Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot – Episode 1
Predation is the nightmare of a shepherd. In the natural order of things, sheep were cast as fodder, having almost no means of self-protection. So “watching your flock by night” is a day job as well, which would be fine if it weren’t for the 10,000 other jobs expected of a modern-day farmer. Some viable solution for dealing with predators was crucial. The problem was no one had such a solution when we went farming, until we read about livestock guard dogs. It did make us tremble, dogs being one of the top predators of sheep, but we were desperate and gullible. And occasionally the universe smiles on the guileless, seemingly renaming their naiveté, faith. This is the story of how Dali came into our lives. This is also the story of faith rewarded.
The Coming of Dali
We hadn’t intended to buy a dog that day; we were just going to look. How could you not be curious about a dog described as a string mop with fangs? Our search took us to a bushy part of central Alberta where farms hung on hills to stay out of the sloughs. It was stark, uninviting country.
The farm we visited was like so many others I’d seen. There was no theme to it. Many old run-down buildings, too tattered to be truly functional but too costly to replace, dotted the barnyard. Need had been their designer, organization and charm remaining desirable yet unattainable dreams. What was unusual about this particular farm, however, was the welcoming committee. No farmer in rubber boots and checkered red and black flannel shirt strolled slowly toward our truck. No squealing children ran out delighted to see a new face. Rather, we were greeted by a huge, grey-white, prehistoric looking creature that could comfortably rest its chin on the window sill of the truck while standing with all fours on the ground. Fred whispered in amazement, “My god, its nose is the size of my fist,” as he leaned away from the window he’d rolled down as we drove into the yard.
We couldn’t see its eyes since long dreadlock-like cords of hair covered everything. We could, however, hear the deafening bark and the quiet vibrating growls on the inhales. Fred slid his hand along the door panel ever so slowly until he seized the window handle. He started to turn it bit-by-bit hoping to put a sheet of glass between us and the beast outside. I couldn’t tell if my heart was pounding out of fear or fascination, for until that moment in my life, I had never seen anything like that creature outside our truck. It looked rather like an animated sawhorse that someone had thrown the strangest looking pelt over. The coat, originally white, had turned dirty gray from the rigors of the job. As well, the cords had taken a death grip on wild rosebush twigs; and bits of glistening straw hung there like tarnished tinsel on a late season Christmas tree. This is no way diminished the animal, however. By any standards, it was awesome. Besides when you’re packing 130 pounds on four legs and armed with an attitude and teeth to back it up, I suppose you can wear whatever you damn well please.
We didn’t get out of our truck. We sat like two perfect children in church waiting to be saved. The larger dog was soon joined by a slightly smaller version, and together they created a roar that would make a bull alligator proud. We did our best to look small and humble. The racket finally roused a human being from the depths of the barn. It was mid-winter, lambing season, the time when ewes deliver their woolly little bundles into the world. It is a 24-hour-a-day job for a shepherd, so if you visit a sheep farm in January, you rarely need to stop in at the house.
The farmer’s wife approached us coming across the yard and motioning for us to come with her. She looked like a decent enough people, but I had to wonder if she had a warped sense of humor. Get out? Step out into the jaws of death?
“Go ahead Fred,” I heard myself say, “I’ll just tidy up the cab a bit.” But we both took as long as we could disembarking from the truck, pacing ourselves to match the arrival of the missus. But no sooner had we shut the cab doors, she made a sharp turn and headed toward the house. We scrabbled after her closing the gap as fast as we could. She did throw a few pointers at us as she struck out for the house.
“Don’t make eye contact with ’em.”
That panicked me a bit as I wasn’t altogether sure where the eyes were. I figured if I just stared straight ahead at my 5’6” level, I would probably be able to follow that rule. The second instruction was to Fred.
“Don’t turn yer back on the female. She don’t trust men.”
Now there are any number of females who don’t trust men. Fred could handle that. But none had a mouthful of canines. Besides, which one exactly was the female? Fred generously answered that question; for just as he turned to slip through the door, the female nipped him in the bum. Clearly, this was not going to be your typical trip to the farm to see the new puppies.
Once inside, normalcy returned. I was familiar with the clutter and disorder of a farmhouse during lambing. The kitchen counter had more veterinary supplies on it than food. Used syringes and needles lay in a pile by the sink. Medications and vaccines lined the counter. Nipples and baby bottles for feeding orphan lambs took up the remaining space along with other equipment and potions to address all the complications and emergencies that might occur during the lambing season.
Two small children entertained themselves in the living room. Farm parents encourage their children to develop common sense and self-sufficiency at an early age. They too learn the farm, like a whining, self-centered sibling, gets attention before anyone else. You feed the livestock before you eat. You work the fields before attending to the house and yard. You bed the animals before changing your own sheets. Such is the rhythm of farming.
The mother directed the children to go down in the cellar and bring up the Border collie pups. We hadn’t realized they also had a new litter of “black and whites.” They returned with the little pudge balls, carrying that familiar puppy scent of milk and pee, and deposited them on the living room floor. As they waddled about under heat registers and furniture, they stirred up years’ old dust balls and returned looking like they just had a fight with a dandelion. There were no embarrassed explanations or excuses offered for the state of housecleaning from the missus. Lambing time produces a remarkable clarity about life, reducing it to only two great desires: sleep and survival. Dust ball elimination doesn’t make the list. Yet despite the workload, hospitality is the rule. This woman had probably been up most of the night and had kept this routine going for weeks. She also worked all day, and her fatigue ate at her like a terminal disease. But amid all that, she stopped to offer coffee and sandwiches and share her life. After fifteen years of living in the country, I don’t romanticize rural existence, as I saw its dirty laundry too. But certain aspects of life just wash cleaner there than any other place I’ve yet to find.
