Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (4 page)

I love the grays of spring skies and the gleaming intensity they give to my favorite shade of willow green. Blue skies have never had the appeal to me in the country that they have for most people. It was only yesterday, while walking the dogs, that I noticed the rushing clouds throughout the pale blue sky reflected in my neighbor's pond,
and I realized why. I was raised where blue and green were spotty occurrences, minor interferences between the blue of the New England sky reflected in the broad Thames River emptying into Long Island Sound. Now, that is what makes blue, at best, blue and sea blue green, blue everywhere.

Peterman understands how to appeal to a kind of human longing, in the text for text it certainly is in his catalogs. A wish for something both foreign and familiar, an intimacy with places and things just a little bit out of the ordinary, worlds that exist in imagination far more easily than in reality. He evokes the distinctive longing that accompanies spring, whether of gray or blue sky. We all have experienced it. My neighbor found a newborn lamb in my barn last night while I was at work. Tiny, wet, loud, born to a 14-month-old. She called for instructions. The mother wouldn't nurse it. I told my neighbor what to do. I was so far away. I felt so helpless. Instinct tells me it has only a slim chance of making it. This morning's report, heard while I was still at work, included snow. On the daffodils. The lamb's struggle seems entwined with this spring's, trying to get a toehold on life.

This winter was not as brutally harsh as the one before, though certainly far more relentless. The sheep and I had begun to forget that grass would ever grow. I'm about to order a book once more from the library. It is called
Food in England
, by a historian named Dorothy Hartley. My daughter-in-law tracked it down for me once, but its price was too dear and I still haven't bought it.

The English cherish a tree we view as a weed, the thorn apple, and one of the things they value it for is the first new green tips of the leaves. They eat them, sometimes rolled up jellyroll fashion with thin slices of bacon in a kind of bread. Supposedly it is a tonic and is looked upon as a wonderful first green thing to eat after the brown and orange of winter-stored vegetables. A kind of restauratif, for lack of a better word, for the winter body, starved for green.

My favorite and much-longed-for early spring food, besides asparagus, is dandelion leaves. Once available, I eat them every day at my noontime dinner, boiled potatoes, bacon cooked till crisp but not hard, taken from the pan then drained somewhat of fat, a clove of garlic, well crushed, two handfuls of washed, chopped dandelion leaves thrown in, wilted. A splash of cider vinegar, bacon returned to heat slightly, and all tossed with the hot boiled potatoes. Suddenly longings cease and all becomes right in the world. I love the morning chores in springtime, tending to the flock trimming feet, mucking out the barn, only to come into the kitchen, warm from the woodstove, potatoes boiling, dandelions washed, all ready to prepare and assemble that familiar salad of the French countryside. In a sense I've created the longing that anticipates spring within my own environment, and its satisfaction as well.

My flock and I are ready, quite ready, for the dandelion greens.


April day this May 17th, damp, raw, and rainy. The colors of the trees are pink and wine and claret and willow green and cream. The kitchen was a startling, but not unexpected, forty-six degrees when I came home early in the afternoon, after bringing my fleeces to the wool pool in Norwich.

I've made coffee and started the fire and eaten some of the strawberries I bought on the way home. Today is a day off for me, of sorts. One of the three I've had this year. I'm reluctant to change into barn clothes; I'd like to hold on to the slightly altered perspective just a little longer.

Today, the annual spring ritual was repeated. Sheep, relieved of their winter coats a couple of weeks ago, spring forth across the brook and up the hill to pasture. And all shepherds embark on what is for most a longish journey to the Collecta. Vans and trucks and pickups all join in the long, slow line to unload bags of fleeces onto a table to be sorted and tossed into great wheeled wooden trolleys, rolled and lifted onto a scale, tipped and dumped onto the floor, pitchforked into piles, and pushed into a press. Which is then hand-cranked to tightly fill the huge burlap bags. Gone are the days when they were packed by people jumping into them. Noticing the repeated glitches in the working of the press made me wonder once more about the true efficacy of some of our labor-saving
devices. The long row of coarse bags holding the wool stacked against the wall looked amazingly similar to drawings I've seen in old books.

