautiful in the spring, but it is a pampered, manicured, cultured beauty and my tastes, after living in the mountains for more than twenty-five years, run more towards the wild, sprawling, untamed kind. The neighborhood streets where my sister lives are tree and flower lined and I admire the majestic oaks that guard the sidewalks and doorways. Unlike the crowds of trees that march up and down my hills, these don’t have to compete for space, so their crowns are huge clouds of leaves and limbs, like the hoopskirts of a southern belle. I wanted to hug one of the largest trees on my sister’s block but it was in a stranger’s front yard, so I refrained. Yes, Atlanta’s trees are definitely one of her treasures.

But, I missed the gentle swells of my mountains. I missed long grass bowing before a spring blow. I missed daisies that sparkle beside the narrow roads and long views of nothing but cows, mountains, trees and grass. I missed beauty that is not dependent on man’s hand. And I also missed the beauty of the gentle decay of barns and sheds as they sag to the ground from the weight of all those years of work. Most of all I missed the music. Atlanta is all bass drums and trumpets while my mountains are flutes and woodwinds. Bird songs, wind songs, river songs, rain songs, leaf songs, frog songs, bee songs, barnyard songs. All of the smaller sounds survive here.

In Atlanta, I also realized that I am a small pond kind of girl. As talk swirled of vacations taken, days at the pool, accomplishments and awards, I had nothing to add to the conversation. My world is narrower and defined by the edges of the mountains around me. So was my children’s. They participated in sports and activities, but the distances meant there were limits to what they could choose. I came home feeling a little melancholy about all the missed opportunities, but as my home-from-college son and I drove the hour it takes to get to the dentist, he put it all in perspective for me. We were talking about his cousin’s upcoming scuba trip when he looked at me and said. “It sounds like a lot of work for some fun. I would much rather grab my gun and walk out into the field for an hour or two of groundhog hunting, or grab a pole and go trout fishing, or camp on our river.” Then he paused for a moment before continuing. “You know mom, all my friends from college were talking about what they were going to do or where they were going for the summer, but all I wanted to do was come home.” I guess Dorothy had it right. After the excitement of Oz, there really is “no place like home.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Working Cows

This weekend was sunny, and warm:  perfect cattle working weather. So, after closing up their small engine repair shop for the afternoon, Justin and Joe hopped on their four wheelers and zoomed out into the long pasture next to our farm. The cows were scattered over several fields so the guys wove back and forth on their ATV’s moving mamas and babies into small groups which eventually merged into one large herd. It looked like a twenty acre square dance. Finally the cows and calves were all gathered at the gate.
     I was drying dishes when I looked out the window and saw the first of the 25 cows and calves funneling through. I threw down my towel, pulled on an old pair of boots and ran outside, grabbing a big stick on my way to the cattle pen. Our set-up requires the cows to cross a small creek and then follow a fence to the end of the pen where they turn and enter. Saturday was like every other round up. Most of the cows trekked obediently to the opening, but there was one rogue cow (I won’t tell you what Joe called her) who refused to go along with the crowd. Every time we had most of the cows turned into the pen, she threw up her head, whirled around and charged past one of us (usually me) back out to the open field. Every time, Justin hopped on his four wheeler and gunned it, racing to get in front of her. Joe attempted to hold the other cows in place while I ran huffing and puffing to take up a strategic cow-turning position. Every time the cow galloped towards me, I waved my big stick and hollered hoping to turn her. But, the old cow figured out pretty quickly that I belonged in the hen house behind me with the other big chickens so she just slobbered derisively on me as she cantered past.
     Finally, she got tired of running circles and joined her bovine friends. Joe swung the gate shut and then the sort out began. He stepped into the pen with the crowded, restless herd. They signified their displeasure by stomping and bawling and kicking at him. Joe waded around in the black gumbo of feces and urine, ignoring their distress and gently sent them two or three at a time into a smaller pen. From there he moved them into a long, narrow passageway with a head chute at the end. It’s designed to fool the cows into thinking they’ve found an escape route. Each time a cow stretched her head through the narrow opening, Justin pulled a lever, pinching the gate shut around her neck. While she kicked and struggled, he climbed the fence, leaned above the 1250 pound animal, jabbed a needle into her neck and pulled it back out before she could trap his hand against the side of the pen. I was, as always, amazed at how quickly and calmly my son worked. Once the vaccine was administered, Justin poured on some wormer and then released the cow back out into the pasture where she circled around bawling until she located her calf.
     Of course I had the most important job of all. Early in the afternoon, one of the cows kicked a hole through a board in the pen. Whenever a cow sees a hole, she forces her head through it and then bulldozes her way to freedom. My job was to intimidate the cows and keep them from escaping. I am much braver when I have a fence to hide behind. The only hazard I faced was streams of liquid green poop that squirted out of the cows as they moved away. In spite of their size and stink, the cows were interesting to watch. They love their babies and a lot of their movement in the pen was directed at keeping them in sight. They were also very curious about me, sometimes smelling my scary stick and then licking their noses. A cow is not afraid to stick her tongue all the way into her nostrils.
     We finished up in about an hour and a half. Several cows were loaded into a trailer to be moved. Then, the rest were released to mosey back to the pasture, while we moseyed back to the house. As the sun sank behind the mountains, we sank into our porch chairs and listened as the last of the mamas and babies mooed their way home.