Since early March, I've been managing a number of targeted grazing projects for Prescriptive Livestock Services - a company from eastern Oregon. These contracts have all been in the Lincoln and Auburn area, and we've used a combination of sheep and goats - at one point this spring, we had nearly 2,000 sheep and more than 2,200 goats within the Lincoln city limits! While I've been overseeing the projects, much of the day-to-day work has been handled by a handful of herders from Peru. These men come here under a special visa program that allows specialized workers to enter the U.S. legally. I've worked most closely with three herders - Didi, Yan and Jhonny (especially Didi) - and I've been incredibly impressed with their dedication to their work, their knowledge of livestock and their ability to work hard.
Working with Spanish-speaking colleagues has made me think about the complexity of communication. First, I'm constantly amazed by the capacity of the human mind to come up with very different sounds for the same object or action. For example, Didi and I were talking about cooking one afternoon. He tried to explain a traditional Peruvian meal prepared in an "horno." Those of you who speak Spanish will know that Didi was describing an oven. This may seem simplistic, but I'm fascinated by the fact that cultures and civilizations have developed such diverse systems of communication.
Language in this country has taken on political ramifications, too. At the risk of offending those who believe that anyone wishing to live and/or work in the U.S. should learn to speak English, working with Didi has made me realize that my own perspective on language is more personal than political. On a personal level, communication requires us to find a way to help the person listening to us understand what we're trying to say. I find myself wishing I'd retained more of my high school Spanish lessons! Despite my very limited Spanish (and Didi's not-quite-so limited English) we have found a way to communicate - through hard work, mostly.
In some respects, I think learning to work with border collies and horses has helped me learn to communicate more effectively with people who speak a different language. I come to working with dogs or horses with the assumption that I need to strive to be understood (not the other way around - I don't expect my border collies to understand me until I've worked on a system of communication that they can comprehend). In the same way, I think it's my responsibility to find a way to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English.
Technology may help us with this challenge. I've downloaded two applications onto my iPhone that translate English into Spanish (and other languages) and vice versa. The first program requires me to type a word or phrase, which is then translated. The second program allows me to speak a word or phrase and then repeats it back to me in Spanish. Didi and I have had great fun using these tools to communicate - we laugh at our own mistakes and enjoy our successes when we actually understand one another.
Last week, we hauled 720 goats in 6 loads onto another grazing project. We used a double-deck trailer, counting 55 animals onto the top deck and 70 onto the lower deck. I found myself counting in Spanish - and I could hear Didi counting under his breath, too - sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish.