Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot – Episode 7
THE HUMILITY OF A SHEPHERD
Whoever said animals can’t talk was rather unobservant. Yes, they don’t use words. Instead they use actions that tell you as plainly as any direct-speaking human being that you are really acting like an ass. When that’s coming from a border collie, there’s no question you’ve been told.
From the Bible’s presentation of those who watched their flocks by night, most people would be led to believe that shepherding, as a profession, have always embodied those noble qualities of simplicity and humility. And I indeed resorted to the credibility of that reference many times in the face of pompous cowboys bad mouthing my choice of careers. After all, who ever heard of a cowboy in the Bible? But the truth was, in my case at least, the humility part was a foreign concept much of the time. My childhood had left me feeling falsely accused so often, that my response was to be scrappy and right. Farming, however, has a way of humbling the cockiest among us, and it didn’t make an exception for me.
The majority of livestock trucking for our operation took place from March through June. Fred had double decked our one-ton truck allowing us to transport fifty market lambs at a crack. The trips required whoever was driving, to leave around eleven at night in order to make it to south central Alberta before the 4:00 PM closing time for the plant the next day. That time interval also provided for one minor breakdown and several stops to run around the truck when the driver found he was sleeping at the wheel more often than being awake. It was always a judgment call as to who got the short straw, the driver or the one who stayed behind. Whoever was left at the farm had to carry on lambing alone, leaving them having to check the lambing barn every three hours day or night. The person trucking did get one duty free evening in Edmonton, but had the onerous task of nursing an unhealthy vehicle along which had a penchant for breaking down on any one of several one-hundred- mile stretches where there was nothing but you and the swamp spruce. To make it fair, we usually alternated, Fred driving one trip and me the next.
This particular week in May, Fred was scheduled to truck to the plant and had made the deal with the buyer. He pulled out about midnight having had one breakdown in the yard already. I did the 12:00 AM check and crawled into bed for my three hour nap. I was blessed that night with no new arrivals, so I actually got one more three hour nap between 3:30 a.m. and 6:30 when I arose for the day. The guy who got left at the farm was noticeably crabby for a few days given the lack of sleep. I suspect that the neighbors even marked it on their calendars, in case they had a need to stop by during that time.
Who hadn’t quite figured out these periodic mood swings were the border collies, or maybe they just didn’t notice much day to day difference from me. Neither Fred nor I were renowned for our patience, but he had a touch more than I did, so he was charged with the dog training. I had this strange notion that a trained animal who could do the job adequately yesterday should be able to do that same job adequately today. I am still convinced of that. The only problem with that assumption was that it didn’t match reality, and for some reason I could never accept that. I was often a bit short with the little “black and whites,” most especially when my demands for doing it my way caused them to abandon me in the middle of a dicey or laborious task. They were definitely Fred’s dogs and seemed only to tolerate their tutelage to me. It wasn’t that I was unappreciative of their assistance or unadmiring of their abilities, I just required more constancy than they seemed to, and that became quite a point of contention between us.
When the alarm went off at 6:30, I tried to clear the fog of too little sleep out of my head. Being early May, the sun had been up for hours. My first thoughts went to Fred and calculated that with any luck, he would be half way to the plant by now. Next I turned my thoughts to what lay ahead of me for the day. I had endless hours of chores, lambing and attempting to get whatever field work done that I could. We would be seeding in a week or two. I wanted to get the chores done as quickly as possibly that morning and get on the tractor to start cultivating the quarter on the other side of the creek. I had to feed all the ewes at their various stages of lambing or nursing and fill all the lamb creeps as well as water and bed in the barns. Two hours into chores, I was approaching the last barn to bed. Straw bales were piled high in the front end loader as I slowly let the bucket down next to the barn overhang. Jumping off the tractor, I called Creag, my older Border collie, to me to get him to lie in the opening to the barn and keep the lambs out until I spread the straw.
Normally, I loved to bed with the lambs in the barn as they relished fresh, clean bedding and played wildly in the straw I would shake out. They’d jump on the bales, leaping off, backs arched like swan divers. When their feet hit the ground, they’d buck and dance as if stirred by the rustling the stiff, long straws of barley made in response to their movements. But today, I didn’t have time, as that doubled the time and effort required to bed. So I asked Creag to “hold’em” at the barn opening, something that was child’s play to him as he’d vault up, deking sideways anytime one of the little urchins tried to sneak through. Like the quintessential linebacker, he’d jump back and forth, hips shifting six inches off the ground, eyes fixed, keeping anyone from breaking through the line. However, Creag chose this particular morning not to “hold’em.”
It was a bad choice on his part, as little sleep, months of it by that time of year, and a full day ahead of me plus the possibility of no sleep in the night to come had made me not one to reckon with, let alone disobey. After the first three times lambs broke the line letting everyone pile in on top of me, and three times of having to clear them all out of the barn, I was getting irritated. When the fourth time occurred, I snapped and yelled mightily. Creag took this as his cue to bugger off. I responded by running him into the dirt. When I finally caught up to him, I dragged him back to the scene, determined to have my way. Smugly, I leashed him in the opening with enough rope to work but not to leave, gave him the command to “hold’em,” and went back into the barn. He understood that he had to stay and complete the task or risk getting trampled by a hundred, sixty pound lambs as they trounced over him. They were really into the game now and had gotten much more daring as a result of his slackness. It required extra effort on his part to keep them at bay. All the while, he had a look in his coal black eyes that spoke of being reproved but unrepentant.
When I was finished, I walked outside and untied him giving him a “good boy, Creag,” that he and I both knew was a bit meagre. He left the scene, trotting down the driveway to take up residence in his favorite late morning napping spot. He’d had enough of me and lambs for a while. I followed him down the drive shortly, bringing the chore tractor back to swap it for the field one. I fired up the diesel engine and let it warm up while I went in to get some coffee to take to the field. I’d have to come back in three hours to check for lambs, but I wanted just to drive in, check and leave again if all was quiet.
Three hours never goes quickly on a tractor. There are only so many fantasies you can run in your head and thoughts you can consider in the swirl of spring dust and jounce of rough fields that mark the beginning of spring field work. I actually looked forward to a quick trip home to break the monotony. What I hadn’t looked forward to however, was finding a third of the flock out on the road and nosing about the ditch as I rounded the corner a half mile away. Normally, it would be no big deal. Someone was always getting out some place, and if you let it get to you, you’d have gone crazy in the first year of farming. But my fatigue wanted to make something more out of it than just another escaped bunch of ewes. I cursed and sputtered all the way down the road swinging into the driveway without even gearing down. I ran the tractor up onto the hill by the barn and shouted over the engine for Creag.
He came flying up the drive from his siesta and spotted the problem instantly. As he slunk down in the breed’s characteristic belly-scraping approach, I waved my hand out to the left and shouted “come by,” directing him to circle clockwise to round up the gang. He shot off in that direction and flew by sheep that instinctively responded by bunching up. But just as he got almost to the half-way point in his out run, he turned abruptly and started coming back my way. I couldn’t figure out what he was thinking as he passed in front of me before disappearing around the other side of the circle he was drawing. What I watched was Creag begin to drive the sheep away from me instead of herding them toward me.
I thought he’d lost his mind. This was as simple a task as it gets for a herding dog, and he just blew it. The fault in my logic was as a result of using my perspective, not Creag’s. He knew full well what he was about. He was not herding sheep, he was getting even. It was a brilliant plan hatched, no doubt, in the moment. He quickly ran back my way, retracing the semi-circle he was running on my side of the sheep so that he neatly and efficiently sent them on their way, moving east down a well-travelled logging truck road.