The missus appeared grateful for a chance to sit down. Even though I was dying to see the Komondor puppies that we’d come to see, we talked a while longer to let her rest. I used the time to see if her experience with the dogs matched what we’d read. We had heard of their incredible success in guarding livestock, but it sounded almost too good to be true. Small talk was not Fred’s strength, so I was on my own.
“How’s lambing going this year?” I asked. She started laughing which I thought an unusual response to that question.
“Lambing was real different this year. My husband hormonally synchronized our hundred head of ewes to lamb out over a weekend he knew he’d be away. He never told me. All hundred ewes lambed in two days.”
After I managed to close my gaping mouth, I asked, “How you’d make out?”
“I survived, but he almost didn’t.” She laughed a raucous, slow laugh that shook her upper body.
I felt I needed to change the topic, not wanting to trek any further into what felt like personal territory. “Have you had much trouble with coyotes since you’ve had the dogs? You have enough bush around here. That’s for sure.”
“Ain’t lost a thing this whole year. That’s darn good for these parts. I think this is where coyotes were invented. But almost lost a neighbor when he came over, and we weren’t home.”
“Oh, how so?” I heard my voice quaver.
“Well that big male, he don’t like strangers. We got to introduce everybody to him, like I did you two. I’d do that too if I were you. Saves wear and tear on your neighbors.”
I heard alarm bells ringing in my ears. I didn’t know what Fred was listening to, but he was chuckling quietly. He wasn’t one to scare easily. In fact, if anything, her story would have imbued him with a sense of challenge. Meanwhile, I slid down deeper into the chesterfield. To ease my growing fears, I conjured up pictures in my head of little white balls of fluff. I loved puppies, snuggling under my chin and slurping kisses all over my face.
“Well why don’t we take a peek at those puppies?” I suggested, trying to make it sound like the thought had just occurred to me.
She pushed herself up with the help of the table edge. Years later, I would know exactly how that felt. She then walked slowly over to get her tattered barn coat and kerchief.
She turned to us. “You can come outside now, but just stay by the door until I let’em out.”
“Will their parents be protective of them?” I tried to hide the apprehension in my voice.
“Na, it’s not that. It’s just I’m never too sure how they’ll take to someone,” she said off-handedly.
We went out the kitchen door. I then backed up against the wall next to it as I had been told and waited. Fred stood further out in the yard, plainly looking for adventure. The missus walked across the rutted, frozen dirt of the barnyard, stumbling on the rough ridges the snowplow had left behind. She was heading for one of two old sheds across the way. She stopped at the nearer one and opened the door. Out came the puppies. I’m not sure when my chin hit my knees it all happened so fast. Seems she had forgotten to mention that the puppies were already seven months old and bigger than most full grown dogs. What confronted us were huge, wary, wild, poodle-like creatures that wouldn’t come within arm’s length of us. Fred had to pick up the conversation as I couldn’t get my mouth closed.
“Gee, they’re good-sized puppies.” Fred mumbled.
Good start, Fred, I thought. How come they don’t have any cords?” I finally managed to sputter out.
“That’s what they look like ’til they start cording. Takes about eighteen months ’til the hair starts to twist.”
For some reason I felt relieved, but I couldn’t tell you why. “Will they come when you call them?” It was a feeble question, because the puppies hadn’t yet gotten with in a hundred feet of us.
“Yea. They’re just a bit shy, but they’ll get used to ya. Besides they’re real smart. They learn fast,” she added in response to my query about training a lawless puppy that was already alarmingly close to my own body weight.
But despite our misgivings and overriding the best of common sense, it wasn’t fifteen minutes before the missus was loading the female into the cab of our pick-up, since we couldn’t catch her. Even though we hadn’t come to buy, we were now headed home five hundred dollars lighter and sharing the cab of our truck with a creature who eyed us with as much warmth as a frozen stone.
My old German Aunt Tillie used to say that love could light on a horse turd, as her explanation for the otherwise inexplicable act of falling in love. I can accept that now. For despite that she was dirty, distant and not my idea of a puppy, I fell in love with her that day. It wasn’t anything she did. Rather, it was what she didn’t do. Even as scared as she must have been to leave her home with two strangers, she didn’t fawn for our approval. She didn’t ask us to ease her fears. She sat as if self-contained and self-sufficient. She sat as if a peer.
Our life with Dali, began that day, a life when viewed through the haze of lengthening time has never lost its wonder. We didn’t buy a dog that day. We invited into our lives a teacher, partner, and fellow traveler who embarked with us into the vast unknown of our first six years of farming.
Watch for Episode 2: Don’t Let It Get Your Goat. If you would like to receive these stories in your email along with other blogs I write, just do what the subscription box to your right says. You are most welcome in our growing community of readers. Some days we ponder together, some days reminisce, and other days we just laugh. The only thing we can’t seem to do is get together for coffee.
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