Thursday, June 9, 2016

Pastoral? Some Days!

At the recommendation of friend and fellow rancher Jill Hackett, I recently picked up a copy of a book entitled Of Sheep and Men by R.B. Robertson.  Written in 1957, the book is a humorous and (so far - I'm only five chapters in) accurate account of a year spent among sheep-raising families on the Scottish borders in the 1950s.  I'm thoroughly enjoying the book, and last night, I came across this gem:
"I too had been taught during my liberal education that 'pastoral' in the literary or artistic sense means a highly stylized form of expression, bearing no casual relationship or emotional connection with the shepherd's way of life...." offers these definitions (among others) of the word "pastoral":
  1. having the simplicity, charm, serenity or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas
  2. pertaining to the country or life in the country; rural; rustic
  3. portraying or suggesting idyllically the life of shepherds or of the country, as a work of literature, art or music
  4. of, relating to, or consisting of shepherds 
  5. used for pasture, as land.
The fourth and fifth definitions certainly relate to my life and work - we use land for pasture, and my work is that of a shepherd.  Setting aside the second definition for a moment, however, I want to examine the idea that rural life and rural work have an inherent "simplicity, charm [and] serenity."

From the outside looking in, I realize that my work as a shepherd may indeed appear to be idyllic.  I get to work outdoors in a beautiful setting.  I get to experience new life firsthand.  I get to take my dogs to work!  I realize that the photos and posts of my (and other shepherds') #sheep365 project largely reinforce this pastoral image.  And much of my work is serene - I love what I do, and for good reason.

But not every job or every day is pastoral in the sense of the first and third definitions found on  Some jobs and some days are downright unpleasant.  Building electric fence on a 100 degree day through mature yellow starthistle is not my idea of an idyllic activity, nor is disposing of a ewe that's been mauled by a dog.  Fly-struck lambs, abortion storms, and drought (all of which I've experienced first-hand, and all of which are part of the bargain when one chooses to be a shepherd) are incredibly stressful and generally disagreeable.

The first definition also suggests that rural areas (and by extension, the work of rural people) possess a certain simplicity.  Another motivation for me to share photos of our sheep operation everyday for a year is to show (hopefully) that raising sheep is anything but simple.  Shepherding, like any agricultural endeavor, takes a combination of attention to detail, persistence, knowledge, skill and hard work.  This milk commercial from Australia puts a comical spin on the perception that anyone can farm:

I really want to make a video like this about sheep ranching!

None of this should suggest that I don't love what I do.  I love the work of raising sheep like nothing else I've ever done professionally.  I like the combination of intellectual and physical work.  I enjoy being outside as the seasons change.  I am thrilled by new life and by a well-finished lamb.  I take great pride in producing food and fiber.  I'm lucky to be living a pastoral life!


  1. Great thoughts! I think some of the terminology also leads to thoughts and perceptions of what a farm ought to be and which way is "better". The terms "natural", "hormone free", "sustainable", "environmental responsible" etc., etc., etc. tend to make farmers look either better or worse than another. When in the end all farmers have the same end goals ... and it's a tough job!

  2. Those are all really good points - farming is, as you say, a tough job!