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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

My Life as a Shepherdess

By Lyn Burnstine of The Lynamber Times

My daughter and her family recently invited some friends to pasture a flock of sheep on their large, grass-covered “back forty” in Jericho, Vermont, from which there is an unbelievably beautiful, long view of Mt. Mansfield. The sheep add to the charm of the pastoral scene, and it makes cutting the grass a whole lot easier!

When I was a teenager in central Illinois, I had two different purposes for raising sheep: money and boys! I had already turned my hand to the business venture of raising livestock – cashing in a $15 war bond to buy twelve ducklings, then selling them to a local grocery store at the end of the summer, thus doubling the investment to buy myself a gold watch from Sears. My first.

They were darling little bundles of yellow fluff that soon grew into annoying, gawky, loud creatures that constantly needed buckets of water dumped into a small, concrete fish pond in our back yard since we had no natural source of water on our property. Every day, all day, in the Illinois heat, I lugged those pails of water.

When it came time to sell them, my father, the son of a country butcher, beheaded them and my parents and I began the smelly, tedious task of first pulling off the feathers, then coating the carcasses with paraffin to help remove the pin feathers one by one with the blade of a table knife.

Did I mention that there were 12 ducks? To this day, I don’t enjoy eating duck meat unless it is rendered completely unidentifiable. (Actually I could easily become that way about chickens and turkeys also.) And, needless to say, I wasn’t about to repeat that experiment!

So, when I joined the boys’ 4-H so as to meet boys (I was also in a girls’ 4-H where we sewed clothing), I chose sheep as my project: neat, clean, comparatively quiet, needing very little water and much more receptive to herding! I won’t say I didn’t work hard. I did.

To feed and water them, I struggled out to the orchard on winter evenings in the dark, bitter cold, juggling a flashlight in one hand and the grain ration in the other – no street lamps out there, folks!

No matter what time I and my father, a teacher and part-time farmer, got home from our school and after-school activities – grocery-shopping and my part-time, after-school job at the local newspaper – the animals had to be fed. In snow, rain or wind, which the Illinois prairie is noted for, the ice had to be broken in their water buckets and the feed carried out to them.

My father served as a flawless role model to me. By then, he had a small herd of milking cows and I saw him faithfully caring for them in all kinds of weather, whether sick or well, tired or cold.

Summer was more idyllic – the sheep happily fed on the grass, with a few oats thrown into their diet, but water still had to be carried out in buckets. Summer was also County Fair time, and, even though I made it all the way to the Illinois State Fair with my home-crafted, peplum dress, I only got as far as the Douglas County Fair with my sheep.

For that, my close friend, Ann, and I rode in the back of a pick-up truck driven by her father, the ag teacher at the high school, with my sheep and her calf – our 4-H projects. We were careful not to give them much to drink before the trip. Our main goal was just to stay out of their way and try to keep them calm.

Both of us had groomed and curried them to a splendid state for showing; I even clipped my sheep’s woolly coat to a smooth, pristine, white surface. My hands were the softest they've ever been, with all that lanolin!

Sheep are not terribly smart and do not bond to people, as far as I know; the best you can hope for is that they are docile and easily guided. Their main interest is in food, it seems, but we all know they are playful when young, as in the proverbial “gamboling lambs.”

I didn’t even name mine and only became attached to one – a baby that arrived too early in spring and only lived for a few hours, despite our efforts to warm and feed it behind the Warm Morning coal stove in our dining room – our house’s only source of heat except for a cook stove in the kitchen.

My memory of not trying to tame them surprises me since I tamed even nasty feral cats to sit on my lap and feisty roosters to answer me and to wait on the porch while I ate supper (see my archives for My Life with Chickens).

I would probably never have retrieved this shepherdess memory if my daughter hadn’t posted on Facebook that one of the sheep escaped while the owners were putting up some fencing. My body memory clicked in to 60-some years ago, and I wrote back, “Laurel, if you need to lead the sheep again, just stand astride it, knees clenching just ahead of the back legs, close your clasped hands in front of its neck, and walk it slowly into the corral.” (You do, however, have to catch it first.)

She will surely chuckle when she gets it, remembering the time I wrote about having awed her sister with my ability to wrangle chickens – another body memory from long ago.

I started with a small flock, but eventually those woolly, four-legged, Hampshire lassies financed my two years of college with the sale of their progeny and their sheared fleeces – a much better investment than ducklings.

Lyn Shepherdess This photo is of the medal won at the county fair – it says achievement, 4-H, and shows a lamb's face. There was an honorable mention ribbon attached – long since gone – and the medal is about the size of a fava bean, but there it sat today, in the drawer among many music competition medals – a tribute to getting a balky ewe to walk around a judging ring without either of us tripping over the other; the dumb sheep and the bright, but gawky, teenager of 62 years ago!

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


You showed great initiative in your money making endeavors. I admire you for being so industrious. It takes a lot of courage to go out after dark in freezing weather to take care of livestock. That's why I would never be a good farmer.

Lyn - Great story as usual!

It never ceases to amaze me how those growing up on farms can groom, tend, and nurture cows, sheep, pigs, and fowl, and then send them off to the butcher. Whenever I think about this, I seriously consider becoming a vegetarian - But I never do! - Sandy

A great story! Thanks!

Sandy, don't think I didn't cry and plead with my father a few times to spare a life! For 40 years now, I've been a flexitarian: mostly non-meat, but fish & fowl. Meat only occasionally when it's offered outside my home & never rare.

A Flexitarian! That is a new word to me and I Love it!

I really enjoy the stories of your childhood, Lyn. You are so good at descriptions.The animals and how cold it was and how hard it was to water and feed them properly.

You have a storehouse of memories and it is wonderful that you are sharing them with us.

I thoroughly enjoyed this. The County Fair was held every year in my hometown in southern Wisconsin. I even wrote a song about it that has a verse mentioning the 4H girls:

The men are all talking by the John Deere Tent
They'll give you shirt pocket buttons, don't cost a cent
And the 4H girls all act so shy
And they all stop talking when you're passing by.

And when you wake up in the morning you can feel it in the air
It's time again for the County Fair
And if you're looking for me, well you can find me there
'Cause it won't be back again until Summer.

Don't sound to me like you were one a those shy ones, Lyn. :-)

You start my day with a smile. Thank you.

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