I’m taking a week to visit the Midwest.
The flight from Chicago north to my hometown at the border between Michigan and Wisconsin passes over kettle lakes and cranberry bogs. Cherry and apple trees and crocuses are blooming. Wood ticks are a hazard. Lake Superior is colder than the face of Mars and will be until mid-July. This is the North Woods, the great Laurentian Mixed Forest Province that spreads from here east toward the Atlantic.
In just two years my parents have turned acres of field rich only in milkweed, trefoil, alfalfa, timothy, clover and innumerable wild flowers into solid pasture. By hand they sank heavy timber into the unforgivably rocky ground of the Superior Upland, a part of the Canadian Shield that extends twenty or so miles south of Lake Superior into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. From post to cedar post they then strung approximately one mile of electrified steel wire that, at around 19,000 volts, can crack your bones. Today, where once I pretended to be a wizard and a Roman general, four newborn lambs are learning how to graze.
My parents, you see, raise sheep.
Within just an hour of touching down, I am recruited as an assistant shepherd.
The first task is to dock tails. I cradle each lamb on their back; hold their squirming matchstick legs so my mother can slip rubber bands onto each tail about two inches from the root.
The bands are so tight that they cut circulation off from the rest of the tail and eventually cause it to fall off. If this seems cruel – my mother certainly takes no pleasure in it – it is a necessary precaution. Because sheep tails are superfluous, much like an overgrown fingernail, they are little more than a nuisance for a fully-grown sheep and often become caked with dirt and straw and feces.
Soon after their ordeal, the lambs are back to bounding again.
My second task is to feed the adults one graham cracker each. This is their daily treat, and they jostle each other mercilessly at the fence. When they take a piece of cracker, I can feel their lips brush my palms and flinch involuntarily because they do have teeth – rounded herbivore teeth, but still. The speed and thoroughness with which they mow grass is something to see.
Many think of sheep as dumb livestock, but I think it is more that their lives have a simplicity become alien to us. The purity and grace in living on bare foundations – on bare necessities alone – is a lesson we return to endlessly, relentlessly. Small wonder that shepherds are by and large contented people; small wonder there are still those in the world that want to be shepherds.
The sun is over the yardarm. Joanna, a ewe, is massively pregnant and probably a little past due when her water breaks. She strains visibly. My mother calls me to the side of the pen. I see two black hooves.
My mother approaches slowly wearing a shoulder-length rubber glove, and waits until it is obvious that Joanna, bucking and panting, needs assistance. She takes the two appearing hooves and pulls, and Joanna pushes and there is swearing and more grunting – I am sweating and swearing now too – until, finally, a little head appears. Small wonder.
Then the whole lamb slides out, wet with yellow goo. It's a boy - a big one. Joanna furiously licks his face and my mother rubs his sides with a towel. He takes his first deep breath. Hello, wide world. I have never seen anything like this before.
Eventually the tweaker pulls himself up on shaky legs and bumps my own leg with his nose, so I kneel down and kiss him right on his damp forehead.
Do such a thing and you are bewitched for good.