Words cannot express

When people come to us to buy a flock of sheep, we spend a lot of time with them, making sure that they understand the commitment and the life that they are looking to enter. Shepherding is not for the faint of heart; doing it well requires not only a time investment, but also a personal investment. As is likely obvious in reading this blog over the weeks and years, it can and eventually does include some level of heart-ache and pain. Because I want to be sure that our sheep go to new flocks that will be around for some time to come, I try to give new shepherds a realistic view of the world they are about to enter – the good and particularly the bad.

Once the new sheep are delivered, I continue with “follow-up care” for as long as the new shepherds feel they need it. These people have just entered a world in which the life and death of their new sheep – previously members of my own flock – hang in the balance. I want to make sure that they have the very best chance of success possible, so mentoring is included in our deal. I figure they can use all the help they can get.

On reflection, I realize that I likely spend a lot more time with people explaining all of the things that can go wrong than right, since the things that go wrong are where the pitfalls lie. I don’t want them or their flocks to fall into these dangers, so I do a lot of warning – watch your flock for pneumonia during dramatically changing weather and treat accordingly, or make sure to quarantine new flock members before turning them out with the flock. Oh, yes, I do tell them about the sweet friends that they will make and the play of newborn lambs, but these mentions are likely minor in comparison to the warnings – I know that they will experience these for themselves, and there is no way to explain in words what it feels like when they occur.

Yesterday evening at about dusk, I got a call from one of this year’s new shepherds. When I answered the phone, it was obvious that he was outside, as the sound of the gentle breeze crackled against his phone or Bluetooth earpiece in the background. When I heard this, I immediately went into problem-solving mode; a new shepherd calling from the field generally means trouble, and I was ready to help.

Yet this call was entirely different. This new shepherd was calling me to share what he was experiencing in the moment. As he went to visit his flock in the field near dusk to check breeding markings for the day, the youngest flock members had begun to run playfully across the field, kicking up their heels in the cooling evening temperatures and gamboling like very young lambs. As they ran, the older ewes began to join them, and as he watched, even the stodgy old girls joined in on the fun, until the entire group was celebrating the cool fall weather, the pink, orange and red Iowa sunset, and the joy of being alive and healthy. They played and ran as night drew near – and this shepherd was lucky enough to experience it all!

The flock at play over the manure pile in 2014.

The flock (including lambs and adults) at play, running over the manure pile in 2014.

These are the moments that I cannot explain – and I said as much to him. It is something that has to be experienced for oneself. It is moments like this that make all of the heartaches of flock life throughout the year worthwhile – these glimpses into the world of sheep that draw you in and fill you with joy and peace. They generally do not last long, but fill you with enough goodness to last quite a while and carry you through those times when you aren’t sure you can push through.

He stood out in the field on his cellphone, describing the scene and laughing – just laughing – and I laughed, too, on the other end of the line. It was a call of joy and laughter. In my mind’s eye, I knew exactly what he was seeing, since I’ve seen this same scene many times before! The sight of old, big-bellied ewes running like lambs, leaping over small branches or divots in the ground, kicking up their heels and joining the young at play. They leaped – not because they had to, but because they could – and celebrated the fact that they could still run like this with their daughters, grand-daughters, and even great-grand-daughters. As I mentioned earlier, it is something that words cannot adequately express, so I will leave it at that.

As I reflect on this call, I realize that it takes only one experience like this one – one joyful moment with the flock – to offset weeks and months of worry or to make so very much heavy labor seem worthwhile. I have not often had the opportunity to share these moment with others – they are usually reserved for me and my flock, alone but together. Yet with this call, I was not only able to share this moment of delight with another human being, but was able to share this shepherd’s first exposure to the exhilaration of nature’s creation. Words cannot express.

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