We all watched the bags being emptied out onto the table. Arthur Hillis did most of the lifting and organizing with a spirit of willingness and cooperation, a very arduous job. We watched and talked some and watched again.

A few years ago, before any idea of owning sheep ever entered my mind, I wrote a research paper about wool. Mediaeval English wool, to be exact. I had both a personal and professional interest in the subject. As I was bent on becoming a mediaeval historian and needed to learn how to research, it was a perfect fit. How perfect, I wasn't to learn for some time. David Bernstein, my history professor at Sarah College, helped me design the research project as part of my conference work in his class.

The Cistercians, in 1131, settled a barren area of Yorkshire laid waste and depopulated some decades earlier by William the Conqueror. The handful of monks brought with them sheep, primarily to shear to produce the wool needed to make the monks' white habits.

I embarked on the task of researching the history of these monks, with specific interest in learning about the development of their use of wool into an industry. Its subsequent renown and amazing impact on England continues today, where the current economy remains substantially buttressed by the sale of wool and clothing made thereof. Never dreaming that I should ever “farm it,” ever raise sheep or have fleeces of my own, I started a most delightful and somewhat dusty journey.

The most fun was when I read about the old methods of training one's “dogge,” how to shear the sheep, roll fleeces, wash and clean them, obtain lanolin, and skein yarn. Of the sheep, nothing was lost. Of course, this fit perfectly into a corner of my Yankee soul.

Shearing and the handling of wool is not very different today from in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The principal difference seems to be in the shears. Few still clip with the hand shears used for centuries. The biggest change is that we waste more, use less, and work as much. We may even have fewer of the attendant pleasures.

I had expected little from this year's shearing. I was uncertain if the yield would be worth the trucking. Two fleeces were from five-month-old lambs, three were from ewes that had rubbed theirs nearly off, and I held back two from which to make pillows. But the letter from the wool pool was encouraging, and I packed the sixty or so that were left. I must be lifting too many fifty-pound bales of hay to judge how heavy twenty pounds is. The sacks of fleeces all seemed like ten pounds to me. So that yellow slip of paper given to me at the end of the Collecta held a surprise. At first I thought the number representing my earnings was the weight. There must be some mistake. But no. The sheep shall pay for their own shearing this year.

It was a time to smile and strike up conversations with people never encountered before or perhaps seen only once or twice a year. A time to tell the truth or to lie, the truth too disheartening, sharing stories quietly and slowly. The stories all seemed to be infected with a kind of almost imperceptible joy.

There remains a quality about newly shorn wool, however, that defies explanation. And this quality, a kind of very quiet, very basic satisfaction, has a kinship similar but not identical to the sights and smells and pleasures of the bread bakeries that exist in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side of New York and the seventeenth arrondissement in Paris. The customers have an air of subdued expectancy, culminating in an equally subdued but observable satisfaction. They glance at each other from the corner of their eyes, a trace of a smile around the edges; the selection between the breads from the trays and the wire bins assumes a monumental
seriousness and importance. And once in a while a pair of customers, coming together, will gleefully say, “Smell the bread! Isn't it wonderful?”

No one was saying, “Isn't this wonderful!” aloud today, but that feeling was in the air. A lot of us had experienced the comment, “Isn't it wonderful! You must sell the wool,” from the many people who feel obliged to comment about our occupation, followed, inevitably by the words, “but I couldn't bring myself to sell the lambs for meat.” And now here we all were. Shepherds. With our fleeces. All under one roof. Maybe that feeling of joy and hope in the county fair building was contributed to, in part, by all of those little sparks of joy we'd experienced in people's eyes while saying, “Oh, you sell the wool.” For, indeed, yes, of course, we sell the wool.


degrees this morning deep in the mountains on this the first day of summer. I slept with extra blankets, but they were not quite warm enough. The wind was blowing fiercely all through the night. I'd half awaken to the sound of it, convinced that it was raining. I'd fall back asleep to the sound of my own voice inside my dreams saying, “I knew it would rain today. No hay.”

