Just outside of my hometown lives a woman and her sheep. Mrs. Hamilton and her flock have provided me with most of the wool I've spent so much time washing. She used to throw it to the woods to compost and let the birds have their pick for nests after the annual shearing until my dad got wind of this and mentioned she and I should get to know each other. We did and not only did she offer to let me have it, but also delivered it. Such generosity!
As most shepherdesses do, she shears her flock in the spring, but she invited me at the beginning of the summer to help her liberate the lambs from their woolen coats before the harsh Florida heat set in. In the past she's lost a few to stress this time of year and hoped to avoid loss this year. It was my first time meeting the flock, and though we only handled the just weaned lambs I completely fell for them all. The ewes rested happily on the the other side of the fence just in sight and the lambs were lovely sweet things that nibbled my pant leg and Maaa'd! piteously when we haltered them and led them to the shearing area. With their shepherdess mama at their heads they were quite calm even if not entirely pleased with the whirring of the heavy duty shears.
Shearing was hot, tiring and total bliss. The concentration required is the same beautiful focus as sculpting or drawing. It's a study in unveiling a tender form: anticipate where the edges of bone rest directly against skin to avoid prodding with the steel teeth of the comb, manipulate the loose skin around the elbows to prevent pinching by the blades, soothing over the thin skin of the belly taut against the gut. The knowledge imprints on us wholly, in a way that just glancing at the animal in the field can never do.
Lifting their heads with one hand as I slid the shears against their necks elicited a visceral response . . . so near to the act of slaughter and yet entwined in protection. Both are shepherding in the most sacred of senses.
The black one in the front is PeeWee; he was just one pound at birth and survived with the help of bottle feeding.
This one was discovered to be dappled underneath. A watercolor lamb. . .As we finished up and gathered up the bag of short lambswool, the skies darkened and Mrs. Hamilton led her oldest charge, a thirteen-year-old blind ewe to shelter. The ewe of clouded eye tiptoed into the barn among bales of hay and and settled in her own private stall built of hay bales, nibbling feed as the rain began to fall.
I'll return in spring.