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The wisdom of sheep

My family owns a small farm, nestled amid the hills, trees and lakes of west central Minnesota. On this farm we raise/support/enable a motley assortment of livestock. We began this farming enterprise years ago with a small flock of purebred Shetland sheep. Since then, the farm has unwittingly evolved into a sanctuary of sorts for long-haired renegade goats, angry rabbits, berserk llamas, and one exotic three-horned African sheep that didn’t make the cut as a house pet. Many of these animals came to us as rescues, having worn out their welcome at their previous homes. Most of the livestock are sheep of various shapes and sizes, ranging in age from newborn lambs to toothless geriatrics.

The annual shearing of the flock provides fiber and wool for hand spinners, weavers and other crafters. This diverse flock’s only occupation is to grow wool. They do a grand job of it, too, producing soft, gorgeous fleece ranging in color from creamy white to golden brown to mahogany to jet black—an entire spectrum of rich natural tones and shades, like oil paints at the earthy edge of an artist’s palette: raw sienna, red ochre and burnt umber.

“Kitty” with a lamb. Contributed photo

In the shepherd’s world spring is all about lambing. The young lambs and their mothers have just been turned out to pasture. This is the time of year when we spend much of our days watching the flock. Watching, mostly, to see that none of the lambs have wandered away—or worse—been taken by coyotes. When you spend that much time watching sheep, you’re bound to notice things.

Sheep spend most of their day grazing. They graze enthusiastically; voraciously. They don’t know how to do it any other way. When the sheep aren’t busy grazing, they are ruminating. One definition of rumination involves digestion. Another is “to contemplate, to consider, to ponder.” This sounds a lot like the behavior of the flock as it lies under the trees, collectively chewing its cud and gazing off into the middle distance.

Sheep at rest are a picture of relaxation and peace. It’s obvious they aren’t worried about whether it will rain tomorrow or whether the harvest will provide enough to feed them all come fall. Sheep live totally in the moment. There are no worries, no niggling second thoughts or anxieties to distract them from their gloriously stress-free enjoyment of a fine spring day. They luxuriate in the warmth of the sun on their faces as they relax on a grassy hillside, lambs safely tucked up by their sides.

Sheep have a natural inclination for harmony and balance. Though they are social creatures, they know the value of solitude and quiet. They don’t differentiate between the white, brown, black, tan and spotted members of the group. But they do know and remember their sisters, their mothers, their children. They form lifelong bonds and develop fierce loyalties.

Sheep are motivated by the flocking instinct. It’s what keeps them alive. Instinct tells them there is safety in numbers. Their entire lives—from birth to death—are played out within a small, close community upon these 80 acres. Everything they experience is within the context of the flock, which feeds the body and soul and builds community. They know that one cannot thrive at the expense of others.

As a rule, sheep are gentle and docile. Since they have few natural defenses, sheep typically flee when danger threatens—unless danger is threatening the youngsters. Sheep mothers are fiercely protective of their young. Whether it be a coyote, a stray dog, or even that pesky annual predator (the sheep shearer), a ewe will sacrifice her own life to protect her lamb without giving it a second thought.

Sheep don’t have hobbies, and they don’t engage in meaningless busy work. They don’t observe holidays, weekends, or pursue leisure time activities. They don’t really have any vices to speak of. They spend their time concentrating on things that matter: grazing, growing wool, raising the kids, contemplation, and resting together in the shade. There’s not a lot of wasted activity. Sheep are the kind of animal that can eke out a living on poor soil and under unfavorable conditions. Where other types of livestock would falter and die, sheep are persistent. They keep their heads down, continue grazing, making the best of available resources.

In these recent times of political strife and divisiveness, we humans might learn a lesson or two from the flock. Sheep aren’t usually known for their intelligence or common sense, yet they somehow manage to get the best of their shepherds on a regular basis. Maybe we’re not giving them enough credit.

If sheep were to offer advice on how to live, I think they’d tell us to graze voraciously during the daylight hours (i.e. be diligent workers and do the best possible job with the resources at hand). Spend plenty of time in contemplation/meditation. Enjoy the company of ordinary people.

The sheep would tell us to love and protect our children and to remember our sisters and brothers; to take special care of those who are very old and those who are very young and those who struggle to keep up with the rest. They’d advise us to work hard at maintaining the life and harmony of our communities, whatever they may be. We’re all in this together. Not bad advice, even coming from a flock of sheep.

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