Hay is being cut today that is earmarked, in all probability, for me. Last winter I bought hay by the week, delivered, on occasion, to my front doorstep. The snow had made it impossible to drive a truck to the barn. The effects of all events here have a tendency to linger. My lawns are still scarred from the plow's valiant attempt to move six-foot drifts, both blown and packed. And the effect of carrying those 150 bales each week on sleds up the hill to the barn has lingered as well. Acceptance has its grim side. Sometimes, the process I've developed in winter of shutting down my thoughts, or not protesting, “just doing it,” can be a little unwise.

And so I sit in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee, wearing both a sweater and a jacket, looking out at the sky that is pristine and blue. A breeze blows through a screened-in window, lifting the edges of the white linen tablecloth.

Samantha, my new dog, as contrasted with her mother, Steele, my old dog, both neither quite new nor quite old, is allowed, this morning, a rare time in the house. Steele stays with me, and Sam stays out. Don't ask me why: I've forgotten the rationale. Samantha is
thrilled to be in the house and rejoices, as only a six-month-old puppy can, leaping and barking and wiggling all around me. She went right to the stove to see if there were any crumbs left from yesterday's baking. There were. And now there aren't.

I love her very differently from the way I love Steele. Steele was treated, before she came to me, with an odd mixture of severity and love. And it shows. She used to disobey her last master on occasion, and he'd throw his hat into the air, jump up and down, and shout at her. She would then make some very irritating and unfortunate maneuvers.

It has just occurred to me, knowing as I do the intelligence of this fine animal, to wonder, was she attempting to train him? Of course! The rationale was, if you yell at me and never allow me to go into the house in the worst of winter and persist in feeding me generic dog food, I'll sometimes run the sheep (he had four hundred) in the exact direction that you don't want them to go. Until you learn not to yell, stomp your foot, and throw your hat. He didn't. I was more easily trained. Steele came one April day to begin her new life with me. She never looked at the truck when her prior owner drove away.

We went out in the meadow together that first day. I tested her, saying, “Home.” She went straight to my back porch and stood at the door. I opened it and in she went.

When Jim, her original owner, came to tea one day several months later, Steele sat on her favorite chair in the living room and watched us. As he left, she turned her head away from the door and seemed to gaze into the farthest distance a dog's mind could imagine.

The first year we were together, Steele occasionally performed the reverse of the maneuver that I needed. I quickly learned that she needed to think she was more important to me than the sheep. I'd
then stop everything, go over to her, and make her run through the basic commands. “Come on by” being a left turn, “away to me” a right. “Put them in the barn.” “Bring them to me.” “Steady.” “That will do,” which brings her to a stop and then a straight-line run to me. I'd do whatever was required to reinforce our rapport, repeating the necessary move until she was satisfied, perhaps, that I'd never or rarely ever yell at her, never throw anything at her, and always love her. She seemed to have trained me thoroughly, because we haven't gone through this refresher course in some time.

In the winter, Steele sleeps on a washable throw on my bed. In the summer, she sleeps on her favorite chair in the living room. And when guests come, she is in perfect readiness to show her skills in an informal sheep demonstration, rushing to the spot I always put her on to begin the exercise.

We have our routine. I whisper to her, “Come on by, I want those sheep in the barn,” as she stands next to me at eager attention. And off she goes. A visitor once asked me, “What did you tell her?” “I told her to make a wide left-hand turn behind the flock and bring them across the brook, over the bridge to the barn.” “No,” she said, “you couldn't have.” “What did you just see her do with those hundred sheep?” I replied.

Steele loves to swim and fish in the little swimming hole we have in the brook. She is alert in motion, especially if one of us is there to throw pebbles for her to try to catch in midair. It is her favorite game, this huntress who tries to catch birds in flight and catches frogs in the culvert in the summers with my grandson. And now she lies on the back porch in the sun as I sit on the grass, seemingly asleep but in fact absolutely alert.

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