I snapped out of my confusion when the ewes were already a quarter mile down the road. I hadn’t yet accepted that Creag intended this and continued to yell the correct commands over the heads of the fast disappearing flock. His enthusiasm for this sport had him keeping the ewes in a hard trot, and before I could blink, they were approaching the half mile mark. It wouldn’t be long before my voice wouldn’t carry that far, even at its present level of rage. What was a two minute job had now become a major event. I was livid. I was screeching commands laced with profanity like it had become his new name.
Suddenly, he stopped and glanced over his shoulder with a look of haughtiness smoothed over by innocence. Had he been able to speak words, I know I would have heard him ask,” You called me?” Somewhere deep in my gut, I got it. In a flash of recognition, I understood the game. My next thought, still spoken in anger was, “You son of a bitch.” It was truer than I had realized. It also became immediately clear to me that I had lost Round One and the only way I was going to get the result I wanted was to humble myself to the point where my voice could indicate a request as opposed to a command. My first three attempts failed miserably. It was not easy to give up being right. The first command came out too directive, the second professorial and the third coldly unemotional. That wasn’t good enough. Creag, obviously wanted something akin to sweetness. With each try, Creag would look over his shoulder as if to say,” Not yet.” Finally, I breathed deeply and sought a depth of humility that was almost foreign to me. The next ‘come by’ trilled out of my mouth as if I were singing to my lover. Creag’s ears pricked up, and he swung out to the left and circled behind the flock to start them moving home.
An active volcano was bubbling inside of me. I hadn’t yet let go of my fury. As the ewes came up over the hill and into the barnyard, Creag, knowing exactly where they had come from, directed them back to the pen of their escape. As he trotted by, I eyed him with an undisguised wrath. He didn’t care. He’d won, and as he passed in front of me, he slowed down and looked at me the way a Parade Marshall attends to the crowd. He didn’t let this be a gracious lesson. He gloated in his triumph. If you’ve ever stared into the eyes of a Border collie, you’ll know I’m not anthropomorphizing. His eyes smiled out victory with a self-righteousness, I’m not sure even I would be capable of. It took a fair bit of time before I finally let the emotions of the incident die. Fred didn’t help any when he heard the tale on his return. He found my on-going exasperation with the Border collies somewhat amusing. He turned to Creag and commiserated far too enthusiastically, “You know how women are sometimes….” I could feel myself go back on slow burn. How dare these two guys gang up on me? All I had ever asked Creag to do was what he got fed dog chow to accomplish.
Now it was my turn. Fred came over to my side and put his arm around my shoulder. I stood ramrod straight. That didn’t stymie him. He just snuggled closer and whispered in my ear. I felt myself go all the way back to my childhood, when I so often felt unjustly accused.
“You know what the real problem is?'” Fred asked. There was not a lick of judgment in his voice, just tenderness. “You are two of a kind, you and him. You have the same needs, the same fragility, the same capacity for injury and the same defenses. You’re him with blue eyes and he’s you with fur. Kinda strange isn’t it. Could be worse. You could be married to him.”
The spell had finally been broken. My body relaxed against Fred, and I chuckled. Weeks later, this day became quite the joke in the community. When the story got to Pete, our cowboy friend to the west, of course he had something to proffer. Pete had an unabashed bias in this particular situation. He used to wear a baseball cap with the inscription on it: The more I see of the human race, the more I love my dog. When he heard how Creag had taught me about humility, he was quite impressed with the lad. I stood there trying to be big about it. As he looked up from congratulating the dog, his eyes were full of mischief. I knew not to expect too much empathy from a cowboy. I wasn’t disappointed. He was down on the ground ruffling Creag’s little head and cooing his praise. He pushed back on his heels and dusted off his knees. Then he pushed himself to standing with his hands on his thighs. As he rose slowly, he offered me his idea of a condolence. “Ah, Christina, it could have been worse. You could have learned this lesson from a chicken.
Watch for Episode 8: Let the Good Times Roll. 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.do. 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.
To wander through my site and see if you find something else of interest, click here.
From essays on life and writing, inspiration, metaphysics, novels and humor – take your pick.